Meet Swallow Yan
by Karen Lauer; interview by Sarah Itagaki
For over 20 years, Swallow Yan has worked to bring the Iowa state community out of its comfort zone. Since arriving in Iowa in 1991, Swallow has made great strides in connecting the US and China.
In the past few decades, Swallow’s accomplishments have been impressive. He has organized the Immigration Council of Chinese Professionals and Entrepreneurs Association in Central Iowa and lobbied in Washington D.C. for immigration reform long before the issue garnered national headlines. Through his work with the Chinese Association of Iowa and U.S. Education Without Borders–the latter of which he founded in 2006–he has connected Iowa and neighboring states to China through high school and college student exchanges and a broad range of cultural, business and educational programming. Because of his efforts and leadership, Swallow has been invited to the White House three times on Asian American leadership events.
He has also been recognized for his work with many awards including the Outstanding Iowan Award from Iowa Governor Chet Culver and Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge in 2008.
As a run-up to the Tai Initiative’s Denver conference this year, at which Swallow Yan will be speaking, we sat down with him to discuss his experiences bringing people from the US and China together. In our phone interview, we talked with Swallow about his work, the challenges he faces, and the importance of building relationships beyond official government relations.
Tai Initiative-(TI) Why did you choose to focus on these projects?
Swallow Yan-(SY) Through these projects I am trying to build social capital to serve as a strong foundation for relationships. It is always difficult to get out of our comfort zone, so I try to create opportunities for personal connection. Some of my projects focus on the younger generation of Chinese government officials. This is because, by creating a personal connection, they will have a deeper understanding. For example, if I am a Chinese student looking at the United States from China I can only get superficial knowledge from magazines and pictures. But if I go to the United States and talk to American people, I am able to have a special feeling—a personal connection. By having these personal connections between US and Chinese leaders and individuals, it is easier to have talks at the table. These “special feelings” become the roots for greater US-China relations.
(TI) How has your work progressed in the past years since your arrival to the United States?
(SY) These past years have been very productive, but I know that from my work, you cannot see the progress immediately because my work focuses on the roots of US China relations. Nevertheless, over the years I think I have been successful trying to build connections beyond governmental delegations from China who stay at hotels, have meetings, then return without really getting a good understanding of the United States.
(TI) What are some challenges you are facing with your work?
(SY) The source of most of my challenges comes from the distrust currently between the US and China. Both sides have a distrustful view of each other; that makes it harder for me to get people talking to each other. But, this is part of the reason that when I bring together groups, or talk about US-China relations, I show both the positive and negative sides. I never try to hide away bad sides to Chinese society or present a rosy picture of the United States. Also, I know that I always want to start from individuals because I know that personal experience at the individual level can always help. So, we may not always agree on what we should do, but I always think we should begin somewhere—we can have a point where we can start talking.
(TI) Where do you see your work in the future?
(SY) As I said, I know my work takes a long time to see results. But I think in another 20 or 25 years, we can maybe start seeing some changes. I know from my personal experience and working on building relations, that individual connections can help no matter what. So even when 5 years from now, there is still distrust between China and the US, I believe that we can hope to see better relationships unfolding if we continue to work on building connections.