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Ethnic Groups Form Alliances to Succeed in Workplace

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 28, 1998 – Prevailing perceptions of Asian Pacific Americans as nerdy scientific experts who cannot communicate with the public, or as technicians unable to manage is false, said Belkis Leong-Hong.

"These and other perceptions are wrong and do not help us advance in our career ladder," said China-born Leong-Hong, deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans and resources. "If they're allowed to continue, these perceptions can certainly hurt us in our pursuit of progress."

Speaking before the Federal Asian Pacific American Council, Leong-Hong said such perceptions are based on misunderstandings about Asian Pacific American culture.

"There's a Plexiglas ceiling that remains tough to break for many of us Asian Pacific Americans," Leong-Hong said later during an interview. "One can say, how could we be offended if we are perceived as being 'honest, respectful, disciplined, intelligent, industrious, thrifty,' and a battery of other accolades? How could we be offended if we are perceived as being a 'model minority?'

"We're not offended," she said. "But the problem is that these accolades and perceptions can be thought of as being a two-edged sword. On one hand, accolades are very nice. But on the other hand, if these accolades are used to rationalize lack of advancement in the workplace, then we are hurt by the very perceptions that are supposed to be complimentary to us. In these instances, perceptions become realities."

Leong-Hong said other ethnic groups often judge Asian Pacific Americans according to their own value systems and social mores. "They forget that our behavior and attitudes in the workplace and in society are shaped by our value system and our teachings," she said.

As youngsters, Asian Pacific American cultural tradition teaches youngsters to respect their elders, which translates to respect for authority and rules in adulthood, she said.

"Therefore, we don't question decisions or decision-makers. As children, we're taught that if we do well, our efforts will be recognized and we'll be rewarded commensurate with our achievements, without the need for self-praise. So we always strove for excellence and looked for recognition."

But those efforts are futile in American society, she said. "We live in a society and a culture which rewards those who can sing their own praises and who are taught to question both decisions and decision-makers," Leong-Hong said.

"We're viewed as mild-mannered people who don't make waves, so when it comes time for promotion, they promote someone who is more vocal, because we don't make a big stink -- that's totally outside our culture," she said.

Leong-Hong said it's time for Asian Pacific Americans to understand the reward system and reexamine some of their behaviors and cultural traits. "Not to question its intrinsic value, but to adapt these intrinsic values to the culture of the workplace and the society we live in," Leong-Hong said.

Asian Pacific Americans should share their cultural richness, values and foundations of their culture with people of different races, backgrounds and experiences. By doing so, "others may begin to appreciate the pride we have in who and what we are," she said.

"With better understanding comes appreciation, friendship and collaboration," Leong-Hong said.

She noted that out of more than 7,700 federal senior executives, only about 70 are Asian Pacific Americans. Leong-Hong said they can improve their visibility through networking and mentoring. In 1994, she helped form the Asian American Government Executives Network. The group is intended for Asian Americans "to get to know each other, help each other and, most importantly, to help the younger generation."

Asian Pacific Americans shouldn't just form alliances among themselves, they should include other ethnic groups in the workplace, such as Blacks in Government, Hispanic Alliance and Federally Employed Women, Leong-Hong said.

"United, we can accomplish anything, but we can't do it alone," she emphasized. "So this year's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month theme: 'One Vision, One Mission, One Voice -- Pursuing Progress'" is very appropriate.

"If we share the same vision with our brothers and sisters, whether black, white, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian or other heritage -- we can march together to fulfill one mission and we speak with one voice," Leong-Hong said.

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