Zou Yali: Leveraging the best of both worlds
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.