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.

Same Sex Marriage as Economic Imperative

(originally published in Asian Fortune September 2012 issue,

This November, in addition to voting for the President of the United States, voters in Maryland will have an opportunity to decide whether same sex marriage, which became law in Maryland earlier this year, should remain legal.

Whichever side of the issue you are on, same sex marriage, which allows people of the same sex to enter into a legally sanctioned long-term commitment as a couple, is often framed as a moral issue by its opponents and as a human rights issue by its supporters. What’s missing in the discussion, however, is that it is also an economic imperative.

No, I am not just talking about the wedding planners and a whole host of other industries that can clearly benefit from more people getting married. I am talking about our state’s ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest—no matter who they are—to build families, careers, and businesses here, and to fuel the entrepreneurial culture that the national capital region badly needs.

In his famous book published a decade ago, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” urban studies theorist and creative class guru Richard Florida argued that a locale that attracts gays is also a community that thrives. It is no coincidence that places like California and Massachusetts, both known for breeding and attracting entrepreneurs, also happen to be gay-friendly states.

Whether a state recognizes same-sex marriage speaks volumes about that community’s level of tolerance for differences, for people who have the courage to be who they are and pursue their personal happiness. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers who don’t care to conform to the norm and who are often considered different from the rest of us. Their success requires a tolerant culture and a nurturing environment, which cannot be achieved by simply building more incubators or creating more small business mentoring programs.

Maryland is transforming itself from a small state at the backyard of Washington, DC to a destination for jobs and innovation. We need all the talent we can get, gay or not. The last thing we want is to let our ideologies get in the way of our ability to attract human capital.

Will Maryland get it right when we go to the polls on November 6? History teaches us that the majority doesn’t always get it right. Remember de-segregation of public schools in the South? Left to voters in other states, same sex marriage was voted down every single time because it only benefits a small group of people and the majority has no incentive to support something that challenges their concept of marriage and family. Social issues that protect the minorities’ basic rights should not be determined by the majority or we probably would not have advanced to this point as a society.

As marriage becomes less about reproduction and child-rearing and more about companionship, a childless marriage between a homosexual or heterosexual couple would be very similar, except in the eyes of others who choose to judge it. The fact that heterosexual marriage as an institution has failed many couples in this country has not led many people to question the sanity of marriage as an institution because the right to marry for a man and a woman has been a privilege we have taken for granted. The rest have to wait, beg, and fight.

Many in the immigrant communities have a hard time accepting gay marriage, as I did years ago. I was first exposed to homophobic issues about 15 years ago while serving as a resident director on a college campus. Since then, I have worked with bosses and colleagues, and made friends who are gays or lesbians.

Giving everyone the equal right to marry their loved ones is not just the right thing to do, but also a wise economic policy that would boost our attractiveness and competitiveness as a locale and a community, not to mention that gay Americans are among the best educated and highest income-earners of all Americans. I hope that Maryland, the state I have come to call home, can live up to its name as a “free state” where people of all faiths, ethnicities and life styles, can be free from prejudices and legal discrimination and be able to call this place home.

Lessons from Marion Barry’s Remarks

Public condemnation has been swift and abundant for former DC mayor and current Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry since his infamous remarks about dirty Asian shops that, in his opinion, “ought to go” and be replaced by African-American business people. It was a sure sign of progress to see the mainstream media turning the heat on Barry, and for groups from advocates to public intellectuals and elected officials make it clear that such divisive and racist rhetoric would not be tolerated.

It is easy to be outraged and to demand apologies. What is much harder to do—though equally necessary—is to reflect on how our community is perceived by others and how we can improve our public image and community relations.

Here is what Mr. Barry actually said at the primary election victory party in April: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops… They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

Mr. Barry wasn’t just talking about the Asian shops being unsanitary; he saw the Asian business people and their shops as outsiders that didn’t belong in Ward 8, a predominantly black community. While his intention might be to see more black businesses in the community, his tactic of scapegoating by pitting one community against another is most unfortunate and drives a wedge in community relations.

