Identity in the Business World

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.

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Coming Out as an Ally

This weekend, I’m heading down to New Orleans for the Reaching Out MBA conference (ROMBA). When I tell people this, the response is often confusion as I do not identify myself as LGBT. I’m writing this post to explain why I am interested in LGBT issues, why I’m coming out as an ally, and why I’m attending ROMBA.

Growing up in the South, it was common to hear sexual slurs used casually at an early age. Often these were used with some negative connotation, not necessarily directly attacking people. As a result, I became accustomed to overlooking casual discrimination, whether it was regarding sexual orientation, or race, or any other way that people cast judgment upon wide swathes of human beings. As time went on and people matured, slurs were used less as people learned to be politically correct. While it was certainly nice that these slurs were being used less, the fact that people were still holding on to these prejudices was not great. On top of that, the political correctness prevented dialogue, and these issues were things that I never really considered before.

Fast forward a few years to 2010, I was in Hong Kong for work for a couple days, and was able to meet up with my cousin Whitney, who had relocated from New Zealand to Hong Kong after graduating college. I was asking about our other cousin Carla, as I knew they were close and I hadn’t really kept in touch. Whitney responded: “Yeah, Carla is great, Harry and Julia are doing well too!” I had no idea who Harry and Julia were. “Is Harry Carla’s boyfriend or something?” I inquired.

Over the next few minutes, I found out that Julia is Carla’s partner, and they have a son, Harry. I had no idea about any of this. Many aspects of Chinese culture are very conservative, and views on sexual orientation are no exception. My aunt and uncle had kept this a secret from much of our extended family for nearly five years. Discussions with Carla and ultimately meeting Harry and Julia really pushed me to think more about LGBT issues and helped me come to the realization that these issues touch on very basic human rights which should be inherent to everyone.

Over the course of the last few months, I’ve realized that although my thinking has become more supportive of LGBT issues, I have allowed my experience growing up in an anti-LGBT setting prevent me from actively discussing these issues and growing. Not only that, my inability to discuss these issues restricts my ability to help others within my class to grow as well.

Coming out as an ally is an important step for me to continue to grow as a person and to avoid the complacency of passive “open-mindedness.” Being passive makes it too easy to err on the side of heteronormative thinking, i.e. assuming everyone is heterosexual. By coming out as an ally, I hope to correct my own thinking, and become a stronger resource for those who identify themselves as LGBT, as well as those who are also interested in becoming more active in supporting others.

Why Diversity and Inclusion are Important to Me

Last week, I was honored to be elected as Section D’s international and diversity student advisory group representative. What this means is that I will be meeting with the International Student Advisory Group (ISAG) and the Diversity Student Advisory Group (DSAG) to facilitate conversations about diversity and inclusion at Darden, advocate on behalf of international students, and promote understanding and awareness to build a stronger Darden community. To be elected, I submitted a statement to explain why diversity and inclusion are important to me. I want to share this piece to provide my perspective.

I am passionate about connecting people of different ethnicity, religion, sexual orientations, or any other label people use to put people into buckets. No matter what your background, each one of us is the same. We’re all human beings with hopes and dreams, successes and failures, triumphant wins and heart-crushing defeats. I’d like to tell you a personal story of one of my heart-crushing defeats that I hope will show why I’m so passionate about connecting people of different backgrounds.

On July 4th, 2011, I was celebrated Independence Day by driving 190 miles to Austin to meet up with some high school friends from Dallas. Over the next several hours we reminisced about the past, caught up on each other’s lives, and had a blast watching fireworks. After I’d had enough, I took my leave and started walking back to my hotel.

Suddenly, a car screeched by. A man leaning out the window yelled at me, “GO BACK TO CHINA!”

Go back to China? I’ve lived here all my life. Am I Chinese? I thought this was home. I thought I belonged here. Am I American? Who am I?

Am I Chinese? Over the last four years, I have spent a substantial amount of time working abroad in China. Even though I speak Mandarin fluently, my Taiwanese/American accent was obvious and Chinese people could always tell that I was not Chinese. They could tell even before I even opened my mouth by the way I dressed. I am not Chinese.

Am I Taiwanese? Although, I have relatives in Taiwan, I cannot even communicate with my grandparents because I cannot speak the local dialect, Taiwanese. While I’ve visited Taiwan many times during my childhood, it’s never felt right to me. The very environment seems to reject me. Too hot. Too humid. Too many mosquitoes. It’s as if the entire climate of Taiwan is trying to make me recognize that I don’t belong there. I am not Taiwanese.

Am I American? I worked at a chemical plant with mostly blue-collar workers. Here I am even more different. Not only am I a different ethnicity, I am the ethnicity that is stealing jobs from them. They associate me with the Chinese sweatshops that are taking food off of their tables. I tell them I’m in the same boat. I’m fighting to keep a job in America as many engineering jobs are getting outsourced to China. They can’t see past my skin color. I am not American.

After the incident, I posted a status update about it onto Facebook. I was instantly flooded with sympathetic Facebook messages and texts. In times of crises, none of these labels matter. I am not Chinese or American, Christian or Buddhist, Republican or Democrat. I am a human being with friends and family that love and support me through thick and thin. I am passionate about diversity and inclusion because they are essential to the development of strong bonds that will last beyond the time we are here at Darden and endure across cultural, religious, and political borders.