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.

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!

Lessons from Jimmy Kimmel Incident

Like many, I was surprised by the strong worldwide reactions to an October segment of the “Jimmy Kimmel Kid’s Table” show in which a young guest said we should “kill everyone in China” as a way to settle our national debt with China.  Not because the program aired without anyone raising the red flag in the media giant ABC’s production chain.  We’ve seen that happen before.  Nor that people are offended by the comment.  What really struck me was so many people and organizations took actions this time and got involved in highly organized, large-scale protests calling for apologies and even firing of show host Jimmy Kimmel and its producer.  The petition on the White House Web site has gathered the needed 100,000 signatures for an official response from President Obama.  Jimmy Kimmel probably has never imagined such overnight international fame, or notoriety.

In this super-connected digital world, incidents like this can spread like wild fire and generate enormous responses in no time.  When a comment demeans an ethnicity, you are likely to face outrage from not just the domestic community but also the international community.

Beyond the digital connections, the United States and China as the world’s two leading economies are joined at the hip economically, as evidenced in the amount of debt we owe China.  For ABC, that joke is no laughing matter when your parent company Disney is trying to build the world’s largest theme park in China while the foreign minister of China is calling for a formal apology from you!

How a late-night joke became an international geopolitical lightening rod is truly astounding, reflecting our changing community and the changing world we live in.

Having been involved with pan Asian organizations like OCA for over a decade, I am used to seeing statements issued by civil rights organizations denouncing offensive actions or remarks and calling for apologies, boycotts or other appropriate actions.  But until now, such rhetoric and actions were mostly limited to advocacy groups or watch dogs run by native-born, English-speaking Asian American leaders.  This time, however, many grassroots organizations across the country, including some immigrant-led groups, got involved.  It’s a sign of our community’s growing maturity that many community groups in the National Capital region, while still largely interested in cultural, social, educational, or professional and business activities, are increasingly flexing their political muscles at local, national and even international levels.

 

U.S. residents originally from China protested the Jimmy Kimmel Live TV show at the ABC studios in Manhattan.

Activists protest outside of ABC’s studios in Manhattan following an offensive segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Photo: Doug Meszler / Splash News

Crises unite communities.  In that sense, the Jimmy Kimmel incident provided a great cause for unity, much like the Vincent Chin tragedy over three decades ago.  In 1982, a hundred years after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a young Chinese American engineer from Detroit, Vincent Chin, was murdered by two white autoworkers who blamed their job loss on Japanese competition and yelled racial slurs in the deadly beating that killed Vincent a week before his wedding.  That tragedy and the subsequent injustice in the sentencing of his killers shocked and united Asian Americans across a wide spectrum of ethnicities, becoming a watershed moment for the Chinese and Asian American communities, which, before that moment, had no real Asian American identity or visible political muscle of its own.

Some people believe we don’t need to make a big deal out of a kid’s joke in a comedy show.  But if this joke was about other ethnic or racial groups, you bet ABC would have taken much more proactive steps to correct it, or most likely this would not have happened in the first place.

If our community is truly strategic, we need to set our sight beyond winning the high-profile battles like this.  While it’s encouraging to see our community stand up to demand respect over a distasteful joke, what should get us more fired up is the systemic discrimination we continue to face at workplaces or other places, in what is supposed to be the most inclusive and tolerant country in the world.  In an integrated society, there are ample opportunities to exercise discrimination without having to put on white hoods or using racially-charged remarks.  While it is easy to denounce blatantly offensive rhetoric or actions, it is much harder to detect or respond effectively to the hidden yet very real racism or other forms of injustice at play in our everyday life.  It takes courage, tactics, and skills.  We are growing and I am hopeful.

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.

Marching Toward King’s Dream

When NBC4 morning news anchor Aaron Gilchrist commented at the end of a news story recently that black men who don’t want to be cast in stereotypical roles are sometimes considered “not black enough,” I was taken aback by his openness in discussing a highly sensitive topic during morning news hours. After all, race is not something we casually comment on in this country. It is usually reserved for serious soul-searching moments in special programming or during primetime TV when commentators have scripted notes or carefully rehearsed lines.