Anyone who has been paying attention should hardly be surprised at these remarks from Marion Barry, who, in spite of his past glory as a civil rights champion in Washington, D.C., has become synonymous with reckless and shameless personal conduct by public officials. What bothered me more than his comments was the audience’s cheers and applause at his words. Right or wrong, Mr. Barry seemed to have echoed a sentiment among some residents in Ward 8 towards Asian American-owned businesses.

This should sound an alarm to the Asian business community and our community leaders about how we are perceived by other communities. The residents in Ward 8 elected Mr. Barry repeatedly to represent them because he is seen as a fighter for the underclass.

Ward 8 still feels left behind in spite of the capital city’s remarkable economic turnaround and massive revitalization since the late ‘90s. It is one thing to be poor, quite another to be “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King put it in his “I have a Dream” speech. That feeling makes some residents resent “outsiders” who are seen as only interested in making money without being part of the local community.

Such a sentiment sounds all too familiar.

Asian immigrants all over the world are known to be industrious and successful in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But history teaches us that focusing only on making a living or a fortune may be fine for the short-term interests of individual businesses, but over time may breed resentment among locals who may perceive us as opportunists. Investing in community relations by hiring local residents, volunteering or donating to local charitable or social causes, and living where one does business are not only sound business strategies, but also economic imperatives for survival.

Wake-up Call

What happened in Indonesia during the mid to late ‘90s, when Chinese immigrants were targeted and had their properties and lives violated, should serve as a wake-up call to Asian immigrant communities everywhere. Economic success without community involvement or political empowerment can be a lethal combination that isolates us from the larger society and deepens mistrust between newcomers and the local communities.

I was impressed by a poignant commentary in the Washington Post (April 27), “Still the Same Marion Barry,” by Colby King, a Pulitzer Prize- winning Post columnist who happens to be African American, condemning Mr. Barry’s remarks while putting his life and popularity with some blacks in perspective. It is important that leaders and pundits in the black community speak out on such issues to advance other minorities’ rights and well-being. While we shouldn’t cut slacks for anyone, especially elected leaders, we should also rise above outrage and use each incident as a teachable moment to advance the bigger purpose of social integration.

The Art of Cultural Celebrations

Published in Asian Fortune ( February, 2012 edition.

At a Lunar New Year celebration event a couple of years ago, a local elected
official asked me if the movie clip on the big screen was showing the red
guards, a symbol of destruction and terror during the Cultural Revolution in
China. All she could see were images of young people carrying guns marching
since the Chinese language subtitle meant nothing to her. I assured her that
those were not red guards and that showing the old movie was simply an
expression of nostalgia, a way of having a good time during the Lunar New Year
because many people like me grew up listening to the movie’s popular theme song.
In spite of my explanation, she was not quite convinced that it was appropriate
for a public celebration. That experience speaks to the complex and fluid nature
of cultural heritage. Like many of my peers, I grew up during a politically
tumultuous era (60’s and 70’s) in China. The cultural heritage we are familiar
with are not the lion or dragon dances, which ironically I had never seen until
coming to this country, but rather songs and movies that inevitably reflect the
life and politics of that time. We resonate with them in spite of their often
ridiculous and laughable lyrics or meaning because they are part of our shared
history and identity. It is no different from a generation of Americans who will
always identify with the Woodstock culture no matter how they think about that

However, as our cultural celebrations become increasingly public events, what
we celebrate and how we celebrate can be a real challenge. For community leaders
and event organizers, the art is in balancing between meeting the expectations
of our own community members and introducing the larger community to the essence
of our heritage that we consider worthy of preserving and promoting.

After attending hundreds of community events hosted by mostly immigrant
communities in the past few years, I have some observations and tips that can be
helpful to those who have to make such delicate decisions. After all, public
events should enhance, not diminish, your public image as a leader, organization
and community. These cultural matters can be broadly applied to many communities
that are mostly foreign-born and relatively new to this country or region.

