Stepping Up in the Golden Mountain
October 26, 2020
When I was asked to write this blog, I was honored and then thought: Do I have anything to share? Aren’t there others who have more powerful stories like Kim, Damion, and Rhonda who have also recently contributed here?
As a Chinese American daughter of immigrants, I have always struggled with speaking out versus staying behind the scenes. My dad immigrated in the 1930s and my mom in the 1950s to the United States, which is called the Golden Mountain in Toishan, the Chinese dialect we spoke at home. I was fortunate to have received an education in both worlds, the traditional Chinese culture and customs my parents instilled in me and the American culture my older brothers and public schooling shared with me.
At a young age, I was taught to study and work hard quietly, respect my elders, and not cause trouble. So, I studied hard, earning recognition for my scholastic abilities. My brothers encouraged me to try out for the basketball team in junior high, where I made the team and learned about teamwork but did not actually play much. Serving on the yearbook staff for three years was a sweet spot. Even though my work and dedication indicated I was more than qualified to serve as editor-in-chief my senior year, I stepped aside so others could take that role while I served as managing editor, a more behind-the-scenes role but with as much or more responsibility.
Also, when I was younger, expectations were reinforced. If I had the ability to attend university, my parents, who worked as a grocery store clerk and a cannery worker, would do everything they could to afford me a college degree. Then, I would marry a nice man (Chinese, of course) who earned enough to support us; we would have children, and all would be well. I did attain the college degree. Later, I earned an MBA while working full time, and now have a successful global career in the A/E/C industries. While I admire my counterparts who are married, I am proud that I have done this on my own without depending on a life-partner.
As I have progressed in life and career, I have continuously tried to retain both of my backgrounds and respect both cultures. I am the organizer of family traditions and get-togethers (pre-COVID, of course), and my Chinese American friends have often said that I am more traditional and Chinese than they are.
When I moved to San Francisco 12 years ago, I boarded a crowded bus and as the bus lurched forward, I lost my balance. The elderly Chinese woman sitting in front of me called me, in Toishan, a “fat elephant girl” who almost stomped on her foot. Yes, I understood her but either she did not realize I did, or she did not care. Thinking of my parents’ teachings, I bit my tongue and did not say anything, although I did glare at her. Fortunately, an elderly Chinese man two seats down came to my defense and said to her: “Well, if your stuff were not all over the aisle, she would have room to stand.” When I told my parents about this experience, I thought they would be proud that I had respected elders and had not said anything. To my surprise, they said: “What? You should have defended yourself!” Thus, the conflicting cultural pulls continue.
Many of you may have experienced similar conflicting messages. Today, with a renewed focus on Black Lives Matter, characterizations of COVID-19 as the “China virus,” and the recent loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG, I commit to doing my part in the fight for equality and justice. I reach out to colleagues and friends to check in and learn how I can help. I am using my voice as a proud Chinese American woman and as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, and I have joined my company’s newly formed Black Employee Resource Group. I also commit myself to justice and opportunity for everyone who wants to come to the Golden Mountain to pursue the American dream.
Someone recently asked me if I consider myself a person of color, and I replied: not in the traditional definition of Black or brown, but certainly yellow is a color. I recognize I cannot truly put myself in the shoes of my Black or brown colleagues or friends, but I can continue to commit to empathize, to learn, and to help stir up good trouble.
Last year at Build Business 2019, I commented to a friend that a panel session we were attending had good gender and age balance but was all white. We looked through the app at the attendees and speakers and noted that there was not much diversity. I had a feeling this was the case, but I wanted to confirm. For Build Business 2020, I proposed a session on diversity and inclusion, with the premise that I would conduct a membership and A/E/C industries survey on diversity and inclusion if the session was selected. The session was selected, and the results of the survey were virtually shared at the conference.
No one should be surprised that SMPS and the A/E/C industries could be more diverse and inclusive.
Today, as I write this from the house where I was raised and my mom is telling me stories of her upbringing and her life, I am no longer struggling with being in one world or the other. I stand firmly in this world as a proud Chinese American who embraces my Chinese heritage and traditions and speaks up and out for myself and others.
My dad passed away in 2010 at the age of 100. When I took a Chinese language class in 2005, he wrote in calligraphy and framed a Chinese saying for me: “Step up.” Well, I am stepping up and will continue to do so. Will you join me?
Article written by Joy Woo, CPSM, LEED AP, associate vice president, cities at AECOM. She has served in various roles at SMPS and currently serves on the Diversity + Inclusion Task Force and the Marketer editorial committee. Joy can be reached at Joy.Woo@aecom.com.