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.

Marching Toward King’s Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Songs of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.