A Rich and Rewarding Experience: Lessons on Career Path

When I considered the Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison job about four years ago, I was the Director of Communication and Public Affairs for the DC Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking. I had a decent income, a team of staff, and a nice corner office near Union Station. So what made me want to take a job with no travel opportunities, no staff or administrative support, requiring significant time commitment on evenings and weekends, and on top of that, a double digit percentage pay cut? Indeed, some of my friends thought I was crazy.

The answer is passion. To me, being a community liaison is not just a job, but a way of life, with or without the title. Like a typical Asian in the capital region, I am an immigrant. I can relate to our communities’ struggles as newcomers trying to establish ourselves here; as parents facing the dual challenges of cultural and generational gaps, and as professionals taking too long to find our ways but then hitting the bamboo ceilings too soon. I wanted to act as a voice and a link for our growing, vibrant, but still disconnected communities. I wanted to see our communities more visible, engaged, and respected. And I wanted us to matter more.

It turned out to be one of the best jobs I have ever held as it was the closest to who I am at heart. I had the honor of representing the local government in the public and speaking for our communities inside the government. I had the gratification of involving our new communities in local affairs, while educating the established communities and institutions to be more culturally competent and adaptive to changes. And I had the privilege of recommending our community leaders and volunteers for jobs, boards, and awards, and connecting people with opportunities. What’s better than being paid to do what you love to do anyway?

As a generalist, I have probably asked myself this question more often than most people, “What should I do with my life?” Each job has taught me valuable lessons about life, tested my limits, and brought me closer to that answer.

First, I learned that a career path doesn’t have to be linear. If you are truly passionate about something, it is worth pursuing it during the best years of your life, not after you retire. Adapting to changes, identifying the needs and seeking to add my unique value in every situation has been my compass because our jobs are what we make out of them.

I have also learned never to let my pay grade stop me from doing what needs to be done. Instead, I took initiatives and built allies. For example, I engaged top management on the signing of the executive order on language access by the County Executive to raise the bar on how we serve people with limited English proficiency. I involved community media and organizations to support an economic development vision so they have a voice on a major local issue. I teamed up with both senior managers and community leaders to initiate the “Leading a Global Workforce” training series for managers and the “Global Montgomery” series for staff to learn about our changing communities and workforce.

Finally, I try not to lose sight of who I really am. With training and practice, we can develop competency in many areas, but we are only really great at a few things we are meant to do with our lives. I am old enough to know what I am really good at, though never wise enough to figure out what to do next. So life is still an open book and an adventure.

This past summer, I was appointed by County Executive Ike Leggett as Special Projects Manager overseeing such priority initiatives as strategic partnerships to grow our innovation economy and develop international relations. I am content that a group of highly capable people in our community have stepped up and applied to be the next Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison. I join our community in thanking all of you who applied for putting yourself out there to serve us all. As for me, I have found new ways to be a voice and a link for our community, and writing this column is part of that. May the New Year bring you new adventures. Happy Holidays!

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune December issue.  Online version can be found at http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_1211.php?article_id=30.

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.


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.

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.