Trust-building a Must for China and Chinese Americans

Original publication date, Oct. 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Global is Local: Comfort Women and Global Humanity

Author’s note–I wrote this over a year ago, and as the Chinese and Korean communities are organizing commemorative events for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the issue of comfort women and global humanity and justice are still relevant, and will forever be. I applaud Congressman Mike Honda for his courageous leadership as an American who stands for justice for all people–whether they were comfort women brutalized by the Japanese imperial army or the Japanese Americans who forcibly relocated in internment camps during WWII after the Pearl Harbor attack.

–Lily Qi

Original article as published in Asian Fortune, July 2014.

During this past Asian American Heritage Month (the month of May), the Fairfax County, Virginia government dedicated a Comfort Women Memorial inside the county government complex to honor and remember the women who were forced into sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. While the women were from several East and Southeast Asian countries including Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc., the Korean American community was the main driving force behind the Memorial.

A month earlier, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that requires new state public schools’ textbooks to mention the Korean name “East Sea” for a body of water between Japan and the Korean peninsula that has been called “Sea of Japan.” Like the Comfort Women Memorial, this was also the result of effective local lobbying by the Korean American community and the support of a local Korean American elected official, Grace Wolf of Virginia.

These moves shouldn’t come as a surprise given the growing size, maturity and power of the Korean American community in Northern Virginia and the National Capital Region. Neither sits well with Japan, which protested to the Virginia officials. Accordingly to the Japanese Embassy, there have been recent incidents of harassment against Japanese Americans here related to the Memorial and the textbook name change of the Sea of Japan. They argued that since Japan officially apologized to the comfort women back in 1993 through a Kono Statement and the sitting Prime Minister of Japan at the time personally signed each apology letter to the identified Korean comfort women in addition to providing financial compensation to the victims, it is time to move forward rather than opening past wounds.

It should be noted that the local Japanese American community is very small relative to the Korean community and most are culturally and linguistically more American than Japanese, with much weaker ties to their ancestral homeland or what happened in Asia about 70 years ago than the local Korean community, which is a largely immigrant community. Between Japan as an important trading partner with Virginia and a growing Korean American community with voting power, Virginia chose the community.
My years of experience working in the community reminds me time and again just how deeply many in our community are still tied to their home countries’ happenings, at times much more than what’s going on around them locally. Some would fly half way around the world to cast a vote in their home countries without even bothering to register to vote in local elections that matter to their life here.

About two years ago, at a community fundraiser for a Congressional candidate, a Muslim community leader stood up and questioned why the candidate visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and not also visiting its neighbor, Palestine. Where the candidate stood on transportation funding or business competitiveness was irrelevant. What WAS important was where he stood on Middle Eastern affairs, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Such is our community dynamic today. A local government could find itself being caught in ethnic conflicts a world over and local leaders could find themselves playing the roles of international arbitrators on a mini scale to ensure community harmony.

Understanding such dynamics is critical to effective community engagement and to properly channel the energy and focus of our communities, who are increasingly involved in local civic affairs to exert their influences, even if what they are advocating for was something that happened half a world away, and over two generations ago.

In a super diverse region like ours, what is global can also be very local and personal. Whether it is different ethnic tribes or religious sectors that used to fight each other in their home villages now having to work together as colleagues, or people from warring countries now are neighbors whose kids play and go to school together, America is where cultures converge and mix. Of all things great and powerful about this country, what I found to be most remarkable is how well people of different religions, cultures and ethnicities co-exist in harmony. We do become Americans, not just by citizenship, but more importantly, by adopting its value of civility, tolerance and conciliation over our human differences.

 

Make Your Vote Count: Register for a Political Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a Recent Fundraiser Taught Me about our Changing Community

I recently hosted a political fundraiser for a local campaign. It was a fabulous event by all accounts—we reached our fundraising goal; we had a large turnout with a good mix of community leaders and businesspeople, and most importantly, everyone had a great time and felt that they were part of something special and meaningful.

But what was really remarkable was that for the first time, a group of immigrant Chinese Americans, who normally shy away from political activities, participated in a political fundraiser for a candidate who was neither Chinese nor Asian. In their own words, it was “mainstream politics.”

It is often said that politics is the last frontier for Asian Americans. For immigrant Asians, it is virtually a forbidden territory because of many cultural, economic and social barriers. It helps to know a few things about the people you try to engage before you use the same template that worked well with other communities to apply to immigrant Asian communities.

First of all, to care about a local election requires some knowledge of what’s going on in your community or what a local government does. If all you care about is trash and snow removal and good schools for your kids, you are unlikely to care who is in office. What’s more, what we care about is often a function of how we make a living, which can be quite different from one Asian community to the next. In the Capital Region, a large part of the local Chinese immigrant community is made of professionals employed by government agencies, businesses or institutions and as such don’t have much interaction with a local government. The Korean and Vietnamese communities, which have more people running small businesses including retail or service businesses that are very location-based, tend to pay more attention to local issues such as tax rates, permitting processes, and some regulatory issues that the rest of us may be oblivious to.

Where you are in life stages also makes a huge difference in your level of engagement or your financial ability to make contributions. Those who are still commuting long distances to work every day, then come home to start the second shift of driving young kids to a crazy array of after-school activities, and trying to make ends meet while advancing career goals are unlikely to have much time or energy left to attend town hall meetings, public hearings or join a commission, let alone making financial contributions to a campaign.

Not understanding the political system in this country is another major hurdle. Depending on the person I talked to, I had to sometimes find culturally appropriate ways to explain what a political fundraiser is; who the candidate was and why we should support him; why campaigns need money; what I was asking them to do and why our community should be involved in such activities. I was amused when one of the host committee members confused political fundraisers and charitable fundraisers by suggesting that we use silent auction instead of straight donation for this event so people would feel like they were getting something in return for their money!

Through it all, some common themes of concerns emerged, including concerns that participating in political activities while employed by federal government or as leaders of local community nonprofits would jeopardize their employment or their community groups’ legal standing. The truth is, you can feel free to engage in political activities as long as you do so as private citizens without using your government or nonprofit positions or affiliations or soliciting contributions from your subordinates.

These factors point to the needs for some extra prep work to get your talking points and materials ready before you reach out. Some quick tips include having in-language materials ready for distribution to explain the event and the candidate; partnering with ethnic media to promote the event beyond doing the hard work of individual outreach; preparing the candidate for appropriate remarks that matter to your audience and finally, making sure you make the event extra nice so people would walk away talking about this in a nice way for a long time.

Though it was one of the hardest events I have ever pulled off, that fundraiser was also one of the most worthy in my history of community involvement because it signals a new chapter in our community’s evolution and maturity.

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.

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.

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.

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.