Our Political Coming-out Party: Reflections on First Chinese Immigrant-Sponsored Candidate Forum in the National Capital Region

Saturday night, March 26, 2016, exactly one month before the Maryland primary election, over 350 people packed the Cabin John Middle School Cafeteria in Potomac, Maryland, to meet 10 candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties running for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat.

According to the candidates, it was the second largest event of the 17 forums they had participated in thus far.

Besides the amazing attendance on the night before Easter and the beginning of Spring Break, what made the event special was the fact that it was the National Capital Region Chinese immigrant community’s first candidate forum. It was our political “coming-out party,” signaling our growing maturity, power, and transition from being spectators to participants in civic and political affairs.

More than a candidate forum, the event was also a Politics 101 experience. Organizers and volunteers made a point of encouraging voters to sign up for a political party in order to be able to vote for major races in Maryland’s closed primary elections. With strong leadership by a team of Chinese American leaders from the Coordination Council of Chinese American Associations led by Dr. Ningping Feng with the wise counsel of Dr. Michael Lin, the entire event was superbly organized, well-publicized and flawlessly executed. Volunteers from the League of Women Voters helped interested attendees register to vote and explained the election process. Civil rights organizations like OCA-DC and the Asian Pacific American Public Affairs reached out to potential members. Just about all the local Chinese language media, both broadcast and print, were present. It was a moment not to be missed. The energy, excitement and pride permeated the space. The atmosphere felt both very Chinese, with familiar faces speaking Chinese language, and undeniably American. It just felt great to be there.

As moderator of this historic forum, I felt an enormous weight of responsibility to ask the right questions that would reflect issues of particular concerns to our Chinese community as well as our interests as local Marylanders and Americans. Based on the questions submitted online and my research and understanding of local political affairs, I developed a set of questions addressing the disadvantage of independent voters in Maryland’s closed primary election system which disproportionally affect Asian Americans; discriminatory college admission practices that hold Asian American students to a higher bar; racial profiling in espionage charges against Chinese American scientists, and how to ensure Maryland’s economic competitiveness and attractiveness to global talent.

Not surprisingly, some candidates struggled to answer these questions as most had not been introduced to those issues until the forum, but they all heard our voices through these questions and got a step closer to understanding our large and growing community. All candidates did their best to connect with the voters, which were highly interested and engaged throughout the forum.

To say the candidate forum was a morale booster would be an understatement. Something magical happened after the event. Many independent voters decided to register for political parties afterwards in order to be able to vote for the candidates they had just met in the Maryland primary election and persuaded their friends to do the same. In the past, I have written and spoken about voting and especially about the importance of registering for a political party in order to make one’s vote count more. But it was not until that candidate forum where real candidates were discussing real issues that our people got energized and actions followed.

That magical moment was a tipping point in the journey of Chinese Diaspora in the Washington, DC region, with each election cycle drawing out more first-time voters. Compared to Chinese Americans living in the New York or California areas, we are a much newer community and the vast majority of us are immigrants. From voting to campaign rallies and fundraisers to hosting candidate forums, we are making history one milestone at a time toward our social integration in the local community.

Weeks after the event, our community is still on a “high,” somewhat in disbelief that we actually pulled off such a fantastic feat and made a splash with only less than three weeks of preparation. We overcame many doubts and fears, including fear of a lack of interest from the candidates to connect with a community not known as reliable voters; fears about a lack of interest from our own community, which has a famous cultural disdain toward politics. But we charged forward because we owe it to ourselves and our children to not defer our integration to the next generation.

You don’t have to be born here to be American. You don’t have to speak perfect English to ask the right questions. As the best-educated Chinese immigrants in American history, we are uniquely qualified to accelerate social integration and leave our generation’s mark on the history of Chinese in America and of immigrants in the Washington, DC region.

What is Global is Local: Comfort Women and Global Humanity

Author’s note–I wrote this over a year ago, and as the Chinese and Korean communities are organizing commemorative events for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the issue of comfort women and global humanity and justice are still relevant, and will forever be. I applaud Congressman Mike Honda for his courageous leadership as an American who stands for justice for all people–whether they were comfort women brutalized by the Japanese imperial army or the Japanese Americans who forcibly relocated in internment camps during WWII after the Pearl Harbor attack.

–Lily Qi

Original article as published in Asian Fortune, July 2014.

