It finally happened; our vegan-munching, unicorn-loving, iron-deficient Executive Director (Vu) has left our organization. He was with the organization for nine years and originally came on as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Since that time, he’s brought up new staff and emerging leaders, stabilized VFA’s funding and programs, and helped strengthen our roots in the Vietnamese community.
This is the first ED transition in VFA’s history, and our board and staff are still trying to figure out how to survive Vupocalypse 2014. “OMG, he took all the unicorn posters with him. We’re all going to die!” On the other hand, the office is now 100% carnivorous and pro-gluten, which makes going out to happy hour so much easier.
Vu was also the oldest staff member at VFA, which further boosted his status. Many Asian societies practice filial piety, a virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors. Elders are afforded a considerable amount of honor and reverence. Vu’s departure leaves me as the oldest (30 years) and longest serving (4 years) staff member at VFA. It feels both wonderful and exhausting at the same time; the joys of being an elder are offset by daily back pain. But I’m really excited to reap the benefits of my new elder status.
A new title: Henceforth, the “Director of Operations” (that’s me) will now be known as “James the Eldest.” Furthermore, younger staff must now address me using proper Vietnamese pronouns: either chú (uncle) or bác (elder).
Meals: The youngest person at a table must always serve their elders first. This is an incredible perk considering the number of community gatherings we non-profit folks attend. First dibs on the bánh mì and celery sticks!
Greetings: When an elder enters a room, everyone must stand to greet them. Conversely, if someone enters a room with an elder already present, they must greet the elder before all others. In practice, I’m really looking forward to our weekly staff meetings, and may even consider walking in and out of the room multiple times before finally taking my seat.
Conversations: Elders must never be interrupted when speaking. I imagine it feels like being a human filibuster. This will be incredibly useful when talking to funders. If I sense even the slightest bit of reservation from them, I will continue to talk until they cave in and provide unrestricted funding.
Seating: In Asian cultures, a young person must always offer up their seat to an elder. I’m really looking forward to this because I have a bad habit of showing up late to meetings. If people are going to schedule 9 o’clock meetings, they need to clearly articulate whether it’s Pacific Standard Time or Asian Time.
Touching: The head, shoulders and back of an elder are sacred; you can’t touch them. This is great as it will now obligate people to high-five me.
Care: For Asians, taking care of one’s parents is the duty of a child – failure would result in a complete loss of face. For example, many grandparents live with their children well into old age. Within the office, I will likely call upon our younger staff to give me refuge on their couches whenever the need arises, and to also have unlimited access to their refrigerators.
Support: Above all else, elders in Asian societies rely on the support of their friends, family and loved ones. Similarly, I feel grateful to know that I can count on my dedicated and passionate colleagues — our board, staff and volunteers — to help steer VFA through this transition. It’s amazing to think that the average age of our staff is under 30 years old. Despite our youthfulness, we have pulled off some incredible feats—from creating the first Vietnamese dual language preschool in Washington, to providing academic services to over 200 refugee and immigrant youth each year. It goes to show that we don’t have to “wait for the next generation” of leaders and activists arrive; we’re already here. Hello!
Currently, the organization is looking for an interim ED to help temporarily steer the ship, and to make sure that the staff doesn’t have a huge freak out and start eating each other. My preference is to bring on someone with Daryl Dixon-like qualities: a loyal, protective survivalist who has a talent for destroying zombies with a Stryker Strykezone 380 crossbow. We’re going to survive the Vupocalypse.
I’m leaving for Washington DC this week for a short vacation. It’ll be my first time in our nation’s capitol and I can’t wait! Stay tuned, my next post will be from DC!