Trust-building a Must for China and Chinese Americans

Original publication date, Oct. 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Giving and Receiving Compliments

Something as mundane and common as giving and receiving compliments may be a serious challenge if you are an immigrant.

Over the years, I have learned, often the hard way, the essential importance of receiving and giving compliments, at home, at work, and in social or semi-social environment. Generally speaking, East Asian cultures tend to be more reserved in expressing appreciations or affection toward others compared to the American culture (some generalization here).  We have all heard of such jokes about Asian parents singling out the only “B” in the child’s report card amidst all other “A”s and demand to know why the child had failed to get straight “A”s, while American-born parents would emphasize on the progress or efforts rather than the outcome.

True, those of us with Asian heritage, especially those growing up in Asian cultures (not just from Asian families), tend to forget the importance of being positive and encouraging at all times, including with family members, by paying compliments for a job well done or even for making an effort!

I remember when my son was still in elementary school, he asked me one day why I wasn’t more like his teacher. When asked what he meant, he said his teacher would praise him and give him stars and stickers for good work, while “you never see anything good that that I do,” he protested to me.  I felt terrible because he was mostly right.  But I know I am not alone.  Asian parents generally don’t like to praise their own kids in front of other friends, but American born parents frequently do.

The skill of giving positive feedback doesn’t come naturally for us.  Even though many Asian cultures value reciprocity, especially in gift-giving or doing each other favors, paying someone compliments for a job well done is not common practice in our culture.  It is a skill we have to consciously learn and apply because we consider a job well done as a duty rather than something that would warrant any compliments or attention.

The inability to compliment can not only affect family relations and friendships, but also cause workplace tension and make us seem less effective as leaders or less appreciative as co-workers, because much of leadership is conveyed through verbal communication and the ability to connect with people.  Being able to give positive and encouraging feedback and acknowledge your co-workers for their collaboration, initiative, or great efforts is not only a matter of professional competency but also a matter of cultural competency that builds personal networks and loyalty.  Focusing too much on the tasks at hand makes you look harsh and ungrateful, or less than leader-like, and hurts your ability to grow strong teams that are willing to follow your lead and your agenda.

It is common knowledge that many Asians are highly competent professionals, but often hit the glass ceiling too soon in career advancement and as a result, are severely underrepresented in senior and top leadership positions.  There are undoubtedly institutional issues that continue to perpetuate such discrepancy.  But at the individual level, much of what holds us back is not the lack of technical competency but rather cultural competency as reflected in verbal communication, including the ability to conduct meetings, share a good laugh, talk sports with colleagues or bosses, or give genuine appreciation and compliments to co-workers.

Giving and receiving compliments go hand and hand.  Though simple as it may seem, not everyone knows how to properly receive a compliment.  When being complimented, simply say “thank you” or something to the effect of “I appreciate your compliments” or “it was very nice of you to have mentioned my work at today’s meeting,” etc.  The key is being gracious whether people compliment you, whether it’s your new hairdo or your accomplishment.  The worst is insisting you don’t look good or that you are not good enough.

Focusing on soft skills such as building relationships, managing expectations and communication can go a long way towards becoming a more competent professional, appreciative leader as well as a more attractive person.  Learning how to genuinely appreciate other people’s efforts and good work is a reflection of our humility and maturity.

The day when we change from being primarily receivers of compliments for our good work to being givers of compliments for other people’s good work is the day when we will likely enjoy more influence in workplaces and in leadership positions.

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.

Culture of Learning

Since leaving China over two decades ago, I have been amazed at the scale and speed of the physical transformation the country is undergoing. Every time I visit, I feel less familiar with my native land, which is experiencing what may be the most rapid positive transformation of any country in human history. The last three decades have seen explosive changes.

It occurred to me during a recent delegation trip to China that beneath the most modern-looking skyscrapers and the most impressive public infrastructures and buildings that Americans can only dream of these days, is a culture of learning that has propelled the country to be a global economic giant.

China’s thirst for knowledge, combining technological and managerial know-how, is a major driver for its modern miracle. The tremendous value the Chinese people place on education and learning is a time-honored tradition, reflected in how they raise kids, run school systems, and invest in workforce development. And that includes training government officials at all levels. Teaching is a highly regarded profession in China, and calling someone older and more experienced a “teacher” is a common gesture of respect. Some of the most highly regarded figures in Chinese history happened to teachers, such as the Confucius.

We visited a mid-sized city undergoing a mind-boggling number of development projects that only China seems capable of these days. One question we had for the Deputy Mayor was how they decided where to put all the residential, commercial, educational and medical facilities when they planned the new “city within the city.” He said they utilized “MIT modeling,” as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology integrates the best practices from around the world in planning science-based parks and cities. This desire to learn from the best around the world is obvious at every level of government in China, and the U.S. is often the source of that knowledge. That mindset is also reflected in the fact that most local government officials we met had children studying in the U.S.

At a central business district, I saw on the huge LED monitor a news story about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visiting Vietnam and other countries. I was at first puzzled by this reporting of a visit between two other countries because in the U.S., such reporting is not this prominent if the visits are not directly related to America. But in China, there is a much greater sense of awareness about what’s going on around the world, especially events in the U.S. Our presidential election was a topic of intense interests almost everywhere we went, and the level of detail ordinary citizens knew about our presidential candidates would surprise most of us here.

Investing in education at every stage is a major national priority and is being carried out in earnest at local levels. A city with just over a million people is investing in large-scale training academies to turn the millions of people in the surrounding farming communities into skilled workers and technicians in just a few years. Chinese officials understand that hi-tech parks and development zones without technology or talents would not take them where they need to be.

China deserves a great deal of credit for achieving a literacy rate of 92 percent in the most populous country in the world, for turning out 6 million college graduates each year, and for numerous other accomplishments in educating its people. But I am reminded how fortunate we are as Americans, and how effective our American public education system is in serving as an equalizer rather than a training ground for the elites. Learning may have become a national mission in China, but what’s being learned and taught today are still mostly technical and hard skills, along with the value of personal success. Less obvious is the teaching of core values much needed in a civil society, or the development of independent thinkers capable of innovation down the road. At two key middle schools we visited (equivalent to our magnet high schools), it was obvious that academic excellence at these public schools is partly achieved by weeding out the academically weak.

What the Chinese can really learn from the U.S. is that the real power of America is not something one can build physically or buy from us, such as the iPhone. Rather it is our fundamental belief that every human being deserves a shot at life’s opportunities no matter what circumstances he or she is born into. More than just technology or innovation, our moral power lies in our appreciation of the talents of the individuals who comprise “the huddled masses” from around the world. This is America’s true competitive edge.