Visiting Turkey

By Lily Qi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translating Cultural Diversity into Global Opportunities

We often hear public leaders say “our diversity is our strength,” which has become somewhat a cliché over the years. While I don’t doubt their sincerity in believing what they say, I wonder how many truly understand what it means to have a large, diverse, and global population in their communities.

This past weekend, I attended the Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association’s (CBA) 18th annual conference, which attracted scientists, educators, businesses and entrepreneurs from the region as well as delegations from several cities in China. It was a high-energy conference hosted by an all-volunteer crew of local community members.

CBA is hardly unique in actively making global connections between this region and the homeland of its members. For my “day job,” I oversee special initiatives for Montgomery County Executive related to innovation economy and global partnerships. In recent years, I have attended similar biotech conferences hosted by the local Indian and Korean communities.

The 21st century being the bio century and Montgomery County being the epicenter of health research and life sciences with the likes of National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, interests in such conferences were hardly surprising. For Montgomery County, this region or this country to effectively translate our unrivaled health research assets into health benefits for the world and economic opportunities for the local community, we need active facilitators to better connect the growing global markets with our medical technologies.

But of course, such opportunities don’t stop at science or biotech. There has been a proliferation of ethnic-based groups in education, science, businesses, etc., that actively facilitates global partnerships in the past decade. The rise of new economic powers such as the BRICS pack (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other emerging markets such as Mexico and Vietnam has energized our local communities from these countries to be community ambassadors making the local and global connections.

What stands in the way is our antiquated ways of thinking about race and diversity. The 21st century is materially different from the 20th century in how we live, work, process information and connect with one another, yet our collective mindset is still in the 20th century. First, in spite of the rich ethnic diversity in the region, we as a society continue to see our communities through the antiquated lens of race, as whites, blacks, Hispanics or Asians, for example, rather than Russians, Ethiopians, Salvadorians and Koreans—the way people see themselves. Such framework overlooks the significance of immigration in our community dynamics and the opportunities it can present. It is no secret that many in the immigrant communities are far more engaged about global affairs half way around the world than local public affairs that immediately affect their daily lives.

From the local Burmese community’s excitement over President Obama’s historical visit of Myanmar (aka Burma) to the Brazilian community’s excitement over Brazil’s hosting of Summer Olympics 2016; from the Pakistani community being shaken by the bombs in Lahore three years ago, to the Turkish community’s concern over the current unrest in their homeland, we are reminded time and again that what’s global is local. These ties to their home countries can mean tremendous opportunities for the many globally-diverse communities in the Washington region, which has seen its immigrant population doubling since 1990.

Second, much of our diversity rhetoric still focuses on disparity reduction in accessing services or opportunities in employment, contracting and education rather than opportunities. While disparity reduction continues to be relevant and important, such exclusive focus undermines our ability to capitalize on the tremendous human capital and global partnerships. In Montgomery County, where half of our communities are made of ethnic minorities and fully one third are foreign-born, we have established two sister city relationships in recent years in El Salvadore and Ethiopia and are on our way to establishing a sister city in China. These relationships are meant to outlast any sitting administrations or political leaders, and the process of selecting countries and cities have energized many in the community who otherwise would never have paid much attention to what a local government is doing.

Leaders and communities that understand the innate connection between the global and local are poised to gain from both community engagement and global economic, educational and cultural opportunities. It is upon both our communities and institutional leaders to capitalize on such community energy and channel it in the direction that benefits all of our communities, whether immigrant or local.

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.

Individual Success and Community Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Songs of Life

I recently experienced two magnificent, yet entirely different, choral concerts. The first one, “Songs of Life,” was performed by the Columbia Chinese Choral Arts Society (CCCAS) at Howard County Community College Theater. The other, “The Essential Bernstein,” featured some of the best known tunes from such masterpieces as “The West Side Story” and “Candide,” and was performed by The Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center.

Both concerts gave me complete musical enjoyment, exceeding my expectations. But the Howard County-based Columbia Chinese choir really moved me and created an emotional response with the audience. More than just a concert, this was a happy, vibrant, and cohesive community telling their American success stories through a beautiful blend of Western repertoire and all-time favorite Chinese folk songs.

The story of CCCAS is the story of an immigrant community finding its emotional footing in our region. Its success was the culmination of years of perseverance, music learning and cultural refinement. When Phil Peng, a lyric tenor by training, first took the helm as the choir’s conductor and artistic director, there were about 30 members. Today the choir has more than doubled its membership. They are highly educated professionals, including doctors and scientists, and the group is among the most respected Chinese community choirs in the area.

Conducting a community choir has its share of musical, cultural and personal challenges. I was amused watching Phil transcribing music scores from Western scales to Chinese scales so his choir members would be able to read them. From teaching singing and coaching vocal techniques for each vocal section, to pushing choir members out of their comfort zones to integrate non-Chinese songs into their repertoire, he has invested his heart and soul into building this choir from the ground up, and was handsomely rewarded when “Songs of Life” lifted everyone’s spirit.

