Jay Chen: A Visionary, Pioneer, and Connector

My friend Jay Chen, the founder and publisher of Asian Fortune, which publishes my monthly articles archived here on this blog, passed away on January 31.  At the family’s request, I gave a eulogy at his memorial service, attended by at least 300 of his admirers and friends, many among Who’s Who in the Asian communities.  The beauty of Jay and his Asian Fortune is that they have become uniters of the Asian communities across ethnicities and jurisdictions in the capital region.  To this day, Asian Fortune remains the only English newspaper in the Washington, DC region covering all Asian ethnicities.

Lily’s Eulogy for Jay Chen
Feb. 4, 2012

Like all of you, I am still in disbelief.  We took Jay and his Asian Fortune for granted
because they were always there for us.  From major national issues such as the 1882 Project about the historical injustice of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the BP oil spill’s impact on the Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf region; from the Lunar New Year celebrations to Diwali celebrations; from federal government appointments to local community events, Asian Fortune has become a voice and conscience of our community.  It is a story book that chronicles the struggles and success of our people.  It is an institution that has become a staple of the capital region.  It is a bridge that connects us with ourselves across ethnicities and jurisdictions and with the larger communities.

We will miss Jay’s towering figure, broad smile and big voice at many of our community’s events and milestones, but we are comforted to learn we will continue to benefit from his legacy thanks to Jay’s daughter, whose name is also Lily, and the family.  Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Each of us can be great because all of us can serve.” Jay, his lovely family and his wonderful staff have served us all very well.

As soon as I sent out the email announcement about Jay’s passing and the memorial service, about 20 people emailed me back expressing shock, grief and disbelief that Jay actually had left us.  Each referred to Jay as a good friend and recounted their connections with him.  Jay made each of us feel special and believe that the things we are doing in the community, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us at the moment, are actually very important in the large scheme of things because he had a vision for our community. My husband told me that he would forever keep that bottle of wine that Jay gave us on my birthday just two months ago.

This moment and Jay’s life remind me of a Native American proverb that is simple yet powerful.  It says, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life in such a way that when you die, you rejoice and the word cries.”  I am sure Jay is looking over us today, rejoicing, because he has brought us all together again, just the way he envisioned.


New Year’s Resolution: Give Where You Live

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune January, 2012 edition, http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_0112.php?article_id=25.

During the holiday season, you must have received countless mailings and calls from around the country asking for your donations to charitable causes. It can be overwhelming. After all, how do you choose among feeding the hungry, curing diseases, helping wounded veterans, educating at-risk youth, and protecting the environment? While you may already have your favorite charities, including some halfway around the country or around the world in your home countries where you came from, I am urging you to give locally, where you and your family and community now call home. There are many great reasons to give where you live, but here are a few that have compelled me to give locally each year.

  • Investing in the well-being of the community at large helps build strong communities that benefit all of us. A report on the Greater Washington, DC charities a few years ago showed that for every dollar invested in local charities, we get an average of five dollars of return in economic benefits in reduced need for government services or avoidance of greater crisis down the road that could be far more costly to all of us as taxpayers and members of the society.
  • Giving locally helps us pay attention to local affairs and gets us connected at a deeper level. Many important policy decisions were made without our communities’ direct input because we did not bother to read about them in local papers or show up at town halls or find some other ways to shape the outcomes. Giving makes us focus on who we give to and why. It also helps us exercise our influence and exert our voices.
  • Giving locally enhances our communities’ image and relationships with the larger communities, especially when you do that in an organized fashion. If we are perceived as only interested in economic opportunities, we cannot enjoy the true benefits of social integration at the local level. The Muslim community in Montgomery County has been a great model among new communities in that regard. For example, the Montgomery County Muslim Council (www.mcmcouncil.org) was founded with the dual mission of serving the larger community and increasing Muslim community’s activism and visibility. In the words of its visionary founder, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, the Muslim community doesn’t need much but has much to give. In just a few years since its founding, MCMC and its affiliate MCMF have made a great name for themselves through their range of charitable activities. Another one, the Muslim Community Center (www.mccmd.org), runs a highly successful health clinic for the uninsured and low-income, by using the wealth of medical expertise within the Muslim community to serve the larger community while building good will.

Many of us came from countries with no tradition of an independent nonprofit sector, so charitable giving, especially giving to those we don’t feel connected to, is not deeply rooted in our cultural psyche. In this country, nonprofits, especially charitable organizations, are an American beauty. They are critical partners of the public and the private sectors doing what neither one of them can do alone or cost effectively. They are a measure of a society’s civility and collective conscience.

As we become more established both individually and as a community, we are in a much better position to give. At the risk of playing favoritism, I am recommending a few local Asian American charitable organizations that provide vital services to the most vulnerable among us so they may lead a dignified life.  Due to space limits, I am only offering links so you may check them out online.

For a list of local charities, visit the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington (www.nonprofitroundtable.org) or the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region (www.thecommunityfoundation.org).
This New Year, let’s put “give where you live” on our New Year’s resolutions list. Let’s pay it forward–it’s the American way.

Muslims In Montgomery County

I recently hosted a cultural competency training program called “Beyond the Veil: Muslims in Montgomery County” for our County government employees, in anticipation of Ramadan on Aug. 1, when the month of fasting begins for Muslims this year.   Over 80 staff showed up to learn from and connect with the local Muslim community leaders.  Many believed we could use a lot more time to cover this fascinating subject.  Panelists answered questions including Islam and women, and why Muslims aren’t more volcal to speak out against radical Islam. 

