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.


Jay Chen: A Visionary, Pioneer, and Connector

My friend Jay Chen, the founder and publisher of Asian Fortune, which publishes my monthly articles archived here on this blog, passed away on January 31.  At the family’s request, I gave a eulogy at his memorial service, attended by at least 300 of his admirers and friends, many among Who’s Who in the Asian communities.  The beauty of Jay and his Asian Fortune is that they have become uniters of the Asian communities across ethnicities and jurisdictions in the capital region.  To this day, Asian Fortune remains the only English newspaper in the Washington, DC region covering all Asian ethnicities.

Lily’s Eulogy for Jay Chen
Feb. 4, 2012

Like all of you, I am still in disbelief.  We took Jay and his Asian Fortune for granted
because they were always there for us.  From major national issues such as the 1882 Project about the historical injustice of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the BP oil spill’s impact on the Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf region; from the Lunar New Year celebrations to Diwali celebrations; from federal government appointments to local community events, Asian Fortune has become a voice and conscience of our community.  It is a story book that chronicles the struggles and success of our people.  It is an institution that has become a staple of the capital region.  It is a bridge that connects us with ourselves across ethnicities and jurisdictions and with the larger communities.

We will miss Jay’s towering figure, broad smile and big voice at many of our community’s events and milestones, but we are comforted to learn we will continue to benefit from his legacy thanks to Jay’s daughter, whose name is also Lily, and the family.  Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Each of us can be great because all of us can serve.” Jay, his lovely family and his wonderful staff have served us all very well.

As soon as I sent out the email announcement about Jay’s passing and the memorial service, about 20 people emailed me back expressing shock, grief and disbelief that Jay actually had left us.  Each referred to Jay as a good friend and recounted their connections with him.  Jay made each of us feel special and believe that the things we are doing in the community, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us at the moment, are actually very important in the large scheme of things because he had a vision for our community. My husband told me that he would forever keep that bottle of wine that Jay gave us on my birthday just two months ago.

This moment and Jay’s life remind me of a Native American proverb that is simple yet powerful.  It says, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life in such a way that when you die, you rejoice and the word cries.”  I am sure Jay is looking over us today, rejoicing, because he has brought us all together again, just the way he envisioned.