The Evolving Bubble of Love and Protection
By Manling, China Plus Host
Joy Chen [Photo: courtesy of Joy Chen]
“Raise our hands over our head and hold them down in a big circle like we are creating a bubble around us. And this bubble is so strong that other people’s words and actions can’t get in and they just bounce off, and so I can sit there safely in my bubble, breathe deep, smile, look at that person who is mean to me, and enjoy my time inside the bubble, and when I am ready to break the bubble, then I just raise my hands again and I jump out, and I go back into the world.”
Joy Chen is well known in China for becoming the deputy mayor of Los Angeles at the age of 31 and for her 2012 book “Do Not Marry Before Age 30”. She learned the frog bubble story from her five-year-old daughter whose teacher taught mindfulness to their class at a very young age.
“If all women in China from the time when they were small knew how to create a frog bubble, then they would be immune to unhealthy outside pressure, abusive relationships… all bad things, and they will be strong, courageous, and happy and be able to live with their lives no matter their circumstances,” Joy said.
I felt invigorated by this hopeful wish. But reality can be cruel, and Joy wasn’t that lucky either. She grew up in the realm created for her by her parents. They did what they thought was best, but fell short of giving her what she really wanted. “I was confined to our house, feeling like my nose was pressed up against window pane, looking out into the world and wondering what was on the other side.”
Joy Chen poses with fans.[Photo: courtesy of Joy Chen]
Born into a family of Chinese immigrants in the United States, little Joy was kept indoors and not allowed to watch television. She was confined to the protective bubble created by her parents, and found she was unable to speak English or interact with other kids once she entered the small piece of the outside world that was kindergarten.
Joy’s father left his home country to seek a better education and a life free from poverty. He arrived in the United States with only the 200 U.S. dollars he’d borrowed from fellow villagers. But he would graduate from MIT, work as an engineer, marry, buy property, and send his kids to good schools. He and his wife tried their best to protect and provide for their kids in the hope that they would lead successful lives. For centuries, in the eyes of many Chinese, the key to success lies only in books and hard work – what Joy called “the two HARs: Harvard and hard work.” Since the earliest recorded history, Chinese people have revered scholars. Almost all agree with the saying “Shu zhong zi you huang jin wu”(书中自有黄金屋 ): “Only in books we can find a house full of gold.” This ancient motto is still used by many people today to boost the morale of students.
Joy had typical Chinese parents. They cared about grades and class rankings. The path to senior high school and then university is seen as the most honourable one. Everyone likes to eat well and look beautiful, but vocational education is seen as a second-class option, and a career in the performing art isn’t taken seriously. This is why you see parents (and not a few grandparents) lining up at school gates to take kids to after-school classes. And it’s why weekends are abandoned for music lessons, sporting competitions, and art classes – things parents might have resented when they were growing up but that are believed to give kids the best chance to secure a place in one of the better schools and colleges. Kids play no part in household chores: something as mundane as doing their laundry or washing the dishes is a distraction from study, which is why these tasks are farmed out to parents, grandparents, and housekeepers.
Talk of interests and passion is crowded out of this vision for the future defined primarily by financial success. We see parents making decisions for their children but seldom hear children articulating what it is that they want. Instead, parents just want their kids to reward their care and attention with high test scores, and a failure to do so is accompanied by an enduring sense of guilt. Filial piety might be an ancient concept but it’s still very much alive in most Chinese families.
Joy Chen with her husband and two daughters.[Photo: courtesy of Joy Chen]
With education and a secure life provided by their parents comes eagerness in a young person to explore the world. Once their ego awakens, they begin to claim their personal sovereignty. Their parents, seeing their once obedient and docile child anxious to leave, heap on smothering comforts and fight tenaciously to keep them at home. Conflicts break out. Bad relations between two generations is considered one of the biggest tragedies in life, and the deep pain it can cause was best depicted in Jia Zhangke’s film “Mountains May Depart” in which a father cried out in pain that he had given so much to his son but raised a total stranger. The film doesn’t have a happy ending.
But Joy Chen’s story does.
She decided she had to break out of her parent’s bubble.
“All my life I ran from the East coast to the West coast to get away from all that marriage pressure from my parents!”
For people like Joy, making a run for it takes enormous courage. Their parents leave them underprepared, and they face an uphill battle trying to work out who they are, what they want from life, and how to get it. The longer a person stays in the comfortable embrace of their parents, the harder it gets to break free. Sometimes their lack of preparedness for an independent life leads to bad decisions, encounters with the wrong people, and stupid mistakes. But through these mistakes they learn and grow, until eventually they figure out who they are and what they truly want in life. “If I heard my little girl’s frog bubble story at the age of 22 or 27, I wouldn’t have understood the profound meaning of it,” Joy said. What she needed was time to learn the life lessons that didn’t penetrate the bubble she was in when she was growing up.
Joy Chen [Photo: courtesy of Joy Chen]
One of these life lessons, Joy said, is that luck isn’t random: successful people lure opportunities. Her numerous interviews with talented people she head-hunted for companies showed her that luck comes most easily to people who are prepared and ready to accept it.
Joy said she’s had three lucky breaks during her career. She started her career as a real estate developer, but her outstanding social abilities and people skills led to her being appointed Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles at the age of 31. Joy called this her first lucky break. The second came rather unexpectedly when a friend convinced her to move into corporate headhunting and make the most of her unique talent to connect with people. And the third was a surprise approach from a publisher in China who invited her to write a book to help so-called “left-over women” struggling to choose between starting a family and advancing their career.
Joy grasped these opportunities and excelled in all of them. So what, exactly, has empowered Joy
and made her successful in both career and life? Inside the new bubble Joy made for herself are passion and purpose. She has worked to become a confident, independent, and happy woman. Joy said her passion is to fulfill her own personal need to seek interesting new challenges and her purpose is to serve the world. This runaway has stood up, established her own family, and taken on the role of caregiver for her aging parents in an expression of gratitude for all that they have given her.
Sai weng shi ma (塞翁失马) means “a blessing in disguise”. Joy used this Chinese idiom to give credit to her parents for their role in her growth. Because she was unable to mingle and socialize early on in life, she became a good listener. “The difficulties of trying to figure out how to connect, how to fit in, turn out to be an amazing lucky moment because I was always so quiet and never spoke. All I could do was listen and watch closely.” According to Joy, a good listener understands not only the speaker’s meaning but also their inner needs, which is crucial because most people don’t say what they mean.
Armed with her passion and purpose, Joy settled down with Dave at the age of 38 and the two are busy building their own bubble of love and protection for their own children. As parents, will the bubble Joy and Dave create be organic enough for their two young girls to happily remain in it and grow strong before they’re old enough to face the world on their own?
Joy openly admitted that her father served as a reverse role model for her – Joy’s father never attended company Christmas parties, yet Joy loves hosting parties at home. Her father was content staying in his own little nest but his daughter wanted to be a part of the world. She said that being Chinese has meant she is dedicated to education and hard work, but she also recognizes the importance of a balanced life. Too much study and too little fun was how she assessed her own childhood, so Joy and Dave ensure that they give their kids more room to play, because they believe that play teaches kids to be creative and empathetic – two precious abilities they want to ensure is in their kid’s bubble. Joy is confident that her girls will be able to survive and thrive in a very competitive and global talent market, and to find a passion to provide dedication and a purpose in their lives.