Zou Yali: Lever­ag­ing the best of both worlds

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

For Zou Yali, founder and di­rec­tor of the Asian Amer­i­can Stud­ies Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton (UH), the pur­suit of a suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional ca­reer and hap­pi­ness are in­ter­twined.

When Zou first came to the US as an ex­change stu­dent in the late 1980s, she was in­vited to at­tend a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony at Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis. Watch­ing the proud grad­u­ates, she dreamed of her­self climb­ing the podium one day to re­ceive a PhD and how happy it would make her.

A few years later, her dream came true, but she found the joy short-lived.

“I re­al­ized some­thing,” Zou told China Daily. “We need to dream big and the dream should in­clude oth­ers, not just your­self. If one can make a pos­i­tive im­pact on so­ci­ety, one will find true and last­ing hap­pi­ness.”

Zou has been do­ing just that for years now. Since go­ing to UH, she has cre­ated and di­rected the global lead­er­ship train­ing pro­gram; she has served on var­i­ous com­mu­nity boards; shared her knowl­edge by co-au­thor­ing nu­mer­ous books and en­gag­ing in pub­lic speeches on cross-cul­tural and transna­tional un­der­stand­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as well as eth­nic iden­tity.

Zou went to UC Davis in 1988 with the in­ten­tion of study­ing ed­u­ca­tion man­age­ment and go­ing back to China to work in higher ed­u­ca­tion. How­ever, her ex­pe­ri­ences with the clash of cul­tures she en­coun­tered led her to change course to cross­cul­tural stud­ies, a field she finds fas­ci­nat­ing.

“I re­mem­ber the first time I was in­vited to a pro­fes­sor’s house soon after I got to UC Davis,” she re­called. “The host had made a va­ri­ety of dishes and asked me what I would like to have. Out of Chi­nese cus­tom, I asked for the most in­signif­i­cant dish — chicken noo­dle soup. I was served the soup and not of­fered steak or any of the other de­li­cious en­trées, as Chi­nese cus­tom would also dic­tate. I left the party feel­ing hurt and half hun­gry.”

It wasn’t un­til later that Zou re­al­ized that her hunger and wounded feel­ings were due to her own mis­take of as­sum­ing that Chi­nese cus­toms were fol­lowed in the US.

“Peo­ple here re­spect your decision and they would not force any­thing on you,” she said. “In China, the host is ex­pected to of­fer and even force the best food upon a guest, re­gard­less of what the guest says.”

When she thought about her own mis­take, Zou be­came in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing peo­ple through a cul­tural lens.

“I re­al­ized that cul­ture is very im­por­tant in un­der­stand­ing each other,” she said. “Here in the US, we have such di­verse eth­nic­i­ties and cul­tures that to co-ex­ist har­mo­niously, we have to un­der­stand each other’s cul­ture.”

Zou’s first book was about the Mex­i­can im­mi­grant cul­ture in ru­ral Cal­i­for­nia. Her train­ing was a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ap­proach in­volv­ing ed­u­ca­tion, anthropology, cul­ture and so­ci­ol­ogy. Dur­ing her post-doc­tor­ate re­search at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, Zou fo­cused on ethnog­ra­phy and worked on a case study of Miao eth­nic­ity in China and its im­pli­ca­tions for Amer­i­can cul­ture.

In 1995, Zou was re­cruited by UH as an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of Asian pro­grams, a po­si­tion she still holds to­day.

MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

Zou Yali,

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