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.

How to be a Great Intern

(originally published in Asian Fortune September edition, http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_0911.php?article_id=21)

As another summer intern season draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the dozen or so interns from various academic institutions I have worked with and feel compelled to offer some tips for those who plan to use internships to enrich their experiences and make themselves more attractive to future employers.

It is no easy task to find a good internship these days. With so many adults competing for paid jobs, more and more students are turning to internships than ever before; it is thus all the more important to make the most out of your internship. Tough economic times can spell opportunities for student interns who are willing to take jobs with or without pay, because chances are you will be used as experienced professionals to work on challenging projects that organizations can no longer afford to hire full-time staff for.

Regardless of your educational backgrounds or skill sets, here are a few practical tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls and make the most out of your internship:

  1. Check your emails and voice mails. Once you give out your phone number or an email address on your resume, it becomes your responsibility to check them often so you don’t miss important messages for interviews. The fact that you don’t routinely use certain email accounts is no excuse because you will be performing adult tasks and will expect to be treated as one.
  2. Take the interview seriously, whether it is over the phone or in person. Check out the organization’s Web site before your scheduled interview, and prepare a few questions in advance that show you have done your homework and you value this opportunity.
  3. Follow up promptly. After the interview, make sure you send a simple thank-you note, email or hand-written, to either reiterate your interest in the internship or politely tell them you are no longer pursuing that opportunity. Having this habit will serve you well.
  4. Dress appropriately for work. Even during the summer time, when the dress code is a little more relaxed, it’s still wise not to wear jeans with holes, very short skirts, tank-tops, low-cut tops or flip flops to work, unless that’s the normal dress code for professionals too.
  5. Learn to follow verbal instructions. Students may find this challenging because they are more accustomed to written instructions from their teachers or professors in the forms of class syllabuses or textbooks. In the workplace, most of the instruction you will get is likely through verbal communication. You may consider taking notes while receiving verbal instructions to make sure you fully comprehend what the expectations are.
  6. Take initiatives and don’t wait to be told what to do. How much you get out of each internship experience depends on your level of initiative. I had interns who were so shy and passive it was easy to forget they were there, while others excelled because they expressed curiosity about certain subjects, asked thoughtful questions and sought to do more than their assigned tasks.
  7. Pay attention to little things that can make a big difference in people’s perception of you and your ability. Simple things such as formatting your Excel spreadsheets to make sure they print properly and making a PowerPoint more visually attractive go a long way. Don’t let these important details trip you up!
  8. Don’t be afraid of asserting your voice if necessary. Professionals who have been in the trenches doing the same things for years may not have the creative thinking or fresh perspectives you can bring to the table as a new generation that grew up with the Internet. The best interns are the ones who can offer extra value, like a better way to do certain things.
  9. Always strive to exceed expectations, and don’t settle for mediocrity. Treat each internship, paid or unpaid, as if your future career depends on it. Do a good job in every job you do, even if you don’t like the job.

Doing a good job in any internship carries over into your future opportunities, and an impressive reference from your internship supervisor is invaluable. Stay in touch with your former employers and periodically update them about your life and career moves. They may even be able to offer advice or connections. After all, an internship is really a process of self-discovery. What you learn about yourself always matters more than what you can possibly learn about any particular job or task.


American Civility

A few months ago, my husband and I went to the Kennedy Center for a special concert hosted by a leading civil rights advocacy group. It was a weekday and we both rushed over there after work, only to find ourselves joining the hundreds of people already lined up outside the Concert Hall for the free tickets we had all been promised. I looked around and even saw some ladies in elegant dresses and heels. After an hour and half, when we finally got to the ticket desk and the concert had already begun, we were told there were no more tickets left because it was first come, first served!

At least 200 people were still in line. Some shook their heads in disbelief. Others sighed and murmured amongst themselves, disappointed. Clearly, the event organizer had over-promised and ended up wasting many people’s time. But remarkably, no one confronted the event staff or aired their frustrations publicly. Gradually, people simply turned around and left, in quiet and composed manner. I was extremely impressed with such civility. I could well imagine a very different reaction with a different crowd, or in a different country.

Years ago, one of my friends, an American-born Chinese, said she noticed that Chinese immigrants “complain a lot.” I was quite disturbed by the unfavorable impression we left on our fellow Chinese Americans, but there were unfortunate elements of truth in her observation. As Montgomery County’s Asian American liaison, I have heard from County employees that some in the immigrant communities, Asians or not, refuse to take “No” for an answer and always try to find ways to curtail the rules. They may expect the staff speaking their languages to be more accommodating, for example, by exempting them from paying library fines, or expediting their requests for permits beyond what is reasonable. Some would talk loudly on cell phones while being served by the County staff, while others would talk down to female staff members or ask to talk to men instead. Whether or not these behaviors are a result of “cultural differences,” they are generally considered unacceptable in a civil society.

Civility is a reflection of both our values and upbringings. When I grew up in China, daily life took so much effort that civility was the least of one’s concerns. Survival instincts drove people to jump the lines at food markets, to nudge and elbow to get on the bus, and to argue and complain until they got what they wanted. Rules didn’t apply equally, so having the right relationships meant getting better services. What we now consider to be rude behavior was not only acceptable, but even necessary for survival. Without proper channels to air their frustrations, complaining became a way of life for many who felt helpless and powerless to change the cards they were dealt.

Civility is also directly related to one’s pocketbook and sense of security. When there is enough to go around and you don’t feel threatened, you can afford to be nice. This is why in bad economic times, there is a great deal more tension and scapegoating among people and groups. This is also why over time, as immigrants become more established, we learn “the American way” and adapt to American behavioral norms. Of course, uncivil behaviors exist in every community, whether foreign or native born, but we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit certain patterns of behavioral differences between us.

As the old Chinese saying goes, “It’s easy to change the landscape, hard to change the nature.” While learning English and establishing oneself in a new country is enormously difficult, it’s even more daunting to fundamentally change one’s values and behaviors. It may take a lifetime of self-checking and reflection to overcome our cultural disadvantages and to relearn some habits that did not shape us when we grew up.

Years ago, I read a story about an international student riding in his American friend’s car in the middle of the night. There was not a single car in sight, but at the red light, to his surprise, “the American still stopped.” Yes, we stop for red lights whether there is a camera watching or any traffic. At the end of the day, what makes us American is not our accents, sizes of our houses, or which schools our kids go to; it is a set of core values and principles that bind us together.

Lily Qi is Vice Chair of Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs and Montgomery County Executive’s Liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Communities. She can be reached at qulturematters@gmail.com.