Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

(Link to China Daily profile: http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/us/2014-08/08/content_18274036.htm

A few days after their state’s primary elections, Chinese-American community leaders in Maryland woke up to an email in their inboxes.

It was from Lily Qi – director of special projects for the government of Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington – thanking them for their support in the reelection campaign of County Executive Ike Leggett, whose primary victory cleared the way for a third term.

“In a low turnout election like this one, every vote counts and the immigrant community holds great sway in tipping the balance,” Qi said in her note. Throughout the campaign, Qi had tirelessly reached out to the Chinese-American community, which accounts for 5 percent of county’s population of one million.

Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

In her email, Qi, who also serves as chair of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs, announced the victories of two Chinese-American state legislators – one delegate and one senator as well.

“We’re growing stronger as a community because of people like you who care about things bigger than yourself,” Qi signed off.

The memo offers a glimpse into the wide spectrum of Qi’s professional and community service footprints and her own “caring about things bigger” than herself.

As a political appointee responsible for high-priority initiatives related to the county’s economic competitiveness and global partnerships, Qi knows the reelection of the county executive ensures she can continue to do what she loves and excels at.

Previously, Qi had been the vice president of Washington, DC Economic Partnership, overseeing the capital city’s business attraction and retention.

Qi’s current grand projects include engineering a new comprehensive economic strategy for the county that integrates existing businesses, community and workforce development strategies and branding the county as a vibrant destination – rather than a backyard of DC – to attract younger generations, businesses and visitors.

“Every morning I can’t wait to get to work because I really believe in everything I do,” Qi said in an interview with China Daily. “I am helping the county executive reposition the county for the future.”

For Qi, community service has no less impact or meaning. Before becoming the state’s point person to the fast-growing Asian-American community, Qi had been the county executive’s liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Americans and also served as president of the Organization of Chinese Americans’ Greater Washington, DC Chapter.

Calling herself a “cultural broker”, Qi helps local communities and leaders understand the dynamics and opportunities of immigrant communities that now make up one third of the county’s population, while helping these new communities participate more fully in local affairs.

“Being a cultural broker can be tiring,” said Qi, whose evenings and weekends are crammed with community meetings and events. Still, she tries to make herself available for various causes.

“I get a lot of gratification from how much I give to – rather than take from – society,” she said. “I’ve made the choice, so I am willing to make the sacrifice. That’s the contract I’ve signed with society.”

Qi is often able to make her professional and community efforts complement each other, because both fulfill her passion for social causes, which was the main thing that led her into a public service career in the first place – she wanted to have a direct impact on policies that affect people’s lives.

Recognizing the positive impact that a new Life Science Center in Montgomery County could have on growing the “innovation economy” and residents’ employment opportunities, Qi mobilized Asian communities to lobby county council members, who unanimously approved the plan, despite several members’ earlier opposition.

No matter what cause Qi ends up advocating, her signature traits are confidence and the ability to lead.

“Leadership is all about taking initiatives,” said Qi, who serves on the boards of Suburban Hospital of Johns Hopkins Medicine, VisArts and Leadership Montgomery. “Even if you do not have the title of a leader, you should take the initiative to bring about positive changes instead of just voicing complaints. Then you will soon become a leader and an agent of change.”

And Qi has been determined, from very early on, to lead as a true American.

“Twenty-some years ago, I made a decision that I wanted to fully immerse myself in this culture as an American,” she said. “Once I made that decision, everything else followed.”

“As immigrants, you are expected to pay your dues for a generation so your children can be ‘True Americans’. I guess I didn’t get that memo,” jokes Qi, who came to the US from Shanghai in 1989 to pursue advanced education. “This is the 21st century. We shouldn’t have to wait a generation to fulfill our American dream.”

Instead of embarking on the kind of traditional and secure technical jobs that first-generation immigrants often take, Qi went after positions usually reserved for native-borns and often ended up being the only Asian in her work place.

