Dennis Wu, a Chinese American community leader, in the office of San Francisco-based Recology, a resource recovery company, where he serves as chairman of the board and independent director. LIA ZHU/CHINA DAILY
When 16-year-old Dennis Wu first set foot in the United States, he made himself a promise: "I am so grateful to be here, I need to get involved and give back to community."
Wu immigrated with his family to the US from the Philippines at the age of 16. Brought up in a traditional Chinese family, he said he learned about helping others from his parents.
As a child, he saw how his mother sold her jewelry, including her wedding ring, to help stranded Americans escape the war-torn Philippines.
Studying at UC Berkeley, he learned to have an open mind and to listen to different points of view, which helped pave the way for his extensive involvement in the community.
He was later involved with Commonwealth Club of California, one of the nation's oldest public affairs forums for impartial discussion of important issues to community and nation.
"It's almost a continuation of my education at UC Berkeley. It's about presenting different points of view," said Wu, who was the first minority president of the club in 1989.
"People tend to think we Chinese Americans are just takers. For example, once in a while you read about the University of California system, where the student population is predominantly Asian Americans," said Wu.
"The perception here is that we are taking all the slots, meaning Latinos, African Americans and others will not have as much opportunity," he said.
He said he believes if Asian Americans want to have equal opportunities, they should help all Americans have equal opportunities, "otherwise it becomes this group fighting that group".
"What we need to focus on is increasing the amount of money we invest in education. If you've got more kids who are qualified to go to the UC system, what we need to do is to expand the budget to have more teachers and facilities," Wu said.
He said he would like to change the mindset that Chinese Americans are takers by getting the young people to give back.
"I know it can be done," Wu said.
Recently, his involvement in the community got new inspiration — from his 11-year-old son, who was doing well in school.
Last September, his son's teacher contacted parents to ask if it was all right for the boy to tutor kindergarten kids in his spare time. Ever since then, he has been tutoring smaller kids every week.
"He enjoys it, because it makes him feel good," Wu said.
By watching his son, Wu found that even young kids could use such help as tutoring.
"It makes a big difference. If you can tutor what you've learned, it reinforces and strengthens your own knowledge. It's a win-win situation," he said.
"Think about all the bright and young Chinese American kids. Can you imagine what would happen if we could get them to engage tutoring other kids who are not doing so well in school?" Wu said.
"The future of America is technology, so we need to find a way to inspire more kids to be interested in education and academics," he said.
In his opinion, this could also help address the workforce issue that the US is facing and will be facing in the future.
"Then we wouldn't have so much fuss about H1B visas, trying to bring more people from overseas, because we'd have the resources," he said.
"I think in longer terms, the right solution to this is to get our youth involved in doing meaningful volunteer work."
He is currently in talks with educators, including a former president of San Francisco State University and the superintendent of the San Francisco unified School District.
"They are very interested in it," said Wu. "I need to get their support to see what they think and what their suggestion is to mobilize our youth."
As for China-US relations, Wu believes that Chinese Americans are in a unique position to see the world from both perspectives and can play a bridge-building role.
He attributed much of the tension between the US and China to cultural misunderstandings — a lack of knowledge of Chinese customs and traditions on the one hand and a lack of knowledge of American customs and traditions on the other hand.
As the development chair of the Committee of 100, an organization of Chinese Americans seeking more active participation in American society and better China-US relations, Wu said he was looking for opportunities to promote better understanding between the US and China.
"We are going to have a speaker series about why it's important for America to view China as an ally," said Wu.
"There are too many people trying to make America look at China as a potential threat," he said. "We need to look at China not as a threat but a potential ally, because we are the two most powerful economies in the world. Together we can achieve a lot."
He said the so-called "China threat" was sometimes a result of a lack of understanding between each other.
"We want to have speakers who are able to talk about the differences, why we look at things differently, what we are each trying to achieve," he said.
As a Chinese American, Wu was concerned with the civil rights of his community.
His efforts included engaging with the Chinese American Voter Education Committee to help encourage more Chinese Americans to vote.
"If you don't vote, you have no voice," Wu said.
"Unless we exercise our rights as citizens, it's very hard for us to have a seat. If we hadn't started doing that, we would not have what we have today," he said.
Wu said he still remembers the time when there were no Asians on the school board in San Francisco, and as a result Asian Americans had no representation there.
With years of effort, the Chinese-American community has made noticeable progress.
"Today we have Asian-American supervisors and a Chinese-American mayor. I think it brought a lot of pride to our community, certainly for Chinese Americans to show that we can serve too," he said.
Wu's enthusiasm for community education also prompted him to engage with such non-profit organizations as San Francisco Ballet, the Asian Art Museum and City College of San Francisco Foundation, serving on boards or as president.
"They would always be organizations that are doing something for the community," he said.
Last September, Wu received a lifetime achievement award from the Chinese Culture Foundation for his outstanding contribution to community development.