During this past Asian American Heritage Month (the month of May), the Fairfax County, Virginia government dedicated a Comfort Women Memorial inside the county government complex to honor and remember the women who were forced into sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. While the women were from several East and Southeast Asian countries including Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc., the Korean American community was the main driving force behind the Memorial.

A month earlier, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that requires new state public schools’ textbooks to mention the Korean name “East Sea” for a body of water between Japan and the Korean peninsula that has been called “Sea of Japan.” Like the Comfort Women Memorial, this was also the result of effective local lobbying by the Korean American community and the support of a local Korean American elected official, Grace Wolf of Virginia.

These moves shouldn’t come as a surprise given the growing size, maturity and power of the Korean American community in Northern Virginia and the National Capital Region. Neither sits well with Japan, which protested to the Virginia officials. Accordingly to the Japanese Embassy, there have been recent incidents of harassment against Japanese Americans here related to the Memorial and the textbook name change of the Sea of Japan. They argued that since Japan officially apologized to the comfort women back in 1993 through a Kono Statement and the sitting Prime Minister of Japan at the time personally signed each apology letter to the identified Korean comfort women in addition to providing financial compensation to the victims, it is time to move forward rather than opening past wounds.

It should be noted that the local Japanese American community is very small relative to the Korean community and most are culturally and linguistically more American than Japanese, with much weaker ties to their ancestral homeland or what happened in Asia about 70 years ago than the local Korean community, which is a largely immigrant community. Between Japan as an important trading partner with Virginia and a growing Korean American community with voting power, Virginia chose the community.
My years of experience working in the community reminds me time and again just how deeply many in our community are still tied to their home countries’ happenings, at times much more than what’s going on around them locally. Some would fly half way around the world to cast a vote in their home countries without even bothering to register to vote in local elections that matter to their life here.

About two years ago, at a community fundraiser for a Congressional candidate, a Muslim community leader stood up and questioned why the candidate visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and not also visiting its neighbor, Palestine. Where the candidate stood on transportation funding or business competitiveness was irrelevant. What WAS important was where he stood on Middle Eastern affairs, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Such is our community dynamic today. A local government could find itself being caught in ethnic conflicts a world over and local leaders could find themselves playing the roles of international arbitrators on a mini scale to ensure community harmony.

Understanding such dynamics is critical to effective community engagement and to properly channel the energy and focus of our communities, who are increasingly involved in local civic affairs to exert their influences, even if what they are advocating for was something that happened half a world away, and over two generations ago.

In a super diverse region like ours, what is global can also be very local and personal. Whether it is different ethnic tribes or religious sectors that used to fight each other in their home villages now having to work together as colleagues, or people from warring countries now are neighbors whose kids play and go to school together, America is where cultures converge and mix. Of all things great and powerful about this country, what I found to be most remarkable is how well people of different religions, cultures and ethnicities co-exist in harmony. We do become Americans, not just by citizenship, but more importantly, by adopting its value of civility, tolerance and conciliation over our human differences.

 

Asian Fortune Article: “Montgomery County Business Leaders and Government Officials Visit China to Strengthen Ties”

By Jenny Chen

Rockville, Md. – From Sept. 15-25, Montgomery County executive Ike Leggett led a trip for four cities in China: Shanghai, Xi’an, Benxi, and the Gu’an County right outside of Beijing. The trip included over 80 business, education, and government leaders from Montgomery County and the DC metropolitan area including Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) superintendent Joshua Starr, county council member Hans Riemer, and Michael Goldman of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

Members of the Montgomery County delegation to China at the Shaanxi Province hosted a business roundtable for the Montgomery County delegation. Pictured L-R: Minister of Commerce Mr. Yao Chaoying, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, Director of Special Projects Lily Qi, and Councilmember Hans Riemer.

Members of the Montgomery County delegation to China at the Shaanxi Province hosted a business roundtable for the Montgomery County delegation. Pictured L-R: Minister of Commerce Mr. Yao Chaoying, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, Director of Special Projects Lily Qi, and Councilmember Hans Riemer.

This marked the first trade trip to china in five years by the county Executive’s office – the last one was in 2008.

The purpose of this mission was to encourage Chinese investors to consider Montgomery County as an attractive location for their investments, open doors for MoCo businesses there, as well as establish a “Sister City” relationship with the city of Xi’an, said a press release put out by the Montgomery County Office of Public Information.