While serving as the assistant director for multicultural affairs at American University in the late 1990s while working on an MBA degree there, Qi also took it upon herself to learn about American racial cultures, including what it meant to be Asian American, which anchored her even better as an active member of American society, she said.

“I have become an expert on the capital region’s Asian-American experience, not because I happen to be Chinese, but because I spend time reading, thinking, writing, and talking about these issues,” said Qi, who writes a column for Asian Fortune, an English-language newspaper targeting the Asian-American community of the greater DC area, and has become a unique voice as a frequent speaker and moderator on immigrant integration, Asian Americans, global/local economic competitiveness and their convergence.

During last May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Qi was keynote speaker at a National Labor Relations Board celebration, as she has been for the FCC and several military installations in the past. As she does with any public presentation, Qi took the time to make sure her speech was “flawless”.

“No matter what you do, you should do it the best you can because you are the brand,” said Qi, laughing at herself for being “a perfectionist”.

This might explain how Qi, a non-native English speaker, when asked to teach a course in public speaking as a new graduate student at Ohio University in 1991, would overcome her fear and excel. This might also explain how Qi would later become spokeswoman for the Washington (DC) Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking, leading a team of native English speakers.

Proudly standing at the intersection of politics, business and culture as a connector and influencer, Qi said she has reached a point in her life where job or career are secondary to her desire to wake up every day with a cause to work for, whatever her position may be.

“The questions I ask myself the most are: What is my passion? Where can I offer some unique value?”

charlenecai@chinadailyusa.com

A Liberating Education

May 18 was a glorious Sunday in the Boston area. Tens of thousands of families and friends descended on one of the nation’s best-known education corridors to celebrate the class of 2014. My husband and I were among the happy crowds joined by my family from Shanghai for our son Andrew’s graduation from Tufts University.

We fully immersed ourselves in the joy of gathering, cheering, listening, reflecting and photo snapping—including some selfies. Our weekend of celebration culminated with Andrew’s commencement speech on behalf of the Sociology Department. In a mother’s unbiased opinion, his 5-minute speech was brilliant, perceptive, and entertaining, an affirmation of the value of his college education in shaping his outlook on self and the society. Surrounded by family, I cheered and laughed as I listened to him. It was a moment of pure joy and pride that no other accomplishments of my own could possibly match.

For me this was also a big moment of relief and vindication. What made it sweeter was that Andrew had landed a job in a field he is passionate about, urban and community planning with a real estate consulting firm, two weeks before his graduation. It felt like a long exhale following four years of brutal college payments, and agonizing over the job prospects of a liberal arts education in this still sluggish job market. Looking back, I congratulate myself for having the foresight to encourage him to get a solid liberal arts education. In fact, I went so far as to tell Andrew that he should take advantage of the college days to study the “impractical” subjects because once he really grows up, the demand and stress of the working life would make focused learning a luxury that few can afford.

I know I am an anomaly among many parents. For the past four years, I had to answer three unavoidable questions time and again of which college he was in, what he majored in, and what he planned to do after college. My answers often surprised people. First, the mention of Tufts University usually drew blank stares from my Asian-born friends. Most either set their sights on the prestige of the Ivy League, or went with the practical value of a good public university education. Second, I told them it really didn’t matter what he studied because the world changes so fast that by the time he graduated, much of what he learned in college would be outdated if not obsolete. What is relevant is a core set of skills including critical thinking, writing, and speaking; an expanding and deepening awareness of self and the world; and the ability to learn new things on one’s own. Finally, I don’t really care what he does after college as long as he’s productive and happy.

I am not crazy. Studies show that my son’s generation, the millennials or Gen Ys, will have 2-3 careers (not jobs) in their lifetime. The last thing I wanted was for my son to be trained for a job. I want him to be trained for a life. My own life and career taught me the critical importance of having a set of transferable skills that are generally applicable to anything I do, except I had to learn them the hard way as an immigrant.

