How to be a Great Intern

(originally published in Asian Fortune September edition, http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_0911.php?article_id=21)

As another summer intern season draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the dozen or so interns from various academic institutions I have worked with and feel compelled to offer some tips for those who plan to use internships to enrich their experiences and make themselves more attractive to future employers.

It is no easy task to find a good internship these days. With so many adults competing for paid jobs, more and more students are turning to internships than ever before; it is thus all the more important to make the most out of your internship. Tough economic times can spell opportunities for student interns who are willing to take jobs with or without pay, because chances are you will be used as experienced professionals to work on challenging projects that organizations can no longer afford to hire full-time staff for.

Regardless of your educational backgrounds or skill sets, here are a few practical tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls and make the most out of your internship:

  1. Check your emails and voice mails. Once you give out your phone number or an email address on your resume, it becomes your responsibility to check them often so you don’t miss important messages for interviews. The fact that you don’t routinely use certain email accounts is no excuse because you will be performing adult tasks and will expect to be treated as one.
  2. Take the interview seriously, whether it is over the phone or in person. Check out the organization’s Web site before your scheduled interview, and prepare a few questions in advance that show you have done your homework and you value this opportunity.
  3. Follow up promptly. After the interview, make sure you send a simple thank-you note, email or hand-written, to either reiterate your interest in the internship or politely tell them you are no longer pursuing that opportunity. Having this habit will serve you well.
  4. Dress appropriately for work. Even during the summer time, when the dress code is a little more relaxed, it’s still wise not to wear jeans with holes, very short skirts, tank-tops, low-cut tops or flip flops to work, unless that’s the normal dress code for professionals too.
  5. Learn to follow verbal instructions. Students may find this challenging because they are more accustomed to written instructions from their teachers or professors in the forms of class syllabuses or textbooks. In the workplace, most of the instruction you will get is likely through verbal communication. You may consider taking notes while receiving verbal instructions to make sure you fully comprehend what the expectations are.
  6. Take initiatives and don’t wait to be told what to do. How much you get out of each internship experience depends on your level of initiative. I had interns who were so shy and passive it was easy to forget they were there, while others excelled because they expressed curiosity about certain subjects, asked thoughtful questions and sought to do more than their assigned tasks.
  7. Pay attention to little things that can make a big difference in people’s perception of you and your ability. Simple things such as formatting your Excel spreadsheets to make sure they print properly and making a PowerPoint more visually attractive go a long way. Don’t let these important details trip you up!
  8. Don’t be afraid of asserting your voice if necessary. Professionals who have been in the trenches doing the same things for years may not have the creative thinking or fresh perspectives you can bring to the table as a new generation that grew up with the Internet. The best interns are the ones who can offer extra value, like a better way to do certain things.
  9. Always strive to exceed expectations, and don’t settle for mediocrity. Treat each internship, paid or unpaid, as if your future career depends on it. Do a good job in every job you do, even if you don’t like the job.

Doing a good job in any internship carries over into your future opportunities, and an impressive reference from your internship supervisor is invaluable. Stay in touch with your former employers and periodically update them about your life and career moves. They may even be able to offer advice or connections. After all, an internship is really a process of self-discovery. What you learn about yourself always matters more than what you can possibly learn about any particular job or task.

 

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.

American Civility

A few months ago, my husband and I went to the Kennedy Center for a special concert hosted by a leading civil rights advocacy group. It was a weekday and we both rushed over there after work, only to find ourselves joining the hundreds of people already lined up outside the Concert Hall for the free tickets we had all been promised. I looked around and even saw some ladies in elegant dresses and heels. After an hour and half, when we finally got to the ticket desk and the concert had already begun, we were told there were no more tickets left because it was first come, first served!

At least 200 people were still in line. Some shook their heads in disbelief. Others sighed and murmured amongst themselves, disappointed. Clearly, the event organizer had over-promised and ended up wasting many people’s time. But remarkably, no one confronted the event staff or aired their frustrations publicly. Gradually, people simply turned around and left, in quiet and composed manner. I was extremely impressed with such civility. I could well imagine a very different reaction with a different crowd, or in a different country.

Years ago, one of my friends, an American-born Chinese, said she noticed that Chinese immigrants “complain a lot.” I was quite disturbed by the unfavorable impression we left on our fellow Chinese Americans, but there were unfortunate elements of truth in her observation. As Montgomery County’s Asian American liaison, I have heard from County employees that some in the immigrant communities, Asians or not, refuse to take “No” for an answer and always try to find ways to curtail the rules. They may expect the staff speaking their languages to be more accommodating, for example, by exempting them from paying library fines, or expediting their requests for permits beyond what is reasonable. Some would talk loudly on cell phones while being served by the County staff, while others would talk down to female staff members or ask to talk to men instead. Whether or not these behaviors are a result of “cultural differences,” they are generally considered unacceptable in a civil society.

Civility is a reflection of both our values and upbringings. When I grew up in China, daily life took so much effort that civility was the least of one’s concerns. Survival instincts drove people to jump the lines at food markets, to nudge and elbow to get on the bus, and to argue and complain until they got what they wanted. Rules didn’t apply equally, so having the right relationships meant getting better services. What we now consider to be rude behavior was not only acceptable, but even necessary for survival. Without proper channels to air their frustrations, complaining became a way of life for many who felt helpless and powerless to change the cards they were dealt.