“Our county is competing, especially in biotechnology and health sciences, with other states, cities, and counties that are also looking to tap into the Chinese market. For a tiny investment, we have made a significant impact,” Leggett said.

As an immediate result of the trip Beijing based China Fortune Land Development committed to financially supporting a Rockville based public-private partnership called Biohealth Innovation, Inc. (BHI). BHI was started by Leggett and connects academic biomedical research with government and industry.

“I am enthusiastic to work in partnership with CFLD and Chairman Wang’s team to implement two new important programs that will further develop the Montgomery County innovation ecosystem,” said Richard Bendis, President and CEO of BHI.

The trip also brokered interchanges between Montgomery County’s education leaders and their counterparts in China. Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md. signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with its sister city school Xi’an No.1 Middle School. Representatives from Montgomery College visited Xi’an University and signed an MOU to form the broad framework for a partnership between the two institutions which will include exchanging visiting faculty, collaborative virtual online seminars or courses and more.

The trip also formalized the sister city relationship between Montgomery County and Xi’an. The sister city program is part of a larger network called Sister Cities International, founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Sister Cities International is a nonprofit, nonpartisan network that unites “citizen diplomats” and volunteers in programs in 140 countries on six continents.

 County Executive Ike Leggett (far left) led an 80-member trade and sister-city mission to China in September to advance partnerships with several cities. Pictured with Montgomery College president DiRionne Pollard (4th from right), Councilmember Hans Riemer and Montgomery County Director of Special Projects Lily Qi at the Xi’an Jiaotong University’s School of Engineering in the city of Xi’an, which is expected to be Montgomery County’s sister city in China.

County Executive Ike Leggett (far left) led an 80-member trade and sister-city mission to China in September to advance partnerships with several cities. Pictured with Montgomery College president DiRionne Pollard (4th from right), Councilmember Hans Riemer and Montgomery County Director of Special Projects Lily Qi at the Xi’an Jiaotong University’s School of Engineering in the city of Xi’an, which is expected to be Montgomery County’s sister city in China.

“This relationship will surely grow and strengthen cultural, educational, business, and trade exchanges between the two communities,” said Mary D. Kane, President and CEO of Sister Cities International.

The mayor of Xi’an is scheduled to pay a visit to the DC area in March, when the sister city relationship will be officially commemorated.

 

Lessons from Jimmy Kimmel Incident

Like many, I was surprised by the strong worldwide reactions to an October segment of the “Jimmy Kimmel Kid’s Table” show in which a young guest said we should “kill everyone in China” as a way to settle our national debt with China.  Not because the program aired without anyone raising the red flag in the media giant ABC’s production chain.  We’ve seen that happen before.  Nor that people are offended by the comment.  What really struck me was so many people and organizations took actions this time and got involved in highly organized, large-scale protests calling for apologies and even firing of show host Jimmy Kimmel and its producer.  The petition on the White House Web site has gathered the needed 100,000 signatures for an official response from President Obama.  Jimmy Kimmel probably has never imagined such overnight international fame, or notoriety.

In this super-connected digital world, incidents like this can spread like wild fire and generate enormous responses in no time.  When a comment demeans an ethnicity, you are likely to face outrage from not just the domestic community but also the international community.

Beyond the digital connections, the United States and China as the world’s two leading economies are joined at the hip economically, as evidenced in the amount of debt we owe China.  For ABC, that joke is no laughing matter when your parent company Disney is trying to build the world’s largest theme park in China while the foreign minister of China is calling for a formal apology from you!

How a late-night joke became an international geopolitical lightening rod is truly astounding, reflecting our changing community and the changing world we live in.

Having been involved with pan Asian organizations like OCA for over a decade, I am used to seeing statements issued by civil rights organizations denouncing offensive actions or remarks and calling for apologies, boycotts or other appropriate actions.  But until now, such rhetoric and actions were mostly limited to advocacy groups or watch dogs run by native-born, English-speaking Asian American leaders.  This time, however, many grassroots organizations across the country, including some immigrant-led groups, got involved.  It’s a sign of our community’s growing maturity that many community groups in the National Capital region, while still largely interested in cultural, social, educational, or professional and business activities, are increasingly flexing their political muscles at local, national and even international levels.

