David was a Harvard graduate working for high-profile law companies in the US. When he quitted his enviable career, his college friends thought he was crazy. Later when he moved to Hong Kong for the career of his then wife, everyone around him started to openly question his decisions. A stranger even stopped a conversation with him and left after he learned that David is a househusband. But after a divorce, a little son and a passion project, David Cheng chooses happiness over societal expectations again and again.
You grew up in America. What was it like growing up with parents who were first generation Chinese? Did they try to maintain Chinese tradition?
I–and to a certain extent my parents as well, after they spent 30+ years in the U.S., are what some social anthropologists call “Third Culture Kids”—meaning someone who was born in or grew up with one culture but was later transplanted to another one. Such people end up as neither culture A or culture B but something in between…
There is a quote which has stuck with me for a long time: “The fate of the emigrant is not that the foreign land becomes home. The homeland becomes foreign.” As far as Chinese tradition, I guess the best way to put it is that we ate roast duck (not baked turkey) and apple pie (but not necessarily with the right ingredients inside) on Thanksgiving and “traditional” dumplings during Chinese New Year. I attended Chinese language classes (in elementary school and in college), but I didn’t study very hard.
You had a very enviable education in Harvard University and Columbia Law School. You have also worked in very high profile companies. Would you consider yourself to be ambitious?
No. I am lazy. I am not ambitious, but I am competitive. I like to win, but I never had any grandiose dreams of attending a brand name college or working for a brand name Wall St. law firm when I was a child.
When I applied to colleges, I had 7 or 8 different applications to different schools printed out, but I only applied to 2 colleges “early”: Harvard because it was “early action” unlike Yale or Princeton and not “early decision.” “Early action” means that if accepted, an applicant can still decide to attend a different school.
The other college was another Boston based one which had an essay question at the end of its application. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like “describe your best qualities.” Since I had already exhaustively and shamelessly promoted myself and my sundry academic achievements and extracurricular activities throughout the application, I felt like I had nothing left to say. And I felt lazy.
So I just wrote one word in small letters at the center of the 1-2 pages they allotted for the question:
That school gave me a full scholarship. Whoever in the admissions department read my “essay question” must have decided it was funny. I begged my parents to let me attend and to give me half the money they would save on tuition. We were not rich. They refused. I went to Harvard (the other 5 or 6 applications I did not fill out because, again, I am lazy). In retrospect, I likely would have had a much more rewarding and enjoyable undergraduate experience if I had researched and applied to more schools, such as Columbia in New York City which is where I ended up for law school 6 years later.
People from different races and sexualities also experience a glass ceiling in their careers. Have you ever experienced this in your own work life?
Yes and no. It depends on the profession. Stereotypes exist for a reason. Most of the Asian Americans (especially Chinese) immigrants who came to America in the 1970s and 1980’s were able to go on academic scholarships so they were overly educated compared to their country folk back home and also tended to go into STEM fields due to English not being their first language. My parents were both examples of this.
So in certain fields like medicine, engineering, computer science, etc. being Asian is not a hindrance at all. We are expected to be good at these subjects and bad at other things like driving and literature. Most Chinese in China in the 1980s and 1990s never had the chance to get behind the wheel of a car, and we didn’t speak English in China so, again, stereotypes exist for a reason.
In other fields like finance, law or sports, the story is more complicated, and it likely differs depending on the individual, the employer, and the particular city or town. America is a big place and some areas are less multicultural and more xenophobic than others.
You seem to have made a big lifestyle change a couple years ago when you relocated to Hong Kong due to your wife’s job. How did you make this decision?
I did not want to go back to a corporate law firm. So I stuck it out for close to half a year looking for something else, but had trouble finding any jobs that paid quite as well… I eventually settled for a sales role at the satellite office of a multi-family office based out of Singapore.
The main reason we went to Hong Kong was because my wife had the good fortune of landing a great offer from a well-respected Hong Kong university which paid much better than an American one would have, and I felt like I was making a “sacrifice” for her by giving up the middle management job at the company I worked for after college.
You were a self-proclaimed “househusband” for several months. Did you receive weird reactions from people when you told them?
