Over the past few years, the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, combined with a global pandemic have made normal, everyday life difficult for the AAPI community. By sharing stories and insights from those in the Chinese American community, Committee of 100 hopes to shed more light on the issue and help celebrate the amazing accomplishments from within the Chinese American and AAPI community to the world at large.
The staff of Committee of 100 sat down with one of our Next Generation Leaders and asked them about their careers, what the past few years has been like 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 2017.
This month, we spoke with Daniel Tam-Claiborne, multiracial author, multimedia producer, and nonprofit director.
Daniel serves as Executive Director of The Serica Initiative, a nonprofit organization that galvanizes a global community of changemakers to advocate for greater Asian American inclusion and advance positive social impact in U.S.-China relations, and Producer at WNET, PBS’s flagship station in New York. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Daniel has spent over five years living and working in Greater China and is an outspoken advocate for Asian American issues and increased global understanding through education, cultural exchange, storytelling, and effective philanthropy.
He has worked with nonprofits, social enterprises, foundations, and corporations on projects aimed at reducing poverty, enhancing equity, and promoting sustainable development in emerging economies across Asia, Africa, and the Americas. He has received fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the World Affairs Council, and serves on the Board of Oberlin Shansi and the Seattle City of Literature. His debut novel-in-progress, Transplants, was a finalist for the 2023 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
Connect with Daniel on LinkedIn here.
Committee of 100: As a Chinese American, what are some of the challenges you have encountered to become a leader in your respective field?
Daniel: Born to an American father and an immigrant mother, I grew up grappling with an identity I could not easily classify. Being mixed race means only ever having partial authority and, for most of my life, I never felt Chinese enough for my Chinese family and never American enough for my predominantly white peers. My interest in China came, initially, as a way to try and reclaim a part of myself that, without knowing the language and having never stepped foot in the country, I knew I would never fully understand otherwise.
But, to my surprise, I didn’t come to understand myself any better in China than I did in America. Despite my best efforts at assimilating—marked by my passport and appearance—I remained a perpetual foreigner. Quickly, however, I realized that my experience was not unique. As immigrants, we are never fully at home in any single place. Rather than see it as a deficiency, by embracing the outsider guise I was at first quick to eschew, I realized that the ability to see the world from different vantages was its own strength.
Committee of 100: There are more than 6 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?
Daniel: Chinese Americans in the literary arts are more well represented now, it feels, than at any other point in the history of this country. This unprecedented period of anti-Asian hate has spurred the realization within the publishing industry and Hollywood that writing about the Asian American experience with greater sensitivity, tolerance, and insight is not only timely but urgent. That said, this level of representation certainly hasn’t been true for much of history and representation across all segments of what it means to be Chinese American—including gender, class, and geography—are not evenly distributed. We must fight to make sure that the full breadth of Chinese American stories has a place in the Western literary canon now and going forward.
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?
Daniel: Representation is certainly a big piece of the puzzle. Having mentors and role models in a diverse set of industries and at all levels within an organization can enable Chinese Americans to feel that—whatever path they choose—there is a place for them. But even with all the representation in the world, support is critical. Family and peers must be there to support unconventional career choices and academic institutions must vouch for no single definition or metric of success.
Tolerance is another critical factor. We collectively need to paint a portrait of U.S.-China relations that raises more nuanced questions about culture, identity, and belonging than the static headlines we often see portrayed in the news. Humanizing two nations that in conventional media are often stripped of this essential anthropological dimension will allow negative perceptions of China not to thwart the dreams and ambitions of Chinese living in America.
Committee of 100: What moment or learning experience inspired you to work in your professional field?
Daniel: Spending two years living and working in rural China immediately following college graduation was the inspiration for nearly everything I’ve done personally and professionally in my life since. Living in China’s rural countryside challenged everything I thought I knew about China. China wasn’t confined to my own familial practices, nor did it exist solely in splashy front-page headlines—it was so much more nuanced and multifarious than I could have imagined. I learned more from my students and friends than I could have possibly taught them, but I still left China with more questions than I did answers. There was so much about minority stigmatization, the rural-city divide and the inscrutable crush of censorship that I didn’t understand. And yet there was no single moment when I realized that my ideal future life would be spent untangling and coming to grips with these issues.
Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and AAPIs who just recently graduated college, what advice would you give to them?
Daniel: I think the standard advice to “follow one’s dreams” can at times feel like a luxury. Not everyone has the financial position, lack of familial obligations, or freedom from other responsibilities that make it possible to fully chart one’s own path. However, passion is a powerful motivator, and exploring what that passion is can be a guiding star to setting goals and aspirations down the line. My career has been nothing if not non-linear and yet, I’ve never lost sight of—and strived to prioritize—the things that make me feel most alive, even if they have had to sit on the backburner for years at a time.
Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?
Daniel: As humans, we are primed to feel uneasy and even adversarial towards people and experiences that we don’t understand or find difficult to relate to. I believe in the power of the arts to inspire empathy and connect to our universal human experience, to break free from the way we see ourselves and more fully embrace others. If my art and my advocacy can help even just one person develop a more nuanced understanding of the divisions and complexities at the heart of the Chinese and American experience with greater sensitivity, tolerance, and insight, I would feel like it was all worthwhile.