I have no doubt that the fact he is a young black man gave Aaron the ease and credibility to talk about being young, black and male in a way his white counterparts would not have done. The fact that the NBC4 broadcast features two young minority anchors, Aaron Gilchrist and Eun Yang, who is Korean American, doesn’t just change the look of the show, it also changes the dialogue.

A few years ago, when Tavis Smiley, host of Black Entertainment Television (BET), was a guest on National Public Radio, a caller asked why we needed a BET when we wouldn’t consider it right to have something called White Entertainment Television. Tavis’ reply was pointed. “Yes we do,” he said. “It’s called ABC, it’s called NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox…”

Fortunately, the same can no longer be said about many networks today. The day is already here when media outlets don’t need to be labeled Black, Asian or Latino Entertainment Television, or “multicultural,” something to serve or appeal to diverse communities. Perhaps the greatest symbol of social integration is having a black president in the White House, something hard to imagine until it actually happened, even to some who voted for Barack Obama.

As our nation welcomes another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the second inauguration of President Obama, we have much to celebrate regarding how much of Dr. King’s dream of America is being realized.

So are we there yet? Not when race is still a predictor of academic achievement, job opportunities and how far one goes in life. Not when “diverse” communities are expected to fit into a culture rather than being in leadership positions to institute meaningful, systemic change. Not when it continues to make headlines every time a woman or minority takes a top spot in a well-established organization, whether in government or in business.

Social integration doesn’t just happen. It takes deliberate work and a gradual change of attitudes. In the past, when organizations considered diversity on their staffs or boards, it often seemed they were driven by “doing the right thing” or “being inclusive,” as if it was an act of charity. Now, more and more organizations and leaders realize that workforce diversity is a necessity that brings in new thinking and adds credibility to their knowledge and expertise, something they cannot function without. Indeed, many times in group settings such as board meetings, I would say things that hadn’t been considered, leading me to wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been present. Do we really know what we miss when we don’t have diversity at the table?

In the course of my hybrid career, I have held a couple of jobs focusing on minority and cultural affairs. But I have no delusion that while these positions and programs are still needed today, the ultimate answer to integration lies in elevating the cultural competency of all organizations so that multiculturalism permeates culture and thinking. Civil rights organizations established decades ago to advance minority interests and social injustice have to keep up with the new dynamics and find new relevancy in a society that has moved beyond the basics which made them necessary generations ago.

Best intentions may not bring about the best results. A case in point is minority friendly business programs at local government levels. Rather than creating more programs that minority businesses have to apply and qualify for in order to take advantage of them, it would be more effective to focus on making it easier to do business for all companies, including minority entities.

It’s a new year and a good time to usher in new thinking. To me, daily reminders of social progress always bring smiles, whether it’s the morning news anchors’ comments, or the young Latino man across the meat counter who serves customers in imperfect but impressive Mandarin in a Chinese supermarket on Rockville Pike. Or the fact that most high school students honored at a Montgomery County Dr. Martin Luther King celebration were Asians. Progress may happen in unexpected ways, but it’s always a reason to celebrate. Here’s a New Year’s toast to progress!

Same Sex Marriage as Economic Imperative

(originally published in Asian Fortune September 2012 issue, http://www.asianfortunenews.com/article_0912.php?article_id=16)

This November, in addition to voting for the President of the United States, voters in Maryland will have an opportunity to decide whether same sex marriage, which became law in Maryland earlier this year, should remain legal.

Whichever side of the issue you are on, same sex marriage, which allows people of the same sex to enter into a legally sanctioned long-term commitment as a couple, is often framed as a moral issue by its opponents and as a human rights issue by its supporters. What’s missing in the discussion, however, is that it is also an economic imperative.

No, I am not just talking about the wedding planners and a whole host of other industries that can clearly benefit from more people getting married. I am talking about our state’s ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest—no matter who they are—to build families, careers, and businesses here, and to fuel the entrepreneurial culture that the national capital region badly needs.

In his famous book published a decade ago, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” urban studies theorist and creative class guru Richard Florida argued that a locale that attracts gays is also a community that thrives. It is no coincidence that places like California and Massachusetts, both known for breeding and attracting entrepreneurs, also happen to be gay-friendly states.

