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.

 

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!