An Economic Life: (Not) My Comparative Advantage

“I’m not trying to look weak!” My gloved hands flew back onto my hips, but the trembling of my lower lip betrayed me. Even though it was a late night session with few people on the ice, I didn’t want my frustrated huffs to attract an audience.

My mom crossed her arms in reply. “Then stiffen up your arms! It’ll help you land your jumps!” She unhinged her elbows and straightened hers out on either side of her as a demonstration.

I sucked in a deep breath and pushed away from the boards near her seat. I needed to calm down before I attempted another run-through of my routine. Unlike a professional at all, every little thing could mess me up. And nothing was going right tonight. My gloves had holes in the fingertips, my blades weren’t gripping the ice enough, and my first competition was just a few weeks away.

I started the night confident that I could deliver a great practice performance for her to watch and record for my dad. Work would probably prevent either of them from getting to see me skate in the pretty, expensive, rhinestoned dress they bought just for the occasion. (I just want to sparkle like the other competitors! You want me to look good, right? Oh yes, I was unfortunately a manipulative little…)  

A skating dress by Del Arbour, similar to the one I had.
A skating dress by Del Arbour, similar to the one I had.

I threw a few single jumps to get back into a groove, any groove, and looked back in my mom’s direction. She was reading something on her phone. I couldn’t blame her; I wasn’t impressing anyone at the moment. But maybe I shouldn’t have expected to in the first place.

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At five-foot-seven and not exactly the most svelte, my body didn’t fit the ideal figure skater profile. Super aware of my higher center of gravity, I couldn’t force myself to be fearless and throw jumps over and over again until I landed one. Faster, push more, my coach would urge me, but speed terrified me more than it carried me to any success on the ice. Suffice it to say that figure skating wasn’t an area of comparative advantage for me.

Yet somehow, I stayed with figure skating for almost a decade. I never experienced breakout results, rarely passed the level tests with any sort of colors, and often wasted time being upset over my practice one day instead of progressing on my math homework. My parents told me I could quit anytime and do something else, but I would not budge. I would love skating until it loved me back.

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Home from college one winter break, I tagged along to my friend’s jazz and ballet classes. I had just started dancing recreationally in college and quickly became envious of my new stage-veteran, recovering bunhead friends. Like many of my peers, I had been shepherded to dance studios as a kid, but it just didn’t stick with me at the time.

After we stretched, the teacher looked at my physique and said, “Oh, I could’ve made you.” I asked for clarification. She admired my height and long (really?) limbs. I could’ve parlayed my natural resources into being a beautiful ballerina. Could’ve. The word stung. It reeked of lost opportunity, lost potential.

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I went home that night with a simmering anger. Why couldn’t I have known this sooner? Why didn’t my parents try harder to get me to reconsider my obsession with skating? Why…not? Why not? The realizations burrowed themselves in my mind for months and leaked into other areas of my life.

In grade school, my talents manifested in classes like social studies and history, English, and foreign languages. Math and science? With the odd exception of chemistry, to say I wished, craved, cried for those subjects to feel “easy” would be a wild understatement. But unlike skating or dance, I didn’t have a choice but to do well in all academic areas.

I wanted the advantages that I didn’t enjoy. I felt like those things were more impressive. Things I was good at? They were nice, but not so much in light of the increasing importance of STEM. And I was never going to be a Michelle Kwan. 

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In basic macroeconomics, you learn that countries should focus on producing things that they have a comparative advantage in. For example, Southeast Asia started to manufacture products when their cost of labor became more competitive, sometimes known in corporate speak as “cheaper.”

But you also learn that economies can grow by investing in areas they are deficient in, such as Singapore’s attracting of an international workforce responsible for much of its service industries or South Korea’s early investments in entertainment and pop culture that became precursors for the “hallyu wave.”

So I began to apply these principles to my own life. I would invest in learning things I didn’t know and needed to know, without neglecting to nurture my natural talents.

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Come winter of freshman year in college, I had almost had it with “investment.” I was trying desperately to bring my intro math class grade back up after disastrous midterms, and the former valedictorians around me never seemed to slow down. I transferred my skating skills to a student dance troupe, where I was good enough but always aware that there were even better.

For a study break, I went skating on an outdoor rink for the first time at Boston’s Frog Pond. I glided easily among the awkward first dates, tweens goofing off, and parents who were regretting bringing their kid. Every bone in my body felt a newfound appreciation for the years I had spent falling and slipping and tripping on frozen water. As I exhaled and watched the tendrils of my breath uncurl and float away, I looked up and muttered a silent thank-you to my past self, for not giving up and for getting me this far. The decade had not, in fact, been for nothing. In a way, it had given me everything I needed.

