On Deadline: Can Ping-Pong help bridge neighborhood cultural diversity?
Palo Alto's new mayor, Yiaway Yeh, is enthusiastically planning ways to bridge the cultural-diversity gap in Palo Alto neighborhoods, including sponsoring quarterly "athletic competitions" between neighborhood groups.
Yeh is the first Chinese-ancestry mayor of Palo Alto, while former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto was the first Asian and person of Japanese ancestry.
Here are some details of what Yeh plans: Quarterly "challenge" events between neighborhood organizations that would be festive, family oriented and with an emphasis more on fun than competitiveness.
And the first sport — details to come later — will be one that has worldwide appeal: Ping-Pong, also known as table tennis. It is particularly popular in Asia although it originated elsewhere. Ping-Pong is also well known in Palo Alto — there's even a Ping-Pong Club Yeh plans to contact, along with neighborhood and community organizations.
Other neighborhood challenges will feature different sports, he explained in a recent interview, noting that his father liked to play basketball and he liked tennis.
As he has discussed the idea he has learned that "Everybody has a sport," regardless of cultural background or even age, he said.
There can also be a generational aspect to future competitions, even a possible "lawn bowls" event of some type. He's wide open to suggestions and involvement, he said.
There are other cultural pockets that could be drawn into the mix, such as a strong Orthodox Jewish community in south Palo Alto, or African-American residents.
Yeh said he chose Ping-Pong as a kickoff sport in part to commemorate the 40th anniversary last year of "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," the term used for the 1970s exchange of table-tennis players between the United States and People's Republic of China that helped thaw the way for President Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing.
The primary diversity Yeh hopes to address is the Asian population generally, now about 28 percent of Palo Alto residents, and Chinese-ancestry families more specifically. When Yeh's family moved to Palo Alto in 1990 — when he entered JLS Middle School and his older brother, Kingway, entered Gunn High School — Asians comprised about 10 percent of residents, Yeh recalls, citing U.S. Census figures.
His parents chose Palo Alto "for the schools," he said. While his parents focused hard on work he focused hard on homework, with some time for sports.
"I wasn't the best (athlete) at Gunn but I tried very hard," and loved sports, he said.
In the spring of 2010 a community meeting was held on the topic, "Growing Up Asian in Palo Alto," attended by about 200 young persons and family members.
The stories told at the event underscored a widely known but seldom discussed (publicly) fact: That there are real differences in one's experiences based on one's culture, race or country of origin. Pretending differences don't exist just leaves existing gaps hidden and unaddressed.
Yet there was a touch of irony: A raised-hand poll revealed that most identified with their country of family ancestry more than with "being Asian." Organizers of the event included Dana Tom and Barb Klausner of the Palo Alto Board of Education, among others.
There were stories of feeling isolated or different, but a number mentioned the extra richness that sharing cultures brings to one's life.
That added richness is what Yeh hopes to promote as a personal priority of his mayorship — on top the City Council's priorities endorsed in a council retreat last Saturday, with a renewed emphasis on an infrastructure backlog.
Yeh said when he decided to run for City Council some council members and former mayors said he would be a "bridge for the Asian community."
But Yeh said he "didn't see any way for a single person to create a sense of community," and began thinking about how to broaden the bridge-building challenge, or opportunity. The successful campaign to approve $76 million in library-construction bonds in 2008 moved that process along, while neighborhood groups were using "emergency preparation" efforts to engage residents.
Yeh said he felt the e-prep push was too focused and too serious to be the model for a sustained community-building program, although there have been neighborhood block parties that drew people together.
In the 2008 library campaign — a major comeback from a hairbreadth bond defeat in 2002 — Yeh said he was part of an outreach to other Asians.
"A lot of times I'd get into discussions around the libraries. ... I believe it resonated: 'Yes, libraries are important resources in Palo Alto.'" But the discussions were "very focused, almost a one-on-one focus" and didn't become a broader-based effort.
This year Yeh said he hopes to address the question, "How do you get people engaged in the long run?"
There is a long history of similar efforts to bridge cultural gaps in Palo Alto and Santa Clara County, and the community has come many miles from the time when residential deed restrictions limited sales to Caucasians. As late as the mid-1940s, Palo Altans Art and Mary Fong had to resort to a bit of subterfuge to buy a home site in northern Palo Alto — Art was one of the early Hewlett-Packard engineers (recruited personally by Bill Hewlett) who helped build the still-young company into a major world tech player.
In the early1970s, Palo Alto-based psychiatrist Allan Seid was one of about a dozen persons who founded "Asian Americans for Community Involvement" (AACI, pronounced with a hard C) and Pathways, to help people find their way through addictions and emotional problems. Seid, still a Palo Alto resident, focused on the broader Santa Clara County region, chiefly San Jose.
Today San Jose-based AACI is the largest Asian organization in the county and has a staff of about 160 persons, most of them mental-health counselors who help Asian immigrants adjust to a massive cultural change and generational differences — helping some heal from domestic abuse or even torture in their home countries. It provides a shelter for Asian women, many of whom survive on less than $10,000 a year.
Other communities have higher percentages of Asian residents than Palo Alto, according to Michele Lew, AACI's current CEO. Like Yeh, Lew grew up in Palo Alto but predated him, graduating from Palo Alto High School in 1988. She too remembers "how high the pressure was back then" to perform well academically. She recalls being "the only Asian kid" in her class at Crescent Park Elementary School. For a time she attended a Chinese school, "but it didn't stick."
Lew worked for state Sen. Joe Simitian from 2001 to 2005 as he transitioned from the Assembly to the Senate.
She sees "a lot of opportunity" in Yeh's community-building concepts, which will help to further the vision of AACI's founders and enrich everyone involved with multi-cultural sharing and understanding — with or without Ping-Pong.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at email@example.com with a cc: to firstname.lastname@example.org.