A day in the life of a Taiwan-based Swiss lawyer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
4:30 a.m. Getting enough sleep turns out to be one of the biggest challenges here. Due to the 12-hour time difference, Harvard’s location in Massachusetts is not the most suitable for dealing with Taiwan matters. At first I tried various approaches, for example getting up at 4:30 in the morning so I could start working from 5 a.m. around the corner at Starbucks, which opens conveniently early. That gave me another hour of time with Asia.
It quickly turned out, however, that my evening window in Boston from 9 p.m. is the more practical timeframe. The children are in bed, and colleagues in Taipei are about to start their day. But I soon realized that neither time is really an ideal option, despite a nap at noon.
The original idea was to stay in the United States for a few weeks, then a summer, and finally a decision to remain for a whole school year at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center, Institute for Internet and Society. This would not be a sabbatical, since it is well known that lawyers are not allowed to take holidays or make themselves unavailable. Why lawyers should be an exception is still a mystery to me, but I didn’t want to break old conventions. After 18 years in Asia. I simply wanted a physical and mental change, an enrichment for myself and my family.
5:45 a.m. After a few weeks my daily routine has begun to settle down. Getting up in the morning at a more normal time, my day starts in the kitchen with the routine “OK Google, Good Morning!” and support from artificial intelligence. “AI” is the buzz-word I’m working on as a fellow at Harvard involved in fintech. If you want to get familiar with artificial intelligence, you have to feel it every day – including my two rascals, who take part in the AI experiment in our own living room and kitchen, with a lot of commitment.
6:00 a.m. After a weather and calendar announcement by Google, I make a first push with emails and one or two short phone calls. With that, I can tie up some last loose ends in the working day regarding clients and employees in Asia.
6:45 a.m. “Guete Morge Papi!” – the children are awake now, and my first batch of work comes to an abrupt end. In the Far East it’s closing time again.
7:50 a.m. After breakfast I bring the children to school, which is still quite an experience for me. As a child in Solothurn in Switzerland, I would ride around on a bike. As an adult in Taipei, it is usually Uber. Here in the States, it is a mixture of both – in sunshine with the bicycle, in rain or snow with Lyft and Uber.
The latter option is AI-supported – I can’t seem to get away from the topic. In the first option, however, I choose the optimal route myself, with the short ride surprisingly safe and comfortable thanks to the town’s well-developed bike lanes and considerate drivers. Traffic is a pleasant contrast to Asia, where despite the recent wave in bike popularity, cyclists usually need to keep to the sidewalk for safety reasons.
So far I have managed to more or less maintain a Taiwanese lifestyle, which is not what I had originally associated with the U.S. east coast, and especially New England. To deepen the experience a bit, I occasionally use my newest gadget, an electric uni-cycle designed in California and made in China, instead of a bicycle. Staying balanced keeps me young – more of an exercise than a sport.
The purchase, partially made in an attempt to overcome my midlife crisis, was urgent. According to the poorly translated manual, the maximum age for use is 50 years old. As my time window is just under two years, it was now or never! My wife, who is from Taiwan, aided with the decision. When I asked her whether I should buy a race car or an electric unicycle, she stated her preference in no uncertain terms.
8:35 a.m. Depending on the day and meeting schedule, I sometimes stop for coffee on the way to my workplace near Harvard Square. Not far from the area’s German school, a Swiss couple has set up a café with a bakery called “Swissbäkers.” It’s always filled with customers – parents from the German school, but also students and professors from the nearby Harvard Business School, on their laptops, on the phone, or making business plans on napkins made of recycled paper.
I’m in familiar territory, as it feels like being at Starbucks or 85°C in Taipei. For longer conference calls, I follow a procedure developed by an acquaintance of mine, also a lawyer with a child at school. She leaves the cake on the table, takes her coffee with her, and gets into her car in the parking lot to make calls.
9:00 a.m. In Boston, the optimal time window with Europe is the local morning, so I spend the next few hours (in addition to occasional meetings at the university) mainly with conference calls, allowing me mentally to put Taiwan behind. The constant thinking in three time zones is mental acrobatics and one more thing that keeps me feeling young.
The research and academic work at Harvard is the real reason for our being here and greatly enriches my everyday life as a lawyer. Appointments and time pressures are the same, and yet it’s different. There are still questions and comments at the end of a meeting, but they dig deeper and prompt further discussion, so the follow-up can be as valuable as the meeting itself. At first this style seems less efficient, but as I quickly discover it leads to more broad-based decisions, which are more in-depth, or in the local jargon “more informed.”
