Over the past twelve months, the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, combined with a global pandemic have made this 2021 AAPI Heritage Month more important than ever. In celebration and recognition of AAPI Heritage Month, the staff of Committee of 100 sat down with some of our Next Generation Leaders and asked them about their careers, what the past year has been like as a Chinese American and their hopes for the future.
Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leaders program focuses on young leaders who are passionate about the organization’s mission to promote the full inclusion of Chinese Americans across society and advance the betterment of U.S.-China relations. The program was first established in 2015.
This week, we spoke with Sha Zhu, who is an International Trade Analyst at BakerHostetler LLP, where she supports the international trade team in anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases and facilitates marketing and business development programs, primarily towards China. Sha has both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Peking University in the area of International Relations and a second master’s degree from George Washington University in the area of International Development and International Organization. We asked Sha 10 questions about the year of 2020 and what the future holds for Chinese Americans.
Committee of 100: As a Chinese American, what are some of the challenges you have encountered to become a leader in your respective field?
Sha: As Asians, we are famously shy in public and are always reserved in expressing our opinions. It started at grad school, where I took time to form my argument when the American peers would raise their hands and talk their ideas through. So to me, the first challenge is to react quickly and seize the moment to have your voice heard.
Committee of 100: Earlier this year, Committee of 100 released a study, commissioned with the Economist Intelligence Unit, that looked at 175 years of Chinese American contributions to the United States. What was one conclusion you drew from the study?
Sha: There are SO MUCH we don’t know, even as well-educated, curious Chinese Americans ourselves. I love the quiz at the beginning, because the results were so shocking. Rather than drawing a conclusion from one particular finding- and there are plenty- my biggest take away is that we need to tell our stories better and to a broader, more diverse audience.
Committee of 100: There are more than 5 million Chinese Americans in the United States today and it is one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. Do you feel that Chinese Americans are well represented in government, business, and other parts of society?
Sha: We cheer Chinese American trailblazers in all areas, from public service to science to humanity to art. But our representation is still disproportionate to our growing population. There is a long way to go until we achieve “sufficient representation” and participate at the highest level in all aspects of the American society.
Committee of 100: What do you believe needs to be done so that more Chinese Americans feel empowered to follow their dreams and push forward to create the programs/businesses/position they want?
Sha: I believe in the power of role models. No matter what the politicians or the media say, without seeing a real-life hero who broke through the “bamboo ceiling” and reached extraordinary heights in their individual fields, the young generations won’t feel as invigorated or encouraged. I trust there are child musicians who post Yo-Yo Ma or Lang Lang’s pictures in their bedroom and young architects who have I.M. Pei’s biography on the bookshelf as their daily inspirations.
Committee of 100: In light of all that has happened over the past year related to Covid and the rise in anti-Asian hate, does this specific year of AAPI Heritage Month have more of a special meaning for you?
Sha: Because of COVID and the subsequent anti-Asian sentiment, the theme of this year’s AAPI heritage month is more focused and purposeful. The previous years were good, too. But in terms of programs, it appeared to be more culture-centric, much like the FolkLife festival organized by Smithsonian in DC every summer. And each group was doing their own things- seminars, galas, food fair or culture show. I can’t wait to see the aggregated power of all AAPI communities when we are all focused on this one issue- how to correct the wrongful image of AAPI and protect our people from bigotry.
Committee of 100: What moment or learning experience inspired you to work in your professional field?
Sha: It was the documentary of Premier Zhou Enlai. When I knew I was going to Peking University, I listed law, economics and math as my top three choices for major. Then my school organized a movie outing and we watched the documentary of this charming diplomat who singlehandedly built coalition with developing countries and put China in its righteous historical place on the world map. I changed my major to diplomacy right there.
Committee of 100: What is one book you can recommend that is either about Chinese American culture or experiences or written by a Chinese American?
Sha: I know I will not recommend Crazy Rich Asian- just kidding. It’s funny that most of the books and movies on Chinese American culture were recommended to me by American friends. “Mulberry Child” and “Joy Luck Club” are the popular picks, and Ha Jin has lots of best-sellers. Personally, I like Geling Yan. I read her books in Chinese and they are fantastic.
Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and AAPIs who are getting ready to graduate college here in the month of May and June, what advice would you give to them?
Sha: Congratulations and make sure you give your parents a big smile and a big hug on your graduation day. More likely than not, they sacrificed much of their own happiness and opportunities to put you where you are. Right ahead of you is a world without limits. Because you are born American with strong Chinese heritage, you got the better ends of both worlds. Unleash that powerful combination.
Committee of 100: What do you and your family do to help celebrate AAPI Heritage Month?
Sha: I start with my usual circles- Peking University Alumni Group and the diversity committee at work- to raise awareness of the occasion and share events from other AAPI organizations- being on many mailing lists helps, I’m able to pass along calendar events to more audience and create joint programs.
Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?
Sha: I’m a first generation Chinese American so my role in my family tree would be the link, or, borrowing a popular term, the inflexion point. My next generation is likely to be “authentic” Chinese Americans, who have to make conscious effort to learn Mandarin and connect with the families on the other side of the vast Pacific. I hope they will love ancient Chinese prose as I do and develop an appreciation for Chinese artforms, from calligraphy to Peking Opera (yes that can be a stretch). It’s too ambitious to think about my mark on the world, but I can well imagine my mark on the future generations who will grow up to be the backbone of the AAPI community.