Our Political Coming-out Party: Reflections on First Chinese Immigrant-Sponsored Candidate Forum in the National Capital Region

Saturday night, March 26, 2016, exactly one month before the Maryland primary election, over 350 people packed the Cabin John Middle School Cafeteria in Potomac, Maryland, to meet 10 candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties running for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat.

According to the candidates, it was the second largest event of the 17 forums they had participated in thus far.

Besides the amazing attendance on the night before Easter and the beginning of Spring Break, what made the event special was the fact that it was the National Capital Region Chinese immigrant community’s first candidate forum. It was our political “coming-out party,” signaling our growing maturity, power, and transition from being spectators to participants in civic and political affairs.

More than a candidate forum, the event was also a Politics 101 experience. Organizers and volunteers made a point of encouraging voters to sign up for a political party in order to be able to vote for major races in Maryland’s closed primary elections. With strong leadership by a team of Chinese American leaders from the Coordination Council of Chinese American Associations led by Dr. Ningping Feng with the wise counsel of Dr. Michael Lin, the entire event was superbly organized, well-publicized and flawlessly executed. Volunteers from the League of Women Voters helped interested attendees register to vote and explained the election process. Civil rights organizations like OCA-DC and the Asian Pacific American Public Affairs reached out to potential members. Just about all the local Chinese language media, both broadcast and print, were present. It was a moment not to be missed. The energy, excitement and pride permeated the space. The atmosphere felt both very Chinese, with familiar faces speaking Chinese language, and undeniably American. It just felt great to be there.

As moderator of this historic forum, I felt an enormous weight of responsibility to ask the right questions that would reflect issues of particular concerns to our Chinese community as well as our interests as local Marylanders and Americans. Based on the questions submitted online and my research and understanding of local political affairs, I developed a set of questions addressing the disadvantage of independent voters in Maryland’s closed primary election system which disproportionally affect Asian Americans; discriminatory college admission practices that hold Asian American students to a higher bar; racial profiling in espionage charges against Chinese American scientists, and how to ensure Maryland’s economic competitiveness and attractiveness to global talent.

Not surprisingly, some candidates struggled to answer these questions as most had not been introduced to those issues until the forum, but they all heard our voices through these questions and got a step closer to understanding our large and growing community. All candidates did their best to connect with the voters, which were highly interested and engaged throughout the forum.

To say the candidate forum was a morale booster would be an understatement. Something magical happened after the event. Many independent voters decided to register for political parties afterwards in order to be able to vote for the candidates they had just met in the Maryland primary election and persuaded their friends to do the same. In the past, I have written and spoken about voting and especially about the importance of registering for a political party in order to make one’s vote count more. But it was not until that candidate forum where real candidates were discussing real issues that our people got energized and actions followed.

That magical moment was a tipping point in the journey of Chinese Diaspora in the Washington, DC region, with each election cycle drawing out more first-time voters. Compared to Chinese Americans living in the New York or California areas, we are a much newer community and the vast majority of us are immigrants. From voting to campaign rallies and fundraisers to hosting candidate forums, we are making history one milestone at a time toward our social integration in the local community.

Weeks after the event, our community is still on a “high,” somewhat in disbelief that we actually pulled off such a fantastic feat and made a splash with only less than three weeks of preparation. We overcame many doubts and fears, including fear of a lack of interest from the candidates to connect with a community not known as reliable voters; fears about a lack of interest from our own community, which has a famous cultural disdain toward politics. But we charged forward because we owe it to ourselves and our children to not defer our integration to the next generation.

You don’t have to be born here to be American. You don’t have to speak perfect English to ask the right questions. As the best-educated Chinese immigrants in American history, we are uniquely qualified to accelerate social integration and leave our generation’s mark on the history of Chinese in America and of immigrants in the Washington, DC region.

Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

(Link to China Daily profile: http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/us/2014-08/08/content_18274036.htm

A few days after their state’s primary elections, Chinese-American community leaders in Maryland woke up to an email in their inboxes.

It was from Lily Qi – director of special projects for the government of Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington – thanking them for their support in the reelection campaign of County Executive Ike Leggett, whose primary victory cleared the way for a third term.

“In a low turnout election like this one, every vote counts and the immigrant community holds great sway in tipping the balance,” Qi said in her note. Throughout the campaign, Qi had tirelessly reached out to the Chinese-American community, which accounts for 5 percent of county’s population of one million.

Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

In her email, Qi, who also serves as chair of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs, announced the victories of two Chinese-American state legislators – one delegate and one senator as well.

“We’re growing stronger as a community because of people like you who care about things bigger than yourself,” Qi signed off.