Yes. And as an icebreaker at networking events and meetings with head-hunters, I did say “househusband” when asked. Reactions differed from amusement to awkwardness to rudeness. One person in particular I remember simply turned around and walked away after I said that—possibly because he thought I was joking.
Hong Kong is even more class and economic conscious than New York. That’s a nice way of saying that people here judge you based on how much money you make (or where you went to school) even more than in Manhattan.
Do you think the reactions would be different in America or in other countries?
Yes. Most East Asian countries (with certain exceptions) are more sexist and patriarchal than most Western countries at this point in time… As always, exceptions exist. For instance, female athletes in China and other countries are probably paid better than their female counterparts in the U.S. But when it comes to making money, there is the expectation that the man makes more than his girlfriend or wife.
Did assuming a role that is traditionally “feminine” change your outlook on certain things?
Not really. Part of the advantage of being a third culture kid is that you’re not tied to any particular culture. For instance, in my early professional lives I formed the habit of wearing pink shirts. In Brazil, I would be called a “viado” for wearing pink.
I’m planning to visit Fortaleza at the end of this year or next because a few of my coaches are from there. I plan to pack some pink shirts.
Many studies show that kids whose father stay-at-home or take time off work have stronger bonds with them. Do you think your time at home helped you have a stronger bond with your child than fathers who do not stay at home?
I would if I was still a househusband. I have 2.5 jobs now, and I am divorced from my wife. We remain friends, and I see my son at least once a week, but I do not live with him.
Are there specific values you try to instil in your son?
No, but I am sure he will acquire (from both genetics and my presence/influence; both nature and nurture) my bad habits and flaws.
His mom, a highly accomplished and hardworking person, and her family will instil culture (both Western and Eastern), hard work, discipline and other ascetic qualities in him—I am sure. I’ll be the one who hopefully helps him learn to relax and make friends, and the one who lets him drink soda and eat candy when his mom is not around.
I hope she doesn’t read this…
Many countries including China don’t have paternity leaves. How do you think it would affect families and businesses to have a considerable paternity leave?
Both maternity and paternity leave are important. Hong Kong, for instance, has very limited maternity leave and no legally mandated paternity leave. This should change.
The first 2 years after a child is born places a tremendous amount of stress and sleep deprivation on the parents, but more so on the mom. The reasons for this vary, but for instance if a woman breastfeeds, she often needs to wake up every 4 or 5 hours to do so, and of course in most countries the mom are expected to do more of the child-rearing than the dad, even if both parents work.
It puts a tremendous amount of stress on the relationship of the parents. The amount of time for dates, sex, relaxing, sleeping, eating, etc. all drop dramatically. The book “All Joy, No Fun” describes these tough, early years in great anecdotal and academic detail.
More paternity leave would free up time for the dad to do more at home, and activities such as changing diapers or bottle feeding the baby create a stronger and more loving relationship between dad and child. This is all, of course, my own opinion only. The mileage of others may vary…
You are back to work again with your own gym. How do you balance your personal and professional life now?
The gym is a passion project. I’m doing what I love, and my coaches and colleagues are my friends. It’s professional and personal in that sense.
Lastly, what is the one thing you would want people to know about you?
I’m not a “nice” person or a “bad” person. Too many people in this world are raised on Disney and Hollywood movies where almost every character is either a hero or a villain. I’ve had classmates in law school judge me for leaving the law firm, for in their words “burning out” when, for me at least, leaving the firm was a choice of happiness over money, not because I hated the work or because I didn’t have the talent or the fortitude for the work. I’ve had friends and family judge me for getting divorced even though the divorce rate in the U.S. is well over 40% and even higher in Hong Kong.
There are at least three sides to every story… Some stories may have 7 or 8 or a thousand depending on how many people witnessed it. I’ve failed at a lot of things in my life. My second or third year in Hong Kong, my wife and I decided we should separate and a few months after that my employer at the time fired me. In both cases, there was no defining moment, no single mistake or instance of me being dishonest (i.e., I didn’t steal any money or clients from my boss or cheat on my wife).
It was the first time a woman “broke up” with me or an employer “fired” me. I had always been the one who ended things. Both events were huge blows to my ego, and both instances forced a long period of self-reflection, after an even longer period of self-doubt and depression, and made me realize certain hard truths about myself, such as areas of my personality and lifestyle I needed to improve.