Building Community: Amy Wong Mok, Founder of the Austin Asian American Cultural Center

As told to Laura Ohata

I get inspiration from that tree. That tree is like a life-size bonsai, but do you know why it looks like a live bonsai?  It is not growing straight. It is slanting. Half of the tree was stricken down by lightning or a tornado. It must have been a long time ago.  You can see the tree was almost lifted up because the trunk was twisted and half of it was chopped off. The tree should have fallen down, but the tree said, “No, I am not going to fall. I am going to rebalance myself.” So, the tree grew another limb. If you look at the tree, it is so different from any other because it has character.  And character can only happen when you have adversity.

You will be tested.  If you have never been tested, you don’t know what you’ve got inside. You don’t have to know, because you are too comfortable. But, when you have adversity and things don’t work out as planned, then you have to look at other options. It’s not the end of the world. It is the beginning of a new world.

My name is “Amy Wong Mok.”  I tell people I am honoring two men in my life. “Wong” is my father. “Mok” is my husband. So, I want to have both of their names. I was born in Hong Kong, so I have a lot of British influences. I moved to the United States in 1975 to attend college.

I moved down here in 1983, but I didn’t start the Austin Asian American Cultural Center until ten years ago. I waited for 17 years to have somebody do something.  At that time, I was working as director of public education at the Austin Rape Crisis Center. I was involved in the Women’s movement.

I was making headway working on better legislation to protect victims. I was trying to make a difference.

I have worked in so many non-profits, especially the last one at the Austin Rape Crisis Center. Because of financial realities they had to merge with Safe Place. Safe Place focuses on domestic violence. Austin Rape Crisis Center focuses on sexual violence. Sexual violence includes domestic violence, and sexual violence is very difficult for people to talk about.

Many nonprofits, once they lose some foundation funding or grant, they have to layoff people, and when you do that you diminish your mission. Financial stability is important. Nonprofit or not, you are still running a business.

In the eighties and in the nineties all of a sudden you have all of these Asians moving into town because of Dell, Samsung or Freescale, and I said, “Where would they find their community?” Nowhere except maybe in a grocery store or in a restaurant, but that’s not enough. I felt like they didn’t have a home. So, it was just like, “Well, I think we need to do it.”

That was when the Jewish Community Center was moving to the new place and this space became available. I came in here and they already had the classrooms set up.  They left me with a lot of the furniture and I am still using it. It’s almost like the structure is there. It’s just a natural place to have childcare as an anchor service and then to have the cultural events and the language classes. You need to have those anchor businesses first just like a shopping mall. If we just rely on teaching people language or dance or whatever we could not keep the doors open. This is over a half-million dollar operation budget annually.

This is a million dollar startup. I had only three months to raise the fund ten years ago. I had to get investors to buy this place. When people ask me why the Asian American Cultural Center is a for-profit business. To keep the doors open, I need to create steady income monthly. I would like to continue providing free admission for our Lunar New Year Celebration, for our Mid-autumn Festival, for our Dragon Boat Festival, for all of the other things that we offer. Our ESL and citizenship classes are free.

The first few years, I had to build the school and the enrollment. My enrollment didn’t go up for three years. We only had fifteen kids. I said to myself, “How can we keep the doors open?”  I had to certify myself as a director. Luckily I have a background as a therapist. And, luckily when I came to this country my dad wanted me to major in business, so I have two full years of business training. As a childcare director, you do need to have that to be certified. So, I said, “Oh, thank Daddy!”  You know, I resisted it. That is why I changed my major my junior year, but the college coursework in business happened to be the saving grace.

I was born in Hong Kong. It was a British colony. It was a Chinese society. I was sent to a Catholic school that was run by nuns. So, ever since I was a child, I was exposed to all cultures.  Hong Kong is an international financial hub in Asia. There are business from all over the world setting up banking, so we see all kinds of people. And, my mind was not restricted. In creating the Magic Dragon childcare center, I wanted to have a space for the children to have a similar experience that I did.

When I first came here for college, we still had to learn English in Hong Kong so there was not too much of a language barrier, but culturally still a barrier. Being raised as a Chinese girl, you were not allowed to ask questions and talk a lot.

When I first came to this country, if you asked me “What makes you happy?”  I would not have been able to answer that question. I was never allowed to think about that. “What makes me happy?”  No, it was “What makes my parents happy?” “What makes the society happy?” “What makes the community happy?” But, if you ask my children here at the Magic Dragon, “What makes you happy,” they can give you a book. They know, because they are so in touch with that, and I want to make sure that they are in touch with that.

I don’t intend to convince people that East is better than West, what I am trying to create is a space for honest exchange, and it is up to you to come in to share. It is up to you to come in to learn. I don’t serve just Asians.

As a person who is influenced by both Eastern and Western philosophy, I know that there are weaknesses and strengths in both. We learn from other people’s weaknesses, and then we celebrate their strengths, and that is what makes us evolve into a better place.

I am still a child at heart.  I am learning every day from my children. Yes, my anchor business is the early childhood education program but I am not just providing substandard quality. We are getting four stars from the Texas Rising Star and it is the highest in the quality program in Texas.

