A visionary rooted in service

Updated: 2014-01-26 07:22

By Cai Chunying(China Daily)

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He Xiaohui has enjoyed a 20-year love affair with the Chinese community in the greater Washington area. Cai Chunying reports in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Chinese Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Jan 31, has been celebrated in public schools and government offices in Maryland for eight years. And He Xiaohui, former president of the Coordination Council of Chinese-American Associations, had a lot to do with it.

In 2006, responding to a petition signed by thousands of Chinese-Americans along with members of Korean and Vietnamese communities who also observe the tradition, then Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich signed into law an official recognition of the holiday, putting it on the state's calendar.

His organization was the key player in mobilizing the local Chinese community and gaining support for the bill.

"The recognition has a far-reaching effect," says He, a resident of Gaithersburg, Maryland, who now sits on advisory boards of both the state and county's committee on Asian-American affairs. "It helps to educate American society about Chinese culture and tradition.

"Public schools started to teach about the holiday. We also saw government buildings being decorated with Chinese themes around that time each year," she says, adding that she has also been attending the governor's annual Lunar New Year party, a ritual since 2006.

He Xiaohui's 20-year love affair with the Chinese community in the greater Washington area started with her hobby: singing.

In 1994, six years after coming to the United States, He founded the cultural and performance-based Yellow River Art Ensemble to help local Chinese-Americans connect with their heritage.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival that year, the group staged their first show, drawing more than 1,000 Chinese from as far away as Philadelphia.

Two things happened that moved He beyond cultural activities and into civic advocacy.

The first was in 1995 when He applied for federal funds for her nonprofit. She learned from an online list that Jewish organizations got funds in the millions each year while Chinese-American groups only got grants in the thousands.

The second event was a well-publicized case - Wen Ho Lee's espionage charge in 1999. Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist who worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory, was indicted on 59 criminal counts of spying for the Chinese and put in solitary confinement for more than nine months.

The FBI dropped the case within a year and only charged Lee with mishandling classified data. President Bill Clinton issued a public apology to Lee over his treatment. Lee later said that his Chinese ethnicity was a primary factor behind his prosecution.

"I remember at the time I could not imagine what I would do if I were Wen Ho Lee. I would feel so powerless," says He. "There was no Chinese-American organization to stand up for him."

From then on, He devoted herself to building a Chinese community that could be a powerful advocate in difficult times.

In Washington at the time, there were many small groups, so-called hometown associations, that were established to bring together people from the same province or city in China.

A visionary rooted in service

"I thought the best thing was to first form an umbrella organization to group those hometown associations together - because everyone comes from somewhere in China," He explains. "So this organization could be a home base for Chinese from all walks of life."

In 2002, the Coordination Council of Chinese-American Associations was born.

For the next five years serving as deputy, He helped organize Chinese participation in many large-scale activities, some for the first time, such as the Independence Day Parade in Washington DC, the Memorial Day Parade in Montgomery County and Asian Pacific Heritage Month.

He's efforts attracted the attention of the state government. In 2010, she won the Governor's Volunteer Service Award and was the only Asian-American among the 33 recipients.

He's full-time job is as a program associate at the language and culture institute of Virginia Tech, where she got a master's degree in natural resources.

She became president of her organization in 2007 and started to devote more energy towards her larger goal of engaging Chinese-Americans in mainstream politics, from voter registration to fundraising for election campaigns.

"The more voting power a group has, the more attention it will get from elected officials. Besides, voting is a privilege and we have the obligation to use it," He explains.

He knows it is not an easy road.

"I often feel like I am still a dreamer even at this age," she says with a laugh.

Her next dream is to form an overarching committee, participated in by leaders of main organizations in the Chinese community who could meet regularly to design development plans for the community as a whole.

Asked if there was a model for that dream, He laughs and says, "Probably the UN".

Contact the writer at charlenecai@chinadailyusa.com.

 A visionary rooted in service

He Xiaohui attends a fundraising party organized by leaders in the Chinese-American community in the greater Washington area. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily 01/26/2014 page4)