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!

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.

Elections and Asian Americans

If you live in Maryland, you probably know that our primary election is on April 3, much earlier than previous years. Chances are, you have received multiple mailings from both your local Board of Elections and from candidates, especially if you live in the new Congressional District 6, where it’s a serious contest in both the primary and general elections.

Local elections can be confusing as relatively few people pay attention to local politics, especially for the largely-immigrant Asian community, which does not have deep local ties to really know the issues or the candidates. In spite of greater efforts by the party establishments and campaigns to reach out to our community and greater overall participation from our community in recent years as voters, donors, volunteers or organizers, or even candidates, a host of challenges remain in our election participation.

In Maryland, most of the elections are decided by the primary race, especially in the heavily minority jurisdictions where Asians congregate, such as Montgomery, Howard, Prince George’s and Baltimore city.

Since many Asian American voters are not registered with any parties, they cannot vote for most of the candidates in the primary election, and by the time they cast their votes in the general election, the results are so predictable that their votes don’t really matter much. The reluctance among Asians to be associated with any
parties means this phenomenon is unlikely to change in the near future – unless we change the policy to allow independents to vote for party candidates.

The small number of active participants in election activities leads to over-taxing of community leaders and connectors, who are being asked by a growing number of organizations and campaigns to open our wallets and rolodexes to support various candidates and party campaigns. It can be exhausting and expensive for a very frugal community that still brings lunch to work to save money and does not always understand why so much money is needed for elections.

It is one thing to reach out for money and votes; quite another for advice and understanding. So far, we have been mostly playing a cheerleading or supporting role. Very rarely do campaigns or parties take the time to learn about our communities’ dynamics, interests and priorities, or to get our advice on critical issues.

So we mostly cast our votes based on name recognition, campaign rhetoric or personal relationship rather than real issues that matter to us. Until the parties and the campaigns learn to engage our communities on a continuous basis and better yet, to cultivate true leadership in the Asian community, we will continue to see what I call the “eagle effect”—organizations or individuals swooping down to seek our support when needed then disappearing into thin air.

Finally, the national debate on illegal immigration has made Latinos synonymous with immigration. Often times, it is assumed that all immigrants support pro-immigrant legislations such as the Dream Act, which would allow those who were brought to this country illegally as children enjoy in-state college tuition if they graduate from Maryland’s high schools.

The fact is, the Asian community is highly divided on this issue as they were in 2009 when Montgomery County started reporting individuals charged with violent crimes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after a couple of high profile killings committed by undocumented residents.

A community made of largely swing voters is fair game for any party wanting to earn our trust and votes. The fact that most Asians vote for Democrats has more to do with the lack of serious outreach from the Republican Party and the perception that Democrats are more minority-friendly, than with where the parties stand on issues.

With immigrants and our families, including our American-born children, making up an increasingly larger share of almost every community in the region, it is time the political parties integrate multicultural (and multilingual if necessary) outreach into their psyche and strategy for their own long-term benefits. No matter who we support, our core values of family cohesiveness (lowest divorce rate among all racial groups), education (highest educational attainment), and personal responsibility (highest savings rate) don’t change.

The fact that Maryland is the only state in the country with three Indian Americans in its state legislature, in addition to a Chinese American and a Filipino American, is sure progress. True social integration can take generations, but let’s not waste any generation, foreign-or American- born.

The article was originally published in Asian Fortune’s April edition.

Holiday Etiquette: Why You Shouldn’t Ask Your Guests to Take off Their Shoes

I don’t like taking off shoes when visiting people’s homes.  That’s one of my pet peeves.  But most of my guests visiting my home would voluntarily take off their shoes, and I had to tell people again and again to keep them on.  They do that because it’s a popular custom among Asians.   

Maybe you want your guests to feel more at home.  Maybe you live a new house and want to protect your new hardwood floor from scratching or your new carpet from staining.  Or Maybe your cultural upbringing is such that it’s customary and respectful to take off shoes when visiting other people’s homes.  No matter.  If it doesn’t violate your fundamental values or religious practices, please do not make your guests take off their shoes.  Why?

  1. Shoes are an integral part of the overall attire.  Sometimes the pants or skirts I wear depend on what shoes I put on.  For example, I may put on tight jeans or denim leggings for wearing boots but I don’t want to walk around anybody’s house wearing just leggings without my boots.  Other than the jackets or coats, you shouldn’t expect people to take off any part of their clothing.
  2. Some people may want to keep their shoes on as their socks may not match each other, are very old or unsightly, or have holes. 
  3. Some may prefer to keep their feet warm by leaving the shoes on. 
  4. It’s a hassle to bend over to buckle or tie the shoes when you have to juggle other things like your bag, umbrella, a food tray or a coat.  So make it easy for your guests. 
  5. You may live in a huge mansion, but if you have over 20 guests at a party with everyone taking off their shoes, you have a pile of unsightly mess at the door, which can also be a hazard in case people need to get out quickly. 
  6. Finally, when you expect people to take off shoes because you have a clean, beautiful home or brand new floor, it just makes you look very uncool.  If you are that concerned, you shouldn’t invite anybody over.  Really. 

So relax and tell your guests to come right in, like a gracious and fabulous host would.

