For many Asians, whether from the startup scene or otherwise, the US market represents the final frontier — a goal that if achieved will be the crowning glory of one’s career. One need only look at how many Asian entertainers — for example, Jackie Chan and Gong Li — had their careers supercharged when they managed to break successfully into the American market.
Mark Cheng, Product Director at Nickelodeon, a US media company owned by Viacom, details his experiences as an immigrant to the States, and shares how Asians can achieve success in a big market as the US.
Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
When did you immigrate to the United States? Please share your story.
I was born in Singapore. When I was one and a half years old, my family moved to the American East Coast as my father was a doctor and wanted to practice in the US. Subsequently, I went to Cornell University to study film, and while there, I taught myself web designing and HTML programming. This was around the late 90s to early 2000s when the internet business was booming, and I found a job in the finance industry doing web development, getting my MBA in high-tech growth after a couple of years.
In the background, though, I was always experimenting with films, making little movies on the side with my friends but not really making a career out of it as working in finance and web design is more stable.
More stable? Sounds like what Asian parents would expect from their kids.
Yeah, that’s the thing about Asian parents, they’re happy when you do well. In addition, there’s societal pressure as well to have a corporate job. Back then, I worked by day and made movies on the side at night or on the weekends.
But then something interesting happened after I got my MBA. I was still working in finance at the time, and a job recruiter found me and asked if I would be interested in working in the media sector instead.
It turned out that Viacom, which owns MTV and Nickelodeon, was growing its digital department and was looking for top talent outside the industry.
On paper, my resume looked very interesting. I had a film background, had an MBA, and was a web engineer working on very sophisticated software (an online trading system that allows people to buy and sell stocks online). I went for the interview, and this is how I managed to cross over from being a finance engineer to being a web engineer for a media company.
It must have been quite the cultural change for you…
Certainly; while I formerly worked with stiff finance types, with Nickelodeon I was working with very creative people, fantastic designers, motion graphics engineers, people who are very concerned with visual flair and creative presentation of artwork.
That was when things began to converge, where I no longer needed to make movies on the side. While I continued to be an engineer, I helped out with photoshoots and videoshoots for the Nickelodeon Channel every so often when they needed help.
I felt very comfortable with that group, and I was able to act myself and talk about movies, video games with everybody; in finance, you tend to be very professional and act grown-up, but at Nickelodeon, they’re happy when you act like a kid!
At that time, we were beginning to restructure and focus more on video games. Senior management realised that I was a good engineer and liked to play video games a lot, and that’s how I got my current position as Director of Product Development for Nickelodeon games.
That’s great! I believe Nickelodeon encouraged you to pursue your personal film project. Please elaborate.
Yeah, they encouraged me to do the film stuff on the side, outside of the company. I decided to make a fan movie about the toy line G.I. Joe. I didn’t have a license for it. I just made it with my friends and put some money into it, and it did very well. It got half a million views on YouTube.
I ended up sending the movie to Larry Hama, a Japanese-American man who used to write comic books when I was a kid. I think I was just 12 when I read his books, so you can imagine how old he is! I’m almost 39, and he is in his 60s. It turned out that he lived very close to where I worked in New York City. We met, talked about G.I. Joe, talked about movies, and decided to get together and try to work on film together. Now, we are doing a crowdfunding campaign for our movie.
I gather Larry Hama has inspired you a lot in your life. Are there any other Asians you look up to?
My working with Larry Hama has been very inspirational. He’s in his mid-60s, so he has grown up at a time when this country and society was less tolerant of minorities. Yet, he tries not to dwell on that, instead concentrating on his work, focusing on the positive and building relationships. He has been a really good role model for me.
Lately, there have been some pretty good Asian actors in Hollywood who are nice to watch because they’re very diverse in the types of roles they play. Also, Asian-Americans are beginning to be more visible in the media; I think that’s really good.
Like, for instance, the recent Jeopardy! star Arthur Chu?
Yes! I’ve heard about him and started reading about him in the news. I like him a lot because, according to my understanding of him on the show, he is a very aggressive player, and I think some people are shocked that he doesn’t look like he would be very assertive or aggressive. His playing style has been described as ruthless and very competitive, and I think it’s great. I come from a culture of embracing nerdiness and the empowerment of what we consider geeks, so I think it’s fantastic to watch.
