Bridge Cultures and Promote Diversity:
A Chinese American Librarian's Experience

Haiwang Yuan
Website & Virtual Library Coordinator
Western Kentucky University Libraries
Bowling Green, KY 42101

I. Introduction

What can a Chinese American librarian do to help promote diversity? This may not be a difficult question for Asian Studies librarians or librarians working in libraries whose patrons are mostly ethnic minorities. But for a Chinese American librarian who works in a general library, the question may not appear easy to answer.

Bowling Green, Kentucky is one of the largest Bosnian immigrant enclaves in U.S. and the city of 50,000 people speak over two dozens of languages. However, of the 18,000 students on the campus of Western Kentucky University (WKU) where I work as its Libraries’ Website & Virtual Library Coordinator, fewer than fifty are of Chinese origin. Incidentally, the term of Chinese is used here in its cultural, rather than political, sense and therefore includes students coming from not only mainland China but also from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

Along with the small number of Chinese population on campus is the lack of interest in Chinese studies. The only Chinese program is a Chinese 101 course taught by part-time faculty members. Collections of Chinese monographs, periodicals, and non-print materials in the WKU Libraries are minimal. As a website coordinator of the WKU Libraries, collection development of materials in and about Chinese is not my responsibility. My job is to lead a website team of fourteen library faculty and staff members to develop and maintain the Libraries’ website and its digitization and virtual library projects.

However, being a Chinese American Librarian, I have the urge to do something to promote diversity for the WKU Libraries, the University, and the community surrounding it. So I have to find an answer to the question of how to do it.

II. How Can a Chinese American Librarian Help to Promote Diversity?

As a Chinese American librarian, I have the benefits of being bilingual and understand both cultures. In addition, I have the expertise of web development and computer applications. I am also blessed with interpersonal skills with which I can build rapport with colleagues in the Libraries and professors on campus. They also help me to get support from the University and Library administrators as well as community leaders. With these advantages, I quickly found my place in the cause of diversity promotion in my university and community: I positioned myself as a bridge between Chinese and other cultures, with the understanding that each has its own uniqueness and merits.

First, I have actively involved myself in the University’s, Libraries’ and community’s activities that promote diversity. Secondly, I vigorously engaged myself in research and teaching activities to introduce Chinese culture. Thirdly, I proactively helped to establish an academic exchange relationship between WKU and a Chinese university.

1. Library Programs

I worked hand in hand with program directors and organizers, such as the head of the Library Public Services Department of the WKU Libraries and the Assistant to the Dean for Community Outreach. With the help of a veteran library faculty member, the department head initiated a series of workshops and lectures on international and regional topics. Take the Community Internet Workshops for example. Sponsored by the BellSouth phone company, this program ran from 1995 through 2001. I got involved in the program when I started working with the WKU Libraries in 1997. I taught Internet browsing and searching. Using multimedia and easily understood analogies, I made computer and Internet literacy a fun and enriching experience for the workshop attendees, mostly senior citizens in the community. The success and popularity of my lecture set the standard for the subsequent workshops. In the capacity of the Chair of the American Library Association (ALA) Library Instruction Round Table (LIRT) Computer Application Committee, I recommended the "Community Internet Workshops" to LIRT and presented a poster session on June 27, 1999 at its annual program entitled "Technology in Action: Getting the Most from Your Electronic Classroom". In order to give due credits to the library faculty members involved in this community workshop program, I invited them as my co-presenters. To most of them, this was the first ALA presentation they had ever experienced. Later, two of them published an article based on the presentation. I felt satisfied as I led by my example and action and set the ball rolling. I felt happy that as a junior faculty member I contributed to the enhancement of our Libraries’ research and creative activities in my small way. This sense of happiness stems from my Chinese cultural nurture that stresses more on collective rather than individual success.

Two other programs organized by the Library Public Services Department are "Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names" and "Kentucky Live!—Best of the Southern Culture". Both are programs sponsored by local business and partnered with the Barnes & Noble Bookseller in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

"Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names" is a lecture series on international topics. Each month, a WKU faculty member is invited to give a lecture on the country that he or she has visited and done his or her research therein. My role is to help those faculty members create PowerPoint slides and provide technical support during their presentations. Initially, the presentation was done with a conventional slide. Since the book store could only dim the lights in the area where the presentations were given, illumination was not powerful enough to display the pictures legibly. When I was invited to give a presentation on China, I brought in a laptop and an LCD projector, a TV set and a VCR. Movies and music complemented texts and photos. It became a “wow” and henceforth set the standard. Since then, I have become the producer of all the subsequent PowerPoint slides for the program.

