Last week I had the privilege of attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was not my first time. Having attended the year before, I knew to bring my warmest clothing and most rugged boots. To many, Davos is an opportunity to come face-to-face with world leaders and advance interests. For this chance, they spend thousands of dollars, trek to the middle of nowhere, and deal patiently with the big crowds gathered.
I am an artist. I was not at Davos with a political agenda. Rather, I was looking to meet people, and perhaps make friends. I’m always fascinated by group dynamics, and I suppose I viewed the conference as an experiment in humanity. What happens when you bring together the world’s leaders (almost all of whom are alpha personalities), feed them very little (there are never any snacks), and put them on an overbooked schedule (despite the jetlag that most are coping with). My experiment was drawing one conclusion: Davos is not the easiest place to make friends.
And then, I met Ping.
It happened one night, as the conference was throwing some sort of Chinese New Year’s Party. This was the only evening that I recall there being an abundance of food (not just snacks). I filled my plate with as much as I could, and just as I was about to leave, I heard a voice:
“I’m hungry too. I just arrived from China and I haven’t had a decent meal.”
I turned around and there he was. He introduced himself as Ping, a comedian with great aspirations. He wanted to be an intellectual, and felt it was time to take his career to the next level. Ping is a Chinese chicken. He was well aware of his heritage and trajectory, but he did not want to become the next General Tso or Kung Pao. His big dream was to come up with the next great joke. In his mind, nobody had done anything to surpass “Why did the chicken cross the road?” in a long time. This task, he thought, is his destiny as well as his ticket to a future different from his predecessors.
Aside from the noble aspirations associated with making people laugh, Ping had been dreaming of life as a celebrity. He wanted to see the world, to be recognized as one of the great thought-leaders of all time, and to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle. One might say Ping aspired to be an elite.
But the truth was, the trip from China had taken a toll on his wings. He was complaining about this all the time. I felt badly about this, as I really didn’t have anything to complain about. After all, I slept on my flight over from NYC. Given the fact that Ping seemed to be the only being I could have a conversation with at Davos, I decided to be his friend. He needed a place to stay, so I offered to let him sleep on my couch.
For as much as I was helping him out, he was also helping me. It was nice to have a friend to walk into big rooms with. People started treating me differently. Many would smile when they would see us together. Things were improving. And I felt more confident taking part in the discussions, with Ping there to guide me through the content at hand. He was a very knowledgeable bird.
Ping had a hard time sleeping as his wing was bothering him, so he stayed up reading in order to prepare for the next day. In the morning before I knew it, he had nearly finished my coffee. We went to the conference center together, and everywhere we went people wanted to stop and talk to Ping. At first this was charming, but the truth was, Ping was trying out new jokes, and some of them were not so good. This was going to be a long day…
In the afternoon I had scheduled a meeting with a dear friend and colleague from Vienna. When we met, he immediately asked me to introduce him to Ping. I thought that Ping would leave us to our business, but instead he just stayed. Ping was starting to be a bit of an imposition, and a distraction!
My friend, however, didn’t mind one bit. In fact, I noticed him glancing over at Ping and even stroking him once in a while. I better rethink bringing him to the dinner party, I thought. This could have negative consequences.
I decided to speak to Ping about the situation, and he promised to be on his best behavior at the dinner. Besides, he was hungry (he was always hungry!). How could I deprive him of a good meal?
But Ping did it again; what he seems to do best: he hogged all of the attention! Soon he had everyone, even the waitresses, ogling over him, and laughing at his jokes. It really was a testament to his charm, and it was difficult for me to try to discipline him. The truth was, he was special, and one day I knew he would find the perfect joke.
No sooner had I thought this that it happened, in a way that is a real tribute to the genius of Ping. Someone at the dinner asked him where he was from, and he replied “Well, I just flew in from China and boy are my arms tired!”. That was it. I had a feeling his life would change forever. You could just feel it; there was an energy in the room.
As we were saying our goodbyes, I couldn’t find Ping anywhere. It turns out, he was clutched in the arms of my Viennese friend. “I’m taking Ping to Vienna with me” my friend said. Ping looked quite pleased with himself and said: “He’s buying me a seat. On a PLANE! And he has promised me Sacher torte and waltz lessons.” “But Ping”, I said, “What about us? I thought we were friends? I want to bring you to America, the land of dreams and opportunities. You could have a great future there.”
Ping looked me straight in the eye. “I tell you what: I will gladly come to America. But now is not the time. I must be in a place where I can be free to express myself; free to explore my identity as a Chinese bird/thought-leader/comedian. I need to be surrounded by green, and by people who value that, not just people who think that Chinese chickens are just about take-out and soy sauce. In four years-yes, I think that will be the right amount of time-then I will come to America. Then it will be great again.”
Who was I to say no. Ping got what he wanted. His Davos dream came true-he would have the life he always dreamed of. I, on the other hand, was left with many questions. What kind of a life would I have back at home?
Since returning to New York I have found myself thinking of Ping often, and imagining him enjoying his life of delicious deserts while I have to deal with preparing my taxes. Perhaps he was right. I hope that in four years, America will be great again.