I have my own founding myth. It predates my decision to go into business for myself by several years. But it remains the bedrock of my career. It is a wellspring of my passion and my enterprise, the ultimate explanation of all I have done.
It took place when I was engaged in what I believed to be a struggle for survival. After finishing my bachelor's degree at the University of Hong Kong, I moved to the US and earned degrees at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. I had decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the US. The problem was that my visas had expired, and I was supposed to leave. When I didn't go, I became, officially, an illegal alien.
I knew others in my situation who got around the problem by entering into fictitious marriages. I didn't want to do that. I was determined to be legal and above board, and I spent $20,000 -- more money than I had -- on fees to a lawyer to figure out how. After running up his charges, he told me that my situation was, essentially, hopeless. Meanwhile, China was opening itself to business from the West, and several large companies offered me jobs. They withdrew the offers when they learned of my immigration status. I felt as if a golden opportunity was opening to me, and at the same time being snatched away.
I borrowed some money from friends and an uncle. Another friend gave me food, a place to stay, and emotional support. I sat in his apartment day after day and typed up more than 1,000 job application letters until the typewriter broke.
One day, near despair, I walked into Philadelphia's Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. I'm not a Catholic. I'm not even a Christian. I don't really know what to do in a church. But that somber, lofty, baroque-style edifice seemed to be a place where I needed to be.
I knelt in the pew and silently addressed God. "If you can let me stay in this country legally," I proposed. "I promise to help pull China and America closer together." (I figured that this was something God would want my help on, though I can't tell you exactly why.)
Later, I found out that I was doing what psychologists call "bargaining," and that it's a stage people go through on the road to accepting the death of a loved one or a cherished dream. It's assumed to be futile, some even think it is self-destructive. Fortunately, I didn't know that then.
What my bargaining did was make me look deep within myself to find something of great importance to which I was singularly equipped to make a contribution. I found a reason for me to be on this earth. I had discovered a story of which I could be the hero. I had forged my own myth.
Not long after, my prayer was answered. Some would argue that it was because I found a highly skilled lawyer who was committed to my case. I don't presume, however, to know the means by which God might realize His will.
As my fortunes changed, I realized that I would not have promised God to do something I really didn't want to do. In a troubled moment, I discovered a vocation, an identity, a reason for my existence, a focus for my energy.
I think those of us who work on our own must have our own personal myths, visions of our lives as we would like to live them, visions of the world as we would like to leave it.
And if you make a vow, as I did, you keep it. We should keep such vows because they define the core of our being -- the things that set us apart from those who are just in it for the money.
(Excerpt from Spare Room Tycoon, pages 104 to 107.)
James Chan, Ph.D., President Asia Marketing and Management (AMM) 2014 Naudain Street