Whether a state recognizes same-sex marriage speaks volumes about that community’s level of tolerance for differences, for people who have the courage to be who they are and pursue their personal happiness. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers who don’t care to conform to the norm and who are often considered different from the rest of us. Their success requires a tolerant culture and a nurturing environment, which cannot be achieved by simply building more incubators or creating more small business mentoring programs.

Maryland is transforming itself from a small state at the backyard of Washington, DC to a destination for jobs and innovation. We need all the talent we can get, gay or not. The last thing we want is to let our ideologies get in the way of our ability to attract human capital.

Will Maryland get it right when we go to the polls on November 6? History teaches us that the majority doesn’t always get it right. Remember de-segregation of public schools in the South? Left to voters in other states, same sex marriage was voted down every single time because it only benefits a small group of people and the majority has no incentive to support something that challenges their concept of marriage and family. Social issues that protect the minorities’ basic rights should not be determined by the majority or we probably would not have advanced to this point as a society.

As marriage becomes less about reproduction and child-rearing and more about companionship, a childless marriage between a homosexual or heterosexual couple would be very similar, except in the eyes of others who choose to judge it. The fact that heterosexual marriage as an institution has failed many couples in this country has not led many people to question the sanity of marriage as an institution because the right to marry for a man and a woman has been a privilege we have taken for granted. The rest have to wait, beg, and fight.

Many in the immigrant communities have a hard time accepting gay marriage, as I did years ago. I was first exposed to homophobic issues about 15 years ago while serving as a resident director on a college campus. Since then, I have worked with bosses and colleagues, and made friends who are gays or lesbians.

Giving everyone the equal right to marry their loved ones is not just the right thing to do, but also a wise economic policy that would boost our attractiveness and competitiveness as a locale and a community, not to mention that gay Americans are among the best educated and highest income-earners of all Americans. I hope that Maryland, the state I have come to call home, can live up to its name as a “free state” where people of all faiths, ethnicities and life styles, can be free from prejudices and legal discrimination and be able to call this place home.

The Muslims Among Us

Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently took it to the Senate floor to publicly denounce accusations by five of his Republican colleagues in Congress that Ms. Huma Abedin, a Muslim American and a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood that is trying to infiltrate the highest level of the U.S. government. In his powerful and moving statement, Senator McCain called the allegations against Ms. Abedin “unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant.” Such fear-invoked and ignorance-based attacks, as he eloquently put it, “defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

Incidents like this remind us that mistrust of Muslims and Islam still persists and rears its ugly head all too often. This happens to be the holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims worldwide, which started July 20 this year. Throughout the capital region, Muslims in our communities are hosting numerous Iftar events to celebrate the breaking of the fast and to share their cultural heritage with the larger community and with fellow Muslims.

Because of my previous job, I have had the rare opportunity of working with many Muslim community organizations made of Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, Egyptians, Indonesians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Bangladeshis, and native born Americans of all ethnicities. What I have learned about Muslims in our community is truly inspiring. They strike me as one of the most highly engaged and empowered communities conscientious of contributing to and connecting with the larger community.

Since “9.11,” Muslim Americans have had a greater sense of urgency to improve the public’s perception of the community. New organizations such as the Montgomery County Muslim Council (MCMC) and its sister organization, the Montgomery County Muslim Foundation (MCMF), were born with the explicit purposes of serving the greater Montgomery County community (not just Muslims) and to encourage activism, while existing organizations have become more aware of civic and political engagement. In just a few short years, MCMC and MCMF have become highly-regarded organizations with such staple programs as the annual food drives, holiday baskets, and feed-the-hungry, in partnership with local charities and the government.

Another exemplary organization is the Muslim Community Center, which operates a health clinic that has made a name for itself in the region for offering free health care provided by volunteer doctors and staffers to the uninsured and low-income residents regardless of their faiths or ethnicities. In providing much-needed services to our community, MCC has become an integral part of our local fabric and an important partner of local government. These organizations are not alone. MARTI, the Maryland Turkish American Inhabitants, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community often host educational forums and actively reach out to the larger community for dialogues and understanding. Other active groups in our community include the Islamic Center of Maryland, the Islamic Society of Germantown, the Islamic Center of Washington Area, and the Pakistani American Association.