Civility is also directly related to one’s pocketbook and sense of security. When there is enough to go around and you don’t feel threatened, you can afford to be nice. This is why in bad economic times, there is a great deal more tension and scapegoating among people and groups. This is also why over time, as immigrants become more established, we learn “the American way” and adapt to American behavioral norms. Of course, uncivil behaviors exist in every community, whether foreign or native born, but we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit certain patterns of behavioral differences between us.

As the old Chinese saying goes, “It’s easy to change the landscape, hard to change the nature.” While learning English and establishing oneself in a new country is enormously difficult, it’s even more daunting to fundamentally change one’s values and behaviors. It may take a lifetime of self-checking and reflection to overcome our cultural disadvantages and to relearn some habits that did not shape us when we grew up.

Years ago, I read a story about an international student riding in his American friend’s car in the middle of the night. There was not a single car in sight, but at the red light, to his surprise, “the American still stopped.” Yes, we stop for red lights whether there is a camera watching or any traffic. At the end of the day, what makes us American is not our accents, sizes of our houses, or which schools our kids go to; it is a set of core values and principles that bind us together.

Lily Qi is Vice Chair of Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs and Montgomery County Executive’s Liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Communities. She can be reached at qulturematters@gmail.com.

The Agony of Parenting

Reflections on “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”

Much has been said about Amy Chua’s controversial book, “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,” and her related article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” If her goal was to provoke meaningful discussion about cultural differences in parenting, then she has certainly accomplished that.  She unapologetically promotes the results-oriented, top-down, I-know-what’s-best-for-you parenting style that is often favored (sometimes unknowingly) by Chinese parents and parents from many other cultures, although for most people the issue of parenting is quite complicated when two cultures and generations are involved.

As a Chinese immigrant and mother of a college freshman born and raised in the U.S., I find this subject fascinating on a very personal level.  While Amy Chua is an American-born, Harvard-educated Yale Law professor, she is in many ways much more “Chinese” than I as a mother, even though I came to this country already grown up and married (to a Chinese native). 

For example, my son was allowed and in some cases even encouraged to:

  • have sleepovers both at his friends’ houses and our house throughout his childhood
  • watch TV and play video games when he’s done with what he’s supposed to do
  • do crafts like folding origami, a hobby that he outgrew after a few years
  • play a role in a school play during his senior year in high school, even though the long hours of daily rehearsal took a toll on his sleep and ultimately his grades because I consider a school play an experience worthy of such sacrifice.  
  • choose his own college (Tufts University) as early decision, rather than making him apply for a bunch of better-known but not necessarily better or more suitable colleges for him.
  • figure out what he’s truly passionate about and gifted for without dictating what he should study in college, as long as he can lead a self-sufficient and productive life.

Finally, I believe he owes me nothing. I don’t expect any payback for my parental sacrifices, which are too many to list. Whatever he pursues should be for his own good and happiness rather than to appease us, his parents. He should live HIS dreams, not mine.

So I guess I qualify as a “Western” parent, more so than a “Chinese” parent. But the truth is, like every immigrant who is also a parent, I agonized over how “American” I want to be in my outlook, lifestyle, and parenting style. I agonized over where the right balance should be. Of course, like many things in life, there is no right answer and everyone in my circle of immigrant friends probably struggled just as much as I did, whether they are married to American-born spouses or not. 

In some ways, though, I am also very “Chinese.” I adhered to what I call the “Asian trilogy” of child-rearing in America—piano or violin, weekend language school, and martial arts. Like many parents who ushered their children through these popular routines, I saw them as the basic building blocks of discipline and skills development that could also help refine one’s cultural upbringing and strengthen one’s spirit. I signed my son up for summer academic programs that essentially made his summer time an extension of a regular school year rather than a play time. And I helped him apply for the International Baccalaureate program, which turned out to be a very rigorous academic experience, as it should be.

The result is a young man who is socially well-adjusted, perceptive and analytical, and who also has the intellectual capability to handle demanding courses at school. But he never made it to the Carnegie Hall or martial arts championship, or anything close to it, nor did we ever expect him to in spite of several wins from local contests. Like many American parents of all cultural backgrounds, we emphasized exposure and experience over results.

While there is a certain degree of fascination with “Asian” parenting style, if I may call it, which seems to have yielded a large number of “whiz kids,” there is really no secret to Asian parenting.  Asian parents simply emphasize academic achievement more, sometimes at the expense of other things that our kids and our non-Asian counterparts would consider just as important, if not more. Asian parents are more willing to sacrifice their time and wealth for their children’s education and overall well-being, as past studies have shown.

In spite of my differences with Amy Chua and some Asian parents, we as a society are fortunate when parents take parental responsibilities seriously and are willing to be the “bad cop” and do the unpopular things such as disciplining their own kids. We are fortunate when parents instill in their kids a strong sense of work ethics so the society doesn’t have to step in and pay for the bad choices they make later in life because somewhere along the line some adults were absent from their lives to properly guide and nurture them. We are fortunate when parents motivate their children to set and accomplish high goals through perseverance and the delay of gratification.

No parenting style is perfect just like no parent is perfect. Whenever we have a debate about cultural and value differences, it is important to seek to understand the complexities and nuances before passing judgments. Parenting is among the most demanding of all responsibilities. Each of us as a parent has to find our happy mean that works with our own peace of mind and takes into consideration each child’s unique traits as a human being.