I just went though a program for childcare directors. It was “Taking Charge of Change.”  It was such an empowering experience and humbling experience to be in the room with all directors and some of them have been in business for 25 years. I brought in my cultural enrichment program that has guiding principles of the East, you know the compassion, the wisdom, the beauty, the wellness and the teamwork that draws from the Confucian teaching. I said I also brought in the Western training of being compassionate, which is the same, but be curious, be creative, have confidence in yourself and have the courage. The five ‘c’s.  I always say it is four ‘c’s plus the big ‘C,’ and that is the courage to lead.

So, I am combining both the East and the West to create this program and have it practiced every day because I have to train my teachers to be this person so that they become role models. So, my business is evolving. Instead of just teaching the kids, I am also grooming my staff to be this person.

All of my teachers have a college degree, but that may not be in early childhood education. My requirement right now, because we are moving into a national accreditation, so I want all of them to have at least 12 hours of college credit in early childhood education. Right now, our after-school program is bursting at the seams. I need to have two teachers in that classroom. So that is growing. And then all of our pre-school graduates are coming back for the afterschool program. I think we have strengthened our reputation in the childcare community.

I dived into this journey 10 years ago with a vision and I am grateful that it turns out to be a good reality. And hopefully, we will be able to expand into our second phase.

The first phase was all about education, may it be early childhood education or adult education. We have ESL for adults, and seniors, and a citizenship class. Then we have the cultural classes, the languages such as Japanese and Chinese, and Japanese dance and Hawaiian dance. The next ten years we have to refine our programming and services and make them better.

My second phase of development is a high rise. When you walk down and you have all kinds of small shops. That’s what I want. Maybe a place for noodles and a place for bubble tea in the same complex. The reason why I want to have a high rise is because I want to have a bigger garden that people can play chess in. One of the things I wanted to look at was having an Asian spa and a hot bathhouse with a focus on wellness.

The high-rise development would be for independent elders and young professionals who don’t want to take care of a house and who just want to have a condo. Still, have the housekeeping services and all kinds of wellness services. Or have a nice little dining room and have a nice chef so that we can go down and have home-cooked meals. Have a community close by and then they get to see the children play. I am just trying to bridge these two populations, the old and the young together. My idea is still forming. I may need some help to make that happen, but you have to look at the bottom line. Is it a feasible project?

I am very into building community, either in Austin, in the Asian-American community or in the Magic Dragon community. Building community is really my core value.

Every year we have four festivals, the Lunar New Year in the beginning of the year; and the Dragon Boat Festival is at the end of April at Town Lake, and then the Mid-autumn Festival. We also celebrate our anniversary with the Mid-Autumn Festival and also in remembering those 9/11 victims because it is always in September. And then we have the Asian Bazaar coming up in the first week of December.

I really want to help talented women who create special handcrafts influenced by the East to come and sell them. In December people start looking for affordable, unique gifts for the holidays. This is part of my intention to have this Asian Bazaar. I also create some tea time for people to come in on that day to have some tea. The Asian Bazaar is the first Saturday of December from 10:00 to 3:00 p.m.  People can start setting up their tables at 9:30 but we close at 3:00.

If someone is going to start up their own cultural center, they have to have a vision that is beyond self-interest. They have to understand the community interests. And they have to put that out as the priority. Otherwise, don’t do it. Satisfaction comes from knowing the community is better, not because you are wealthier. Then they have to have the commitment to do whatever it takes to get it done. Whatever it takes sometimes means getting no sleep, no traveling. And then you have to have the discipline to pay attention to the details, because the separation of good and great is in the details.

I think you also need to have grace—the grace to know, even though you have a vision you still need a team to make it happen. One person cannot do it. So, you have to have to be thankful for all the people who helped you make your dream come true. So, instead of “I did it,” you should be very mindful that, “We did it.”

I am used to meeting all kinds of people, so I always look beyond their position. That is the only way to build a relationship. You know, the mayor, the governor, the consul general, they each have a family. I am a family member of my family. So, I like to start with the basics. It doesn’t hurt to ask, “How is your family doing?” If they want to share, they share, but at least you started on a personal level and on an equal footing.

I don’t know if I like to have smooth sailing. I have some smooth sailing and I know how it is, but sometimes it can be boring. Sometimes if you look at some challenge and say, “learning experience,” then it is a joy. So, you turn the crisis into a joy and then you learn from it, and then you can share it. People need to remind themselves to have joy in life, and just remember that feeling.

When I saw this property for the first time, I fell in love with this tree. I introduce it to every visitor who comes to the Austin Asian American Cultural Center, because I want them to think about adversity as an opportunity to build character. I find this tree so beautiful.

The Austin Asian American Cultural Center will host the Asian Holiday Bazaar on Saturday, December 4th, 2010 from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. For booth rental, call (512) 336-5069.

For more information please visit the following Web site:

Austin Asian American Cultural Center
11713 Jollyville Road
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 336-5069

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