Credit to Boston.com
Credit to Boston.com

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Thank you for reading! This is the second in my series “An Economic Life,” where I write to educate and entertain while attempting to remember and apply my liberal arts education. 🙂

Also published on Medium.

An Economic Life: The Diminishing Marginal Utility of Roast Quail

Dear reader,

I published the below article first on Medium. I would not be where I am today without my parents, so it’s only fitting that I dedicate the beginning of my site to them. For anyone who appreciates family, food, and even some economic theory, do have a read.

Best,

Jennifer


My mom likes to joke that she scored with my dad. That Shanghainese men make the best husbands. They like to cook, clean, and generally keep house. I can’t confirm whether this is actually widely accepted among Chinese people, but he certainly lived up to and beyond the claims. However, he had a tendency to ruin my taste for my favorite foods. I never begrudged him for it. He ended up (indirectly) teaching me about an economics principle I wouldn’t formally encounter until my last year of high school.

Source: Troy Fields for Houston Press.

I’ve always known Houston to be a food city, even if it’s only recently started to get wider recognition for it. Next to Chinatown’s palaces of seafood, dim sum, and hot pot, you have Viet-town with savory pho and crispy banh mi. Obviously, glorious Tex-Mex joints abound. So when my dad brought home roast quail for dinner one night, I wasn’t surprised.

“It tastes like chicken,” he said. He started to tear off small pieces and spread them out in the styrofoam box, warped from the steam and his commute.

I poked a piece with my chopstick. “It smells kind of weird.” We’d eaten even less mainstream things though, like pig intestines doused in red oil.

“Here, just try it.” He placed a large piece between my chopsticks. I took my first bite and let it settle on my tongue. The crispy and slightly caramelized skin made up for the relatively tasteless meat. It was a little tougher than chicken.

He smiled. “See? Good, huh?”

I nodded even though I hadn’t passed a verdict yet. He had gone during a break from his restaurant shift to pick up the new dish in Chinatown. Always buying food for the family, his coworkers liked to say.

Somehow, we (and by we, I mean I) ended up picking clean three-quarters of the box. When my dad set down another box a few days later, I attacked the fragrant meat more eagerly. There were no leftovers to pack for my school lunch that time.

For the next two months give or take, I ate each box of quail as completely as I could, but each time the amount of leftovers increased. I hate wasting food, so in it went into my lunches, buried in noodles, rice, and the bone broths my mom and grandma steeped. (News flash for food hipsters: bone broth has been part of Asian food for years and years.) Spurred on by the positive feedback, my dad made sure there was never a deficit in my roast quail supply.

On a Sunday before I was due to go teach a few hours of ice skating lessons, he set a hearty serving in a shallow blue-and-white bowl before me.

“Protein for the endurance you’ll need! Eat it before it gets cold!” His wide grin couldn’t drum up the enthusiasm he had gotten so used to seeing though. My whiny teenager side had bubbled up.

“I’m tired of quail. Do we have ramen?” I said. Addressing his kind attention to my protein intake, I added, “I’ll eat an egg with it.”

“What do you mean you’re tired of it? You like eating it so much!”

“Ba-ba, we’ve had it for months.” I pouted, carefully. “Maybe for dinner instead?”

He nodded, but his lips pressed together as he took a few pieces for himself and put the rest back into the fridge.

Halfway through my three hours of bending down to hold little kids’ hands as they teetered around the ice, my stomach growled and reminded me how much I could’ve used that protein. What was I thinking having one fried egg and instant ramen?

At dinner I monopolized the quail dish. My mom was both impressed and horrified by my remarkable appetite. My dad smiled again, wide and bright, and also had some, but only when I was occupied with the small pile in my bowl.

A few weeks later, this pattern repeated with char-siew pork, then caramelized sea bass, then lamb chops. You wouldn’t have known that my parents worked blue-collar jobs. I certainly didn’t until I learned that collars had certain colors at all.

Source: Ivy League Lifestyle.

In my first semester of college, my introduction to microeconomics TA explained diminishing marginal utility to an indifferent lecture hall, using the typical examples. To satisfy a craving, one more cupcake (or cookie) will give you less satisfaction than the first one consumed. One more Maserati in a millionaire’s collection bestows fewer bragging rights than the first two. Okay, that one I embellished.

I, on the other hand, had different examples in mind.

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Thank you for reading! This is the first in my series “An Economic Life,” where I write to educate and entertain while attempting to remember and apply my liberal arts education. 🙂