I thought I’d share my favorite non-PC story involving my favorite Chinese friend in honor of today. I’m sure she won’t mind. If you are offended easily or think this is insensitive – please stop reading now. I totally understand. I once wrote a note to the New York Times condemning an Indian Cultural Day they had in Central Park called “Curry in the Park”. I was outraged that they would define all of the beauty that is the Indian culture and reduce it to a seasoning used in the food. How dare they! They wrote back that it was, in fact, a showcase of Indian food. Oh. Anyway – I get it. Racism is terrible. But sometimes….it’s funny. On to my story.
Let me set the scene.
I worked in a very serious, very conservative private bank in New York City. This was the defining job of my career. All my biggest successes and f’ups happened here. It’s also where I learned the type of team that I wanted to be in (and lead eventually). We were hardworking, sarcastic, funny and silly. If you made a mistake in our team, you wouldn’t be walked through how to do it better – you would be teased and laughed at. There was no training or “on-boarding”. You just worked like hell to figure things out while the rest of the team rolled their eyes. It sounds rough. But it was amazing. You developed all the skills you needed to be a good planner – including the king of all skills – thick skin.
We were also quite a mixed bag. Cold, stylish leader without a heart? Check. Smart, creative Chinese gal who bordered on being mean? Check! Rich, Hermes wearing Euro daughter of a client? Put together, chic New Yorker with an accent? Check and check! And me, a married Indian gal with a baby in her late 20’s. Let’s just say we didn’t blend into a crowd.
Sorry about all the back story but you need to know this in order to really appreciate the situation. So because we dealt with billionaires and people who managed billionaires, the atmosphere in the office was always quiet and well-heeled. Except in our area. We were always laughing and shouting and eating. A mark of most good event groups. We also kept to ourselves most of the time – not that anyone was knocking down our door to be included.
Then, one fateful holiday season – it happened. Our guard was down. We were invited to join the secret Santa gift exchange on our floor. We decided to do it. We even decided to go to the party for the gift exchange. All of us. Except the head of the group who spent December in Prague or something. We were going to assimilate! At least for that hour.
We all shuffled into the conference room and pretended to be excited. One by one we opened our gifts. Oh look, the strange dude in graphics got me a cookbook. How nice. The lady in accounting got someone a candle. Charming. You get the point.
Then. Our Chinese gal opened the first of 2 gifts from her secret Santa. Hmmm. Geisha stickers. She smiled. We stared. We started to feel the corners of our mouth convulsing – we looked at the floor. We looked at the ceiling. We looked anywhere to avoid eye contact with her. We prayed the next gift wouldn’t be ethnic specific. We were wrong. She opened a box of Chinese rubber stamps. Ok – at least this was the right bucket of stereotyped gift. (You say Chinese, I say Japanese…) There was no ill intent. The person meant no harm. But we were all dying. Literally bursting at the seams laughing. We never participated in a gift exchange again. True story.
I know what you’re thinking. How awful – that person should have been reprimanded. Oh no. You didn’t go to HR for this stuff. You thanked the Gods that this happened so you could hold it over your co-worker’s head! That’s how we rolled.
For months after we talked, relived, re-enacted the moment. It was like a Christmas miracle to our team. It’s been 14 years or so since that day, and it still brings me joy.
Here’s to the year of the goat!
(Please note that the Chinese gal and I remain the closest of friends and she had to help me remember some details. I remembered the gift giver as a boy, it was a girl. I remembered 3 gifts. It was only 2. Thank god for her. Chinese people. They’re good to have around)