To be fair, Andrew was fully aware of the challenges of a liberal arts education in the job market and had interned in related fields to develop a general sense of career direction, which helped greatly in his job search. His strong writing skills, ability to articulate and analytical thinking were major factors of consideration for the hiring company.

I commend employers who give our liberal arts majors a chance to prove themselves, and the parents who allow their kids to be who they are. Unfortunately, while our society increasingly needs generalists with cross-disciplinary skills, we continue to make them feel like underdogs compared to their specialist peers. Liberal arts majors may face initial hurdles of proving their worth, but over time, they soar and lead. More than anything, I am proud that studying sociology and environmental studies has given my child the mindset to care about the greater good more than just his personal success. While I have made many mistakes as a parent, I can pat myself on the back for his education.

Taking Credit for What We Do

Last year, I organized a highly productive trade mission to China for Montgomery County (notice I am bragging here), and when the photos from the trip were posted on the County Web site, I got an email from a colleague asking why I wasn’t in one particular photo. Well, I was busy arranging the right lineup of people for the photo so I could capture that important moment with my cell phone and didn’t think about putting myself there. No, my colleague insisted. You’re the lead for the project and you belong in front of the camera, not behind it! After all that you have done, take credit and be part of that moment!

I am lucky to have encouraging and enlightened colleagues like that, which is few and far between. In most places, Asians, both women and men, are still largely perceived and used as smart, diligent worker bees. Very few people, including top leaders, either know how to encourage self advocacy or put them at the right times and places to shine.

A recent issue of the WP (Washington Post) magazine featured a new novel, “The Partner Track,” by lawyer Helen Wan, who told the story of an Asian American woman’s struggles with the bamboo ceiling on her way to partnership in a law firm where felt that she needed to understand “the unwritten rules of survival here.”

The unwritten rules are called cultures–behavioral norms and underlying values we don’t get to learn through formal education but are critical to our success and happiness. And if being Asian and woman is a “two-fer,” as Wan’s book asserts, then for most Asian women in this region, life is a “three-fer,” if you may call it that, or a triple whammy, with the extra burden of being an immigrant. The unwritten rules may come as naturally to the locals as the air they breathe, but as immigrants, we have to learn the hard way, by making mistakes and paying hefty prices in ways of derailed or stagnating careers.

One such unwritten rule I have struggled with over the years is treading the delicate water of advocating for my worth and opportunities without alienating others who may expect an Asian woman to be content as a quiet, hard worker. It’s a hard balance because not only are these unwritten rules at odds with our heritage cultural values, but they often contradict one another as well. On the one hand, the popular American culture encourages and rewards assertiveness and speaking for yourself. On the other hand, it values self-deprecation, humility, and not putting yourself in the center of attention. It’s all a matter of degree and balance.

I have erred on the side of humility many times over, especially earlier in my career, including not negotiating my salaries for the first couple of jobs for fear of leaving a bad impression or coming across as greedy. One employer told me after I started my job that he was expecting me to ask for more pay but since I didn’t, he figured I was content. Talking about leaving money on the table!

It’s safer and easier to let others take the credit or get the opportunities because we want to be liked, respected, and perceived as good team players. It’s safer to let our work speak for itself rather than seeking recognition, raise, or promotion. Unfortunately, work often doesn’t speak for itself unless you speak about it, or have champions that speak for you. If minority, especially women, are ever going to be taken more seriously and used appropriately for what we are truly worth, then we need to get over the fear of being perceived as bragging, demanding, or whining, and get comfortable talking about our success, needs, wants, as well as passions and ideas that we believe can add value to what we care about.

By not putting myself in that photo, I was contributing to the age-old phenomenon of “girls do the work, boys take the credit (and photos).”  But I am learning and getting better at my games. After years of building a program and making it the envy of other jurisdictions, I finally applied for a national award at the encouragement of one of my colleagues. We, a team of about a dozen, got the “Best in Category” recognition by the National Association of Counties, and more importantly, Montgomery County got the honor as a national best practice leader. It felt great, and right.

