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Embracing and Understanding Diversity Starts at Home

by Published On: Aug 29, 2012

By Michael Chen, Sodexo

You can’t really believe in diversity unless you are proud of your roots and where you came from. My parents taught me everything I needed to know about diversity.

My father was born in Beijing and my mother was born in Fujian, and grew up in Shanghai. Although they both grew up relatively well off, when the Communists took over, they were not welcome to stay. 

They had to leave everything behind, including their families, and had very little money, but believed in the importance of education. Both my dad and my mom arrived in America in 1954. They met at the International House in NYC, soon after were married, and gave birth to my sister and me a few years later.   

My father was lucky and was hired at IBM where he worked for 28 years, and my mother worked in administration at Columbia University. We lived in a rent subsidized 2-bedroom apartment in NYC for 41 years, and every penny my parents earned; they saved to provide a great education for my sister and me. 

They never complained about how they had to start from scratch again in America, or that we could not afford to buy our own house or go on vacation. They just made the best of everyday, and did everything in the hopes of giving a better life to their future generations. I promise you that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the sacrifices that my parents made.

Inclusion of People

Growing up, my grandmother lived with us. She was a third parent to me and I loved her dearly. She was in Taiwan with my mom when the Communists took over, and she had to make a choice – leave the rest of her family behind in China, or go back to China under a different regime.  In the end, she chose to come to America. Unfortunately, and sadly, she had to leave the rest of her family behind, including her 9-year-old daughter.

She lost touch with her family for many years, only reconnecting in the early 1980’s. She went back to China to see the rest of the family for the first time in 1985, and had a heart wrenching experience seeing her 9-year-old daughter for the first time in over 35 years. When her daughter, who now was 45 years old, asked my grandmother the question, “Mom, why did you leave me behind?” my grandmother broke down and asked for forgiveness. 

After spending 2 weeks reconnecting with the youngest daughter and the rest of her family, my grandmother headed back to the U.S. The last words her youngest daughter would say to her were: “Mom, I understand. I forgive you.” 

My grandmother had made peace with the family she left behind, but more importantly, she had made peace with herself. One week after she came back to America, she had a major stroke. Bedridden and unable to speak or eat by herself, my mom took care of her every day for 3 years.

My mom would go to the nursing home 7 days a week to help feed my grandmother, turn her on her bed to prevent bedsores, and most importantly to keep her company in her last days of her life. My mom loved her mom dearly, and after seeing what she did for my grandmother, and what my grandmother did for my mother, I finally understood to what great lengths our ancestors were willing to sacrifice for their families — and never ever complained about the hand they were dealt.

Watching what my mother did for my grandmother taught me to respect and care for my parents when they could not take care of themselves. I moved them in with my wife and 4 boys 9 years ago. Although my mom passed away 5 years ago, my dad lived with us for another 4 years, and he was able to spend the last years of his life with his children and his grandchildren. He died in peace in March 2011, 57 years after making the journey to America seeking a better life for generations to come.

Diversity of Thought

Watching what my parents and my grandmother had gone through taught me 1 key lesson – and that is “life isn’t fair.” However, life wasn’t meant to be fair – not to you, to me, or to your neighbor. I have been asked if there is a glass ceiling. I don’t believe so, but I do believe there are barriers in life – barriers whether you are an Asian American, African American, Hispanic, Caucasian, a Woman, Veteran, Disabled, Tall, Short, Heavy, Skinny, Young, Old, Rich, Poor…everyone has their unique challenges, and their unique barriers they have to overcome.

I tell my kids that I equate life to the video game “Asteroids.”  When you come across an obstacle, find a way to knock it off its path. It’s what you do when faced with adversity in your life that will define your legacy.

What Do Diversity and Inclusion Mean?

So what do diversity and inclusion mean at the end of the day? To me, they mean diversity of thought and inclusion of people. Let’s find the uniqueness and special qualities of each and every one of us, and include one another in the journey of life together. 

Michael Chen is a Sodexo Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board Member. He is also CEO of DSS Star, LLC. 


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