Over spring break, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to work on a short engagement with Danaher. Over the course of the week working with my Danish and Polish teammates, I noticed something peculiar about our conversations. After a few days of trying to put my finger on what it was, I realized that they were treating me as an American rather than as a Chinese American. When I told people I was from the US, there were no followup questions like “What about your parents?” or the more insidious “Where are you really from?” It was simply accepted that I was an American. When discussing Danish food at lunch, I was asked questions only about American cuisine, and not Chinese. Teammates were excited to tell me about the time they went to Pennsylvania or Ohio, not the time they went to Shanghai.
While the distinction is subtle, this came as quite a shock. In the years prior to business school, I worked a cumulative one year in China, often leveraging my Mandarin-speaking ability to attain new professional opportunities. Certainly there were instances where I would downplay my identity as a Chinese American, like when I was working with blue-collar workers in the South. Nonetheless, being a Chinese American has always been a large part of my identity in the workplace.
Over the last few years, I’ve had a number of professional identities, ranging from chemical engineer to project manager to negotiator. My racial identity is just one component of who I am as a professional. In this case, the lack of a racial identity allowed me to avoid some of the stereotypes associated with Chinese Americans, but also forced me to think actively about perceptions of Americans. As businesses become increasingly global and complex, professional identity will become increasingly multifaceted. Understanding how you are perceived is important to effective teamwork and management.