Originally Published on Ok Real on June 1, 2014.
It is 10.30AM on a Saturday and Karen Wong is headed to work. “Work is fun, work is challenging, work is all encompassing. I think we’re making an impact on the city.” In a place that only gives as much as you do, there’s a reason why Karen feels at home in New York City. As Deputy Director of the New Museum, co-founder of Ideas City Festival, board member for Storefront for Art and Architecture and a committed mentor to her female staff, she’s invested in making good things happen. For someone who claims to live a selfish trajectory, Karen gives a whole lot back.
“I was born in Queens, New York and grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For lack of a better word we were exotic—there were very few Asians. I grew up slowly and I’m close to my parents, who exposed us to art, culture and sports. Even though we tried to assimilate quickly, my sister and I always felt like ‘the other’. I was eager to leave North Carolina after high school and came up to Rhode Island to attend Brown. I felt incredibly unsophisticated in that environment.
In saying that, their celebration of individuality, particularly at the time I was there, was fantastic. You could be whomever or whatever and it was accepted. So after the initial insecurity and anxiety issues, I embraced it and had a great time for the 4 years I was there. It was a long way from the school playground where I was teased for racial differences. When you feel unaccepted as a child, you build an armor to protect yourself. It fueled a competitive nature that my parents had already instilled in me, motivating me to excel. Bizarrely, at Brown it was almost the opposite, where if you weren’t white you were even cooler—a kind of reverse racism.
This is one of the reasons why I think New York is such a great home for me. It’s incredibly accepting and full of opportunity—you can have anonymity but you can also make a name for yourself. I spent 7 years in London where it’s quite tribal and hard to operate as a Chinese American woman. Moving back from London and being older, I thought it was going to be hard to make friends—but the female friends I’ve made in the last 4 or 5 years have been so supportive. There’s a great spirit of collaboration and generosity.
Not having the responsibility of a nuclear family, I live somewhat selfishly. I’ve been able to pivot my career every 7-ish years which has been challenging and satisfying. I’m able to make decisions based on what motivates me, what my next passion is, what I haven’t done yet.
My approach to challenge is defined by a confidence that derives from how you grow up. If your parents create an environment where you feel emotionally secure, it allows for a certain kind of energy to take risks. If I fail, I can go back home and process it with my folks. They’ll say brush it off, get back out there and try again. This foundation of security has helped me develop personally and professionally. There hasn’t been a better time for women professionally than right now. Women in my generation (in their 40s) have busted through a lot of ceilings, and that presence of female leadership has really defined the New Museum. Not only is that encouraging, but I feel proud to extend that legacy by mentoring female staff as those have done before me.
That mentoring attitude is a maternal instinct and it’s very satisfying. There’s pride in knowing that you had a little something to do with a person’s success, and most of the time they’re grateful. Everyone wants to be respected and everyone likes to hear thank you. That support between women needs to exist to combat the pressure we receive. There has been a real disservice to women in terms of how we’re defined by the media. A lot of focus is given to unrealistic types of women and as a result we are constantly comparing ourselves. While we can enjoy the frivolity (because we do), it takes another level of digging deeper to scrape away at that. Currently, that pressure is particularly focused on the balance of motherhood and career.
She gave me permission to not to have to pursue the status quo. I eloped in Las Vegas at 23-years-old. It’s a fantastic story—we were perhaps more interested in the story than in the marriage. We were driving across the country in a white Toyota pickup on our way to San Fransisco and made a pit stop in Las Vegas. Captivated by the scenario, we stopped at a sign for The Little White Chapel—stating that Michael Jordan and Joan Collins got married there. That’s where we did it, dressed like ragamuffins: he was in a t-shirt and jeans and I was in some idiotic quasi-cowboy jacket and shorts. It lasted 5 years and was a good chapter. We tried our best. At this point, I really enjoy my freedom and not having to compromise. I spend time with my sister’s family, my goddaughter and my friends families, and I enjoy being a fabulous aunty for a day.
From watching my friends who have become mothers, this idea of being able to have it all is a pretty false notion. It has not been easy for friends with high powered jobs to re-enter the workforce after taking 5—10 years off to be full-time mothers. There are full-time nannies for those who can afford it, although that’s not for everyone either. It goes back to your core and what your values are… for women, it’s never straightforward.”