The memo offers a glimpse into the wide spectrum of Qi’s professional and community service footprints and her own “caring about things bigger” than herself.

As a political appointee responsible for high-priority initiatives related to the county’s economic competitiveness and global partnerships, Qi knows the reelection of the county executive ensures she can continue to do what she loves and excels at.

Previously, Qi had been the vice president of Washington, DC Economic Partnership, overseeing the capital city’s business attraction and retention.

Qi’s current grand projects include engineering a new comprehensive economic strategy for the county that integrates existing businesses, community and workforce development strategies and branding the county as a vibrant destination – rather than a backyard of DC – to attract younger generations, businesses and visitors.

“Every morning I can’t wait to get to work because I really believe in everything I do,” Qi said in an interview with China Daily. “I am helping the county executive reposition the county for the future.”

For Qi, community service has no less impact or meaning. Before becoming the state’s point person to the fast-growing Asian-American community, Qi had been the county executive’s liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Americans and also served as president of the Organization of Chinese Americans’ Greater Washington, DC Chapter.

Calling herself a “cultural broker”, Qi helps local communities and leaders understand the dynamics and opportunities of immigrant communities that now make up one third of the county’s population, while helping these new communities participate more fully in local affairs.

“Being a cultural broker can be tiring,” said Qi, whose evenings and weekends are crammed with community meetings and events. Still, she tries to make herself available for various causes.

“I get a lot of gratification from how much I give to – rather than take from – society,” she said. “I’ve made the choice, so I am willing to make the sacrifice. That’s the contract I’ve signed with society.”

Qi is often able to make her professional and community efforts complement each other, because both fulfill her passion for social causes, which was the main thing that led her into a public service career in the first place – she wanted to have a direct impact on policies that affect people’s lives.

Recognizing the positive impact that a new Life Science Center in Montgomery County could have on growing the “innovation economy” and residents’ employment opportunities, Qi mobilized Asian communities to lobby county council members, who unanimously approved the plan, despite several members’ earlier opposition.

No matter what cause Qi ends up advocating, her signature traits are confidence and the ability to lead.

“Leadership is all about taking initiatives,” said Qi, who serves on the boards of Suburban Hospital of Johns Hopkins Medicine, VisArts and Leadership Montgomery. “Even if you do not have the title of a leader, you should take the initiative to bring about positive changes instead of just voicing complaints. Then you will soon become a leader and an agent of change.”

And Qi has been determined, from very early on, to lead as a true American.

“Twenty-some years ago, I made a decision that I wanted to fully immerse myself in this culture as an American,” she said. “Once I made that decision, everything else followed.”

“As immigrants, you are expected to pay your dues for a generation so your children can be ‘True Americans’. I guess I didn’t get that memo,” jokes Qi, who came to the US from Shanghai in 1989 to pursue advanced education. “This is the 21st century. We shouldn’t have to wait a generation to fulfill our American dream.”

Instead of embarking on the kind of traditional and secure technical jobs that first-generation immigrants often take, Qi went after positions usually reserved for native-borns and often ended up being the only Asian in her work place.

While serving as the assistant director for multicultural affairs at American University in the late 1990s while working on an MBA degree there, Qi also took it upon herself to learn about American racial cultures, including what it meant to be Asian American, which anchored her even better as an active member of American society, she said.

“I have become an expert on the capital region’s Asian-American experience, not because I happen to be Chinese, but because I spend time reading, thinking, writing, and talking about these issues,” said Qi, who writes a column for Asian Fortune, an English-language newspaper targeting the Asian-American community of the greater DC area, and has become a unique voice as a frequent speaker and moderator on immigrant integration, Asian Americans, global/local economic competitiveness and their convergence.

During last May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Qi was keynote speaker at a National Labor Relations Board celebration, as she has been for the FCC and several military installations in the past. As she does with any public presentation, Qi took the time to make sure her speech was “flawless”.

“No matter what you do, you should do it the best you can because you are the brand,” said Qi, laughing at herself for being “a perfectionist”.

This might explain how Qi, a non-native English speaker, when asked to teach a course in public speaking as a new graduate student at Ohio University in 1991, would overcome her fear and excel. This might also explain how Qi would later become spokeswoman for the Washington (DC) Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking, leading a team of native English speakers.

Proudly standing at the intersection of politics, business and culture as a connector and influencer, Qi said she has reached a point in her life where job or career are secondary to her desire to wake up every day with a cause to work for, whatever her position may be.

“The questions I ask myself the most are: What is my passion? Where can I offer some unique value?”

charlenecai@chinadailyusa.com

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.