First off, I am often struck by the lack of English-language program copies
at many community-based events, especially cultural performances. Having the
programs and event signs in English is not only a basic courtesy but would also
alleviate potential misinterpretation and make the events much more meaningful
to all attendees, including those from our own ethnic communities who are native
English speakers.

The singing of the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance can be
awkward moments for many in our communities who only sing to their home
countries’ national anthems while standing silent at the tune of the American
anthem. Whatever the reason, singing only to another country’s national anthem
reinforces our community’s “foreigner” image when these events should instead
enhance community relations and social integration. For organizers, it would be
wise to print the lyrics or text in the programs.

Finally, it is a very common occurrence that the event hosts cannot properly
pronounce the names of the special guests they want to recognize, such as some
elected officials they invited. A little preparation goes a long way. In
addition, all special guests should be treated with equal respect, whether they
are diplomats from embassies representing an entire country or local elected
officials representing a local jurisdiction. As the event host, you are the
diplomat-in- chief to make sure everyone feels welcomed and respected.

Events are made of a million details and a successful cultural celebration is
as much defined by the lack of glitches and gaffes as by memorable moments for
the right reasons. The added cultural dimensions certainly complicate matters.
But as what used to be considered purely “ethnic” holidays like Lunar New Year,
which is shared by the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, become increasingly
mainstream, so should our practice of celebrating them.

As we begin the Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious symbol that is sure
to bring us many reasons for celebration, let us celebrate in great style and
with added awareness.


New Year’s Resolution: Give Where You Live

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune January, 2012 edition,

During the holiday season, you must have received countless mailings and calls from around the country asking for your donations to charitable causes. It can be overwhelming. After all, how do you choose among feeding the hungry, curing diseases, helping wounded veterans, educating at-risk youth, and protecting the environment? While you may already have your favorite charities, including some halfway around the country or around the world in your home countries where you came from, I am urging you to give locally, where you and your family and community now call home. There are many great reasons to give where you live, but here are a few that have compelled me to give locally each year.

  • Investing in the well-being of the community at large helps build strong communities that benefit all of us. A report on the Greater Washington, DC charities a few years ago showed that for every dollar invested in local charities, we get an average of five dollars of return in economic benefits in reduced need for government services or avoidance of greater crisis down the road that could be far more costly to all of us as taxpayers and members of the society.
  • Giving locally helps us pay attention to local affairs and gets us connected at a deeper level. Many important policy decisions were made without our communities’ direct input because we did not bother to read about them in local papers or show up at town halls or find some other ways to shape the outcomes. Giving makes us focus on who we give to and why. It also helps us exercise our influence and exert our voices.
  • Giving locally enhances our communities’ image and relationships with the larger communities, especially when you do that in an organized fashion. If we are perceived as only interested in economic opportunities, we cannot enjoy the true benefits of social integration at the local level. The Muslim community in Montgomery County has been a great model among new communities in that regard. For example, the Montgomery County Muslim Council ( was founded with the dual mission of serving the larger community and increasing Muslim community’s activism and visibility. In the words of its visionary founder, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, the Muslim community doesn’t need much but has much to give. In just a few years since its founding, MCMC and its affiliate MCMF have made a great name for themselves through their range of charitable activities. Another one, the Muslim Community Center (, runs a highly successful health clinic for the uninsured and low-income, by using the wealth of medical expertise within the Muslim community to serve the larger community while building good will.

Many of us came from countries with no tradition of an independent nonprofit sector, so charitable giving, especially giving to those we don’t feel connected to, is not deeply rooted in our cultural psyche. In this country, nonprofits, especially charitable organizations, are an American beauty. They are critical partners of the public and the private sectors doing what neither one of them can do alone or cost effectively. They are a measure of a society’s civility and collective conscience.

As we become more established both individually and as a community, we are in a much better position to give. At the risk of playing favoritism, I am recommending a few local Asian American charitable organizations that provide vital services to the most vulnerable among us so they may lead a dignified life.  Due to space limits, I am only offering links so you may check them out online.

