lei & jonathan

interview

Lei and Jonathan live with their two daughters. Immigrants from Beijing, they came to America in the 1990s to pursue higher education in Massachusetts. We sat down with them on May 22 to talk about parenting, progress, and the (un)importance of heritage. 

Serena: Why and how did you come to America? Tell us your story!

 

Lei: From my perspective, we came here just for graduate school studies, trying to find a better opportunity to seek better education. I think at the time the U.S. education system was so much better than China, as the research opportunities in the U.S. were definitely broader and more in-depth than what you can get in China. So that’s why I came here to further my education.


Jonathan: Yes, it’s similar for me, as we came in the early 1990s. Back then, the society in China is not as advanced as now, and definitely the research conditions in the U.S. is much better. And also because Lei came here earlier, I decided to follow her and come to the U.S. and that’s it really, it’s very simple.

 

Serena: It’s very the same for my parents, actually, their PhD came from Rutgers. So besides the education, what were some other differences you noticed between China and America? It can be about anything.


Lei: Well, I’d say in terms of economics, the U.S. is much  more sophisticated and much more advanced. I think when I came to the US that was the first time I took an airplane in my life, and I had to lay over at Tokyo before I could transfer to my flight to the US. so everything was eye-opening, lik the infrastructure was like nothing I’d really experienced in China. And once you get to the U.S., I think how they teach, how they conduct research, it was really refreshing to me as a student. So then I’d say the gap between U.S. and China, it was probably 20 years ahead of what I’d experienced in China. So that’d probably be the biggest difference I notice. I mean even in the supermarket, at the store, there’s not actually a cashier, three’s a salesperson. They sit behind a counter and all the items are stocked either in the shop or in the storage room or the display, so they see what you want and you’d point out this is a thing I have, this is what I want. So it’s just a completely different structure, a completely different experience. 

 

Jonathan: Yes, back in the 1990s, China didn’t even have highways. And now, the infrastructure in China has caught up! It’s actually better than the US--the airport systems--but in the U.S. it was just as it is now. You can even talk about those bathrooms, those clean bathrooms, and [] So China was number 10---and you can really see the difference in that.

 

Serena: And yeah, we see that in the news, where a lot of people are scared of Chinese economic dominance on the world stage. So when you see a lot of these hostilities about China, especially news reporting, what do you think the media gets wrong about China? What do you wish more people knew?

 

Jonathan: I think that’s totally wrong. I think the U.S. is playing politics. They’re making your statement by power, right? So it gets a lot of things wrong and it will not help, and it certainly should change. The U.S. should continue to lead by developing new stuff, by running faster. Not by slowing other people down--that’s just not the way to do it.


Lei: Well, I think in the end you have to look at the realities in both countries, right? And arguably China has lead a lot to be able to progress to the next stage of their economy, right? So I think the gap between the US and China has shrunk dramatically in the next 30 years. I came here in 1990s, I’ve spent like 30 years in the U.S. So to be honest, I don’t know too much about China now, compared to what we knew in the U.S. but if we look at how the U.S. became leader, it’s about innovation, right? All the things they quickly implemented in scale, and being able to translate that into a commercial profit of something. In order to really enhance the economic structure of something. Because once you have economic power, you can begin to set up the rules--that’s the connection to the political side. But I think in China in the last 30 years, they really did the job to set the last strategy, and this is I think the different between central government and centralized government. So for China, the usage of central control is actually very compelling. Because India’s also a similar-sized country, but the economic advance has been lagging behind China, and the reason for that, I think, is because India is more democratic. 

 

But one thing that China certainly does do well is that most people actually have the same beliefs--the country is not deeply divided. Because I think in the last 15 years, you feel that the U.S. is very divided by ideologies, you know, between the Democrats and Republicans and the different ethnic groups--that fundamental ideology party of that has ben challenged significantly. And of course we see all the different movements. So it’s become very difficult for society to come together and showcase progress, so that’s something that needs to be resolved on the societal level before you go into, I don’t know, the next big achievement or something. Or else it’s all going to go down the drain very fast. 

