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.

The Art of Cultural Celebrations

Published in Asian Fortune (www.asianfortune.com) February, 2012 edition.

At a Lunar New Year celebration event a couple of years ago, a local elected
official asked me if the movie clip on the big screen was showing the red
guards, a symbol of destruction and terror during the Cultural Revolution in
China. All she could see were images of young people carrying guns marching
since the Chinese language subtitle meant nothing to her. I assured her that
those were not red guards and that showing the old movie was simply an
expression of nostalgia, a way of having a good time during the Lunar New Year
because many people like me grew up listening to the movie’s popular theme song.
In spite of my explanation, she was not quite convinced that it was appropriate
for a public celebration. That experience speaks to the complex and fluid nature
of cultural heritage. Like many of my peers, I grew up during a politically
tumultuous era (60’s and 70’s) in China. The cultural heritage we are familiar
with are not the lion or dragon dances, which ironically I had never seen until
coming to this country, but rather songs and movies that inevitably reflect the
life and politics of that time. We resonate with them in spite of their often
ridiculous and laughable lyrics or meaning because they are part of our shared
history and identity. It is no different from a generation of Americans who will
always identify with the Woodstock culture no matter how they think about that

However, as our cultural celebrations become increasingly public events, what
we celebrate and how we celebrate can be a real challenge. For community leaders
and event organizers, the art is in balancing between meeting the expectations
of our own community members and introducing the larger community to the essence
of our heritage that we consider worthy of preserving and promoting.

After attending hundreds of community events hosted by mostly immigrant
communities in the past few years, I have some observations and tips that can be
helpful to those who have to make such delicate decisions. After all, public
events should enhance, not diminish, your public image as a leader, organization
and community. These cultural matters can be broadly applied to many communities
that are mostly foreign-born and relatively new to this country or region.

First off, I am often struck by the lack of English-language program copies
at many community-based events, especially cultural performances. Having the
programs and event signs in English is not only a basic courtesy but would also
alleviate potential misinterpretation and make the events much more meaningful
to all attendees, including those from our own ethnic communities who are native
English speakers.

The singing of the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance can be
awkward moments for many in our communities who only sing to their home
countries’ national anthems while standing silent at the tune of the American
anthem. Whatever the reason, singing only to another country’s national anthem
reinforces our community’s “foreigner” image when these events should instead
enhance community relations and social integration. For organizers, it would be
wise to print the lyrics or text in the programs.

Finally, it is a very common occurrence that the event hosts cannot properly
pronounce the names of the special guests they want to recognize, such as some
elected officials they invited. A little preparation goes a long way. In
addition, all special guests should be treated with equal respect, whether they
are diplomats from embassies representing an entire country or local elected
officials representing a local jurisdiction. As the event host, you are the
diplomat-in- chief to make sure everyone feels welcomed and respected.

Events are made of a million details and a successful cultural celebration is
as much defined by the lack of glitches and gaffes as by memorable moments for
the right reasons. The added cultural dimensions certainly complicate matters.
But as what used to be considered purely “ethnic” holidays like Lunar New Year,
which is shared by the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, become increasingly
mainstream, so should our practice of celebrating them.

As we begin the Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious symbol that is sure
to bring us many reasons for celebration, let us celebrate in great style and
with added awareness.


Jay Chen: A Visionary, Pioneer, and Connector

My friend Jay Chen, the founder and publisher of Asian Fortune, which publishes my monthly articles archived here on this blog, passed away on January 31.  At the family’s request, I gave a eulogy at his memorial service, attended by at least 300 of his admirers and friends, many among Who’s Who in the Asian communities.  The beauty of Jay and his Asian Fortune is that they have become uniters of the Asian communities across ethnicities and jurisdictions in the capital region.  To this day, Asian Fortune remains the only English newspaper in the Washington, DC region covering all Asian ethnicities.

Lily’s Eulogy for Jay Chen
Feb. 4, 2012

Like all of you, I am still in disbelief.  We took Jay and his Asian Fortune for granted
because they were always there for us.  From major national issues such as the 1882 Project about the historical injustice of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the BP oil spill’s impact on the Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf region; from the Lunar New Year celebrations to Diwali celebrations; from federal government appointments to local community events, Asian Fortune has become a voice and conscience of our community.  It is a story book that chronicles the struggles and success of our people.  It is an institution that has become a staple of the capital region.  It is a bridge that connects us with ourselves across ethnicities and jurisdictions and with the larger communities.

We will miss Jay’s towering figure, broad smile and big voice at many of our community’s events and milestones, but we are comforted to learn we will continue to benefit from his legacy thanks to Jay’s daughter, whose name is also Lily, and the family.  Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Each of us can be great because all of us can serve.” Jay, his lovely family and his wonderful staff have served us all very well.

As soon as I sent out the email announcement about Jay’s passing and the memorial service, about 20 people emailed me back expressing shock, grief and disbelief that Jay actually had left us.  Each referred to Jay as a good friend and recounted their connections with him.  Jay made each of us feel special and believe that the things we are doing in the community, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us at the moment, are actually very important in the large scheme of things because he had a vision for our community. My husband told me that he would forever keep that bottle of wine that Jay gave us on my birthday just two months ago.

This moment and Jay’s life remind me of a Native American proverb that is simple yet powerful.  It says, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life in such a way that when you die, you rejoice and the word cries.”  I am sure Jay is looking over us today, rejoicing, because he has brought us all together again, just the way he envisioned.


“Excellence, not white students, should be education benchmark”

(This letter to the editor was published in The Gazette newspaper on Aug. 3, 2011.)

The June 29 front page article, “Then & Now,” highlighted retiring Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast’s determination to close the achievement gap between white students and “traditional minorities.” As a member of the Asian-American community and a parent of a MCPS graduate under Weast, I am disappointed that your list of “traditional minorities” was limited to just black and Hispanic students. While I can understand MCPS’ focus as a strategy for gap closing, your paper should have included Asian-American students in your overall comparison and reporting because the data were readily available.

While at the national level, Asian-Americans are still a relatively small population compared to the black and Hispanic populations, in today’s Montgomery County, the three communities are comparable in size: 17 percent Hispanic, 16.6 percent black and 14 percent Asian. What’s more, the omission of Asian-American student data negates the fact Asian-American students are an integral part of our school community and have helped raise the bar for academic excellence in MCPS.

According to MCPS reports, Asian-American students outperformed all groups in a five-year comparison in percentage of graduates who earned one or more Advanced Placement scores of 3 or higher, and Asian-American and white students are very close to one another in their mean SAT combined scores over a five-year period. MCPS reports repeatedly mentioned white and Asian-American students together when comparing data.

As our county becomes dramatically more diverse than it was just a generation ago and a majority-minority community, we need to re-examine our institutionalized practices of collecting data and telling stories, including who we use as a default benchmark of excellence. Excellence, not white students, should be the benchmark of excellence, no matter who represents that. Raising the bar should not mean raising it up to the white standard, nor should closing the achievement gap mean putting everybody at the level of white students.

Whether Asian-American students should be considered part of the “traditional minorities” or as a group with whom the “traditional minorities” need to close the achievement gaps with, they deserve to be listed to reflect a more complete picture of our community and the school system.

Lily Qi, North Potomac
The writer is vice chairwoman of the Governor’s Commission on Asian-American Affairs.

© 2011 Post-Newsweek Media, Inc./Gazette.Net