From your observations, do you find any differences between Asians who have moved to the US for work, and those who are born there?
That is a very interesting question, and also very challenging to answer, because as the world gets more globalised, we’ve become very sensitive about generalising ethnicities. I always find these kinds of questions fascinating, but on the one hand, it is something all ethnic groups are against in terms of being stereotyped or generalised; however; you have to generalise in order to answer them.
Generally speaking, I find that a lot of immigrant Asians who come to the US have a different type of mentality when it comes to working. They believe that if they work very hard and concentrate on their work, they would be rewarded with a promotion of some kind.
Whereas I feel the Asian-American mentality is slightly different. I think that they believe in hard work and studying for sure, with the slight difference being that they’re a little more comfortable fighting for attention saying, “I earned this, look at what I’m doing right now”. They’re less likely to just wait around for the boss to notice and reward them, they’d take maybe some extra steps to say, “I want to present to you, I want to make sure you see who I am, I want to make sure I’m on your radar”, and pursue their goals more assertively.
Like what you did when you were working for your break in films?
Yes. Like if I want to make films, one approach would be to work on my resume, work very hard on films and submit them through established proper channels, try to get the attention of the Hollywood types.
That isn’t the route I’m taking. I’ll simply say, “This is exactly what I want to do and I’ll figure out any way I can possibly to do it”. I will redefine the wheel. I will make my own path if I can’t find a good path to take. I’ll experiment, if I fail, I would try again. I’ll question established ways and and challenge them and try to find something better.
So, you believe that for Asians who want to make it big in the US, they should be more more assertive?
I don’t think you have to be overly fierce about it or openly competitive with other people, but you need to make sure people notice you.
The other part that is important is soft skills — how to work with people, how to build relationships, how to negotiate without fighting. I feel that this might not be emphasised enough in Asian societies that focus on hard skills, test scores and concrete achievements.
In the past, I’ve seen Asians occasionally struggle, where they would feel that they were being overlooked for a promotion to a management position, and they would point to many of their hard skills as their reason for being promoted.
I am not an authority on this, but I think that sometimes they may not place enough value on the softer skills. In engineering careers, it can be typical that the senior ranking person in the team happens to be the best engineer of the group, the smartest, most experienced and the most technical.
But outside of engineering, in some of the broader business areas, that may not always be the case, where your boss is the most knowledgeable. It might be that the boss has the ability to manage large groups of people. Or it might be that the boss has the ability to understand how to scale operations quickly and efficiently, without the need to master every single technical or hard skill the operations need. So I think it is unfortunate that a lot of times there might be a wrong perception of being passed over, when in general they don’t place the same value on certain skills that may be needed.
Have you faced any discrimination in the US?
I’ve been lucky enough as I don’t think I have encountered any discrimination. I also grew up in the East Coast where there’s a large Asian population — New York and New Jersey. I think it could’ve been a different story had I been in a different location in the US.
When I was in Cornell, there was an Asian student group that I joined. Once, there was a heated discussion about the perception of Asians as an ethnic group in the American society, and what I found very interesting was that among the debate, there was a group of students that said, “We might be stereotyped as hardworking and easy to get along with, and good at math, but you know, on the spectrum of things, that’s actually not that bad”.
Indeed, I had this one engineer acquaintance who mentioned that he was practically given a part-time job without being asked too many questions. They had just assumed that he was good and had strong technical skills.
Do you have anything to share for Asians who want to make it big in the States?
Don’t be afraid of failure. Whenever there is anxiety about “What if I totally fail in this”, remind yourself that you will grow no matter what. Fear kills more dreams than failure.
I think there are so many people who believe that if they really tried, they could succeed. But, they’re just too afraid to try. So this becomes the reason they fail — they haven’t even started the race yet. That is so sad, right?
I have three sons whom I have adopted with my wife. Becoming a dad has forced me to think about what values I want to impart to them, and I want to show my boys that daddy always tries. In Star Wars, Yoda says, “Do or do not, but do not try”. My own version of that to my boys is that you must always try. It doesn’t matter whether you make it or not, but you should always try. That’s the attitude I want my boys to have.
Currently, Mark Cheng is collaborating with Larry Hama in a crowdfunded Sci-fi film, Ghost Source Zero. Their Kickstarter campaign ends on March 3, 2014. Please visit their Kickstarter site if you’d like to support it!