 

U.S. residents originally from China protested the Jimmy Kimmel Live TV show at the ABC studios in Manhattan.

Activists protest outside of ABC’s studios in Manhattan following an offensive segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Photo: Doug Meszler / Splash News

Crises unite communities.  In that sense, the Jimmy Kimmel incident provided a great cause for unity, much like the Vincent Chin tragedy over three decades ago.  In 1982, a hundred years after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a young Chinese American engineer from Detroit, Vincent Chin, was murdered by two white autoworkers who blamed their job loss on Japanese competition and yelled racial slurs in the deadly beating that killed Vincent a week before his wedding.  That tragedy and the subsequent injustice in the sentencing of his killers shocked and united Asian Americans across a wide spectrum of ethnicities, becoming a watershed moment for the Chinese and Asian American communities, which, before that moment, had no real Asian American identity or visible political muscle of its own.

Some people believe we don’t need to make a big deal out of a kid’s joke in a comedy show.  But if this joke was about other ethnic or racial groups, you bet ABC would have taken much more proactive steps to correct it, or most likely this would not have happened in the first place.

If our community is truly strategic, we need to set our sight beyond winning the high-profile battles like this.  While it’s encouraging to see our community stand up to demand respect over a distasteful joke, what should get us more fired up is the systemic discrimination we continue to face at workplaces or other places, in what is supposed to be the most inclusive and tolerant country in the world.  In an integrated society, there are ample opportunities to exercise discrimination without having to put on white hoods or using racially-charged remarks.  While it is easy to denounce blatantly offensive rhetoric or actions, it is much harder to detect or respond effectively to the hidden yet very real racism or other forms of injustice at play in our everyday life.  It takes courage, tactics, and skills.  We are growing and I am hopeful.

Visiting Turkey

By Lily Qi

I have meant to write about my last year’s trip to Turkey for a while. The recent turmoil in Turkey and its neighbor Egypt brought back memories that prompted me to revisit that unique experience of last spring.

What a difference a year makes. About this time last year, I was having dinner at an Egyptian friend’s home, when several of the local Egyptians around the table talked about the newly elected President, Mohamed Morsi, with much anticipation and excitement. Morsi would be Egypt’s first democratically elected president. No one would have foreseen that just a year into the office, he was ousted recently amidst protests and violence which has cost dozens of lives.

A month earlier, in May 2012, I visited Turkey as part of a capital region government delegation and left with wonderful feelings about Turkey’s vitality, hospitality and beauty. And yet just last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracked down on the protestors who opposed a plan to turn a park in Taksim Square in Istanbul into a shopping mall, leaving several dead and hundreds wounded.

I am glad I visited Turkey last year. As a culturally rich and diverse country, Turkey spans both Asia and Europe and sees itself as the bridge between the East and the West. Its largest city, Istanbul, was the capital of the ancient Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Geographically, today’s Turkey is a mere fraction of its ancient self during the height of its power spanning Asian, African and European continents. The Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, with a soaring dome and striking architecture, was the world’s largest cathedral for almost 1,000 years before it was turned into a mosque and now a museum.

Some of the most fascinating sceneries, blending mountains, buildings and water, reminded me of San Francisco with its layered beauty. At the same time, some of the housing structures also reminded me of Shanghai in the 70’s and 80’s. From ancient ruins to modern metropolises, from schools and nonprofits to business, government, and media, our visits exposed us to all facets of the Turkish society with the constant indulgence of Turkish tea served in bulb-shaped glass and the signature Turkish coffee.

This was my first time visiting a Muslim country. One of the most memorable experiences was probably the call for prayer, which could be heard five times a day starting before the crack of dawn, permeating through the air. Both mythical and musical, it was an experience unlike any other whether you hear that in the middle of the day at a bustling street corner or in the stillness of night in your hotel room. In the public, Turkish women looked modern and fashionable. Some wore headscarves with carefully coordinated handbags and outfits while just as many didn’t wear headscarves, which are more of a fashion statement than a religious symbol, as I was repeatedly told by the locals and the tour guide.

In spite of Islam’s deep influence on its culture, Turkey is a mostly secular government and society with a parliamentary democracy and multiple parties. While in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, we got the special treatment of visiting the Parliament and sitting at the back to observe the discussions on the floor among the major political parties debating whether to allow foreign-born Turks to vote in Turkish elections. A woman presided over the parliamentary debate, which was quite refreshing given what we typically think of women’s roles in Muslim countries, especially in politics.