For a list of local charities, visit the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington ( or the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region (
This New Year, let’s put “give where you live” on our New Year’s resolutions list. Let’s pay it forward–it’s the American way.

Learning to be Thankful

Thanksgiving marks the psychological, if not the official, beginning of the annual holiday season, a season of reflection and appreciation. We take the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year, to spend more time with those who matter to us the most, those who have helped us or enriched our lives, and those we feel somewhat obligated to be kind to or show appreciation for. It is a busy season marked with dinners, parties, gifts and cards.

But it is one thing to engage in acts of appreciation, and quite another to truly feel thankful for life’s many blessings. Being thankful is an acquired quality or attribute. In other words, we learn to be thankful.

I grew up in an unusual Chinese family where my dad, especially, would say “thank-you” or “I am sorry” to us when he felt necessary to do so. I didn’t know how special that was until I realized how few families did that in China, where family members were taken for granted rather than treated with the same courtesy and gratitude as others.

While being kind to those who are kind to us, or reciprocity, was emphasized in our culture, being thankful for something beyond our control, or what some call life’s simple gifts, was unheard of. We would simply call that good fortune, I guess. I was first introduced to that concept of being thankful by a very nice and deeply faithful student while in college. We were talking about religion and beliefs one day, when he asked, “Have you ever felt grateful for something in life…like your family, your life and your talents?” I was caught off guard but fascinated by his thinking and mindset. That conversation left a lasting impression on me because it made me look myself in a different light and reevaluate my attitude towards life.

But it was a tragic death of another college friend that shook me to my core and offered an unforgettable lesson of what it means to be grateful. A student I had befriended was killed in a bicycle accident while studying abroad in China. At his memorial service back home in Indiana, I met his parents, who lost their only son. I felt terrible and even somewhat guilty because he and I had talked about his desire to study in China and of course, I had encouraged him. Mark’s father said, in the most loving way, “We are grateful that Mark got to do what he loved to do before he died. He had always wanted to study in China. Thank you for being his friend.” I was profoundly moved by that unexpected expression of grace.

Being thankful is a show of both strength and humility, and an expression of maturity and wisdom. Looking back, I wish I were more thankful when my son was young and totally dependent on our love and care. I wish I were more thankful for my mother’s sacrifice when she left her job as a music teacher in China to care for my son for almost a year when he was born. And I even wish I were more thankful for some of life’s setbacks because they made me more resilient, resourceful and appreciative.

In a culture that rewards competition over collaboration, being thankful lets us see the big picture—which is, none of us can do it alone. Most things in life require either help from others or what some may call an act of the divine spirit. In a world that is filled with problems and conflicts, being thankful gives us sanctuary and hope. In the stress of everyday life, being thankful fills our hearts with joy and peace.

Thanksgiving forces us to slow down, enjoy the company of our family and friends, and reflect on the many blessings in life. I am thankful that having lived in two very different cultures makes me a more insightful and interesting person. I am thankful to Asian Fortune and its founder and publisher, Jay Chen, for giving me the opportunity to share my cultural experiences and lessons learned. And I am thankful to those of you who have chosen to read my column and have even written to share your experiences and make that special connection with me. Thank you.

Japanese Tsunami’s Cultural Ripples

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan stunned the world. Like many, I have been following the news and paying attention to local organized activities that contribute to relief efforts. I got an email recently about a fundraiser from a group of Asian American organizations. Before forwarding the invitation to my contacts, I opened the attached flyer, and that was when my feelings of compassion were quickly overtaken by a strong sense of unease. Try as I might, I found myself disturbed by the design of the flyer. At the top was the big word “HOPE,” with the letter “O” replaced by a big red dot that unmistakably symbolizes the Japanese flag.