Giving and Receiving Compliments

Something as mundane and common as giving and receiving compliments may be a serious challenge if you are an immigrant.

Over the years, I have learned, often the hard way, the essential importance of receiving and giving compliments, at home, at work, and in social or semi-social environment. Generally speaking, East Asian cultures tend to be more reserved in expressing appreciations or affection toward others compared to the American culture (some generalization here).  We have all heard of such jokes about Asian parents singling out the only “B” in the child’s report card amidst all other “A”s and demand to know why the child had failed to get straight “A”s, while American-born parents would emphasize on the progress or efforts rather than the outcome.

True, those of us with Asian heritage, especially those growing up in Asian cultures (not just from Asian families), tend to forget the importance of being positive and encouraging at all times, including with family members, by paying compliments for a job well done or even for making an effort!

I remember when my son was still in elementary school, he asked me one day why I wasn’t more like his teacher. When asked what he meant, he said his teacher would praise him and give him stars and stickers for good work, while “you never see anything good that that I do,” he protested to me.  I felt terrible because he was mostly right.  But I know I am not alone.  Asian parents generally don’t like to praise their own kids in front of other friends, but American born parents frequently do.

The skill of giving positive feedback doesn’t come naturally for us.  Even though many Asian cultures value reciprocity, especially in gift-giving or doing each other favors, paying someone compliments for a job well done is not common practice in our culture.  It is a skill we have to consciously learn and apply because we consider a job well done as a duty rather than something that would warrant any compliments or attention.

The inability to compliment can not only affect family relations and friendships, but also cause workplace tension and make us seem less effective as leaders or less appreciative as co-workers, because much of leadership is conveyed through verbal communication and the ability to connect with people.  Being able to give positive and encouraging feedback and acknowledge your co-workers for their collaboration, initiative, or great efforts is not only a matter of professional competency but also a matter of cultural competency that builds personal networks and loyalty.  Focusing too much on the tasks at hand makes you look harsh and ungrateful, or less than leader-like, and hurts your ability to grow strong teams that are willing to follow your lead and your agenda.

It is common knowledge that many Asians are highly competent professionals, but often hit the glass ceiling too soon in career advancement and as a result, are severely underrepresented in senior and top leadership positions.  There are undoubtedly institutional issues that continue to perpetuate such discrepancy.  But at the individual level, much of what holds us back is not the lack of technical competency but rather cultural competency as reflected in verbal communication, including the ability to conduct meetings, share a good laugh, talk sports with colleagues or bosses, or give genuine appreciation and compliments to co-workers.

Giving and receiving compliments go hand and hand.  Though simple as it may seem, not everyone knows how to properly receive a compliment.  When being complimented, simply say “thank you” or something to the effect of “I appreciate your compliments” or “it was very nice of you to have mentioned my work at today’s meeting,” etc.  The key is being gracious whether people compliment you, whether it’s your new hairdo or your accomplishment.  The worst is insisting you don’t look good or that you are not good enough.

Focusing on soft skills such as building relationships, managing expectations and communication can go a long way towards becoming a more competent professional, appreciative leader as well as a more attractive person.  Learning how to genuinely appreciate other people’s efforts and good work is a reflection of our humility and maturity.

The day when we change from being primarily receivers of compliments for our good work to being givers of compliments for other people’s good work is the day when we will likely enjoy more influence in workplaces and in leadership positions.

You are more than your job: a toast to the generalist

This is the season of inaugurations and internships, with the class of 2014 college grads starting a new chapter in life in a recovering yet still challenging job market, and with students beginning a summer of exploring what to do beyond school lives. Whether it’s a full-time job or an internship, the experience is as much about learning the knowledge and skills as it is about self discovery.

