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.

Trust-building a Must for China and Chinese Americans

Original publication date, Oct. 2014

The headlines and rhetoric are hard to ignore. A recent Washington Post editorial sounded the alarm, again, that the Chinese cyber attacks against the United States are ramping up and that as a nation, from lawmakers to citizens, we need to be much more vigilant about the cyber warfare that is posing eminent threat to our national security and way of life. Granted, China is far from the only country trying to penetrate the U.S. cyber systems, but it is believed to be leading the pack of cyber attackers, and thus considered our cyber enemy du jour.

At the same time, the Chinese online retail giant Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The story dominated airwaves and created quite a stir in the business world. Alibaba is like Amazon, only much bigger. Just about any major metropolitan region in the United States has an Amazon warehouse these days. For a brand that promises to compete head-on with Amazon, the Alibaba IPO’s impact on Americans jobs and way of life will only grow over time. Some believe it might one day become the Walmart of the online world—the world’s dominant retailer. While Americans are used to U.S. companies going global and becoming global household names like McDonald’s and Apple, we are not used to having Chinese companies going global to our backyard to compete with us on our soil.

Pity the Chinese Americans. Most of us watching from afar are at the mercy of such headlines and the public’s reactions to them. Being Chinese in America these days is a dubious distinction. We are proud to be affiliated with a culture and homeland that has regained its dignity and respect on the world stage for its miraculous economic prosperity and successful nation-building, but are rightfully concerned that China’s economic expansion and military muscle breeds fear and resentment abroad, both among its neighbors and the Western world, particularly the U.S. Living between two cultures, the last thing we want is for our adopted country to be at war with our country of origin, cyber or otherwise.

I often wonder, what crosses people’s minds when they know I am Chinese, and from China?

Luckily, we live at a time when Americans by and large are far more tolerant and understanding than to scapegoat a group of people or assume guilt by association, which happened to the Japanese Americans during WWII after the Pearl Harbor attacks. But still, such headlines and pervasive rhetoric are demoralizing for Chinese Americans and hurting China’s reputation abroad.

I cringe when I hear accounts of local businesses cheated by the Chinese partners over intellectual properties while trying to do business in China or Chinese companies not keeping their end of the bargain even after agreements have been signed.

I cringe when I hear stories like infant milk being tainted with industrial chemicals that make even the Chinese consumers want to buy imported milk, or inferior home construction materials sold from China to American construction companies causing respiratory distress to homeowners.

And I cringe when I hear our elected officials publicly talk about how we should fend off the “Chinese hackers” and “thieves.” I worry how such rhetoric affects the way American public perceives China and even Chinese Americans, many working in the IT fields.

True, there may be some elements of media bias in chasing the bad stories more than the good ones. But it clearly goes beyond that.

Apparently, China has recognized the need for trust-building abroad. I was glad to hear in a recent conversation with an American friend who advises the Chinese central government on economic policies that China is now looking into economic diplomacy by encouraging Chinese companies to invest abroad in projects that build good will such as infrastructure, on which China is clearly leading the world.

While international politics or happenings might be beyond our reach, those of us who are at cross-roads of two very different cultures can play a pivotal role in facilitating understanding and building trust at the local level. I am calling on the local Chinese American community to come up with constructive ideas and concrete actions. After all, our generation is the first in history armed with the best education and blessed with the greatest opportunities of integration and success that no previous generations of immigrants have ever enjoyed. It’s imperative that we turn such assets into benefits for our children’s generation and beyond. At a time like this, it’s all the more important that we are involved in local community affairs to reinforce our positive presence and impact; engage our political leaders, and become visible at all levels of civic and public life.

As cultural minorities, we are not the only community who feels frustrated or vulnerable at times. Concerned with its community image in light of escalating tension between the U.S. and “the Muslim world” in recent years, the local Muslim communities hosted public Iftars (breaking of the fast) to educate the public about their religion; organized Muslim Legislative Day in Maryland to engage legislators, and established charities to serve food and provide free healthcare for the vulnerable in the larger community. Nothing is more effective in changing people’s minds than concrete actions to show that we belong here and we care.

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.

 

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.

Make Your Vote Count: Register for a Political Party

Maryland has an usually early primary election this year, June 24, about three months earlier than past elections. As the date gets closer, election campaign activities are heating up. It’s encouraging to see more Asian Americans getting involved in the political process, from hosting meet-n-greet to participating in fundraisers. What’s more remarkable is that most Asian-themed events, i.e. “Asian Americans for (whoever)” are populated by immigrant Asian Americans as they tend to organize themselves along ethnic lines more than the native-born Asian Americans.

We all know the importance of voting, and more Asian naturalized citizens are registered voters, yet hardly anyone is talking about the need to join political parties to make our votes really matter, especially in a state like Maryland. I can think of two important reasons for registering for a party. The first has to do with Maryland’s voting system and the second is a function of Maryland politics.

First, election systems differ from state to state. The Commonwealth of Virginia has an open primary system which allows any voters to vote for any candidates regardless of party lines, whereas Maryland has a closed primary system that only allows voting within ones’ own parties. If you are an independent voter in Maryland, you only get to vote for those candidates whose seats are not party-affiliated like school board members, sheriffs and judges in the primary. On June 24, your primary election ballot will not have any candidates running for Congress, Governor, County Executive, County Council, or State Senators or Delegates, as these seats all require voting by registered party members.

