A Longing for Cultural Belonging

My father worked at Manufacturer’s Hanover Bank in Wall Street, NY for most of his life. He had given up his main career as a policy analyst in Taiwan to be a bank operations specialist when he immigrated to the US at the age of 40. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t particularly intellectually stimulating. But he stayed with it for 20 years, until the day he died. As a child, watching my immigrant father, I saw how he lived on the margins of his workplace. He was the go-to person for “the hard work” but dad rarely felt he belonged. He rarely got the jokes his co-workers were telling and while I’m sure their intentions were good, my father ended up eating by himself most of the time.  I don’t think it was because he chose to be alone, but because he was rarely asked to join. In all the years of his work, I remember only one manager who gave him a Christmas gift and one co-worker who would lunch regularly with him. One of the highlights during his work years was when my father was asked to join the bowling group by his co-workers.  He was actually an avid bowler back in Taiwan. I remember his excitement buying a new bowling ball, a bowling bag, readying himself to be part of this new exciting opportunity. He played several times with them. But then the bowling bag sat there in the room and never returned to the office. I asked him why he wasn’t playing after work.  He told me his co-workers were better than him and he didn’t want to make them lose. It didn’t make sense to me. I thought my dad was good at bowling. But as a kid, I just let it go.

Some twenty years after his death, as I do work in intercultural and leadership coaching, I understand his life through a different lens. I see now that my father yearned to belong at work. He wanted to be more than just a systems specialist.  He wanted more than to just clock in and bring home the check. For all the hours he spent at work, he wanted to be part of the community – sharing, talking, engaging – more than the perfunctory, “how was your weekend” pass-by glance. I look back and realize that my father’s work existence must have been quite lonely. He worked in a country where the language was not his natural tongue. He gave up his passion and for 20 years, toiled daily in work that was under-stimulating. Perhaps his refuge would have been having more social connection at work. I think he wanted people to know him more than “James, the guy we can count on when things get tough”. Though he was introverted, I know he tried.  But he’d come home talking about jokes he didn’t get, how the humor was so sharp in the US and he didn’t want to be aggressive. And soon, I think his relationship with them became cordial but distance. Work became mechanical. Imagine living like that for 20 years Monday to Friday.

But individuals do make a difference. To this day, I don’t know who’s the manager who gave my dad that Christmas present. I wish I could find him and give him a big thank you hug. But I do remember that it meant a great deal to him. He also got his best raises with this boss. Dad mentioned that this boss cared about him and would sincerely ask about all of us at home. And when his boss left, I know my father was truly sad. It’s interesting that this boss was the only African-American boss my father ever had. Looking back, perhaps as an African-American, he had a capacity for empathy for my father and was able to connect with him in a way that other bosses couldn’t or didn’t bother to do so. Back in those days, Asians in corporate were few and far in between so my dad must have seemed so “foreign” to so many. But I am grateful to that gentleman’s kindness and recognition of my father, not only for his work contributions, but also for his personhood, as a decent-kind-gentle human being.

I am winding down from my Business School Tour that peaks in the Fall, where I have the privileged opportunity to meet and work with talented international students across the United States. I’m their cultural decoder, demystifying the “commonplace” US interpersonal dynamics that stump so many of them. I do a lecture called, “A Successful Start to Living, Studying and Job Searching in the US” that goes into our individualistic US culture and how that emphasis shows up in our social life, academics and job search. While students care a great deal about their academics and job search, their most urgent queries often center around “becoming friends with Americans”. In years past, when I’ve had a chance to go back to certain schools during the year and see similar students, their greatest pain comes from not feeling they “belong” in the US. They feel unwelcomed by the Americans, not due to belligerence but nonchalance. They are the first to put blame on themselves, asking how they can better understand American pop culture, slangs and American sarcastic humor. Sadly, more often than not, when I see them in the Spring, many have acquiesced, resigning to hang out with their own group of international students. It’s a scene that I witness year after year. And year after year, I feel their pain, as I did for my dad.

For any of us who have lived in a place not our own, who have had to work in environments that felt isolating, who were ostracized by social groups in high school or the like – which accounts for many of us – I know each of us has the capacity to be there for an “outsider” the way that lovely, empathetic boss was there for my father. Helping someone belong doesn’t take much really. It’s taking the time to look someone in the eye on a Monday, asking how their weekend was and staying long enough to hear the answer and respond. It’s asking if they’d like a cup of coffee when you’re heading to Starbucks and perhaps even inviting them along. It’s asking about their special holidays and acknowledging them when it happens. Helping someone feel a sense of belonging takes simple gestures.  But the acknowledgment can be life changing for the other. And as research shows, an act of kindness benefits not only the receiver, but also the giver and even the observer of such kindness.

In the end, we are only as good as each member is in our community. When we acknowledge that each of us matters, that we are all connected, that “he” is also “me”, we can’t help but to embrace all — helping each person belong to our one community. Remember, every little act of kindness counts. So don’t hold back!