Counter Culture, Counter Intuition: Sometimes it makes sense


One of the cases in my dissertation study offers two important lessons, or principles: 1. the weakness of strong ties, and 2. the competitive advantage of being the first deviant. “First move advantage” is easy to understand, but conceiving that “first” isn’t so easy. Some people undertake an unconventional move out of desperation, and many who strategically create something new bear the “high risks” to hopefully gain that “high reward.” But “first move advantage” is not guaranteed; we award the “advantage” label in retrospective rationalization of those attempts which succeed.

The particular case in my study was about how a single Chinese mother, Yien, who revamped her ordinary little eatery in a major metropolitan Chinatown to become one of the best cafes, not just in the Chinatown but in the city. Yien’s endeavors did not start with a clear vision, strategic planning, methodical plotting, or neat execution. She had ideas that gradually unfolded as she learned from experience. Along the way, there were strong forces in her Chinese family and social network that made her life more difficult rather than being helpful.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

Yien was compelled to turn around her restaurant, which was a hole in a wall on the edge of this city’s Chinatown. It could seat about 40 people, and served three meals a day with equal emphasis on coffee between mealtimes. A few years before I stumbled upon her café, she went through a divorce, and her then husband was the only cook. The end result of her divorce was that she gained the custody of her three young children, but lost her cook. What’s more (or, rather, less), her ex-husband couldn’t provide much alimony. The restaurant at that point was a typical decent Chinatown restaurant. On her own, Yien had to do something dramatic to increase her income. Her history degree from a Taiwan university was not likely to be of much help and her English was just adequate.

First, Yien had to secure a chef, a perennial headache for all restaurant owners, but particularly thorny in Chinatown owing to fierce competition. Once she managed to hire a good chef, she had turning-point in her thinking. She said, “When I looked around at the Chinatown restaurants, all menus looked alike, busy and confusing, with more than 100 dishes to offer! I decided that I wanted to simplify the menu, make fewer but good dishes, and offer something unique. I wanted to make the coffee stand out. I also decided to replace all the ugly serving ware.”

chow mifenShe bought a coffee system from Taiwan that’s based on an elaborate siphon system. She invested in Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and exquisite teas for the new menu. The replacement serving ware was simple but elegant, and all teas and coffees were served with a bite-size sweet, all presented on a personal-size tray. The food menu combined Taiwanese and mainstay Chinese dishes (such as dumplings), with some elements of Japanese flavoring and presentation.

Most importantly, she doubled her prices. I dimly remember that the Blue Mountain coffee was $7 a cup. 90% of her Chinese customers disappeared. However, her American customer base grew and younger Chinese became some of her regulars.

For a few years, all her three children helped in the café, but as they grew up and moved on, Yien had to find alternatives for help. In the fiercely competitive Chinatown environment, her counter-cultural practice was initially the target of tongue wagging, scorn, sabotage, and eventually, envy. Some people mistook her quiet and reserved mien as weakness. While Yien might not speak much about her strong feelings, she was determined and steadfast (or, stubborn).

My dissertation topic focuses on networking, and Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” provided a foundation for my research approach. As his title implies, we gain considerable insight and assistance, whether for job hunting or innovation work, from the weak network ties that connect us to others who might not have otherwise been available. When we hang out with similar others – and the majority of us do all the time – we don’t easily get many wildly different ideas and perspectives. Those in our network whose shoulders we only tap occasionally, the weak ties, have vastly different networks than our own. And sometimes, these “weak ties” connect us to the right people at the right time and at the right place for the “ah Ha!” breakthrough.

Most Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs, by default, have to rely on their relatives and best friends to establish their starting businesses. And often, they stay on the same track for decades, copying each other’s business practices. Yien broke away from that tradition, paid a social price in the Chinese community circle, but gained respect elsewhere. However, it was particularly disheartening for me to learn the negative impact on her business and social life inflicted by some family members and other Chinese. Her own mother’s insatiable material demands alone caused years of financial struggle for Yien. Her children did not always appreciate the challenges she faced. After she established the reputation for her café, and managed to stabilize her financial situation with the price increase, many Chinese did come around to welcome her back into their circle, albeit often with hidden agenda.

jiao zi

Yien would be the first to admit that when she began on her new direction, she had no crystal ball to assure herself of the success of this direction. I contend that not only is it difficult to go against the prevailing trends, but also it is especially grueling to proceed counter to the strong bonds in the Chinese community and culture. I considered Yien, then, and still now, to be enormously courageous. Yet, she’d correct me, “I didn’t have much choice. I just had to close my eyes and keep plowing on. It’s not courage; it’s desperation.” Don’t get me wrong; Yien has many flaws, some almost ruinous. I had my “quiet quarrels” with some of her ways (within my internal dialogue; after all, I was doing research), but she taught me many valuable lessons. Besides, were it not for Yien, I might still be searching for that one more Chinese for my study.

Today’s entry begins my journey on “innovation and creativity” that may take the next few weeks.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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