The Japanese flag! The flag under which millions of Chinese were slaughtered, raped and tortured; the flag that many Chinese immigrants in Japan refused to bow to under any circumstance, because of the humiliation and trauma the Chinese went through under the Japanese occupation, and the flag that evokes strong feelings to this day among ordinary Chinese who are still waiting for Japan to officially apologize for its past crimes against humanity. Immediately, images of the book “The Rape of Nanking” leapt to mind, images of horrific brutality by Japanese soldiers against infants, women, and the elderly, and images of Japanese soldiers rejoicing over decapitation contests…

But unlike most Chinese, I am an American now. I personally know and highly regard many Japanese Americans here. I should move on and get over it, right? Frankly, I thought I had, until that moment. In fact, I had never connected this recent tsunami tragedy with Japan’s past, until that moment that brought me back to the era of unimaginable suffering in the country I left behind. I even found it outrageous that there are Chinese, though a very small number of them, thought that the Japanese deserved this traumatic experience because it was God’s punishment for Japan’s historical atrocities, or that Japan somehow brought this tragedy upon itself because of its supposed secret nuclear tests under the Pacific Ocean.

As an American and someone who consciously seeks to educate myself about cultures and people, I know better than to hold grudges against an entire country when only a small portion committed the crimes over sixty years ago. I know full well how Japan and China have both tried to mend fences, and how Japan has become a critical partner for China’s economic growth over the past several decades. And I know that as Asian Americans, whether Japanese or Chinese, we are really one community and one people with shared history of being perceived and treated as outsiders. In fact, when I speak in the public about Asian American history, I often talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese internment experience in the same breath. Just like the Chinese and Japanese need each other as partners and allies on the global stage, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans here have every reason to band together to make our country a more just and welcoming place for all.

But that red dot caught me by surprise. It opened emotional wounds that I tried very hard to bury as a modern day Chinese American. This is, after all, a personal subject. My grandmother died at age twenty shortly after giving birth to her only child, my mother, when the Japanese army bombed the area she lived. My mother, who was an otherwise highly energetic and warm music teacher, always felt that life cheated her and that all of her major problems could be somehow attributed to her not having a mother for love and guidance.

To the rest of America, the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people all seem the same. We all look the same, we all eat rice with chopsticks, most of us speak English as a second language (which is true), and we all celebrate the same Lunar New Year (which is not true). But underneath that “Asian” façade, we each have our own distinct identities and history. Sometimes that history includes tensions between peoples.

Unlike many Americans born here, especially those in mixed population areas, most immigrants come from countries and cultures far less diverse or tolerant. As Americans, we are often surprised when people who look the same, at least to the rest of us, do not interact with each other or would even show disdain towards one another. That is because as Americans, we have been programmed to see people through the racial lens of Asian, Black, Latino, or White, whereas people who grew up in other countries identify themselves along the lines of ethnicities, nationalities (which is not the same as ethnicity), languages and religions. Race is arbitrary but ethnicity is real. There is no “Asian” language, culture or religion, but there are distinct languages, cultures and religions in each Asian ethnicity represented here. For example, the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis may look the same to the rest of us, but they know how different they really are, even if they share some common cultural practices and beliefs. These differences can cause tension because of historical conflicts or prejudice.

Our lack of appreciation of inter-ethnic relations can create blind spots in our engagement with these communities, especially if the majority of these communities are foreign-born. I believe the organizers of the tsunami fundraising event simply wanted to add a little cultural touch to the flyer, but I know how this flyer could evoke the wrong emotions within the Chinese and other ethnic communities that were terrorized by Japan during WWII. Symbols matter. In an increasingly inter-connected world and integrated country, we all need to try harder to become more culturally competent as global citizens and as Americans. But cultural competency comes twofold. It means we need to be aware of underlying cultural friction when we interact with different communities, and that we need to catch ourselves from acting on emotional cultural instincts when confronted with uncomfortable situations.

After all, the Japanese people across the Pacific are hurting, and they need our help. They do, ultimately, look a lot like us—they are our fellow human beings. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami has turned out to be a soul-searching experience not only for the Japanese people, but for the Chinese people and the Chinese government as well. And even for some Americans. We are becoming one world. If we get it right, our children won’t have to overcome a negative reaction to the national symbol of their neighbors.

Lily Qi is the Vice Chair of Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs. She can be reached at