I recently met a white, middle-aged American, who is highly fluent in Mandarin and successful running a center whose work requires fluency in East Asian cultures and languages. With an impressive list of life experiences under his belt, he was obviously happy with his life and career. When asked how he got to this point in life, he insisted it was pure “dumb luck” because he couldn’t have foreseen the many opportunities related to his interests when he was a young man. I can relate to that. I am more confident and content with my work life than ever before, having finally found my ways of relating and contributing to the world around me. I wish I could say this was all by design, when in fact for the first decade in this country my life was defined by heartbreaks and headaches. As a liberal arts major and a generalist with broad interests, I was not as readily employable as those with technical background such as IT and engineering, so I struggled for a long time to find my footing.

From a practical perspective, it seems unwise for an immigrant, who already faces many challenges to insist on finding one’s niche without caving in to pragmatic concerns, but I am glad I didn’t follow a linear career path, nor did I try to be anything but myself. And I am grateful to have a supportive spouse. This is not to say that those who are specialists are not following their passion. Plenty do. But I personally know many highly-educated immigrants, who chose to settle for a living rather than pursuing their dreams. Our society is organized around highly specialized professions and values people with “hard skills” far more than generalists because specialists can hit the ground running quickly and we understand their value much better. With the soaring costs of higher education, liberal arts colleges that do not offer specialized career training or good job connections can be a tough sell to pragmatic parents.

Generalists, on the other hand, are routinely misunderstood by families and under-valued by society. We tend to struggle early in career because we are trained for life, not jobs or careers. Our broad interests do not fit neatly into the prescribed professional boxes, and many jobs and careers that suit us have not been invented yet or are at the top of the food chain that may take a couple of decades to reach. But once we reach that point, our broad skill sets and life experiences become tremendous assets that allow us to really take off and soar. Not only will our success come sweeter, but what we have learned along the way from seemingly unrelated and unexpected digressions add up to a rich experience and an interesting life. Of course, being a generalist or a specialist is not set for life.

Generally speaking, the higher up you go in any organizations, the more of a generalist you need to be, and the more soft skills you will need. It helps to have unwavering faith in yourself and a belief that everything you do has its purpose in the large scheme of things in preparing or revealing the fabulous person you are.

Technological advances and globalization make what we are trained for at schools obsolete at a faster pace than ever before. As we live longer, more people are starting new careers beyond mid-life just as the Millennials are taking longer to settle down in life or career. Ironically, as the professional fields become ever more specialized these days, people with interdisciplinary skills are in growing demand as they make better leaders, innovators, and problem solvers in a complex and fast-changing world. Our antiquated hiring practice just hasn’t caught up with this new norm yet.

Allowing young people the time to explore is one of the best graduation gifts we can give them because they should invent the jobs that suit them, not merely filling what’s out there. To the interns and graduates—happy exploring!

Lily Qi can be reached at qulturematters@gmail.com or via her blog site at www.qulturematters.com.

How to Be an (Asian) American Woman

On a recent business trip to China, I was automatically assumed to be an interpreter or assistant because I was helping with communication on both sides. I had to assert myself and remind my colleagues that I, too, had original thoughts to contribute. This small example shines light on the issue of how Asian women are often perceived. We are seen as competent and hard-working, partly due to stereotypes, but not necessarily powerful or influential. In fact, projecting an image of power can invoke some resentment and cause discomfort. A man I once supervised admitted to me that he was not used to having a woman as manager. At least he was honest, which made it easier to work out the problem.

This issue is not limited to Asian women. Congresswoman Donna Edwards, an African American from Prince George’s County, had to fight for respect, even though she is an independent legislator whose engineering background makes her an effective advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. California Senator Barbara Boxer had to request at a Capitol Hill hearing that she be addressed as “Senator” instead of “Ma’am” because, as she put it, she had earned the title. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote that she felt her suggestions were often ignored at meetings until they were repeated by a man, at which point they would be embraced as great ideas! A female senior executive of a company at first resented being asked by visitors to fetch coffee or hang coats. She eventually learned to say “Sure, I’d be happy to, and by the way, I am Sabrina, Senior VP.”

