On the Ideals and Success of Chinese Intellectuals in Silicon Valley

Of all the startups in Silicon Valley, only one tenth of them survived.

Tsinghua, Stanford, all the glorious talks of these prestigious academic institutes made reality a little more fluffy and dreamy for the Chinese entrepreneurs who are thinking of settling and starting a career in their dreamland—Silicon Valley. One thirds of the population in San Francisco are Asian, with an astonishingly high proportion of Chinese tech workers in Silicon Valley. As mentioned in the book Infinity Mirror, the majority of the chip giant Intel’s engineering team are made up of people with Chinese and Indian backgrounds.

The novel Infinity Mirror, also a People’s Literature Award winner in 2015, describes four types of lives of Chinese engineers in Silicon Valley. The novel adopted a polyphonic narrative, with a combination of both realistic and post-modern metaphorical views towards the life of Chinese residents in the holy land of tech and what tech innovations bring to everyone involved, both the founder and users.

The writer herself has years of working experience in the chipset design industry and had lived in California for studies and work since 1989, the career ups and downs and her perceptions about the bustling yet competitive world across the Pacific ocean were taken from real life.

According to her, the title Infinity Mirror stands for the fact that “our life path is the overlay of countless mirrors in the external world”. Restless struggles in life stay unchanged, regardless of your class, background, literacy or even marital status. What keeps you striving for more is not only your own willpower or determination, but the torrents of the times.

Trapped in ambition

Just as the main character’s mentor Nick said, here in the Silicon Valley, “the poor want to become white collars, white collars want to become capitalists, capitalists aim to be royals while royals desire to be artists.”

Most characters in the books are top intellectuals, Stanford graduates, technical geniuses, startup founders, but definitely not everyone can be a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates. They became somewhat trapped between the walls they build for themselves, the dreams to become someone extraordinary. “Ambition is a strong word, bringing with it a tragic color of chasing something destined to let you down.” Day and night, their minds are messed up with questions like how to make a fortune, find investors, compete with peers and achieve financial independence.

Idealists and Nihilists

The community of these successful Chinese immigrants can be classified into several categories, idealists, nihilists and realists.

The main character Shan was an idealist, she started her company called Red Coral and dedicated 100 percent of her energy into the company’s product, 3D holographic goggles that were discovered as promising by tech giant Google.

She is the embodiment of a woman in tech, with visions and ambitions no less than any man, the type that people wouldn’t frown upon or blame for their broken relationships as they work 24/7 as CEOs. The first time she visited San Francisco, she wasn’t at all crazy about tourist destinations like the Golden Gate, Fisherman’s Wharf and so on. Instead she asked for a tour of the Intel headquarters, where she worked for a while but later resigned from due to lack of excitement and the work being too monotone.

A small screw in a giant mother ship, that’s how she described her experience at Intel. essential but not outstanding enough.

Divorce, miscarriage, bankruptcy and applying for unemployment dole, all these dramatic plot points in her life would make a good Hollywood story. However, that doesn’t shake her initial vision for starting this 3D goggle production company, she is hoping her work could make the world a better place. She represents the Chinese immigrants that regard Silicon Valley with an almost religious reverence. Many of her colleagues would prioritize family over work, but for Shan, her career came first.

The desire to start up a business is like taking heroin. You can’t stop once you’ve tried it.

Dao, a college friend of Shan’s ex-husband, a briefly mentioned character is more of a nihilist, overshadowed by successful predecessors. He got his green card early on and witnessed his startup getting listed in just three years.

Selling some company stocks already got him the financial independence to support him for the rest of his life. He had everything he wanted, what’s left is boundless emptiness, a giant hollowness that awaits to be refilled. He then fell in love with mountain trekking and got killed by terrorists while in Pakistan.

“If you have a far-reaching goal that requires all your strength to achieve, you would feel your life is beyond meaningful. When I first reached the mountains with an altitude of 8,000 meters, the extreme sense of pleasure was beyond words. You feel like you can die at any moment. When you are there, even the dullest of people would realize that success like getting listed, making money and shit like that is just clouds passing by.” In the end, he laid down his life to fill that void in his life.

The two metaphors that the writer uses to describe two kinds of mentality are “whether to burn yourself like incense, or to explode like a firework.”

How to define success?

The book discusses the deep-rooted different interpretations on success between Chinese and Americans, through a conversation between Shan and her mentor Nick.

Strongly affected by a Confucius philosophy, Chinese culture stresses honoring ancestors, since ancient times, achieving success in money or status is deeply bound to the glory of the whole family, rather than personal vanity. However, on the other hand in the American culture, individual value and privacy are given higher importance.

Pecking order is a basic concept in social hierarchy that was originally seen in chickens, and later discovered in other species including humans. It’s genetically inherent. The order becomes more important with diminishing space and closer relations between individuals. For instance, if everyone lives in a small village, the sense of comparison between individuals gets fiercer than in large cities. Silicon Valley, or in a general sense, American society, is more spread out, which grants more respect to individuality. There is no right or wrong in that.

The fascination of the novel also lies in the fact that anyone, no matter how smart or capable they are, will, at some point, be strongly manipulated and controlled by the tides of the internet era. Like for Shan, Intel, her dream job made her learn that traditional chip industries are declining. Dao pursued his dreams in the snow mountains and was eventually buried there. What killed him was a massive hollowness stemming from great success. All this forms a post-modern metaphor, that echos the theme of the novel— The rising technologies bring unbounded wealth for those who ride the tide, while at the same time breeding huge risks and hidden concerns.

Featured photo credit to cbnweek.com