Perhaps no other communities here embrace music as much as the Chinese community. As it is a largely secular community (for historic reasons), music and cultural activities have become an embodiment of community spirit and cultural identity for the tens of thousands of Chinese natives in the region. From the annual Haihua Choral Festival in May that draws over a dozen Chinese choirs, to the annual Lunar New Year celebrations, there is a dazzling array of cultural performances year-round. Venues such as the Mormon Temple, the Jewish Community Center, the Rockville Civic Center, and high school auditoriums have become cultural arts centers for groups that don’t have their own churches, mosques, or temples.

An important driver of this phenomenon is the plethora of professionally trained singers, conductors and instrumentalists in the local Chinese community. Some have studied at top music schools in China such as the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where Phil and many of his friends here graduated from. Some were award-winning musicians in China, and almost all have advanced music degrees from the United States. But that did not make their lives as immigrants any easier. Most are no longer performing professionally but remain active in community music activities from producing large-scale cultural performances to giving individual recitals and special productions. Their work adds much vitality and quality of life to our community and our region. We owe them a debt of gratitude for putting their talents to work to make our life so much more interesting and colorful.

The irony of these musicians’ lives is that in pursuing their American dreams, most ended up giving up their professional music dreams to make a living. It is a theme repeated in so many communities and with so many professions. Most of us can be trained to do many things in life, but each of us is only great at a few things. When we are not using our God-given talents, it’s a loss to humanity and to our individual lives.

As the concert halls throughout the region fill with holiday staples such as “The Nutcracker,” Handel’s “Messiah” and favorite Christmas carols, I hope you will take advantage of our local communities’ holiday celebrations that are getting more elaborate, prolific, and professional each year.

Oh, did I mention that throughout the performance by Columbia Chinese choir, I couldn’t take my eyes off its charismatic conductor? Phil seemed even more handsome and attractive than the day I married him in China more than 20 years ago!

Lessons from Marion Barry’s Remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such a sentiment sounds all too familiar.

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

Wake-up Call

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

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

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.

Elections and Asian Americans

If you live in Maryland, you probably know that our primary election is on April 3, much earlier than previous years. Chances are, you have received multiple mailings from both your local Board of Elections and from candidates, especially if you live in the new Congressional District 6, where it’s a serious contest in both the primary and general elections.

Local elections can be confusing as relatively few people pay attention to local politics, especially for the largely-immigrant Asian community, which does not have deep local ties to really know the issues or the candidates. In spite of greater efforts by the party establishments and campaigns to reach out to our community and greater overall participation from our community in recent years as voters, donors, volunteers or organizers, or even candidates, a host of challenges remain in our election participation.

In Maryland, most of the elections are decided by the primary race, especially in the heavily minority jurisdictions where Asians congregate, such as Montgomery, Howard, Prince George’s and Baltimore city.

Since many Asian American voters are not registered with any parties, they cannot vote for most of the candidates in the primary election, and by the time they cast their votes in the general election, the results are so predictable that their votes don’t really matter much. The reluctance among Asians to be associated with any
parties means this phenomenon is unlikely to change in the near future – unless we change the policy to allow independents to vote for party candidates.

The small number of active participants in election activities leads to over-taxing of community leaders and connectors, who are being asked by a growing number of organizations and campaigns to open our wallets and rolodexes to support various candidates and party campaigns. It can be exhausting and expensive for a very frugal community that still brings lunch to work to save money and does not always understand why so much money is needed for elections.

It is one thing to reach out for money and votes; quite another for advice and understanding. So far, we have been mostly playing a cheerleading or supporting role. Very rarely do campaigns or parties take the time to learn about our communities’ dynamics, interests and priorities, or to get our advice on critical issues.

So we mostly cast our votes based on name recognition, campaign rhetoric or personal relationship rather than real issues that matter to us. Until the parties and the campaigns learn to engage our communities on a continuous basis and better yet, to cultivate true leadership in the Asian community, we will continue to see what I call the “eagle effect”—organizations or individuals swooping down to seek our support when needed then disappearing into thin air.

Finally, the national debate on illegal immigration has made Latinos synonymous with immigration. Often times, it is assumed that all immigrants support pro-immigrant legislations such as the Dream Act, which would allow those who were brought to this country illegally as children enjoy in-state college tuition if they graduate from Maryland’s high schools.

The fact is, the Asian community is highly divided on this issue as they were in 2009 when Montgomery County started reporting individuals charged with violent crimes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after a couple of high profile killings committed by undocumented residents.

A community made of largely swing voters is fair game for any party wanting to earn our trust and votes. The fact that most Asians vote for Democrats has more to do with the lack of serious outreach from the Republican Party and the perception that Democrats are more minority-friendly, than with where the parties stand on issues.

With immigrants and our families, including our American-born children, making up an increasingly larger share of almost every community in the region, it is time the political parties integrate multicultural (and multilingual if necessary) outreach into their psyche and strategy for their own long-term benefits. No matter who we support, our core values of family cohesiveness (lowest divorce rate among all racial groups), education (highest educational attainment), and personal responsibility (highest savings rate) don’t change.

The fact that Maryland is the only state in the country with three Indian Americans in its state legislature, in addition to a Chinese American and a Filipino American, is sure progress. True social integration can take generations, but let’s not waste any generation, foreign-or American- born.

The article was originally published in Asian Fortune’s April edition.

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