Over the years, I have learned to assert myself and hold my ground when being confronted by unpleasant or intimidating people or situations. Several times, I have had to speak up in order to seek greater responsibilities or promotions in my career. Because I knew my value, did my homework and was fortunate to have supportive managers, I succeeded. But I know that if I weren’t as confident in my English skills, the self-advocacy would have been daunting. It’s still not always easy for me to speak out when confronted with challenges, but as I grow older and my skin grows thicker, it does get easier.

As daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, we were groomed to be nurturing, helpful and collaborative. These desirable attributes may hold us back at the workplace, however. Finding our balance between being assertive and being collaborative, deciding when to lead and when to follow, which battles to fight, and even how to dress for the job, are all important evaluations. Like many middle-aged women, I like myself much better now than when I was just starting. This inner confidence projects outer strength.

Being an immigrant woman has added challenges as we balance cultural expectations on the home front. In most cultures we came from, women are still expected to be subordinate to men and take on the majority of domestic chores. Most Asian community organizations are run or dominated by men, and domestic violence is still too rampant in some communities. Becoming an American woman when you grew up elsewhere is as much about learning about yourself as it is about adapting to or breaking free from certain cultural constraints.

A few years ago, I was listening to my husband chat with a gentleman at a social function, and heard the person ask, “Does your wife speak English?” Couldn’t he have found out by simply talking to me? I am at a point in life where things like that amuse more than annoy me. March is Women’s History Month, a good time to remember that these personal battles, at home, at work or elsewhere, are just as important as national policy debates.

Culturally Speaking

A friend from South Asia told me about his recent conversation with a colleague, who told him to “calm down” because he was making a strong point and got a bit animated with hand gestures. He found that remark condescending and objected to the perception that he was not calm or collected just because he felt strongly about something.

I can completely relate to him and feel his frustration as I have been in his shoes many times. It is not unusual for American-born or -bred colleagues and friends to misinterpret the communication styles of those who grew up elsewhere. When we passionately talk about something, we are perceived as being emotional, even irrational or unreasonable. To be told to calm down in the middle of an engaged and serious conversation is humiliating, especially given how important face-saving is for many Asian cultures, unless we have clearly violated your personal space and are rude or aggressive.

For many foreign-born professionals, verbal communication is our last frontier in career advancement and personal integration with other Americans, for several good reasons.

First, vast majority of immigrants who came as adults, including some from English-speaking countries, have some degrees of accent no matter how well we speak English, not to mention many who still struggle with spoken English in spite of having advanced degrees in this country. Second, as self-respecting adults, we tend to be conscious of how people perceive our linguistic competency and tend to hold back if we don’t have to embarrass ourselves.

Over time, the lack of practice in verbally articulating our thoughts, coupled with the lack of vocabulary for some to adequately express ourselves, can lead to serious lack of confidence when we do speak. Finally, either due to cultural habits or our tendency to compensate for inadequate verbal skills, we tend to get animated with our gestures when we speak, making us look as though we are overly emotional, or less leader-like.

As individuals it is to our detriment if we don’t pay attention to how we come across to others. The American cultural norm assigns great value to being cool and collected under any circumstances. The well-educated and civilized are expected to conduct themselves with impeccable manners, including how we speak. The little things we don’t pay much attention to can be big traps that erode people’s comfort levels with us. How we cut people off before they finish their sentences, how we use our hand gestures, eye contacts, and postures, all affect the quality of our interactions and ultimately our relationships with colleagues and friends.