I must say I have been very impressed with the Muslim community in Montgomery County because of their conscious efforts in interfaith relationship building, civic activism and exemplary charitable contributions to the larger community.  Please contact me at my work email, lily.qi@montgomerycountymd.gov if you are interested in local Montgomery County, Maryland’s list of Ramadan community activities.

Guest speaker at Tea4Soul

I had a wonderful time talking on Saturday (July 9) at the Tea4Soul forum on demographics and community dynamics, life in America and career choices, including the role of government.  The audience was so engaged and enthusiastic I felt such discussions were really overdue.  We need more similar forums to learn from one another about life and choices and offer support, especially among immigrant professionals.  Click for photos and recording of the forum.

Japanese Tsunami’s Cultural Ripples

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan stunned the world. Like many, I have been following the news and paying attention to local organized activities that contribute to relief efforts. I got an email recently about a fundraiser from a group of Asian American organizations. Before forwarding the invitation to my contacts, I opened the attached flyer, and that was when my feelings of compassion were quickly overtaken by a strong sense of unease. Try as I might, I found myself disturbed by the design of the flyer. At the top was the big word “HOPE,” with the letter “O” replaced by a big red dot that unmistakably symbolizes the Japanese flag.

The Japanese flag! The flag under which millions of Chinese were slaughtered, raped and tortured; the flag that many Chinese immigrants in Japan refused to bow to under any circumstance, because of the humiliation and trauma the Chinese went through under the Japanese occupation, and the flag that evokes strong feelings to this day among ordinary Chinese who are still waiting for Japan to officially apologize for its past crimes against humanity. Immediately, images of the book “The Rape of Nanking” leapt to mind, images of horrific brutality by Japanese soldiers against infants, women, and the elderly, and images of Japanese soldiers rejoicing over decapitation contests…

But unlike most Chinese, I am an American now. I personally know and highly regard many Japanese Americans here. I should move on and get over it, right? Frankly, I thought I had, until that moment. In fact, I had never connected this recent tsunami tragedy with Japan’s past, until that moment that brought me back to the era of unimaginable suffering in the country I left behind. I even found it outrageous that there are Chinese, though a very small number of them, thought that the Japanese deserved this traumatic experience because it was God’s punishment for Japan’s historical atrocities, or that Japan somehow brought this tragedy upon itself because of its supposed secret nuclear tests under the Pacific Ocean.

As an American and someone who consciously seeks to educate myself about cultures and people, I know better than to hold grudges against an entire country when only a small portion committed the crimes over sixty years ago. I know full well how Japan and China have both tried to mend fences, and how Japan has become a critical partner for China’s economic growth over the past several decades. And I know that as Asian Americans, whether Japanese or Chinese, we are really one community and one people with shared history of being perceived and treated as outsiders. In fact, when I speak in the public about Asian American history, I often talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese internment experience in the same breath. Just like the Chinese and Japanese need each other as partners and allies on the global stage, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans here have every reason to band together to make our country a more just and welcoming place for all.

But that red dot caught me by surprise. It opened emotional wounds that I tried very hard to bury as a modern day Chinese American. This is, after all, a personal subject. My grandmother died at age twenty shortly after giving birth to her only child, my mother, when the Japanese army bombed the area she lived. My mother, who was an otherwise highly energetic and warm music teacher, always felt that life cheated her and that all of her major problems could be somehow attributed to her not having a mother for love and guidance.

To the rest of America, the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people all seem the same. We all look the same, we all eat rice with chopsticks, most of us speak English as a second language (which is true), and we all celebrate the same Lunar New Year (which is not true). But underneath that “Asian” façade, we each have our own distinct identities and history. Sometimes that history includes tensions between peoples.

Unlike many Americans born here, especially those in mixed population areas, most immigrants come from countries and cultures far less diverse or tolerant. As Americans, we are often surprised when people who look the same, at least to the rest of us, do not interact with each other or would even show disdain towards one another. That is because as Americans, we have been programmed to see people through the racial lens of Asian, Black, Latino, or White, whereas people who grew up in other countries identify themselves along the lines of ethnicities, nationalities (which is not the same as ethnicity), languages and religions. Race is arbitrary but ethnicity is real. There is no “Asian” language, culture or religion, but there are distinct languages, cultures and religions in each Asian ethnicity represented here. For example, the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis may look the same to the rest of us, but they know how different they really are, even if they share some common cultural practices and beliefs. These differences can cause tension because of historical conflicts or prejudice.

Our lack of appreciation of inter-ethnic relations can create blind spots in our engagement with these communities, especially if the majority of these communities are foreign-born. I believe the organizers of the tsunami fundraising event simply wanted to add a little cultural touch to the flyer, but I know how this flyer could evoke the wrong emotions within the Chinese and other ethnic communities that were terrorized by Japan during WWII. Symbols matter. In an increasingly inter-connected world and integrated country, we all need to try harder to become more culturally competent as global citizens and as Americans. But cultural competency comes twofold. It means we need to be aware of underlying cultural friction when we interact with different communities, and that we need to catch ourselves from acting on emotional cultural instincts when confronted with uncomfortable situations.

After all, the Japanese people across the Pacific are hurting, and they need our help. They do, ultimately, look a lot like us—they are our fellow human beings. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami has turned out to be a soul-searching experience not only for the Japanese people, but for the Chinese people and the Chinese government as well. And even for some Americans. We are becoming one world. If we get it right, our children won’t have to overcome a negative reaction to the national symbol of their neighbors.

Lily Qi is the Vice Chair of Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs. She can be reached at qulturematters@gmail.com.