Communication: The Soft Skill That Chinese American Community Lacks the Most

Lucy Burns, the president of the St. Louis chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans and Matthew Fan

An Immigrant St Louisan’s Call for Action to Parents

(Matthew Fan of John Burroughs, 16 years old, Social Media Ambassador of CCES)

In this era when connections can boost you to the top of the social and economic food-chain, I’ve often wondered, “How can Chinese-American kids, including myself, improve our networking skills so that we can be competitive in society and happy in social environments?” I firmly believe that Chinese children need to vastly enhance their communication abilities, which can only be achieved with the critical help of parents who can expose their children to social environments at a young age. My interview with Lucy Burns, the president of the St. Louis chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, confirmed my hypothesis with regard to the benefits and the pressing need for kids, especially Asians, to enhance communication skills. In the interview, Mrs. Burns expressed her concerns and wisdom for Asian-Americans trying to improve their social skills.

Mrs. Burns stated, “When you get a job in the future, native-born Americans seem to be more likely to speak up while the Asian will just want to only work hard. And they just want to stay away.”


“They never want to take initiative?” I asked.

“Exactly… You need to improve communications. For example, I’m the first generation of Chinese Americans here. So, at first, I always had low confidence in my language skill. But at least you understand me, so that’s good,” she laughed in reply, “And then I joined the Toastmasters Club. It helps people improve their public-speaking skills. I gained so much confidence. I can talk to strangers. I can talk to anybody. I can imagine myself talking to 200 people. These days, if you don’t have the right connections, you might not get the job you want.”

Mrs. Burns’s wisdom and story had me nodding, and it should have every reader of our Chinese-American community, especially those living in the Midwest, nodding too. There is a widely accepted stereotype that Asians are quiet and hardworking people, traits that are often attributed to the Asian traditions of being furiously obedient and diligent. In households where one or both parents are of Chinese descent, one can see this and other Chinese traditions followed, where conversations often center around school work and what the kid needs to do in order to stand out in a community where academic excellence is almost taken for granted. To be fair, these characteristics and traditions have been proven in a 2014 scientific study involving thousands of students by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to result in stronger academic achievement for Asians over other ethnicities. However, the authors of the study also found that this hard work and achievement comes at the cost of Asians being “less psychologically adjusted and socially engaged in school than their White peers.” In addition, Asian teenagers were found to have more family conflict, less likely to feel positive about themselves, and less likely to spend time with friends than their White peers. These findings on achievement are great, but they also show the huge costs of solely focusing on academics such as loneliness and lower happiness, highlighting the pressing need for Chinese kids to be allowed to focus on communication skills with others.

Although it may seem like a crazy notion, Asian parents should encourage children to focus more on socializing as opposed to focusing solely on academic pursuits. I know that some parents might gasp and wonder, “How will my child get into elite colleges and jobs if they’re not studying?” To be fair, many parents, including mine, come from countries where scores and universities can decide futures, but this isn’t the case in America. Even though the rewards are subtler, taking the time and effort to improve communications will pay off immensely in the long run. When your child becomes an adult, how will they effectively talk about their strengths in interviews? How will they network with the rest of the world to reach their dream job? How will they work with a team and boss and remain competitive in the increasingly diverse workforce? Communication, communication, communication.

If the practical benefits aren’t enough, then take it from me, a previously very shy kid. After being exposed to friendly social environments and truly appreciating the merits of talking with others, I can easily say that I am twice as happy as I would ever have been without learning how to communicate effectively. For example, I work for the Chinese Culture and Education Services of St. Louis, as one of their Social Media Ambassadors. To earn the job, I had to successfully speak about myself in writing and in an interview, using both English and Chinese. Furthermore, the success of my job is entirely based on my ability to engage with coworkers, board members, strangers, and leaders in my community like Mrs. Burns with confidence and ease. Five years ago, I never could have seen myself in such a position, but I feel incredibly fulfilled with my work and with my colleagues.

Where might aspiring youths of the Chinese community find leadership opportunities or places to take initiative? Although it may seem difficult to spot, opportunities are everywhere. A great place to start is OCA. Mrs. Burns mentioned to me some of OCA’s current initiatives for young members of our community, including leadership training, volunteer positions, and a competitive scholarship for Asian Americans. But this is only one positive way to improve social skills, so always actively seek out more ways to improve upon yourself. After all, “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”

Getting back to my original point, why should Asians work on social skills and how can parents help? Your child has to be efficient and comfortable in social environments throughout many pivotal moments such as the college process, job searching, and friend making. Even if they might be intelligent and competitive candidates on paper in perhaps the college search, they must not lose sight of the importance of improving communication which they need for applications, for interviews, and let’s not forget, for making friends and pursuing other relationships so crucial for our social wellbeing. If they don’t improve social skills, others who are just as well-rounded but who can also effectively communicate will outshine them. Later on in life, your child will need to know how to speak up in team settings or take initiative as a leader in their job. How can parents do their part in ensuring that their child is ready for the future? Coordinate playdates during childhood and allow them to go to parties during teenage years. Let them do the talking at restaurants. Encourage them to do work or jobs that might require interviews and communication skills. Although it may be scary to not focus completely on academics, your child will undoubtedly be more prepared for future endeavors and enjoy the full benefits of being able to communicate with others.