9.16.2009

Bridging the Generation, Faith, and Culture Gaps

Note: later this month, this post will be also be featured as my first as a guest blogger over at Talking About Generations, which looks at inter-generational dynamics in the workplace, and which I found out about through my participation over at Brazen Careerist.


There’s been a lot of talk, and rightly so, about diversity in the workplace. And yet almost all of the discussion centers on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, with the occasional comment about sexual orientation. It seems our understanding and dialogue about diversity is not diverse enough; for I contend that our perspectives are also shaped profoundly by faith and generational considerations. Furthermore, extending the discussion isn’t just about adding to the number of categories we must now be mindful of, each category independent of the others; for it is the interplay between the categories that is truly interesting.

I did not grow up in a faith tradition, but became a Christian in my teen years. And to the extent that being a Christian meant attending religious services, making friends with good moral people, and not doing bad things, my parents were fine with my newfound faith. But, never one to do something halfway, as I grew in my faith, I felt increasingly challenged and invited to make it my entire worldview, to trade earthly treasures for heavenly ones, to work for the benefit of others and not for my own honor or gain, and to submit my agenda and my rules for that of my Creator and Savior. I spent my college years mentoring younger Christians in the dorms, went on a summer-long service trip to Eastern Europe, and parlayed my prestigious Wharton degree into a low-paying job at a starving non-profit in the inner city West Philadelphia neighborhood that I moved into after college and still live in today.

My parents, of course, thought I had lost my mind. And we began to clash. Looking back, I realize that at the time, I saw our conflict purely in faith terms: we had different beliefs, after all, and that must be why we were disagreeing on major life issues.

I know now that in addition to a faith gap, there was also a cultural and generational gap. My parents emigrated from Taiwan to America in the 1960’s to go to graduate school. The risk they took to leave all they knew was aptly and poignantly summarized by my mother, who was never mistaken for being chatty; she said, simply, “I bought a one-way ticket.” And yet they, like millions of others at the time, were drawn by the land of promise, to make a better life for themselves, and, more importantly in their minds, for their children. Their greatest desire was to work hard and ensure that their children had economic opportunities and financial security. Their view of work was as a vehicle for providing for family, a means to a greater end. Technical careers, and therefore technical educations, were particularly sought after, because they allowed for a maximum of financial reward with a minimum of job risk. Hence the proliferation of highly educated Asian immigrants in professions such as medicine, engineering, and science.

My generation is different. As the second generation, and the first born in the US, we value more highly things like prestige and power and influence. We desire to make a difference, in the religious and political and social realms. While our parents worked to live, we live to work, deriving identity and meaning and energy from it. And while our parents were more apt to cluster themselves with others of their particular country of origin, we are more comfortable building pan-Asian alliances, as well as reaching beyond Asians to other ethnic groups for our political, commercial, and social networks. Do I want to change the world because I believe in Jesus and the Bible? Absolutely. But it is clear that my worldview is profoundly influenced by cultural and generational pulls as well.

And so, these confluences of influence and perspective – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, and age – play out in manifold ways all around the world. As open-minded as we claim to be, we cannot help but look at our world in a certain way, and then, however subtly and sub-consciously, assume that others do, too. But if we are lucky enough to belong to congregations, communities, and companies that are composed of a diversity of individuals – diverse in every dimension – we are privy to a vast range of perspectives. And as a result, every once in a while, we learn something of what it means to look at the world from a slightly different angle. We don’t as quickly jump to negative conclusions or discount behaviors that were previously inexplicable to us, because we have been given the privilege of walking a mile or more in someone else’s shoes, after which we realize why someone who had walked in that way would think and act the way they do.

The notion of diversity – in a congregation, community, or company – is often brought up in a defensively-minded stance: we reactively sense that our homogeneity is not right, and want to fix it and make it better. I submit to you an alternative, more offensively-minded approach to diversity, one that is based on the necessity, in a world that rewards agility of thought, of having one’s perspectives healthily challenged and stretched by others’ differing perspectives. Is diversity the right thing to do, from the standpoint of morals and ethics and fairness? Absolutely. But, diversity also happens to be the very best way to constitute a group of people that is trying to achieve a common purpose, whatever that purpose might be. That’s why this Gen-X, cut-throat capitalist, conservative Republican, born-again Christian, second-generation Asian-American advocates for as much of it as possible.
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