Asian staff takes stock

Diverse backgrounds, common concerns emerge at listening session

Roger Wakimoto is a Japanese-American whose grandparents and parents were all born in the United States. Yet the EOL director, who moved from his native California to Boulder in 2004, finds that people sometimes assume he’s new to this country. “I’ve often been complimented on how well I speak English,” Roger says. “When I tell them I’ve been speaking English since I was two or three, they often look at me as if I’m pulling their leg.”

Roger Wakimoto
Roger Wakimoto (©UCAR.)

There are more than 130 people of Asian heritage at UCAR/NCAR, a little more than 10% of the organization’s total staff. Like Roger, some have spent much or all of their lives in the States. For others—especially scientific visitors—NCAR provides their first direct exposure to American life and culture.

Roughly a third of NCAR’s Asian staff assembled in Center Green on May 1 for what was billed as an “Asian listening meeting.” The two-hour session was Roger’s brainchild, arranged primarily by the NCAR Workforce Management Plan committee, which he chairs.

Organizers of the meeting hope to see volunteers step forward to launch what they’ve tentatively named the UCAR Asian Circle—a body that could discuss issues, represent Asian staff, provide a forum for management, and plan cultural activities for staff as a whole.

“It was a pioneering event,” says Laura Pan (ESSL/ACD), one of the forum’s five breakout-group leaders. “People were excited and glad for the opportunity to be heard. They were also uncertain where this is leading and how outspoken they should be. As part of the Asian culture, it is common to think that we should deal with our problems ourselves and not bother others or the system.”

The challenge of going against the grain of lifelong cultural training to assert oneself as a leader was a recurring theme at the meeting. At NCAR, Asians are well represented as scientists but underrepresented among managers, a situation some participants referred to as the “bamboo ceiling.”

“Even though we have a huge Asian population, not many are in leadership positions,” says Bill Kuo, the new director of the Developmental Testbed Center (see page 2). He believes some Asians have a hard time picturing themselves in management roles here: “It’d be totally unthinkable in China or Japan to have someone who’s not from that country as head of the weather bureau or a research lab.”

Another breakout group leader, Kyoko Ikeda, joined RAL in 2002 as an associate scientist. She’s been in the States for 18 years, ever since she arrived in Calvin, North Dakota—becoming the town’s first Asian resident—to attend high school as a cultural-exchange student. Kyoko says her group agreed that there is equal opportunity for Asians at NCAR, adding, “We felt that our own cultural tendencies to be reserved and not overly vocal or assertive sometimes limit us from seizing any opportunities that may come about.”

Along with cultural differences, language was the other major barrier discussed by the group, especially for relatively new arrivals. “It is very difficult for us to truly master English,” says Jielun Sun (ESSL/MMM), who has moved up the ladder from project scientist to scientist III in her seven years here. She notes, for example, that the Chinese language lacks the concept of articles, such as “a” or “the.” Moreover, she says, “English has so many exceptions, which cannot be explained satisfactorily. ‘It sounds better’ does not help us at all.”

Jielun hopes more Asian staff will participate in NCAR’s Communicating Science ESL (English as a Second Language) program. It was organized in 2003 by Mary Golden, chief editorial assistant for the AMS journal Monthly Weather Review. Formerly housed in MMM, Mary is now based offsite but continues to give ESL workshops facilitated by Jielun. “The group wouldn’t have happened without Jielun’s contributions and leadership,” says Mary. Many other UCAR/NCAR and AMS staff pitched in to get CommSci ESL rolling, including Huaqing Cai (RAL) and Junhong Wang (EOL).

Asian staff members

More than 40 Asian staff met in Center Green on May 1 to discuss common issues and concerns.

One of CommSci’s longstanding events is TableTalk, an informal lunchtime meeting coordinated by Charlie Krinsky (ESSL/ACD) to help attendees practice English and to encourage intercultural exchanges among staff. Some native English speakers have found participating helpful when they are planning to travel abroad themselves, says Mary. The CommSci ESL group has also held occasional seminars (MMM director Greg Holland spoke on scientific editing) and social events, including an all-staff multicultural potluck and a Lunar New Year dinner at a Boulder restaurant.

Program committee for the Asian listening meeting

Raj Pandya (UCAR)
Mohan Ramamurthy (Unidata)
Jenny Sun (ESSL/MMM)
Roger Wakimoto (EOL)

Breakout group chairs
Kyoko Ikeda (RAL)
Hanli Liu (ESSL/HAO)
Jielun Sun (ISP/MMM)
Laura Pan (ESSL/ACD)

More could be accomplished on the language front, according to several people involved with CommSci. “UCAR/NCAR needs an in-house scientific editor,” says Jielun. “It would be good not just for ESL people but also for American writers.” Mary notes that many Asian staff study English grammar intensively and are blossoming as writers. “The help they may get, however, is only whatever time is available from their coauthors or division colleagues, who may or may not be good writers themselves and who often have little time to do more than correct mistakes.”

Despite such concerns, participants came away encouraged by the potential for kinship and support among UCAR’s Asians and between themselves and the staff at large. “I was very happy to have the opportunity to hear thoughts from participants at the meeting and find out that many of us share common feelings,” says Kyoko. Laura hopes the meeting can spark more all-staff interaction. “I am interested in events that communicate Asian culture to everyone here in an effort to make true an American dream: a great melting pot, maybe starting with a salad bowl.”