"Kentucky Live!—Best of the Southern Culture" is another lecture series on topics of interest relating only to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, such as Shakers, Duncan Hines and Jesse James. My role is to help the presenters create multimedia applications if needed, provide technical support to the lectures, and document each event with digital photography. I publicize and promote all the above-mentioned library programs on the Libraries’ website that I maintain.

2. Community Outreach Activities

WKU Libraries has been vehemently promoting itself through community outreach activities and projects and therefore has recently created a position under the title of Assistant to the Dean for Community Outreach. One of her responsibilities is to establish and strengthen a partnership with the Bowling Green Public Library and Barnes & Noble Bookseller to undertake such activities as the "Southern Kentucky Book Fest" (known formerly as the "Southern Kentucky Festival of Books"), "One Campus-One Community-One Book", "Kentucky Writers’ Conference", "Kentucky Black History Event", and "Kentucky Literary Award Program".

Both located in the Office of the Dean of Libraries, his Assistant for Community Outreach and I work closely with the other partners on the events and projects. I serve as one of the events’ organizers and their webmaster. Collaborating with local ISP sponsors, we purchased domain names for the websites of the Southern Kentucky Book Fest and the One Campus-One Community-One Book project: and so that we could build them into brand-names. Working with them, I also set up an online forum to bring the participants of the One Campus-One Community-One Book event together and to continue the book discussion twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in cyberspace. As a result, the websites have become an important venue to publicize and promote the events and thereby contributed to their success. The Southern Kentucky Book Fest has become an award-winning event and the One-Campus-One Community-One Book project has been so well received that a similar event for school children is being planned.

My involvement in the community outreach activities caught the attention of community leaders and as a result I have been invited to become a member of the Board of Directors of a local children’s museum known as the Barren River Imaginative Museum of Science (BRIMS). With my web development expertise, I became their new webmaster, overseeing their web development and maintenance. When a local ISP that used to host the website was sold to another company, I helped with the transition, during which, I worked with the new host so that the website obtained a donated domain name, making the URL much shorter and easier for the users to access.

Helping to organize the events through web development is a job that any webmaster can do, but being a Chinese American librarian, I think I can do more than that. Therefore, during the book discussion, I reviewed Silas House’s “A Parchment of Leaves” through the perspective of Chinese culture and reached the conclusion that humans are humans: they may be different culturally, but they also have something in common. I compared the pig slaughtering in the story with the experience I had when I was a child in my birthplace, a rural area in China, pointing out that the only difference was that the American protagonist of the story killed the pig with a gun (gun ownership was a big part of the American culture) while the Chinese with a butcher’s knife. I also compared the superstitious practices of the story’s protagonists with people I know of in China and found that they share the same human comprehension albeit the diverse rituals. My participation in the discussion gave me the chance to play the role as a cultural bridge builder. I believe that there will be more chance of peace and cooperation in the world when people of different cultures know how much they share and appreciate how much they differ. It is the sameness that binds them together and the diversity that makes the world a more interesting place to live.

Experience tells me that big occasions to teach Chinese culture are hard to come by, but chances to share it with the people you work with and for are ubiquitous, mostly in the daily routines you are doing as part of your job responsibilities. The question is if you can take every opportunity available to you. Another example to illustrate my point is that the dog-loving American people hate to hear that Chinese eat these animals. I used the photos I took during my Chinese trips to tell the American audience of my lectures how things are changing. The photos of my mothers’ pet dog in her Chinese home immediately brought my audience closer to my mother and thereby to the ordinary Chinese so that the misunderstanding diminished.

3. Academic Exchanges

Western Kentucky University has a China Seminar program. Originally, it had an exchange relationship with the People’s Educational Press. According to the arrangement, a half dozen WKU professors were given the chance to visit China for two weeks each year while the People’s Educational Press sent one of its personnel to come to WKU as a visiting scholar for a year. I was invited to participate in the program so that I could offer orientations to the visiting professors to China and sometimes take the trip together with them. The professors enjoyed the fact that I served more than a translator. Instead, I played a role as a cultural ambassador. Versed in both cultures, I could help smooth out a lot of unnecessary misunderstandings.

Due to various reasons, the relationship with the People’s Educational Press became difficult. I volunteered to help establish another exchange program with a Chinese university in its place, making sure that all the difficulties, particularly those relating to visa application, be taken care of in this new relationship. I went back and forth between China and U.S. to see to it that the relationship be firmly established and have the potential for further expansion. My efforts earned the respect and recognition of the professors as well as the administrators of both universities, so much so that the Director of WKU’s International Office dubbed me as the “father” of this successful academic exchange program.