 

Serena: So, I guess if the media is always going to have this skewed perception, I think it’s interesting that you, having experienced both the democratic, individualistic culture of America and the collectivist culture of China, have this more fair perspective than most. So, where do you think the balance lies? Do you think America should learn from China, or should China learn from America?

 

Lei: This is something everyone argues about, you know, which is better. But I think there’s no answer--in the end, everything is a balancing act. It depends on what the context is, I think. If I were in the US, I think trying to adopt these values into the culture is very prevalent, but otherwise you run into these cultural conflicts, so it’s not going to be the best to implement this into society. So I’d say, it has to be accepted in a way that fits the individual level. That’s how I see it.

 

Jonathan: I’d say it depends on the tasks. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. They both have advantages and they both have disadvantages. Like with the handling of the pandemic--collectivism definitely won. It’s thirty two million over eighty thousand--that’s the ratio of getting rid of the cases. But in terms of innovation, sometimes if you want to be innovative and create something new, you need more individualism. And to give you an example, U.S. corporates--look at it! The culture’s all about collectivism, so it’s what the CEO and the board set as directions, and the rest of the people execute them. That’s exactly in what China used to do. China’s a big corporate, like this. In a company, you cannot say no to your boss. So both have pros, and it really depends on the task.

 

Lei: But you have a good point, right? Even though I didn’t have experience in the Cultural Revolution, but I think the point I had before is right--between centralized control versus a democratic society, I think it’s about what is the strategy. I think in the last thirty years, China’s set the right strategy to really enhance the economic growth of society. Change happens very quickly because of its centralized policy and being able to aggregate the right resources to make that happen as quick as possible. And I think in that case it works out really well. And I think in the U.S., what represents the best side of democracy, it is the business side, you know, the corporate model. So you have the freedom to do whatever you think is best, and then there’s enough resources you can convince to come alot with you--think Facebook, Google, so they can use this freedom of a more individualized system to be able to capture the values in the market, per se. So I’d say how quickly they can transform that idea into a reality, which is must favored in an individualized system, because you have that flexibility, and you have those agile kinds of reactions to do that. So I think that’s the difference. 

 

But as you said, we grew up in China, we were much more attuned to a society which values collectivism, so there’s the inherent cultural heritage we come along when we come to this society. And then one you get to this new society of values, this whole place is built around freedom and individualism, we really have to think how to adapt ourselves into this.

And you have to really pay extra attention and become more sensitive to feel like you’re part of that as a generation of immigrants. For you guys, you don’t have the cultural aspect of that, but the identity piece is another area--maybe you guys struggle a lot in terms of how you strike a balance and truly bring yourself into the society, right?

 

Serena: So going back to cultural values that were instilled in you, do you feel that your upbringing and your immigration story have influenced your parenting significantly, with your daughters?


Lei: I’m pretty sure that’s the case. And that’s the point: a lot of people are talking about in America, unconscious bias, you know? And it can come from a lot of different reasons, and I think the culture with which you grow up has a really big influence on that. Everyone has an opinion on something--that doesn’t mean it’s the right one. But I bring this unconscious bias into everything before I make a  decision.

 

And I think in terms of education, right? Historically, we come from a society that really values education. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just the cultural aspect of that. So definitely we have certain bias in that perspective, but we also try to be open-minded. I think it’s a limit somehow to realize you have than bias to be open and hear other people’s opinions, you know, hear the other side of the story. So at least from my perspective, in terms of how to set education goals for our daughters, I always try to tell them “it’s your life, not my life.” So they need to make those decisions, but because we have more experience than you, have lived through certain things, in the end we can offer you opinions. But as long as you’re not really falling into a ditch doing something stupid, I think that’s the boundary you set. And you have the freedom to do the trials and errors, and we’ll give you our opinions to make the decision. But if you make the decision, you have to take the consequences of that. Well, that’s my principle at least. So in the end, if you really respect that 20-30 years down the road, it’s not really my business. What do you really feel during the whole process? You control that journey, and it owns your life.

