Wednesday, October 10, 2001

A bicultural professional--divided loyalty or best of both worlds?

Speech: Silicon Valley Chinese Engineers Association Annual Conferenc, October 6, 2001

Despite recent tragic events, we are lucky to be living in America. This is a country of generosity, in space and in spirit. This is a country that has room for everyone and anyone. Anyone with the desire and the drive has the opportunity to succeed here in America. As previous speakers have already recounted, nowhere exemplifies this fact more than here in Silicon Valley.

According to latest U.S. census figures, more than one out of four persons living in Santa Clara County is an Asian American and one out of every fourteen is a Chinese American. Walk through any high tech company in Silicon Valley, and one would meet engineers, managers and executives from all over the world. If America is the land of opportunity, then Silicon Valley the source where opportunities originate.

Silicon Valley is the living proof that diversity is the strength of America. All of us that live and work in Silicon Valley have become to varying degrees multicultural professionals. We have to develop multicultural sensitivities in order to communicate with each other, to work as effective teams and therefore to be successful. Tragically, it is the lack of diversity and cultural sensitivity that kept our intelligence gathering agencies from detecting and preventing the recent acts of terrorism but that’s a topic of discussion for another day.

Today however, I would like to talk about the merit of being a bicultural professional rather than multicultural. More specifically, I would like to talk about being a professional person that takes advantage of being a Chinese and at the same time being an American.

In 1978, more than twenty years ago, I joined Chase Manhattan Bank to help American corporations do business in China, thus making use of my Chinese background as well as my consulting experience and my technical education. At that time, China was just opening its doors to the west and I took the job with Chase Bank with a sense of adventure and it did not occur to me that being bicultural could serve as a basis for a professional career. In fact, many people I met in China and not a few in the U.S. had trouble understanding what a person with a doctorate degree in polymer science was doing in an intermediary role of uncertain calling.

Today is very different. China has become the sixth largest economy in the world, the only major trillion-dollar economy expected to double within ten years, and has become a major trading partner of the U.S. and of California. Today opportunities abound for those who can move comfortably and get things done on both sides of the Pacific and who can function as a bridge between the east and west.

For the twenty some odd years that I have been going back and forth to China, I find certain practices and ways of doing of things essential to a successful career. One is that I take careful notes. Basically it is never a good idea to rely solely on one’s memory on important matters, such as your wedding anniversary, but it is even more important when you know you are jet lagged. When you are jet-lagged, it is amazing as to how easy it is to get order of events, people seen, nature of discussion and decisions made all mixed up just a few weeks after it all took place.

Another important characteristic is careful and active listening, or listening with empathy. This means listening in such a way that the speaker feels assured that he/she is being understood, not feeling the pressure from a listener who is anxious to interrupt and get a word in. An active listener is learning from the conversation and meeting, absorbing and digesting and understanding. Most of us leave a lot on the table because we have never paid enough attention to becoming a good listener. Active listening is a part of effective communication.

To be an effective listener in a cross cultural situation is even more challenging because it requires the person to be constantly switching the contextual background. A Chinese may be saying certain things that have certain significance while an American might be saying similar things but mean quite something different. A bicultural person has to have the ability to put the remarks in context and be able to explain one side to the other.

There are many occasions when I have been called upon to assist with the interpreting between Chinese officials and American business executives. My command of the Chinese language is never good enough for me to be a professional interpreter. But ironically, because I cannot be a word for word interpreter, I concentrate on making sure that the meaning and intent is accurately conveyed. For this, I get expressions of appreciation from both sides of the conversation.

To be a truly bicultural person is someone who can explain what one side is saying in the context such that the other person from the other culture can understand it. To be honest, I think I am pretty good at this and I do it naturally and do not really think about what I am doing. In that environment, my brain is constantly switching back and forth from the Chinese context to the American context, to the point that I am not even aware of what I am doing.

While I take a great deal of satisfaction in being able to help bridge the cultural gap between the Chinese attitude and the American one, sometimes the line seems blurred between explaining a position and taking a position. Sometimes one has to be able to distinguish between explaining China’s policy versus defending China’s policy. As an American citizen, I have an interest in helping Americans understand China’s policy, but I am not sure that I should be in any way defending China’s policy and be labeled an apologist for China.

For example, China has been criticized for their one child policy and their sometimes rather draconian ways of enforcing such a policy. I would point to the alternative, namely without the policy there would be 300 million more Chinese today than there already are. Certainly, I would not defend or even try to explain the extreme lengths some officials in the countryside have gone to enforce the one-child policy.

On the matter of protection of intellectual property, I would explain to my American client that this is a big headache and needs serious attention. I might indicate that lack of respect for software is part of Asian culture endemic throughout Asia, that solution will take a long time and require not only enforcement and prosecution but a great deal of education to promote understanding and respect. Again I would not defend or even condone piracy. In fact every chance I get when I am in China I would point out that protection of IP is in China’s self interest and is crucial to China developing a serious software industry.

China, of course, has been severely castigated over their so-called human rights record. Usually, this matter does not come up in my business assignments but does come up when the overall bilateral relationship is the issue. Again, I do not feel that it is my duty to defend China’s practices, especially since I have no way of gaining enough expertise to say anything authoritative about many of the practices. What I can say and have said to my American clients and political leaders is that human right condition in China is better now than ever in recent history. I have on occasion while in China with my clients and as we stroll along the Shanghai Bund to quietly ask first time visitors if the China they see is what they expected. Did China seem like a police state to them as portrayed by the American media? Of course, I have no respect for those individuals who go the other extreme, i.e., those who fabricate and distort the situation in China to increase bilateral tension in order to make a living from it.