Of all the visits and conversations, the ones at Turkish families’ dinner tables were the most meaningful and enriching. Our conversations ranged from American presidency and U.S.’s roles in the Middle East, to sports, youth, economy and America’s cultural minorities. The fact that I am a government official from the U.S. but a Chinese immigrant clearly fascinated them.

Here in the capital region, the local Turkish community, though relatively small, is highly active, youthful, and well-organized. The annual Ramadan Iftar dinners often involved Christian ministers as well as a cross-section of government, civic and community organization leaders, and the Rumi Forum actively facilitates interfaith and intercultural dialogues throughout the year. This is a community eager to be understood and proactively reaching out to build cultural ties and understanding.

Summer is a travel season for many. Wherever we go and whatever we encounter, the most fascinating thing will always be what we learn about our own humanity from learning about others.

Individual Success and Community Success

The two largest Asian communities in the Washington metro region, Chinese and Indians, are often being talked about by public figures in the same manner and even in the same breath. True, there are many similarities between them, including the highly-educated human capital, the large concentration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) talents, the amazing achievement of both communities in educational attainment and financial success, and the high percentage of immigrant populations in each community.  Some even joke that if you go to any IT companies, half of the people there are Indians and the other half are Chinese! But these are two very distinct cultures and communities.

I have long noticed that the local Indian Americans are much more tuned in to social activism and civic engagement, more likely to host or attend political fundraisers and connected with the larger community. When I hosted a forum on legislative issues a few years ago, barely any Chinese came but droves of Indians did. It’s little wonder, then, that the State of Maryland has three Indian Americans in the General Assembly—the highest in the country as I understand.

The local Chinese immigrant community, on the other hand, is far more interested in cultural, social or educational functions, hosting frequent celebrations or learning forums while showing little interest in or even distain toward anything they associate with political activities. In fact, many ethnic Chinese nonprofits or civic groups would make a point of emphasizing that they are “non-profit and non-political.” Efforts to get them interested in civic activism such as speaking up on local issues that would affect their lives are usually met with varying degrees of reluctance, unless it’s about public schools’ policy changes because few things amount to the level of importance of our children’s future.

As an ethnic Chinese with limited knowledge about the Indian culture or history, I had attributed such phenomena to the Indian community’s higher level of English proficiency and greater ease with Western cultures as a former British colony, and to China’s feudalistic cultural heritage. Then I came across a New York Times article by Thomas Friedman called “India vs. China vs. Egypt,” which explained that “India has a weak central government but a really strong civil society, bubbling with elections and associations at every level. China has a muscular central government but a weak civil society…” No wonder!

It reminds me of something I had learned before—that the Indian election is the largest public event in the world!

Clearly, where we came from has an enormous impact on how we conduct ourselves here and where we are going as a community—a manifestation of what’s global is also local. For jurisdictions with large immigrant populations, it serves for leaders to acquire some cultural intelligence on their “diverse communities” to better appreciate the forces at play that shape the way these communities think, act, organize, access information, take care of one another, and view their relationships with their government and the larger society. Such understanding will help them better connect with and localize these “global communities” to make them feel a greater sense of attachment and belonging.

That brings to me to the point of individual success vs. community success. Both the Indian and Chinese communities, and the Muslim community for that matter, are full of high achievers. Yet not every community has leveraged that collective success and turned it into community success to shape our collective future. As our local immigrant communities mature over time—both as individuals and as communities—opportunities abound for greater civic engagement.

There are already promising signs as individuals who came here to pursue education and a better life now become empty nesters and even seniors with more free time for life beyond family and career and as organizations look to be more relevant to their next generations and better connected with the larger community. What we need are thought leaders from these new communities who are not just event planners but also opinion leaders who pay attention to local affairs of the larger community. We don’t have to wait a generation, because today’s immigrants are far more educated and capable of great assimilation and even leadership beyond our own communities. When it comes to civic engagement, the Chinese community doesn’t need to look very far. It can simply rip a page from the books of the Indians and the Muslims.