 

Jonathan: In the meantime, I think as a group, as a model minority in the U.S.--that’s what society calls us--I think we should be proud of ourselves? We motivate our kids, and we encourage kids to go to school and study hard and excel. But I also think that’s one area as a group that we should do more as--you know, our daughter’s the only Asian on her soccer team. It says a lot. It’s a majority Caucasian section for her team, and I think that’s an area we can do more in. Otherwise, I’m really proud of how we are as a group, how we do business, how we value education and how we value being good.

 

Lei: The other thing Is I think we should actually set aside how we do things just because we’re “Asian,” right? I think as a human being, you should always try to set a goal, saying, well, your goal is not defined by someone else. Somebody else’s life is not yours. So you need to try to define your life decisions and define your life based on its capabilities, and I think education is one of the most powerful tools to let you reach your optimal potential, I think. So at least from the experience I’ve seen in my life, and many others, education is one of the most valuable, and probably one of the most important to reach your highest potential. We always say, even if you regret it, whatever you do is the right thing to do. 

 

Serena: I think that’s really well-said, and I think it’s quite similar for my parents. But does this mindset of yours, and how its been influenced by your culture, ever come into conflict with your daughters' thinking? And how do you resolve that? 

 

Jonathan: Well, I think it all depends, right? Some things are fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. If I say I don’t want to eat breakfast, that’s fine--I’m not going to force her to eat breakfast. But I think the point is you need to set up these bounds. Within these bounds, try to give them as much flexibility as possible, so they can really explore what they do or don’t like.

 

Serena: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So I know you guys are pretty busy so I think we’ll wrap up around now, and the last question is just what does your Asian heritage mean to you?
 

Jonathan: Yeah, it means a lot ot us, and we’re very proud of being Chinese--and American. We’re very proud of that, and if anyone dares to attack my community, my daughters, I would fight them. Well, those attacks in New York City, you know? I’m going to fight as hard as day, and I’m very proud of that, being in America. It means a lot to us. We should not feel anything different. 

 

Lei: Well, I’d say any cultural heritage is a treasure to that society, right? So I think in reality, we all live in a world on the same Earth, right? We only have one planet, so in a sense, we certainly brought a lot of things that came from our heritage, so you feel as you get older, that you really miss a lot of the things--the food, you miss that part a lot. So even those are small things, they reflect these products of culture, the heritage that you are. I’ll say that I miss the side of 3000 years of history, the richness of that. You just don’t get that here. But in general, I’d say I try to remember how all the cultures as long as they’re within a society, within a community, I really try to look for the human nature, right? I was really surprised when I came to  here--people thought I was Japanese or Korean. And the other thing is, if you go to Asia, people don’t think you’re Asian anymore, right? They’ll differentiate between all these nationalities--you came from Japan, Indonesia, all that--but I don’t think it matters that much. As long as you enjoy the culture of that particular heritage, that’s probably the most you can care for. And if you see people who have cross-cultural marriage in the end, they’ll love the culture they marry into. So some people can change, right? To me, it’s really not what matters, it’s about what we value as human beings, what we are as humans. So I think that part is universal, actually. Even though you asked about heritage to start with--when we look around the world, fundamentally, people care about the same things.

 

Jonathan: Right, the values of decency, respecting each other, how we define all this. You have people ask you “Are you Japanese? Korean?” I went to this panel in Germany, and of course in the 2000s, China was a less well-known country. So of course I had to tell them, no, I’m Chinese. So look at that now! People are so used to tourists and people from China, that’s really changed so much. So I encourage you to excel yourself to enjoy being in the U.S. but also to enjoy the rich heritage from Asia and China.

 

Lei: Double down on your strengths! 

 

Jonathan: Yeah, the sky is the limit, and you can really accomplish anything.

 

Lei: And don’t let other people define your potential in the end. It’s a marathon not a sprint. The journey is what matters.