In explaining China, it’s important to avoid using the party line from China for the simple reason that words from China tend to be doctrinaire and sounds more like slogans than are persuasive. For example, I think it is less persuasive to label the Falun Gong a dangerous evil cult, than it is to describe some of the teachings of their founder. Such concepts as levitation, power of spinning wheel to ward off bodily harm, and sickness as punishment for sins that cannot be cured by medication do a lot more to show the cult aspects of this movement than all the name calling.

As a member of the Committee of 100, I am very proud to be part of the team who has been engaged in preparing and updating a position paper on the U.S. China relations, entitled “Seeking common grounds while respecting differences.” We’ve been issuing this paper about every two years and the intended audience for this paper is The White House and Congress. In this paper we claim the advantage of bicultural perspective in pointing out that China is different from the U.S. in many ways. We encourage frequent interactions between government leaders to promote understanding and mutual respect. We argued that hectoring and lecturing and making highly public demands of China to modify their behavior to suit our American standard is not productive and not useful. Every year, we organize a conference and part of the program is to promote greater understanding between our land of origin and our adopted country. [Next year this conference will be held in San Jose and I look forward to seeing you there.]

As a bicultural person, I also devote efforts the other way, that is helping China better understand America. In the days of late 70s and early 80s, my efforts were mainly trying to convince people in China that the streets of America are not paved with gold and that everybody works hard for the admittedly high standard of living. That the image of a matronly woman in fur walking down 5th Avenue of New York with a poodle wearing a cute cashmere sweater and dainty booties does not typify America.

Today, I don’t have to do that anymore. China has largely caught up and in general understands the U.S. better than the other way around. Now, we talk about high tech development and ways of attracting foreign investments. Everybody is interested in the secrets of Silicon Valley’s success. Every chance I get, I explained that Silicon Valley’s success is in the people. When they ask what should the government do to create another Silicon Valley. My answer is that the government should do nothing other than creating an open environment. How to create a venture capital industry to breed successful high tech start-ups? I say first get the stock market up to international standards, let the market conditions, rather the government, decide on who should go public and who should not and do not limit how much windfall profit a venture capital firm can make on a successful investment. Of course to really attract foreign capital and venture capitalists the Renminbi needs to be freely convertible.

Of course, we Americans love to think that democracy is the best form of government and the right one for everybody. I happen to think a democratic government is one that I would prefer to live under but I do not presume to think that it necessarily is the only form of government nor necessarily the best one under all circumstances. In any case, I do not believe unsolicited lectures on the superiority of democracy is a very effective way to convincing anyone. One the other hand, when appropriate I wouldn’t mind explaining to my friends from China about the concept of democracy by using actual real life situations.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was driving some visitors from China along route 280. Suddenly, I had an idea and pull into a rest area that featured a real ugly sculpture of Father Junipero Serra. “See this garden and flowers in this rest area,” I said to my visitors, “That’s the work of a homeless priest.” I then told them the story of this priest who was homeless and spent his time beautifying the rest area and sleeping there. The authorities found out about it and wanted to evict him. The public found out about what the authorities planned to do and raised uproar in sympathy with the homeless priest. In face of the public pressure, the authorities relented and allowed the priest to stay. Somebody, I don’t know who, even provided the priest with a small camper trailer so that he did not have to sleep in a tent anymore. Today if you go by this rest area you will see even more elaborate garden as well as the camper in the back. End of a beautiful story.

Why did I tell the story? Because of its human interest and because it is a good illustration of the benefits of a democracy where public opinion counts. In my view, telling the story is a way of making some points without being obnoxious about it.

Hopefully I have demonstrated and convince you that in acting as a bridge between China and America, in speaking about China to help Americe better understand China, you do not have to defend China. For sure, you should not feel any sense of divided loyalty. As a citizen of this country, you owe your allegiance to the United States. Period. This is not negotiable. As we know well from the recent experiences of Wen Ho Lee, there will be plenty of people that will suspect you of divided loyalty anyway. You must not give them cause and you must fight back when they discriminate and practice racial profiling.

As I alluded to at the beginning of my presentation, to be a bicultural person is to have the best of both worlds. As China grows in preeminence on the world stage, there will be a growing need for people that can communicate, facilitate and motivate on both sides of the Pacific. But the opportunities are even broader than just those that can go back and forth.

China is now actively recruiting those that have been trained and working in the U.S. to go back to China, much like Taiwan did about 10-15 years ago. Why? Because these people have the kind of training, experience, skill set and mindset and network of contacts of value to China. When China completes their reform of the securities market and open up the venture capital market and make the Renminbi convertible, the trickle of people returning to China to live and work there would become a torrent.

Opportunities in Silicon Valley are also growing for the bicultural person as well. For every new ethnic shopping center that opens means more jobs from chefs and waiters to clerks and shop owners to managers and small business operators.

The venture capital industry used to be virtually an all white business. Thanks to more and more high tech companies successfully started up by Chinese American and other Asian American entrepreneurs, the VC firms now realized that they are the ones missing out on deal flow if they do not have some partners who can interact with the Asian American founders.

Same with us here at Deloitte & Touche. We recognize the opportunity to serve increasing number of companies founded by Chinese American entrepreneurs as well as companies coming to Silicon Valley from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Thus we have formed Chinese Services Group with bi-lingual and bi-cultural members to provide an array of services.

My friends, we are facing tough tough times right now. When it’s the gloomiest, it’s most difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But inevitably the economy will turn the corner. The long-term future for Silicon Valley, for China and for those of us that can live and work in both environments is bright and exciting. I wish all of you the best for the coming era, an era where multiculturalism and multilateralism will triumph.