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.

You are more than your job: a toast to the generalist

This is the season of inaugurations and internships, with the class of 2014 college grads starting a new chapter in life in a recovering yet still challenging job market, and with students beginning a summer of exploring what to do beyond school lives. Whether it’s a full-time job or an internship, the experience is as much about learning the knowledge and skills as it is about self discovery.

I recently met a white, middle-aged American, who is highly fluent in Mandarin and successful running a center whose work requires fluency in East Asian cultures and languages. With an impressive list of life experiences under his belt, he was obviously happy with his life and career. When asked how he got to this point in life, he insisted it was pure “dumb luck” because he couldn’t have foreseen the many opportunities related to his interests when he was a young man. I can relate to that. I am more confident and content with my work life than ever before, having finally found my ways of relating and contributing to the world around me. I wish I could say this was all by design, when in fact for the first decade in this country my life was defined by heartbreaks and headaches. As a liberal arts major and a generalist with broad interests, I was not as readily employable as those with technical background such as IT and engineering, so I struggled for a long time to find my footing.

From a practical perspective, it seems unwise for an immigrant, who already faces many challenges to insist on finding one’s niche without caving in to pragmatic concerns, but I am glad I didn’t follow a linear career path, nor did I try to be anything but myself. And I am grateful to have a supportive spouse. This is not to say that those who are specialists are not following their passion. Plenty do. But I personally know many highly-educated immigrants, who chose to settle for a living rather than pursuing their dreams. Our society is organized around highly specialized professions and values people with “hard skills” far more than generalists because specialists can hit the ground running quickly and we understand their value much better. With the soaring costs of higher education, liberal arts colleges that do not offer specialized career training or good job connections can be a tough sell to pragmatic parents.

Generalists, on the other hand, are routinely misunderstood by families and under-valued by society. We tend to struggle early in career because we are trained for life, not jobs or careers. Our broad interests do not fit neatly into the prescribed professional boxes, and many jobs and careers that suit us have not been invented yet or are at the top of the food chain that may take a couple of decades to reach. But once we reach that point, our broad skill sets and life experiences become tremendous assets that allow us to really take off and soar. Not only will our success come sweeter, but what we have learned along the way from seemingly unrelated and unexpected digressions add up to a rich experience and an interesting life. Of course, being a generalist or a specialist is not set for life.

Generally speaking, the higher up you go in any organizations, the more of a generalist you need to be, and the more soft skills you will need. It helps to have unwavering faith in yourself and a belief that everything you do has its purpose in the large scheme of things in preparing or revealing the fabulous person you are.

Technological advances and globalization make what we are trained for at schools obsolete at a faster pace than ever before. As we live longer, more people are starting new careers beyond mid-life just as the Millennials are taking longer to settle down in life or career. Ironically, as the professional fields become ever more specialized these days, people with interdisciplinary skills are in growing demand as they make better leaders, innovators, and problem solvers in a complex and fast-changing world. Our antiquated hiring practice just hasn’t caught up with this new norm yet.

Allowing young people the time to explore is one of the best graduation gifts we can give them because they should invent the jobs that suit them, not merely filling what’s out there. To the interns and graduates—happy exploring!

Lily Qi can be reached at qulturematters@gmail.com or via her blog site at www.qulturematters.com.

Individual Success and Community Success

The two largest Asian communities in the Washington metro region, Chinese and Indians, are often being talked about by public figures in the same manner and even in the same breath. True, there are many similarities between them, including the highly-educated human capital, the large concentration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) talents, the amazing achievement of both communities in educational attainment and financial success, and the high percentage of immigrant populations in each community.  Some even joke that if you go to any IT companies, half of the people there are Indians and the other half are Chinese! But these are two very distinct cultures and communities.

I have long noticed that the local Indian Americans are much more tuned in to social activism and civic engagement, more likely to host or attend political fundraisers and connected with the larger community. When I hosted a forum on legislative issues a few years ago, barely any Chinese came but droves of Indians did. It’s little wonder, then, that the State of Maryland has three Indian Americans in the General Assembly—the highest in the country as I understand.

The local Chinese immigrant community, on the other hand, is far more interested in cultural, social or educational functions, hosting frequent celebrations or learning forums while showing little interest in or even distain toward anything they associate with political activities. In fact, many ethnic Chinese nonprofits or civic groups would make a point of emphasizing that they are “non-profit and non-political.” Efforts to get them interested in civic activism such as speaking up on local issues that would affect their lives are usually met with varying degrees of reluctance, unless it’s about public schools’ policy changes because few things amount to the level of importance of our children’s future.