Such activism reflects the Muslim community’s foresight in turning individual success into community success, and their gratitude for the freedom, opportunities and respect they enjoy in this country. Since 2009, Montgomery County has been hosting public Ramadan Iftar educational programs (paid by community donations), as we have done for the Diwali tradition celebrated by Indians and other South Asians. Such community relationship building at the local level, no matter how large or small it may seem, contributes to community good will and helps ensure that the United States remains an infertile ground to those extremists who ARE trying to influence our youths and hijack a religion.

What Muslim communities are doing is what all of us ought to do—to be better informed, engaged and empowered citizens and communities. In the words of MCMC founder and community leader, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, “the white population in our community is not growing, and most of the charitable activities are done by the white community, so the minority communities need to step up. The Muslim community is doing well. We don’t need much, but we have a lot to offer.” One doesn’t have to agree with Mr. Ahmad’s assessment completely to admire his sense of duty towards the local community and fellow Americans. This is what makes us all richer as a people and a nation.

 

Latest Pew Research Center Survey on Asian Americans a Welcome Start

In case you missed the headlines, Asian immigrants are now the largest immigrant group in the U.S. , surpassing Hispanics. Not only that, we are “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States,” according to the Pew Research Center’s recent study released on June 19, “The Rise of Asian Americans.”

My first reaction was pride—enormous pride for our community’s progress and accomplishments, and for our country that allows people of all backgrounds to flourish. I was also pleased to see a major research institution like Pew chose to focus on Asian Americans, a community that has long been disappointed with the lack of attention from policymakers, the media, and political campaigns, and the mainstream research institutions that yield credible data. So studies by well-established institutions like Pew are badly needed to add to the body of knowledge about modern-day Asian Americans.

Frankly, none of the key findings are really surprising. The local Asian American ethnicities in the capital region largely reinforce the study’s findings—approximately three-quarters of our community are foreign-born, three out of four Indian immigrants over the age of 25 have at least a Bachelor’s degree, and Asian Americans as a group are among the best educated of all communities, etc.

What was surprising, however, was the silence and even criticism by some Asian American organizations of the Pew study. In fact, several well-established Asian American organizations issued statements expressing both disappointments that the study reinforces the stereotypes of Asian Americans as model minorities with no struggles and issues, and concerns that such perception may have negative implications on public policies. What’s missing, according to these statements, is a more complete picture of Asian Americans who, in spite of some groups’ success and progress, still faces systemic barriers on many fronts.

I see the point. But while I applaud the established Asian American advocacy organizations for calling attention to our community’s socio-economic disparity and the need for additional studies, I wish they had also taken advantage of such findings to broaden their advocacy roles to speak on issues more relevant to our communities at large, and not just focusing on those most in need among us. Here are some examples of what could also have been said:

*The Pew study reinforces the fact that Asian Americans are an increasingly important part of America’s global competitiveness in the 21st century, contributing to the intellectual capital, cultural vitality and economic opportunities of our country. With a windfall of talents from some of the most important global markets and strategic partners, it is in our best interest as a receiving country to reexamine our immigration policies, employment practices and social integration models to optimize new immigrants’ contributions to our society.

*Local communities with large numbers of Asian immigrant populations have a historical opportunity to adapt their policies and practices to the changing communities’ needs and dynamics— especially as these relate to community engagement strategies, land use and development policies, and institutional cultural competency, particularly language access for people with limited English proficiency, access to healthcare and transit for senior services.

*While we resent the over-generalization and the model minority label, we believe our communities’ deep convictions about family cohesiveness, marriage, and hard work are tremendous assets that explained much of our community’s degree of assimilation. Systemic barriers and persistent problems that slow down our advancement does not take away the fact that this is the most open country in the world to immigrants, a place where anyone can have a shot at life’s opportunities.

Though imperfect, I found the Pew report a credible study that sheds important light on Asian Americans. Rather than focusing on “glass half empty,” we should embrace the social progress made and celebrate this great American success story. The dramatic demographic changes of our communities in the U.S. and the global dynamic demand that our communities’ leaders and advocates keep an open mind and update their agenda so the organizations that are predominantly run by native-born Asian Americans can truly represent the broad spectrum of interests and concerns of our mostly foreign-born Asian communities.

It may not be our cultural habit to do so, but let’s learn to say “thank you” when receiving a compliment rather than insisting we are still not good enough.