In July, I returned from an eye-opening trip to Cuba with the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance. During our 10-day excursion, we met with scholars and local experts to learn about the country's health, education, agricultural and political systems.
An unexpected lesson, however, emerged as I encountered everyday people throughout the country. "¡Chino!" they called out, often accompanied by a smile or a giggle, as I walked past.
"Don't you find that offensive?" one of my travel mates asked. Not knowing the right answer, I turned to our leader, Evelyn Hu-DeHart, professor of history at Brown University and a scholar on the Asian diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean.
"They don't mean any offense," she responded. "Nowadays, we Chinese are rare birds in Cuba, and it's just their way showing affection."
"Well, I find it offensive," my travel mate said as she turned to me. "I mean, you wouldn't put up with that nonsense if we were in the States." She was right. But we weren't in the States, and I needed to consult with a cultural translator—in this case Evelyn—for guidance.
We often turned to Evelyn for cultural translation. Were Cubans, for example, exhibiting micro-aggressions toward us as visitors from the U.S., or were we misreading their cues? "The best thing you can do is to take off your U.S.-tinted glasses," said Marc Frank, author of "Cuban Revelations" and a Reuters correspondent. "Get off the beaten path and get to know the people."
Traveling with Evelyn, we did just that. We took an unplanned side trip to Havana's Barrio Chino—Chinatown.
Little remains of the once-vibrant community that comprised 44 square blocks. We found remnants in intricately carved doors on some homes, a martial arts studio and the presence of Chinese fried rice as a popular street food among locals.
We asked how the Chinese ended up in Cuba in the first place. "When slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the Cuban plantation owners started importing coolies from China," Evelyn said. "The coolies toiled side by side with Afro-Cubans in the cane fields, and their fates became inextricably woven together. They not only worked together, but they also planned, dreamed and rebelled together. Struggling together made the Afro- and Chinese Cubans more resilient, and more interdependent."
Weaving continued as the Chinese married local black and mixed-race (mulatto) women. The same dynamic occurred in the southern U.S. during Reconstruction, where Chinese coolies replaced the formerly enslaved African Americans in the cotton, tobacco and rice fields. One of my travel companions, an African American woman from the Mississippi Delta, shared that her great-grandmother was Chinese.
We visited with Jorge Chao Chiu, vice president of Havana's Min Chih Tong. For Chinese ex-pats, Tongs (benevolent associations) played a crucial role in getting established and maintaining a sense of community. Today, Jorge opens his doors to a handful of elderly Chinese Cubans who gather for a meal, receive social services and catch up on the news.
In the U.S., black and Asian communities have been cordial at best, but rarely intertwine like I saw in Cuba. In Cantonese dialect, the term commonly used for African Americans translates to "black devil." The targeting of Korean businesses in the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and more recently, the death of Akai Gurley by the hands of Officer Peter Liang in New York, have exacerbated the divide.
But the story is changing. For example, more than 300 Asians and Pacific Islanders participated in a national "APIS4BLM" conference call in the wake of the recent tragedies. In July, my 82-year-old mother told me to "work harder to bring healing for our black and brown people because the safety of our grandchildren is at stake."
A youth worker in San Francisco's Japantown shared that an Asian immigrant teen expressed that he didn't understand the Black Lives Matter movement. This led to a deeper conversation about how young Asians can talk to their relatives about racial tensions in the United States.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of violence and hatred at home, I wandered through Cuba, with the locals calling out "¡Chino!" Instead of being repelled, I chose to engage, if only with a smile or a wave. It was a small but important gesture to assure that our individual threads—U.S. citizen to Cuban citizen, Asian Pacific Islander to black and Latino, gay to straight—would result in a tapestry of fellowship and goodwill.
Thank you to the people of Cuba, who reminded me that kindness and love translate to something well beyond words.
Kevin Fong, who lives in San Francisco, is a facilitator, trainer and speaker in leadership and executive development, and organizational systems, philosophy and design.