As an ethnic Chinese with limited knowledge about the Indian culture or history, I had attributed such phenomena to the Indian community’s higher level of English proficiency and greater ease with Western cultures as a former British colony, and to China’s feudalistic cultural heritage. Then I came across a New York Times article by Thomas Friedman called “India vs. China vs. Egypt,” which explained that “India has a weak central government but a really strong civil society, bubbling with elections and associations at every level. China has a muscular central government but a weak civil society…” No wonder!

It reminds me of something I had learned before—that the Indian election is the largest public event in the world!

Clearly, where we came from has an enormous impact on how we conduct ourselves here and where we are going as a community—a manifestation of what’s global is also local. For jurisdictions with large immigrant populations, it serves for leaders to acquire some cultural intelligence on their “diverse communities” to better appreciate the forces at play that shape the way these communities think, act, organize, access information, take care of one another, and view their relationships with their government and the larger society. Such understanding will help them better connect with and localize these “global communities” to make them feel a greater sense of attachment and belonging.

That brings to me to the point of individual success vs. community success. Both the Indian and Chinese communities, and the Muslim community for that matter, are full of high achievers. Yet not every community has leveraged that collective success and turned it into community success to shape our collective future. As our local immigrant communities mature over time—both as individuals and as communities—opportunities abound for greater civic engagement.

There are already promising signs as individuals who came here to pursue education and a better life now become empty nesters and even seniors with more free time for life beyond family and career and as organizations look to be more relevant to their next generations and better connected with the larger community. What we need are thought leaders from these new communities who are not just event planners but also opinion leaders who pay attention to local affairs of the larger community. We don’t have to wait a generation, because today’s immigrants are far more educated and capable of great assimilation and even leadership beyond our own communities. When it comes to civic engagement, the Chinese community doesn’t need to look very far. It can simply rip a page from the books of the Indians and the Muslims.

 

How to Be an (Asian) American Woman

On a recent business trip to China, I was automatically assumed to be an interpreter or assistant because I was helping with communication on both sides. I had to assert myself and remind my colleagues that I, too, had original thoughts to contribute. This small example shines light on the issue of how Asian women are often perceived. We are seen as competent and hard-working, partly due to stereotypes, but not necessarily powerful or influential. In fact, projecting an image of power can invoke some resentment and cause discomfort. A man I once supervised admitted to me that he was not used to having a woman as manager. At least he was honest, which made it easier to work out the problem.

This issue is not limited to Asian women. Congresswoman Donna Edwards, an African American from Prince George’s County, had to fight for respect, even though she is an independent legislator whose engineering background makes her an effective advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. California Senator Barbara Boxer had to request at a Capitol Hill hearing that she be addressed as “Senator” instead of “Ma’am” because, as she put it, she had earned the title. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote that she felt her suggestions were often ignored at meetings until they were repeated by a man, at which point they would be embraced as great ideas! A female senior executive of a company at first resented being asked by visitors to fetch coffee or hang coats. She eventually learned to say “Sure, I’d be happy to, and by the way, I am Sabrina, Senior VP.”

Over the years, I have learned to assert myself and hold my ground when being confronted by unpleasant or intimidating people or situations. Several times, I have had to speak up in order to seek greater responsibilities or promotions in my career. Because I knew my value, did my homework and was fortunate to have supportive managers, I succeeded. But I know that if I weren’t as confident in my English skills, the self-advocacy would have been daunting. It’s still not always easy for me to speak out when confronted with challenges, but as I grow older and my skin grows thicker, it does get easier.

As daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, we were groomed to be nurturing, helpful and collaborative. These desirable attributes may hold us back at the workplace, however. Finding our balance between being assertive and being collaborative, deciding when to lead and when to follow, which battles to fight, and even how to dress for the job, are all important evaluations. Like many middle-aged women, I like myself much better now than when I was just starting. This inner confidence projects outer strength.

Being an immigrant woman has added challenges as we balance cultural expectations on the home front. In most cultures we came from, women are still expected to be subordinate to men and take on the majority of domestic chores. Most Asian community organizations are run or dominated by men, and domestic violence is still too rampant in some communities. Becoming an American woman when you grew up elsewhere is as much about learning about yourself as it is about adapting to or breaking free from certain cultural constraints.

A few years ago, I was listening to my husband chat with a gentleman at a social function, and heard the person ask, “Does your wife speak English?” Couldn’t he have found out by simply talking to me? I am at a point in life where things like that amuse more than annoy me. March is Women’s History Month, a good time to remember that these personal battles, at home, at work or elsewhere, are just as important as national policy debates.

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.