That Random Asian Guy

Guest Post by Konrad Ng

Two terms. Two terms of that random Asian guy. The one in the background, usually walking a few steps behind the President. Why is he there? What does he do? Who is this guy?!?

Well, that guy could have been me; he probably was. My hope for the random Asian guy is that he does not end up becoming Allison Ng in any movie about the life and times of Barack Obama because there is a long list of talented actors who are more than capable of background acting.

All joking aside, a relatively low profile is a good thing. I am content with the small stuff. Small acts are the opportunities where we may realize our highest ideals. For me, the project of America -- of Asian America -- unfolds behind the scenes, away from some of the glitz and glamor of public life.

Small stuff is far from sexy, of course. The power of small acts lies not in publicity, but in the sum total of pursuing change over time. I take inspiration from Grace Lee Boggs who said, "doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously."

Acts of kindness, of empathy, of generosity, of compromise, of recognition and the like, are the threads of civil society. These small acts amount to being able to see ourselves in one another, and recognizing that our future is shared.

For the past five years, I led the Smithsonian Institution's Asian Pacific American Center. It was a position that meant long days, endless fundraising and constantly pitching the validity of the Asian American experience. During my hardest days, I remembered the value of small acts -- the act of opening an opportunity for a young person interested in Asian American history, art and culture, the act of including a piece of Asian America in an exhibition or of having Asian America being represented in a national museum with complexity and depth.

One object or story rarely captures the totality of an experience in a museum, but the small act of recognition and valuing the experience of the Other is an invitation to ask hard questions, uplift quiet voices and build surprising connections. Through our museum work, we explored the intersections between Asian America and other experiences in America -- our entanglements, hybridities and cultural collisions -- and in doing so we hoped to move beyond a simplistic and narrow notion of the American experience. We nourished these small acts of dialogue in as many spaces as we could and for whoever would listen.

I cherished my time at the Smithsonian. It was great. I now continue this journey at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's museum for Islamic art, culture and design -- Shangri La -- where my work feels urgent and necessary.

While the era of the random Asian guy in the frame will come to a close for the time being, the last eight years should be a reminder that we have the power to change the world through small acts.

Konrad Ng is the executive director of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's Shangri La: a museum for learning about the global culture of Islamic art and design. In photos, he is the guy behind the girl behind the guy, behind that other girl.

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