Another issue that comes up every time in my cultural competency training class is people’s resentment towards colleagues speaking a language other than English at work. As our workplaces become more multicultural and multilingual, it is almost unavoidable when people choose to converse in their native tongues. What is important is for both individuals and organizations to develop some awareness. When we speak another language at work, we need to be mindful of how our conversations may sound to others who don’t have any clue what we are talking about. On the other hand, it serves to remind ourselves of the power of languages as a bond for individuals as most people are much more relaxed, lively and gregarious when they speak their native languages. In addition, speaking one’s native language is a more productive and effective way of communication than speaking a second language.

The fact that many American expatriates working overseas choose to hang out with their fellow Americans and speak English whenever possible tells you it’s not just the non-English speakers who love to speak their native languages. We all do. Language humanizes us as people.

Cultural competency goes both ways. For immigrants like me, personal cultural competency takes lifetime to perfect. For organizations, cultural competency takes purposeful actions on daily basis, such as paying attention to communication dynamics, especially in group settings, when conversations are often dominated by native English speakers and the agenda is less structured in terms of who speaks next. It helps to draw out less vocal individuals and encourage them to comment on something they feel comfortable talking about or have expertise on, or to give them a heads-up that you expect them to speak at the next meeting so they can be prepared. Awareness combined with thoughtful practices can go a long way in developing our individual and institutional cultural competency.

Lily Qi Named A Finalist in Washington Chinese Post’s “2011 Person of the Year”

I am honored to have been nominated by the community as one of the five finalists of the Washington Chinese Post’s “2011 Person of the Year.”  The Chinese community in the Greater Washington region is about a quarter million strong.  This nomination is very humbling. To see all candidates and to vote, please visit http://173.64.86.36:8080/fmrenwu/fmrenwu.jsp. The voting ends in just one week, by the end of March.

Lily Qi

A Rich and Rewarding Experience: Lessons on Career Path

When I considered the Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison job about four years ago, I was the Director of Communication and Public Affairs for the DC Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking. I had a decent income, a team of staff, and a nice corner office near Union Station. So what made me want to take a job with no travel opportunities, no staff or administrative support, requiring significant time commitment on evenings and weekends, and on top of that, a double digit percentage pay cut? Indeed, some of my friends thought I was crazy.

The answer is passion. To me, being a community liaison is not just a job, but a way of life, with or without the title. Like a typical Asian in the capital region, I am an immigrant. I can relate to our communities’ struggles as newcomers trying to establish ourselves here; as parents facing the dual challenges of cultural and generational gaps, and as professionals taking too long to find our ways but then hitting the bamboo ceilings too soon. I wanted to act as a voice and a link for our growing, vibrant, but still disconnected communities. I wanted to see our communities more visible, engaged, and respected. And I wanted us to matter more.

It turned out to be one of the best jobs I have ever held as it was the closest to who I am at heart. I had the honor of representing the local government in the public and speaking for our communities inside the government. I had the gratification of involving our new communities in local affairs, while educating the established communities and institutions to be more culturally competent and adaptive to changes. And I had the privilege of recommending our community leaders and volunteers for jobs, boards, and awards, and connecting people with opportunities. What’s better than being paid to do what you love to do anyway?

As a generalist, I have probably asked myself this question more often than most people, “What should I do with my life?” Each job has taught me valuable lessons about life, tested my limits, and brought me closer to that answer.

First, I learned that a career path doesn’t have to be linear. If you are truly passionate about something, it is worth pursuing it during the best years of your life, not after you retire. Adapting to changes, identifying the needs and seeking to add my unique value in every situation has been my compass because our jobs are what we make out of them.

I have also learned never to let my pay grade stop me from doing what needs to be done. Instead, I took initiatives and built allies. For example, I engaged top management on the signing of the executive order on language access by the County Executive to raise the bar on how we serve people with limited English proficiency. I involved community media and organizations to support an economic development vision so they have a voice on a major local issue. I teamed up with both senior managers and community leaders to initiate the “Leading a Global Workforce” training series for managers and the “Global Montgomery” series for staff to learn about our changing communities and workforce.

