(Editor's note: Sarah Gao is a junior at Canyon Crest Academy. Sarah was a recipient of Scholarship for API Student Internship 2023 for API Student Journalism Internship. This is one of the three articles he wrote for the program)
When Lily Zhou immigrated to the United States 24 years ago, she faced the challenges of language barriers, a different education, and financial constraints. Even amid these confrontations, Zhou began her involvement in the Asian community shortly after her arrival in 1999.
Zhou is dedicated to fostering unity, understanding, and empowerment within the Asian community and much beyond. With San Diego’s vibrant cultural landscape, promoting diversity is imperative.
She overcame hurdles to pursue her dreams and build a successful life by persevering. Her motivation and drive led her to actively engage in cultural projects and initiatives.
With a genuine passion for helping people and making a positive difference, Zhou's involvement in cultural activities within the community have become valuable. She recognizes the power of cultural initiatives to bring people together, fostering understanding and celebrating diversity.
Through these activities and projects, she seeks to create opportunities for individuals to connect, learn, and build meaningful relationships across backgrounds and traditions.
“My motivation lies in the belief that by promoting cultural understanding and engagement, we can build a stronger, more empathetic, and interconnected community,” Zhou said. “My commitment to making a positive impact through cultural activities serves as a driving force that continues to inspire and guide my involvement within the Asian community and beyond.”
Zhou is involved in various community-driven projects. She is the President for the House of China in Balboa Park. In this role, she actively promotes Chinese culture in San Diego to Balboa Park visitors and nurtures an environment of mutual respect and appreciation. As a member of the executive board of the House of China, Zhou has helped organize and host many Chinese cultural events and holiday celebrations, such as the annual Chinese New Year celebration, moon festivals, and Taste of Asia event. In addition, Zhou coordinates the House of China cottage activities (located in the International Cottages of Balboa Park), which occur every weekend. At the cottage, visitors are treated to delicious cultural refreshments like dumplings and milk tea and are educated about the rich Chinese history and culture, while admiring intricate Chinese artifacts like artwork, calligraphy, dolls, and pottery.
Additionally, Zhou had the privilege of being involved in the Kyoto Prize symposium, an esteemed event that recognizes outstanding contributions to humanity in fields such as arts, science, and technology. By participating in the Kyoto Prize symposium, Zhou engaged with accomplished individuals and further enriched her involvement in the Asian community.
Zhou is also the President of the Global Innovation Center (GIC), where she helps organize and support community-oriented initiatives, “empowering youths to make a positive impact on society.” For instance, the GIC hosted a competition for the 2017 Global Culture Fashion Award, where young fashion designers and models were inspired to share their cultures through cultural outfits.
However, Zhou's journey wasn't without challenges. She encountered hurdles such as limited soft skills among the younger generation, parental influence in decision-making, and the balancing act of tradition and modernity. Using creativity and resilience to solve these issues, Zhou designed interactive programs to teach essential soft skills and teamwork, initiated parent engagement efforts, found innovative ways to blend tradition with modernity, and secured funding and resources.
Zhou also recognizes the diversity of the Asian community, and ensures inclusivity by incorporating elements from different Asian cultures into her projects. She describes that “By promoting cross-cultural understanding, we fostered a sense of unity within the community.”
When she ran for San Diego city council member in 2020, Zhou continued her journey. Amid claims that the Chinese community had little interest in politics, Zhou promoted Chinese culture while advocating for rights and combating Asian hate crimes. Through her unwavering determination, “I stood strong, breaking stereotypes, and empowering others to embrace their identity without fear of judgment.”
Zhou envisions a future where cultural engagement thrives and bridges the gaps between communities. She remains dedicated to her mission of fostering cultural understanding and inclusivity. Through her initiatives at the GIC, Zhou is bringing up future leaders and continues to advocate for Asian Americans through her work with the House of China.
Zhou’s journey from being a newcomer to a transformative leader has not only left a powerful mark on her community but serves as an inspiration to everyone to create a more inclusive world.
“I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had to give back and help those around me,” Zhou said. “I continue to be dedicated to fostering cultural exchange and creating a stronger, more inclusive San Diego for all its residents.”