My involvement in the University’s academic exchanges has caught the attention of the organizers of the Global Automotive Conference of the WKU College of Business. At their request, I created the Chinese version of their website. This year, I was invited to interpret for one of their keynote speakers, the CEO of the Hyundai Automotive Company of Beijing, China, a joint-venture with the Korean automaker.

4. Teaching and Research Activities

When the WKU Modern Languages and Multicultural Studies Department needed a Chinese instructor, I did not let the opportunity slip through my fingers. I not only helped build the Chinese 101 into a strong program, but also initiated a 102 course and experimented with it. Working as a part-time Chinese instructor, I have the opportunity to teach both the Chinese language and culture in the frontline. When I teach, I make sure not to impose the Chinese culture upon my students. Instead, I give them the chance to learn its uniqueness as well as its universality through multimedia instruction. When I saw how much they enjoyed the virtual fight in an imagined darkness of San Cha Kou (The Intersection of Three Roads), I felt very satisfied that my students, who had been used to the Western concept of One Time-One Location-One Plot rule of theatrical art, could enjoy the virtual acts of the Beijing Opera artists who engage their audience to recreate time and space in the process of their performance. They were awed by the ingenuity of the Chinese artists who could make the transition of time and space so simple and easy, without much of the theatrical props required by many of the Western operas.

Besides teaching college students, I have been invited to give lectures to the local school children from time to time as part of their extracurricular activities to promote cultural understandings.

As a librarian on tenure track, I am required to publish. Although I enjoy independent research, I also appreciate the benefit of collaboration with authors of different strengths. I collaborated with librarians working in Chinese libraries so that I can introduce American and Chinese librarianship to each other. In addition to articles and a monograph on librarianship and information science such as Virtual Library’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow published by Huayi Press in Beijing, China in 2002, I am also interested in the study of Chinese culture. I created a website to introduce Chinese culture in 1996 when I was a graduate student of the School of Library and Information Science in Indiana University, Bloomington. Some of the pages, such as the Chinese New Year, Chinese Proverbs, and Audio Tutorial of Survival Chinese are still very popular today as they are constantly updated. I have contributed over two dozens of entries to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture to be published in August, 2004 by Rutledge and translated an equal number of entries for the publication. Currently, I have been working on a series of Chinese legendary stories.

III. Conclusion

A Chinese American librarian has the advantage of acting as a bridge between the two cultures and therefore stands at the forefront of diversity promotion. He or she is not supposed to preach Chinese culture to the American patrons, but he or she must see the significance of teaching Americans about the uniqueness and universality of the Chinese culture and in the same token, teach the Chinese about the uniqueness and universality of the American culture, thereby helping to bridge the differences and enhance mutual understanding. A Chinese American librarian may not always have an equal opportunity to be involved in epoch-making events relating to cultural exchanges. Yet, if willing, he or she can find opportunities lurking in his or her routine library work. He or she only needs to understand the significance of his or her involvement and get himself or herself involved. As a Chinese saying goes, “A thousand mile trip starts from the first step.” He or she needs only to make the first step.

A Chinese American librarian should lead by action and teach by example. For instance, I am not merely Haiwang Yuan. In the eyes of many of the WKU and Bowling Green community members, I am a Chinese. What I do and how I do it reflect the Chinese cultural heritage I am bearing. One immediate example is a small gift presented to me by a student I taught. It has the following inscription on it: “Professor Yuan: My Teacher and Friend.” I believe that he has discerned the difference between a Chinese professor, who treats his students as friends and most American teachers who regard the students as their clientele. The philosophy of teaching of the former originates from a stern but benign father-and-son relationship between the teacher and students while the latter stems from the market economy. It is no accident that in his evaluation at the end of the semester, another student wished that all other professors would teach as I did.

The WKU Libraries’ community outreach programs and many other events and projects have been vigorously advertizing and marketing the Libraries to the University and the community. The efforts have paid off. For example, the University has just experienced a 5.6 million USD budget cut, but not a single penny was cut from the Libraries! I feel proud that I was able to contribute in a small way.

By helping with the activities, I not only helped promote the University and the Libraries, but also marketed myself. As a result, I gained recognition from the University and Libraries’ administrations, which awarded me with the College Research and Creativity Faculty in 2002, Public Services Awards and the Libraries’ Best Librarian Award in 2003. I was tenured and promoted to associate professorship a year earlier than is usually required.

Here is my advice to junior Chinese American librarians: don’t wait; act now! You can do more than you imagine to help promote cultural diversity and bridge cultures.

Note: This article is based on a presentation delivered at the Chinese American Librarians Association Midwest Chapter Annual Program held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on May 1, 2004. The original presentation is in PowerPoint, availabe online at:
Copyright © 2004 Haiwang Yuan.