You may say, well, I will just wait until the General Election when the best candidates have been picked by their respective parties to decide who I want to vote for. That brings me the second point. In Maryland and several of its largest jurisdictions–Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Baltimore, the Democrats dominate local politics. As a result, the primary election is a far more important and competitive election when the winning candidates from the Democratic Party usually advance to victory with no serious matches from the Republican Party, which is outnumbered by Democrats by almost 3:1 in these particular communities (about 2:1 ratio statewide). If you skip the primary, you are letting others determine the outcomes that you have to live with.

I understand many people in our community are leery of joining parties. It’s probably the last thing on their priority list. Registering to vote is about as far as they would go because joining a party sounds so political and serious, and depending on where you came from, it can invoke unpleasant feelings or memories.

In this country, however, choosing party affiliations is a hassle-free process with no strings attached–you can simply check a box on voter registration form or complete that step while registering online. There are no selection processes, no background checks, no fees, and no initiation ceremonies to demand loyalty. Moreover, no one needs to know your party affiliation, much like who you have voted for or how much money you make. And you can change any time!

Nationwide, Asian Americans have a reputation of being largely swing voters, which has its disadvantages. We may not be taken seriously as political candidates realize that no matter how much they reach out to us, we don’t have the power to deliver the votes, especially in a closed primary state like Maryland because so few of us can vote for them as independent voters.

To make your vote count more, and make our community matter more, I am pleading you to take these three easy steps this year.

  1. Mark your calendar for June 24, 2014, the primary Election Day. Early voting starts June 12 through June 19 from 10 am until 8 pm at designated centers.
  2. Go to www.elections.state.md.us/voter_registration/ to register to vote and pick a party at the same time, the deadline is June 3.
  3. Show up to vote. Your one vote matters a lot more in this Mid-term election when voter turnout tends to be low.

While I am on this subject, let me add that if you are bilingual in any of the major non-English languages, consider signing up as a bi-lingual Election Judge to help voters who are not English-proficient.

Don’t sit on the fence. You’d be proud to have exercised your privilege as an American.

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.

A Jewish Christmas and Many Happy New Years

Since about five years ago, my family started celebrating what I call the “Jewish Christmas” on Christmas Day, with a trip to the movie theater for a new release followed by a dinner at a Chinese restaurant, though we would still attend the Christmas Eve service at a church.

Why “Jewish?” Because that’s what many people of Jewish faith would do on Christmas Day, which they do not observe as a holy day and the only venues open for people to hang out on Christmas Day are movie theaters and Chinese restaurants (with some exaggeration)! But I am not complaining. This is a fun time of the year to be Chinese Americans, or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-culture Americans. Starting with Thanksgiving in November, we would celebrate Christmas and New Year with the rest of the country, then stretch our holiday season for two more months with the Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival on January 31 this year, and officially finish the holiday season with the Lantern Festival 15 days later, which happens to be on Valentine’s Day in 2014! That’s three to four months of non-stop parties, food, friends, cultural festivals and performances!

But wait, the party is not over yet. There are many more Lunar New Years to celebrate if you care to join holiday celebrations across cultures. Following the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is also celebrated by the Koreans, Vietnamese, and Mongolians, the Southeast Asian communities including the Thai, Cambodian, and Sri Lankans, get busy celebrating their Lunar New Year starting April 13 this year. And in between the Iranian community would have celebrated its New Year called Nowruz starting March 21. If you find it dizzying, let me throw in a couple more—the Indians celebrate their Diwali New Year, a.k.a. the “Festival of Lights” on Oct. 23 this year followed by the Islamic New Year the next day.

These are just the New Year celebrations, which are now almost year-round phenomena in our community. And there is hardly any place more fun to celebrate these holidays than in a cultural melting pot like the Washington, DC region, where the large immigrant communities not only use holidays as a way to hold on to their heritage and pass on the traditions to their children but also a way of connecting with their communities. For many immigrant families, holidays are largely communal, not just familial, traditions. Most immigrants do not have large, extended families here to share the holidays with, and would instead join friends or other families. After all, it’s no fun cooking a whole feast for just a small family of two or three people, and it feels lonely eating a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with your nuclear family like every other meal around the year. That’s why it’s quite common to have large gatherings on major holidays including Christmas rather than the intimacy of family dinner tables.

That brings me to the topic of store closings on Christmas Day and other holidays like Thanksgiving and even the Easter Sunday. Sure, it’s nice to give store employees a day off on a day like Christmas with families and give our material-obsessed culture a holy break so we can focus on the real blessings in life, thank God! But with the ever-expanding variety of holidays we observe, and our evolving ways of observing them, I would think retailers who sell experiences such as nice restaurants and entertainment venues would flock to cater to our needs on those special occasions by providing more places for people to hang out. Yet our retail culture has been typically slow in keeping up with changing times.

Spending holidays outside of your own homes with people other than your families will become increasingly common as more people live alone due to aging or divorce, delay of marriage for the young, or otherwise unattached due to life circumstances or lifestyle choices, and would crave for a sense of connection on holidays with other human beings.

I am picking on retailers, but the idea of keeping up with our community’s changing needs applies to all service providers, be it government, business or nonprofits. This year, to my pleasant surprise, many restaurants are already opening their doors on Christmas Day and I have made my reservation for my Christmas dinner at an Italian restaurant! Happy New Year and Cheers!

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.

 

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.