Muslims In Montgomery County

I recently hosted a cultural competency training program called “Beyond the Veil: Muslims in Montgomery County” for our County government employees, in anticipation of Ramadan on Aug. 1, when the month of fasting begins for Muslims this year.   Over 80 staff showed up to learn from and connect with the local Muslim community leaders.  Many believed we could use a lot more time to cover this fascinating subject.  Panelists answered questions including Islam and women, and why Muslims aren’t more volcal to speak out against radical Islam. 

I must say I have been very impressed with the Muslim community in Montgomery County because of their conscious efforts in interfaith relationship building, civic activism and exemplary charitable contributions to the larger community.  Please contact me at my work email, if you are interested in local Montgomery County, Maryland’s list of Ramadan community activities.

Guest speaker at Tea4Soul

I had a wonderful time talking on Saturday (July 9) at the Tea4Soul forum on demographics and community dynamics, life in America and career choices, including the role of government.  The audience was so engaged and enthusiastic I felt such discussions were really overdue.  We need more similar forums to learn from one another about life and choices and offer support, especially among immigrant professionals.  Click for photos and recording of the forum.

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

The Agony of Parenting

Reflections on “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”

Much has been said about Amy Chua’s controversial book, “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,” and her related article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” If her goal was to provoke meaningful discussion about cultural differences in parenting, then she has certainly accomplished that.  She unapologetically promotes the results-oriented, top-down, I-know-what’s-best-for-you parenting style that is often favored (sometimes unknowingly) by Chinese parents and parents from many other cultures, although for most people the issue of parenting is quite complicated when two cultures and generations are involved.

As a Chinese immigrant and mother of a college freshman born and raised in the U.S., I find this subject fascinating on a very personal level.  While Amy Chua is an American-born, Harvard-educated Yale Law professor, she is in many ways much more “Chinese” than I as a mother, even though I came to this country already grown up and married (to a Chinese native). 

For example, my son was allowed and in some cases even encouraged to:

  • have sleepovers both at his friends’ houses and our house throughout his childhood
  • watch TV and play video games when he’s done with what he’s supposed to do
  • do crafts like folding origami, a hobby that he outgrew after a few years
  • play a role in a school play during his senior year in high school, even though the long hours of daily rehearsal took a toll on his sleep and ultimately his grades because I consider a school play an experience worthy of such sacrifice.  
  • choose his own college (Tufts University) as early decision, rather than making him apply for a bunch of better-known but not necessarily better or more suitable colleges for him.
  • figure out what he’s truly passionate about and gifted for without dictating what he should study in college, as long as he can lead a self-sufficient and productive life.

Finally, I believe he owes me nothing. I don’t expect any payback for my parental sacrifices, which are too many to list. Whatever he pursues should be for his own good and happiness rather than to appease us, his parents. He should live HIS dreams, not mine.

So I guess I qualify as a “Western” parent, more so than a “Chinese” parent. But the truth is, like every immigrant who is also a parent, I agonized over how “American” I want to be in my outlook, lifestyle, and parenting style. I agonized over where the right balance should be. Of course, like many things in life, there is no right answer and everyone in my circle of immigrant friends probably struggled just as much as I did, whether they are married to American-born spouses or not. 

In some ways, though, I am also very “Chinese.” I adhered to what I call the “Asian trilogy” of child-rearing in America—piano or violin, weekend language school, and martial arts. Like many parents who ushered their children through these popular routines, I saw them as the basic building blocks of discipline and skills development that could also help refine one’s cultural upbringing and strengthen one’s spirit. I signed my son up for summer academic programs that essentially made his summer time an extension of a regular school year rather than a play time. And I helped him apply for the International Baccalaureate program, which turned out to be a very rigorous academic experience, as it should be.

The result is a young man who is socially well-adjusted, perceptive and analytical, and who also has the intellectual capability to handle demanding courses at school. But he never made it to the Carnegie Hall or martial arts championship, or anything close to it, nor did we ever expect him to in spite of several wins from local contests. Like many American parents of all cultural backgrounds, we emphasized exposure and experience over results.

While there is a certain degree of fascination with “Asian” parenting style, if I may call it, which seems to have yielded a large number of “whiz kids,” there is really no secret to Asian parenting.  Asian parents simply emphasize academic achievement more, sometimes at the expense of other things that our kids and our non-Asian counterparts would consider just as important, if not more. Asian parents are more willing to sacrifice their time and wealth for their children’s education and overall well-being, as past studies have shown.

In spite of my differences with Amy Chua and some Asian parents, we as a society are fortunate when parents take parental responsibilities seriously and are willing to be the “bad cop” and do the unpopular things such as disciplining their own kids. We are fortunate when parents instill in their kids a strong sense of work ethics so the society doesn’t have to step in and pay for the bad choices they make later in life because somewhere along the line some adults were absent from their lives to properly guide and nurture them. We are fortunate when parents motivate their children to set and accomplish high goals through perseverance and the delay of gratification.

No parenting style is perfect just like no parent is perfect. Whenever we have a debate about cultural and value differences, it is important to seek to understand the complexities and nuances before passing judgments. Parenting is among the most demanding of all responsibilities. Each of us as a parent has to find our happy mean that works with our own peace of mind and takes into consideration each child’s unique traits as a human being.