Home is Where You Grow Worry-free — Li Shang
NAME Li Shang
ROLE Senior Inventive Scientist, Machine Learning Researcher, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University
BIRTH CITY Sichuan
CITIES LIVED IN New Jersey, New York, Hong Kong, Beijing, Sichuan
Why did you move to New York?
I came to New York for my PH.D. I had a couple of choices while applying in the U.S. One university was in New York and the others were in the South. The other cities were not as big but the universities were very good. However, when it came down to making a choice that would help me get an experience beyond my profession, I found New York to be more diverse.
New York has a lot of art. There are people pursuing different professions here. When you talk to them you can learn a part of their profession and acquire varied perspectives in your field as well. This is what I treasure most and what makes me happy. That’s why even when I was in China, I chose Hong Kong for my Master's studies. Hong Kong has a similar flavor as New York. There are people learning different majors like finance, philosophy, and technology there as well. You feel like you’re growing in not only your area but in other areas as well. And that makes you more complete.
What gives you a feeling of home?
First and foremost, it is my family. Family is what makes a home.
I also think enjoying your everyday work helps bring the sense of belonging. If you like your work then you feel relaxed at the office and at home. After all, home is where you grow worry-free.
The nature of my work is research that gives me the freedom to explore the problems I want to work on. Because of this flexibility, I can choose the research problem I am most interested in and a subject that I am good at. This freedom makes me happier than doing any other job. I also have a really kind supervisor that I work with on a daily basis and from whom I learn a lot. Working alongside her is also my favorite part of the job. I learn a lot from her not only professionally but also beyond work on how she lives her life. She’s an inspirational lady.
I think, every city gives me a feeling of home. I am a very accommodating person. I mean home is a feeling.
You need to enjoy every city you live in. Every city is a new experience. You should be selective while choosing a home but that’s before you choose where you live. Once you go there, once you settle down, you should feel like a local. Try to be adaptive. Just enjoy the city.
Why did you move to New Jersey?
New Jersey is closer to my new office and I like the short commute. My wife and I rent an apartment right by the train station, which allows us easy access to Manhattan. We still feel that the city is just a couple of stops away. In New York your colleagues and peers influence you. It has more energy and we need that energy at this age. In New Jersey you are isolated and you have less energy around you. But in the meantime you spend more time with family. That’s the biggest change of moving to New Jersey.
What is the difference between your New York home and your Chinese home?
In New York, we decorated our home all by ourselves. It was an unfurnished rental apartment. Every piece of furniture was selected and bought by us. We shopped at Ikea and visited West Elm several times before our sweet home turned into the current form. This apartment was the first home we lived in after the university dorm. It’s where we study, work and will raise our own family.
When I was in China I was in a very different phase of my life. I lived with my parents and that sweet home was built by them. It relates to my memory of growing up, making mistakes, and learning. However, the common part in both these homes is that both are filled with love and joy.
Is there anything you carried from Sichuan?
A couple of Chinese books of which most of them are Chinese literature — the four treasures for Chinese brush art (brush pen, Xuan paper, ink, and Yan). Chinese culture is rooted in my brain, and the further I am away, the more I appreciate its beauty. It is a part of my identity.
As we fit into a new cultural environment, we also bring in our share to the pot.
In fact, this is what makes New York such a great place to live in.
Is there a place in New York reminds you of hometown?
The World Trade Center train station reminds me of Hong Kong. It’s a typical combination that you’ll get to see in Hong Kong… a train station will always have a shopping mall. That reminds me of Hong Kong a lot.
Hong Kong and New York are very similar in many ways. Probably one way New York is different from Hong Kong is that New York is more open to foreign cultures. Whereas in Hong Kong it’s sort of, divided. You have a group of people who are completely open to foreign cultures and then there is another group who tries to protect their own beliefs and culture. They are afraid that people from outside might take away their benefits. I don’t see that in New York, but probably it exists in other parts of the U.S.
What do you do to make yourself comfortable?
I was in a long distance relationship for a long time when I moved here before my then girlfriend now wife joined me. I hate to say this, but long distance is difficult. We used to make phone calls but the most important thing is that you love each other and have confidence that it’ll work. You need to make efforts to change the situation. The only way you overcome long distance is by being together.
Do you have any memories of your first childhood home?
I remember there being a big playground outside my first childhood home. My childhood friends and I used to chase each other a lot on that playground — I cannot recall why we did that but I guess you can be purposeless then. I learned to ride my bicycle on that playground too. This may explain why I like sports so much even now.
How do you feel about the global environment these days?
I feel optimistic about the current situation in China. Chinese people are wise and hardworking. Even though economic cycles are inevitable, I feel confident that Chinese people will continue to build, create, and make an impact on humanity. In China, people think AI and automation might take away jobs from Chinese people. But in reality it will also create new jobs. AI is all about machine learning. But in order to make the machines learn you need to teach it what to learn. That’s an area in AI that has job opportunities. Plus the China’s elderly population is growing faster compared to the younger population putting a lot of pressure on the working-age population. AI could help ease some of this pressure by taking over jobs. With the help of technology, I think we don’t need to worry.