Finally, I try not to lose sight of who I really am. With training and practice, we can develop competency in many areas, but we are only really great at a few things we are meant to do with our lives. I am old enough to know what I am really good at, though never wise enough to figure out what to do next. So life is still an open book and an adventure.

This past summer, I was appointed by County Executive Ike Leggett as Special Projects Manager overseeing such priority initiatives as strategic partnerships to grow our innovation economy and develop international relations. I am content that a group of highly capable people in our community have stepped up and applied to be the next Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison. I join our community in thanking all of you who applied for putting yourself out there to serve us all. As for me, I have found new ways to be a voice and a link for our community, and writing this column is part of that. May the New Year bring you new adventures. Happy Holidays!

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune December issue.  Online version can be found at http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_1211.php?article_id=30.

Learning to be Thankful

Thanksgiving marks the psychological, if not the official, beginning of the annual holiday season, a season of reflection and appreciation. We take the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year, to spend more time with those who matter to us the most, those who have helped us or enriched our lives, and those we feel somewhat obligated to be kind to or show appreciation for. It is a busy season marked with dinners, parties, gifts and cards.

But it is one thing to engage in acts of appreciation, and quite another to truly feel thankful for life’s many blessings. Being thankful is an acquired quality or attribute. In other words, we learn to be thankful.

I grew up in an unusual Chinese family where my dad, especially, would say “thank-you” or “I am sorry” to us when he felt necessary to do so. I didn’t know how special that was until I realized how few families did that in China, where family members were taken for granted rather than treated with the same courtesy and gratitude as others.

While being kind to those who are kind to us, or reciprocity, was emphasized in our culture, being thankful for something beyond our control, or what some call life’s simple gifts, was unheard of. We would simply call that good fortune, I guess. I was first introduced to that concept of being thankful by a very nice and deeply faithful student while in college. We were talking about religion and beliefs one day, when he asked, “Have you ever felt grateful for something in life…like your family, your life and your talents?” I was caught off guard but fascinated by his thinking and mindset. That conversation left a lasting impression on me because it made me look myself in a different light and reevaluate my attitude towards life.

But it was a tragic death of another college friend that shook me to my core and offered an unforgettable lesson of what it means to be grateful. A student I had befriended was killed in a bicycle accident while studying abroad in China. At his memorial service back home in Indiana, I met his parents, who lost their only son. I felt terrible and even somewhat guilty because he and I had talked about his desire to study in China and of course, I had encouraged him. Mark’s father said, in the most loving way, “We are grateful that Mark got to do what he loved to do before he died. He had always wanted to study in China. Thank you for being his friend.” I was profoundly moved by that unexpected expression of grace.

Being thankful is a show of both strength and humility, and an expression of maturity and wisdom. Looking back, I wish I were more thankful when my son was young and totally dependent on our love and care. I wish I were more thankful for my mother’s sacrifice when she left her job as a music teacher in China to care for my son for almost a year when he was born. And I even wish I were more thankful for some of life’s setbacks because they made me more resilient, resourceful and appreciative.

In a culture that rewards competition over collaboration, being thankful lets us see the big picture—which is, none of us can do it alone. Most things in life require either help from others or what some may call an act of the divine spirit. In a world that is filled with problems and conflicts, being thankful gives us sanctuary and hope. In the stress of everyday life, being thankful fills our hearts with joy and peace.

Thanksgiving forces us to slow down, enjoy the company of our family and friends, and reflect on the many blessings in life. I am thankful that having lived in two very different cultures makes me a more insightful and interesting person. I am thankful to Asian Fortune and its founder and publisher, Jay Chen, for giving me the opportunity to share my cultural experiences and lessons learned. And I am thankful to those of you who have chosen to read my column and have even written to share your experiences and make that special connection with me. Thank you.