My experience here also reminds me of my longstanding fascination with foreign languages. Just as when I arrived as a young exchange student at a high school in Pennsylvania, then again as a 20-year-old at the University of Lausanne, and finally as a 28-year-old in Taipei, I was again confronted with situations completely beyond my understanding.
Language is a mediator of ideas. It was brought home to me how in Asia ideas like the newer concept of “inclusion” – but also older topics like “gender equality” – unfortunately are too infrequently the subject of everyday conversation, whether in the professional or private sphere. Even more pronounced is the gap regarding the word “diversity,” an expression that is only just emerging in Asia. A panel with only male participants (“manel”) is hardly conceivable in the United States, but still happens often in Taiwan.
The intellectual fertilization and the exchange of ideas are of course two-track. For my part, I am able to introduce Asian ideas in Boston, for example how to maintain a certain ease in navigating in a complex and adverse environment. What I learned in Taipei as a Swiss national (note: in the meantime I have become a Taiwanese citizen, while keeping my Swiss citizenship) now helps me as a foreigner in the United States. Others appreciate it when I keep calm in the face of problems and challenges, responding with a radiant smile. “Everything is possible” is a lesson I learned in Taiwan.
12 noon. Cambridge, Massachusetts has a population of just over 100,000, plus around the same number of students and visitors of all kinds – a small town comparable to Taipei’s Shilin district. But there is a lot going on – practically every day I find an event to attend relating to Taiwan or China, fintech, or AI. The numerous schools and institutes seem to outbid one another to satisfy their clientele. From gene editing with CrispR to Chinese health policy, the range is wide and deep.
Nevertheless, it remains a manageable world, with most events within walking distance. The metro line, deeply in need of renovation, doesn’t make a strong urban impression the way the MRT does in Taipei. Rather, it is more like a bus line that happens to be underground.
Only the law firms seem to hold events on the other side of the river, amid the skyscrapers of downtown Boston, kind of like the Xinyi district. Both Boston and Cambridge have been strongly influenced by Palo Alto and Mountain View. The dress code in the city’s law firms is also casual, and networking is in everyone’s blood. The questions “Where are you from?” and “What are you working on?” are heard often, usually answered by “I’m still looking around.” Cocktail parties with topics like “Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare” are closer to Silicon Valley culture than the early Massachusetts that one associates with events like the Boston Tea Party or Salem witchcraft trials.
It is at this time of day that I often just take a break with a yoga lesson, where I regularly fall asleep at the end (known as savasana or the “corpse pose” – I’ve learned a new language in my yoga classes too). The one or two unavoidable phone calls at 6 o’clock in the morning take revenge around this time.
2:00 p.m. I enjoy the afternoon and my isolation from both sleeping Europe and Asia. I calmly devote myself to longer documents, more complex contracts, and to whatever has been postponed. The late summer here grips me like a cliché – I do not fight against it, but let myself be carried along.
5:00 p.m. Duty calls and it is time to pick up my son. “Sports” is written in capital letters here in the United States and also at the German school. My older son climbs, which somehow reminds me of my Sunday bicycle rides up to Yangmingshan. With their indoor climbing walls, today’s youth is much more detached from the outdoors.
6:00 p.m. We happily go out for Chinese food in the evening. Thanks to the substantial number of Chinese students in Boston, there is more than enough to choose from, from spicy Sichuan, to Hong Kong dim sum, to Taiwanese noodle soups. Chinese is being spoken all around us, and our family feels like we’re in a strangely familiar environment. From time to time the talk turns to law and politics, and I don’t miss out on keeping up with the neighborhood news.
7:30 p.m. We continue our conversation while being driven home from the restaurant. Everyone is talking at the same time, which in our family means Swiss German and Mandarin with a Taiwanese flair, depending on who is talking to whom (one of us speaks Mandarin with a strong Swiss accent). After only three minutes and having turned his head to look back about five times, the driver finally dares to ask the standard question: “Where are you from?!?” and a lively discussion begins. Although supported by artificial intelligence through car-sharing apps, the ride is ultimately about interpersonal contact and being human.
8:30 p.m. The children are in bed. My Asian night shift now begins again through phone calls with the teams in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei. To motivate myself I treat myself to a portion of warmed up mapo doufu. Old habits die hard!