 

Marching Toward King’s Dream

When NBC4 morning news anchor Aaron Gilchrist commented at the end of a news story recently that black men who don’t want to be cast in stereotypical roles are sometimes considered “not black enough,” I was taken aback by his openness in discussing a highly sensitive topic during morning news hours. After all, race is not something we casually comment on in this country. It is usually reserved for serious soul-searching moments in special programming or during primetime TV when commentators have scripted notes or carefully rehearsed lines.

I have no doubt that the fact he is a young black man gave Aaron the ease and credibility to talk about being young, black and male in a way his white counterparts would not have done. The fact that the NBC4 broadcast features two young minority anchors, Aaron Gilchrist and Eun Yang, who is Korean American, doesn’t just change the look of the show, it also changes the dialogue.

A few years ago, when Tavis Smiley, host of Black Entertainment Television (BET), was a guest on National Public Radio, a caller asked why we needed a BET when we wouldn’t consider it right to have something called White Entertainment Television. Tavis’ reply was pointed. “Yes we do,” he said. “It’s called ABC, it’s called NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox…”

Fortunately, the same can no longer be said about many networks today. The day is already here when media outlets don’t need to be labeled Black, Asian or Latino Entertainment Television, or “multicultural,” something to serve or appeal to diverse communities. Perhaps the greatest symbol of social integration is having a black president in the White House, something hard to imagine until it actually happened, even to some who voted for Barack Obama.

As our nation welcomes another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the second inauguration of President Obama, we have much to celebrate regarding how much of Dr. King’s dream of America is being realized.

So are we there yet? Not when race is still a predictor of academic achievement, job opportunities and how far one goes in life. Not when “diverse” communities are expected to fit into a culture rather than being in leadership positions to institute meaningful, systemic change. Not when it continues to make headlines every time a woman or minority takes a top spot in a well-established organization, whether in government or in business.

Social integration doesn’t just happen. It takes deliberate work and a gradual change of attitudes. In the past, when organizations considered diversity on their staffs or boards, it often seemed they were driven by “doing the right thing” or “being inclusive,” as if it was an act of charity. Now, more and more organizations and leaders realize that workforce diversity is a necessity that brings in new thinking and adds credibility to their knowledge and expertise, something they cannot function without. Indeed, many times in group settings such as board meetings, I would say things that hadn’t been considered, leading me to wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been present. Do we really know what we miss when we don’t have diversity at the table?

In the course of my hybrid career, I have held a couple of jobs focusing on minority and cultural affairs. But I have no delusion that while these positions and programs are still needed today, the ultimate answer to integration lies in elevating the cultural competency of all organizations so that multiculturalism permeates culture and thinking. Civil rights organizations established decades ago to advance minority interests and social injustice have to keep up with the new dynamics and find new relevancy in a society that has moved beyond the basics which made them necessary generations ago.

Best intentions may not bring about the best results. A case in point is minority friendly business programs at local government levels. Rather than creating more programs that minority businesses have to apply and qualify for in order to take advantage of them, it would be more effective to focus on making it easier to do business for all companies, including minority entities.

It’s a new year and a good time to usher in new thinking. To me, daily reminders of social progress always bring smiles, whether it’s the morning news anchors’ comments, or the young Latino man across the meat counter who serves customers in imperfect but impressive Mandarin in a Chinese supermarket on Rockville Pike. Or the fact that most high school students honored at a Montgomery County Dr. Martin Luther King celebration were Asians. Progress may happen in unexpected ways, but it’s always a reason to celebrate. Here’s a New Year’s toast to progress!

The Muslims Among Us

Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently took it to the Senate floor to publicly denounce accusations by five of his Republican colleagues in Congress that Ms. Huma Abedin, a Muslim American and a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood that is trying to infiltrate the highest level of the U.S. government. In his powerful and moving statement, Senator McCain called the allegations against Ms. Abedin “unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant.” Such fear-invoked and ignorance-based attacks, as he eloquently put it, “defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

Incidents like this remind us that mistrust of Muslims and Islam still persists and rears its ugly head all too often. This happens to be the holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims worldwide, which started July 20 this year. Throughout the capital region, Muslims in our communities are hosting numerous Iftar events to celebrate the breaking of the fast and to share their cultural heritage with the larger community and with fellow Muslims.

Because of my previous job, I have had the rare opportunity of working with many Muslim community organizations made of Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, Egyptians, Indonesians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Bangladeshis, and native born Americans of all ethnicities. What I have learned about Muslims in our community is truly inspiring. They strike me as one of the most highly engaged and empowered communities conscientious of contributing to and connecting with the larger community.

