By TC Zhang
Special to the Northwest Asian Weekly
I immigrated to Seattle from China eight years ago, and while people here were friendly, I often longed to be surrounded by the familiarities of home. One of the things I was seeking was a network of my peers. High schools in China place a fixed group of students in one class in which teachers come by to give lectures. As a result, you can get to know others really well.
When I first got here, I was 17 and couldn’t wait to get to know other people in “my same class,” and realized only later that there wasn’t a fixed group of peers I could interact with — I was on my own to make friends. English was another big barrier at the time. Not being able to communicate who I was and how I felt made me a foreigner to most of my American peers. People had no idea what I was passionate about and what I was good at. I struggled mightily.
By the time I had lived here for three months, my mother told me I had already surpassed most other Chinese who tried to live in the United States. Most of them returned to China within the first three months, as they couldn’t endure the loneliness. I sincerely wished I could do that, but I couldn’t because I was an immigrant. I had nowhere to fall back to.
You can probably imagine my life afterwards: spending countless hours improving my English, adjusting myself to American society, graduating magna cum laude from the University of Washington, and joining Amazon for the stability my family and I cherish, given our experience.
Eight years of hard work transformed me into an American, but there was always a piece of me that reflected on my early, lonely days in this country. I had to remind myself, just like a mother to her kid: it’s okay, you don’t have to be scared anymore.
When I first started my career at Amazon, I noticed that I was constantly surrounded by colleagues with diverse backgrounds, including other Chinese, and I found myself wondering if there was a way to connect with them. So when I uncovered an email list with more than 1,000 other Chinese Amazonians, I, of course, signed up.
Most emails going back and forth were seeking information about living in the United States, like how to get a driver’s license. Those emails were important, but I realized this was an opportunity to help those who were new to the United States, just like I once was. This time, I was in a position where I could make a difference by building a community among Chinese Amazonians so that everyone feels like they’re a part of something.
So, I suggested a meet-up through the email list. With one simple email that served as the marketing for the event, more than 100 Chinese Amazonians showed up, further convincing me of the strong need for a formalized community. Through the first event, I also learned I wasn’t the only one interested in something more than an email list. Many other Chinese Amazonians shared their struggle with adjusting to a new country and new culture, especially without a solid network.
That was the start of Seattle Amazon Chinese League (SMILE), which has grown significantly since that first event in December 2015. SMILE focuses on professional development, social life, and networking. In less than a year, we’ve built a 24-person leadership team who call themselves “SMILE leaders,” and we’ve launched more than 15 events, attracting more than 1,000 Amazon attendees. These events include a board game night, volunteering, a family social, a summer intern field trip, and a campus tour. By having these various programs, and catering to the different needs of Chinese Amazonians, we’re able to achieve our goal of creating a terrific experience for Chinese Amazon employees and building a strong sense of community.
When I was struggling to adjust to this society in my early immigrant days, I wished there had been an organization that, just by signing up, provided a network of friends, guidance on professional development, and a better immigrant experience. I am glad we have that organization within Amazon, and the support to continue to expand it.
Sometimes I worry I spend too much of my time doing these events. So, why bother? Because I am passionate about the cause. Because whenever I hear that people made friends because of SMILE, kids found playmates because of SMILE, or Chinese Amazonians learned how to grow their careers at Amazon because of SMILE, I am fully recharged because I know we are making a positive impact on people’s lives.