The Emotional Logic of “Awe Bei”

My parents often called me “awe bei” in Shanghainese when I was little. (No, it doesn’t mean “garbage.”) It wasn’t until later that I finally figured out from context that “awe bei” meant doing something contrarian, usually something that displeased my parents.

I can see why my parents described me as “awe bei.” I preferred unconventionality and did things the hard way. I still do. I don’t want to be unconventional for its own sake, but will take the circuitous route if the extra distance can help to goad me towards my goal. I am quite good at goading myself because I know my emotional triggers.

I was reminded about “awe bei” when I read this. Aidan, a BigLaw associate turned novelist, pondered why she chooses — day in, day out — to write at Starbucks instead in her big beautiful home office. (By the way, check out her highly entertaining debut novel,Life After Yes.)

I too have a beautiful home office. It is organized the way I want. I realize that having an entire room earmarked to be my home office is a luxury in New York City. I can write my blog dressed in sweats at my high performance desktop computer equipped with an ergonomic keyboard and mouse and connected to super-fast Internet, all while being serenaded by the soft purrs from my feline babies luxuriating on the windowsill under the blanket of the winter sunlight. This sounds divine now that I have described it.

Yet, you’ll rarely find me writing my blog in my home office. Instead, I lug my three-year old MacBook Pro with a trackpad I can’t stand to the often-crowded Argo Tea a couple of blocks away. I buy an overpriced cup of coffee that I don’t need (I only drink coffee when I don’t get enough sleep and I get plenty of sleep these days) just to get two free hours of Wifi access that is half as fast as what we have at home. I feel elated when I can claim a small corner of a table with an electric plug that is not directly facing the sun. I have my earplugs ready in case the more sociable patrons sitting next to me start to talk loudly, which often happens.

Why do I do this? “Awe bei.”

Aidan posed the same question in her blog entry. She wondered what she was afraid of. Was it the quiet or the solitude?

For me, it is definitely not the quiet or the solitude. In fact, back in my BigLaw days, I was the most productive after midnight, drafting away on those hundred-page agreements. The phone ceased ringing and the only sound came from the cleaning crews vacuuming the hallways. I knew the partner-in-charge and the client had gone to bed, counting on me to weave the product they expected. I weaved in solitude in the quiet and produced.

Now, I feel like I can only produce at Argo Tea. I need to create a hassle for myself in order to entice myself to push forward. I think my seemingly counterproductive behavior can be explained as follows:

  • As a practical matter, I need an external structure to prevent me from procrastinating. There are many distractions at home, such as watching TV or playing with the cats or cleaning the apartment or taking out the litter or doing anything else that may seem more palatable than writing.
  • But practicality is not enough. I need emotional impetus and Argo Tea provides the right environment. Seeing the other people – scraggily dressed writers, studious MBA-type students, hungry jobseekers — typing feverishly away at their computers, triggers something in me. Something competitive perhaps. I feel the need to seem at least as busy and as productive as them.
  • Finally, the fact I am paying for the “free” Wifi access through my coffee purchase gives me an additional kick in the butt. I better produce something worthy of the extravagant $3.50 latte.

So, there you go. “Awe bei” – creating inefficiency to be more efficient; manipulating myself with my eyes wide open.

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