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.

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.

 

Vote “For” Maryland’s Future

With so many critical issues at stake at the local and the national levels, I feel obligated to devote another column to explain my view of several high-profile referendums you will be presented with if you are a registered voter in Maryland. I urge you to read your sample ballots carefully when they arrive in your mailbox.

A referendum is a citizens’ vote on an issue that is allowed in some states, counties and local municipalities. There is no federal referendum. The referendum can be used to simply answer “yes” or “no” on a question that legislators have left up to citizens to decide. Other times, when a bill has been passed by a legislature and signed into law by the governor, opponents of the bill may force a referendum by gathering signatures and submitting petitions.

These following referendum questions on Maryland ballots are controversial and deserve your attention and understanding. I have offered my personal opinion on two of the questions below.

Question 4—The Maryland Dream Act.

This law would give all Maryland public college students, including those brought to this country illegally at young ages by their parents, the equal benefit of in-state tuition as long as they have attended a Maryland high school for three years and have graduated, and their families have been paying state income taxes for at least three years. “You pay state taxes, you enjoy in-state tuition” is the simple argument.

Remember, this is about state residency, not national citizenship.

Eligible students would compete only with out-of-state students for college admissions, so it will not take away slots from other Maryland students, and they must spend their first two years at a local community college, paying much lower tuition. The Act would give college-bound students a better shot at obtaining a higher education and becoming more productive, tax-paying members of the society.

Read www.Educatingmarylandkids.org, which links to a Washington Post op-ed piece by Dr. Wallace Loh, President of the University of Maryland College Park.

Question 6—The Marriage Equality Act.

My column last month, titled, “Same Sex Marriage as Economic Imperative,” argues that it is in Maryland’s best economic interest to welcome talented people of all backgrounds and lifestyles. I hope I can convince you to vote “For” the ACT with my article, which got many comments. It is posted on my blog at www.qulturematters.com.

Question 7—Expansion of Commercial Gaming in Prince George’s County.

Passage of this question into law would allow a major new casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, and would allow table gambling across the state. Supporters estimate that increased gambling opportunities will not only create thousands of jobs for local residents, but will also generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Maryland schools. And they say it will provide convenience for Maryland residents who have been flocking to West Virginia’s casinos, while keeping their gambling dollars in-state..

Attractive arguments all. But…

We all know that National Harbor is already an appealing destination in the National Capital Region, a natural spot for a casino. However, with casinos already close-by in the state and in West Virginia, opponents of the question worry that a new major casino in the area would over-saturate the market. Opponents also challenge the numbers of permanent jobs, claiming the estimates are much too high.

Some opponents simply do not want to replenish government coffers with gambling, and others don’t want it in Prince George’s County, saying it will add to the county’s image problem. And we have all seen the ads questioning how much revenue the state and county governments will receive from gambling and how much of that will actually go toward enhancing education.

It’s a tough call. You be the judge on this one, and let the chips fall where they may.

Question B (for Montgomery County residents)—Elimination of “Effects Bargaining.”

Few people know what “effects bargaining” is or why they should vote one way or the other on it. Basically, it is the procedure that permits the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 in this case, to negotiate with Montgomery County officials on matters beyond the major issues such as wages and benefits specified in their contract, allowing them to work out smaller, day-to-day issues which were not spelled out in the agreement.

Oft-cited examples from the County of those day-to-day contract “effects” include whether police officers can be required to read emails or beef up patrols when there is an increase in crimes.

But the police officers contend that they need the long-established right to negotiate issues they say are critical to their families, such as schedules, promotions, and transfers. And they claim this bargaining has had no negative effect on police response to 911 and other emergencies.

Read the YES argument on this issue at the Montgomery County government Web site at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/questionB.

For the NO argument, visit the Fraternal Order of Police website at www.foplodge35.com

And if you haven’t registered to vote, you can register online until October 16 by visiting www.elections.state.md.us/voter_registration. Or go to a local library, post office, or Department of Motor Vehicle office.

Can’t make it to the polls on Election Day? Request an absentee ballot and mail in your votes by October 30. Or you may participate in early voting, which starts on Saturday, October 27 and runs through Thursday, October 1. No excuses.

You may not think these issues affect you personally, but remember this—as minorities and immigrants, we must learn to fight for the rights of others, whether they are gays, other immigrants, or the less privileged because so much of what we enjoy today was fought and won by others before us.

As I was writing this article today, I got a call from a local businessman who said he would like to get involved in political activities and want to know how he can help with a presidential campaign. That really made my day, though I know the presidential candidate he supports is not the one I would vote for.

The Muslims Among Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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