Since “9.11,” Muslim Americans have had a greater sense of urgency to improve the public’s perception of the community. New organizations such as the Montgomery County Muslim Council (MCMC) and its sister organization, the Montgomery County Muslim Foundation (MCMF), were born with the explicit purposes of serving the greater Montgomery County community (not just Muslims) and to encourage activism, while existing organizations have become more aware of civic and political engagement. In just a few short years, MCMC and MCMF have become highly-regarded organizations with such staple programs as the annual food drives, holiday baskets, and feed-the-hungry, in partnership with local charities and the government.

Another exemplary organization is the Muslim Community Center, which operates a health clinic that has made a name for itself in the region for offering free health care provided by volunteer doctors and staffers to the uninsured and low-income residents regardless of their faiths or ethnicities. In providing much-needed services to our community, MCC has become an integral part of our local fabric and an important partner of local government. These organizations are not alone. MARTI, the Maryland Turkish American Inhabitants, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community often host educational forums and actively reach out to the larger community for dialogues and understanding. Other active groups in our community include the Islamic Center of Maryland, the Islamic Society of Germantown, the Islamic Center of Washington Area, and the Pakistani American Association.

Such activism reflects the Muslim community’s foresight in turning individual success into community success, and their gratitude for the freedom, opportunities and respect they enjoy in this country. Since 2009, Montgomery County has been hosting public Ramadan Iftar educational programs (paid by community donations), as we have done for the Diwali tradition celebrated by Indians and other South Asians. Such community relationship building at the local level, no matter how large or small it may seem, contributes to community good will and helps ensure that the United States remains an infertile ground to those extremists who ARE trying to influence our youths and hijack a religion.

What Muslim communities are doing is what all of us ought to do—to be better informed, engaged and empowered citizens and communities. In the words of MCMC founder and community leader, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, “the white population in our community is not growing, and most of the charitable activities are done by the white community, so the minority communities need to step up. The Muslim community is doing well. We don’t need much, but we have a lot to offer.” One doesn’t have to agree with Mr. Ahmad’s assessment completely to admire his sense of duty towards the local community and fellow Americans. This is what makes us all richer as a people and a nation.

 

Lessons from Marion Barry’s Remarks

Public condemnation has been swift and abundant for former DC mayor and current Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry since his infamous remarks about dirty Asian shops that, in his opinion, “ought to go” and be replaced by African-American business people. It was a sure sign of progress to see the mainstream media turning the heat on Barry, and for groups from advocates to public intellectuals and elected officials make it clear that such divisive and racist rhetoric would not be tolerated.

It is easy to be outraged and to demand apologies. What is much harder to do—though equally necessary—is to reflect on how our community is perceived by others and how we can improve our public image and community relations.

Here is what Mr. Barry actually said at the primary election victory party in April: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops… They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

Mr. Barry wasn’t just talking about the Asian shops being unsanitary; he saw the Asian business people and their shops as outsiders that didn’t belong in Ward 8, a predominantly black community. While his intention might be to see more black businesses in the community, his tactic of scapegoating by pitting one community against another is most unfortunate and drives a wedge in community relations.

Anyone who has been paying attention should hardly be surprised at these remarks from Marion Barry, who, in spite of his past glory as a civil rights champion in Washington, D.C., has become synonymous with reckless and shameless personal conduct by public officials. What bothered me more than his comments was the audience’s cheers and applause at his words. Right or wrong, Mr. Barry seemed to have echoed a sentiment among some residents in Ward 8 towards Asian American-owned businesses.

This should sound an alarm to the Asian business community and our community leaders about how we are perceived by other communities. The residents in Ward 8 elected Mr. Barry repeatedly to represent them because he is seen as a fighter for the underclass.

Ward 8 still feels left behind in spite of the capital city’s remarkable economic turnaround and massive revitalization since the late ‘90s. It is one thing to be poor, quite another to be “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King put it in his “I have a Dream” speech. That feeling makes some residents resent “outsiders” who are seen as only interested in making money without being part of the local community.

Such a sentiment sounds all too familiar.

