China-US / People

Dottie Li: Breaking through the barriers

By DONG LESHUO in Washington (chinadaily) Updated: 2015-07-11 04:51

Dottie Li: Breaking through the barriers

Personal training — COLLEGE PARK, MD

Dottie Li provides "effective personal branding training” at the Maryland Procurement Technical Assistance Program Training Center in College Park, Maryland, on June 8. Li is managing director of TransPacific Communications and a commissioner of the Maryland Governor's Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. DONG LESHUO / CHINA DAILY

Maryland’s Top 100 Women of 2015 were honored on June 1 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. Among them was cross-cultural communications expert Dottie Li, the first Chinese woman ever to receive the honor.

“I feel very humbled,” she said.

The award, launched in 1996 by The Daily Record, recognizes outstanding women who are not only leaders professionally, but also dedicate their time and energy to community engagement and mentoring.

“It is good to choose the work that I’ve been called to do,” Li said. “And while it is great to do the work, it is also gratifying to be recognized. I feel like I’m paving the road for others to follow.”

Having been involved in cross-cultural communication training for 20 years, Li has made a name for herself within federal government agencies and other organizations.

She co-founded TransPacific Communications, a boutique public affairs and communications firm serving government agencies, corporations, associations and non-profit organizations.

The company provides cross-cultural communications training for foreign-born professionals and their supervisors. Clients who need to deal with media are taught the skills to present themselves and their message.

“My mission for the past 20 years has been to give people the tools they need to succeed,” Li said.

“I feel very privileged to play a small role in helping Asian Americans, especially Chinese like myself from the Chinese mainland. I want people to become acculturated in this society, so that we can all be more successful,” Li said.

On arriving in the US in 1988, Li went to the University of Mobile in Alabama. After graduating in 1991, she got a chance to work as a broadcaster in Washington, DC, and within a year got a job as a producer at C-SPAN.

By 1996, National Journal called her one of “Washington’s Movers and Shakers”.

In 1997, she got the chance to work at the White House, traveling across the country and around the world on the media advance team. She learned a lot and laid a solid foundation for her career.

“One of the most challenging but memorable events happened in Bangladesh,” Li said.

In 2000, Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit Bangladesh. Li was part of the advance team in the country getting things ready as the big day approached.

“We spent a number of days working in a remote village outside Dhaka to set the scene,” she said.

The village was one of the poorest places on earth, but the villagers were quite welcoming and kind, and excited about the important visit.

The night before the president’s scheduled arrival, the team got word that the visit to the village was canceled for security reasons.

“Everyone was deeply disappointed, especially the villagers as they were so looking forward to seeing the President of the United States,” Li said.

“But then we thought: If the president can’t come to the village, then we can take the village to the president,” Li said.

She and her colleagues quickly improvised a plan to transport as much of the village and its culture that could fit into the American embassy in Dhaka.

“My team worked through the night, re-creating something of the village and its culture in a large courtyard. And by the time President Clinton arrived at the secured embassy the next day, a pretty good representation of the village was in place.

“President Clinton was very happy we made that happen,” Li said.

The media captured the event and sent images around the world of the delighted American president being given a warm, traditional South Asian welcome.

But the story wasn’t over yet.

Years later, Clinton told Li that the security threat came from the then relatively unknown Osama Bin Laden, who, it was thought by US intelligence officers, might have put heavy weapons in the jungle which could have fired on the presidential helicopter. (This was a year before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.)

From her experiences, Li saw that “cultural barriers have to be overcome in order for people and nations to successfully deal with each other.”

“Combined with my own experience as an immigrant, I generated a deep desire to help those in need, using my cross-cultural communication expertise. I felt I could provide a very useful service to improve the communication skills, and thus the lives and careers, of my fellow Asian-American immigrants,” Li said.

“Some of the people from the Chinese mainland are really smart, they have won a lot of prizes, but communication has become a barrier to their going on to higher achievements,” Li said.

“The wisdom is in their heads, and of course they work hard, but they don’t get the recognition they deserve,” Li said.

“Whether they work in the federal government or the private sector, if they can’t overcome the communication barrier, they can’t get a seat at the table. If you can’t get a seat at the table, you end up being on the menu, and that’s not good,” Li said.

Li thinks that a lot of cross-cultural communication fails because of a lack of confidence.

In traditional Chinese culture, being modest is considered a virtue. But in Western culture, being confident is deemed important for a successful personality.

“Confidence cannot be gained without substance,” Li explained.

And substance, to Li, includes language and culture.

The first class Li teaches in her cross-cultural communication classes is “Accent Reduction and Modification.”

“Either we cannot communicate well, or we embarrass people when we try to communicate with them,” Li said.

“If you cannot make your point in a complete, cohesive and correct way in a meeting, nobody is going to take you seriously,” Li said.

Li tells a story of a distinguished Chinese-American scientist at the National Institutes of Health, who is considered a leading research scientist in the US. While the scientist is outstanding in her professional field, she has been plagued by her poor communication skills. Her staff wrote a letter last year complaining about it, threatening her career. Her superiors mandated sensitivity training and communication instruction.

After working with Li for a few months, her communication skills had improved enough that she was promoted.

If you don’t have the skills to communicate, you cannot be part of the team. It’s like you almost don’t exist. If there is a promotion or advancement opportunity, they will not think of us because we don’t ‘rock the boat’, we don’t make noises they pay attention to,” Li said.

“We must bridge the gaps between the cultures, so we can have an important role to play,” Li said.

“America opened many possibilities in my life. And I love that so much of my work helps Asian Americans improve their communications skills so they can be more successful in fulfilling their own American Dream,” Li said.


Dottie Li

Managing Director of TransPacific Communications

Commissioner of Maryland Governor's Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs

Board Member, Maryland Governor's Wellmobile Program Advisory Board

Voice & Voice Coach of Mandarin products

Rosetta Stone

Member Board of Directors of Global Diversity and inclusion Foundation

Board of Director of Montgomery Community Media


Director of Communications of Equal Justice Works (2004 –2007)

Senior Communications Director of LRG (2002 – 2004)

Presidential advance lead of White House (1997-2000)

Account Supervisor of Hill & Knowlton (1996 – 1997)

Communications Specialist & Spokesperson of Inova Health System (1995 – 1996)

Producer of C-SPAN (1991 –1995)

Honors & Awards

Top 100 Women of Maryland (2015)

Best Cross-Cultural Communicator of the Year (2013)

2006 Telly Award winner

2005 Telly Award winner

2003 Telly Award winner


University of Mobile (1988 – 1991)

Hefei University (1984-1987)

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