Diversity Featured Interview
By: Deirdra Funcheon - DiversityJobsUSA Senior Feature Editor
Lita Martija is the president of the Asian-American Heritage Council as well as a dynamic businesswoman based in Orlando. She recently took the time to talk to DiversityjobsUSA about the power of diversity.
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I have a master’s degree in journalism and I was a speech and drama professor in the Philippines. I was also an advertising executive. When I came here, I concentrated on helping my husband who was a surgeon. I got so involved with the community. In 1986, I founded the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce. I became the founding president of the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce. Now I’m the head of the Asian – American Heritage Council, which is a support project of 35 organizations. And I’m the head of the Council of Filipino-American Organizations.
Q. How did you come to America?
A. My husband was part of an exchange visitors’ program. Professionals were invited here to train and practice what they had learned in their home countries. In turn, the program would sponsor us becoming citizens. I was an ad executive, doing TV and teaching. I didn’t want to leave my country! But my husband got a fellowship to study cardiovascular surgery. Foreign medical graduates have to re-do their internships, clerkships, and residencies that they might have done in their home countries – to make sure they can practice at the level expected in the U.S.
Q. I understand you also once published a magazine.
A. Yes, Orient magazine. It was a celebration of the Asian-American experience. Each issue was about a different country – about business and travel there. There are 41 Asian countries, you know! Including places like India and Guam. It was circulated in 83 countries. But I got burned out and stopped doing the magazine.
Q. Tell us why diversity is so important to you.
A. Diversity is first accepting that we are different, then learning to co-exist. Diversity is enriching – to me, to my family, to everyone. It’s a give and take. I believe I am part of the American way. I am Filipino but I’m also American.
Q. What sort of projects does the Asian-American Heritage Council work on?
A. We promote the culture of different ethnic groups, and do social events. We share cultural camaraderie. Mostly we are an interactive group for businesses. We have galas and meetings, do networking. We raise money for scholarships. We bring together very important people, involving all members of our ethnic society. We are members of the Greater Orlando Chambers of Commerce. We have sister cities in China and Korea. It’s about cooperation and outreach.
Q. What do your organizations do to promote businesses?
A. We are connected with American chambers of commerce. They are fascinated to learn about us and we are fascinated to learn about them. American businesses want to know how to do business over the U.S. boundary. And we can learn from Americans – things like how to get capital, how to start mom and pop businesses.
Q. What opportunities exist for American businesses among the Asian community?
A. China is the economic dragon right now. And the Taiwanese, to a certain degree. If Americans go to China and establish businesses, there are one billion people who need culture – including American culture! Because Hong Kong was transferred by Britain to the Republic of China, a lot of them speak the English language. We’re also beginning to see a lot of Chinese who come here to do business.
Q. Do you have any advice for American businesses that want to attract Asian-American consumers? For example, any marketing tactics?
A. It’s true – Japanese do like to do business with Japanese and so on. Let me tell you, there are certain sectors where a store owner has hired employees from Asian countries to attract consumers. But the thing is, Asians will often start their own businesses before being employed by someone else. Although you do see very qualified engineers in companies like NASA and Martin Lockheed. We’re good in math! You see a lot of Asians teaching at universities, who have PhDs. That’s because of the way we look at education. We want to excel. But Asians do have an obsession with American fashion, music, and food. We are part of the burger-eating generation!
Q. America has come a long way since the civil rights movement. We have a woman and a black man running for President!
A. As a matter of fact, President Bush started an advisory group for Asians and Pacific Islanders. It was to help minority businesses overcome hurdles. At one time, there was a Filipino president of that. It was great to see that emanating from the presidential cabinet.
Q. Do you feel Asian-Americans are still underrepresented, though?
A. Underrepresented in the sense that there is still some discrimination. For instance, if an American and a Filipino apply for the same job, in most instances they will hire the American. It exists. We recognize it, so we try a little harder!
Q. Is stereotyping a problem?
A. Well, to Americans, all Asians look alike! We could be Indian, could be Middle Eastern. Because of 9/11, we are thoroughly examined at the airport! But still, being discriminatory is human nature – people tend to stay with those who look like what they are. It takes a little more effort to accept those who you don’t know.
Q. Immigration is a big issue today. Can you tell us how it’s affecting the Asian community?
A. The US recognizes the importance of encouraging students to come here. For example, there is a shortage of medical practitioners. They are recruiting most successfully from India and the Philippines. Same with nurses. Many are coming from the outside.
Q. What are the biggest challenges for Asian immigrants, and are there ways that Americans can help make the transition easier?
A. Well, the number one drawback is the language. Well, Vietnamese learn it in school, but for example Koreans, it’s hard for them to enunciate. But it’s in our culture for us to promote education and study hard!
Q. What are some ways that Americans can come to a better understanding of Asian cultures?
A. We are already having that. Americans have an affinity for Chinese food, spicy Korean food. Food is a way to be friendly with each other. However, we like fish heads and you don’t like it. We eat all parts of the fish, including the eye. The eye is saved for the honored guest! See? You’ve just learned something about us!
Q. Do you have any parting thoughts about diversity?
A. There are all different ethnic groups in America – British, German, South American. Each has music, dance, and song that’s unique. Most importantly we must continue appreciating and learning from one another. Especially the second generation. But we have more similarities than differences.