Asian immigrants all over the world are known to be industrious and successful in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But history teaches us that focusing only on making a living or a fortune may be fine for the short-term interests of individual businesses, but over time may breed resentment among locals who may perceive us as opportunists. Investing in community relations by hiring local residents, volunteering or donating to local charitable or social causes, and living where one does business are not only sound business strategies, but also economic imperatives for survival.

Wake-up Call

What happened in Indonesia during the mid to late ‘90s, when Chinese immigrants were targeted and had their properties and lives violated, should serve as a wake-up call to Asian immigrant communities everywhere. Economic success without community involvement or political empowerment can be a lethal combination that isolates us from the larger society and deepens mistrust between newcomers and the local communities.

I was impressed by a poignant commentary in the Washington Post (April 27), “Still the Same Marion Barry,” by Colby King, a Pulitzer Prize- winning Post columnist who happens to be African American, condemning Mr. Barry’s remarks while putting his life and popularity with some blacks in perspective. It is important that leaders and pundits in the black community speak out on such issues to advance other minorities’ rights and well-being. While we shouldn’t cut slacks for anyone, especially elected leaders, we should also rise above outrage and use each incident as a teachable moment to advance the bigger purpose of social integration.

The Art of Cultural Celebrations

Published in Asian Fortune (www.asianfortune.com) February, 2012 edition.

At a Lunar New Year celebration event a couple of years ago, a local elected
official asked me if the movie clip on the big screen was showing the red
guards, a symbol of destruction and terror during the Cultural Revolution in
China. All she could see were images of young people carrying guns marching
since the Chinese language subtitle meant nothing to her. I assured her that
those were not red guards and that showing the old movie was simply an
expression of nostalgia, a way of having a good time during the Lunar New Year
because many people like me grew up listening to the movie’s popular theme song.
In spite of my explanation, she was not quite convinced that it was appropriate
for a public celebration. That experience speaks to the complex and fluid nature
of cultural heritage. Like many of my peers, I grew up during a politically
tumultuous era (60’s and 70’s) in China. The cultural heritage we are familiar
with are not the lion or dragon dances, which ironically I had never seen until
coming to this country, but rather songs and movies that inevitably reflect the
life and politics of that time. We resonate with them in spite of their often
ridiculous and laughable lyrics or meaning because they are part of our shared
history and identity. It is no different from a generation of Americans who will
always identify with the Woodstock culture no matter how they think about that
today.

However, as our cultural celebrations become increasingly public events, what
we celebrate and how we celebrate can be a real challenge. For community leaders
and event organizers, the art is in balancing between meeting the expectations
of our own community members and introducing the larger community to the essence
of our heritage that we consider worthy of preserving and promoting.

After attending hundreds of community events hosted by mostly immigrant
communities in the past few years, I have some observations and tips that can be
helpful to those who have to make such delicate decisions. After all, public
events should enhance, not diminish, your public image as a leader, organization
and community. These cultural matters can be broadly applied to many communities
that are mostly foreign-born and relatively new to this country or region.

First off, I am often struck by the lack of English-language program copies
at many community-based events, especially cultural performances. Having the
programs and event signs in English is not only a basic courtesy but would also
alleviate potential misinterpretation and make the events much more meaningful
to all attendees, including those from our own ethnic communities who are native
English speakers.

The singing of the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance can be
awkward moments for many in our communities who only sing to their home
countries’ national anthems while standing silent at the tune of the American
anthem. Whatever the reason, singing only to another country’s national anthem
reinforces our community’s “foreigner” image when these events should instead
enhance community relations and social integration. For organizers, it would be
wise to print the lyrics or text in the programs.

Finally, it is a very common occurrence that the event hosts cannot properly
pronounce the names of the special guests they want to recognize, such as some
elected officials they invited. A little preparation goes a long way. In
addition, all special guests should be treated with equal respect, whether they
are diplomats from embassies representing an entire country or local elected
officials representing a local jurisdiction. As the event host, you are the
diplomat-in- chief to make sure everyone feels welcomed and respected.

Events are made of a million details and a successful cultural celebration is
as much defined by the lack of glitches and gaffes as by memorable moments for
the right reasons. The added cultural dimensions certainly complicate matters.
But as what used to be considered purely “ethnic” holidays like Lunar New Year,
which is shared by the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, become increasingly
mainstream, so should our practice of celebrating them.

As we begin the Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious symbol that is sure
to bring us many reasons for celebration, let us celebrate in great style and
with added awareness.