Amy speaks with Diana Watson, founder and owner of Speaking Seed, LLC. Diana provides Chinese business consulting services to companies that need a better understanding of Chinese culture to improve business and also coaches professionals who aspire to deliver presentations in their non-native language. Check the links in the show notes to secure an English copy of her latest book!
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Connect with Diana on LinkedIn.
Check out the Speaking Seed website.
Interested in her new book? Email her about receiving a .pdf in English.
Amy: Diana, welcome to the show. How are you?
Diana: I am great. Thank you so much for having me today, Amy.
Amy: Thank you. I am excited about this, not just because you and I are friends, but also you are the very first person I have interviewed who lives in Taiwan.
Diana: I guess there’s not too many people who live in Taiwan who have connections in the States. But thank you so much for inviting me. I’m so excited.
Amy: Yes, this is great. So first of all, can you explain to us how you got into foreign language speaking and Chinese business consulting, because this is a career path that I personally could never have imagined, and for me it would never occur to me to just pick up and move to the other side of the world, and I just want to hear a little bit about your journey.
Diana: Well, if you want to hear a little bit about my journey that would be difficult, because it’s a long story, and it started from when I was a kid, but I’ll try my best to summarize it very quickly so I won’t bore any of your listeners. I have always been a person who loves traveling and seeing the world, learning languages. My sister instilled that passion in me because she’s also a passionate linguist, and I remember when I was little she had a globe in her room, and we used to, like, study it and spin it around. Remember those old school globes? Now people don’t have ’em anymore. So all of you listeners out there, if you don’t have a globe, that’s, like, not having a set of encyclopedias. I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding.
Amy: I actually have a globe sitting in my office, and my kids come in and spin it, and then we talk about where they land with their finger and, you know, “What’s it like there?” And it’s usually in the middle of the ocean, and the answer is wet, but you managed to hit land with your finger.
Diana: Well, you know, globes, that’s one of those old school things that’s just classic that will never go out of style. So if you don’t have a globe, get a globe, and then you’ll explore all the possibilities that’s right here on this earth. You can spin it around and look at all the different places you want to go, and my sister and I used to do that, sometimes for hours, just spin it around, look at the different countries that both of us said we wish we could visit and the languages they spoke and we imagined what it would be like there, and we would pair that with her set of encyclopedias and would look it up and say, “Oh, this is the kind of food they eat,” and look at the pictures, but today encyclopedias are Google, so you can just Google it. So I’ve always had that passion since I was younger, and when I got older I studied in France, and then I had a very short stint in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, and I came back to the States. I was supposed to get married. I didn’t. Thank God, because it would have been a complete disaster. And I went to graduate school, and I still connected with other people who liked to travel and loved languages like I did, and I got to this point when I was about 25 or 26 years old where I really just didn’t feel like I fit in the United States anymore. Even though I was born an American, even though I was born an American, my momma and daddy are both Black, their families both have lived in the States for 300 years, something inside my core just said “You don’t fit here. In order to find, to discover who you really are, you’re gonna need to go somewhere else to find it.” And I was a teacher at the time with a master’s, two master’s degrees, and I just missed qualifying for public housing, and I remember–yes. Imagine, I was about $1,200 away from qualifying for Section 8 housing and I had two master’s degrees and I was a public school teacher. So at the time I had to teach all day in an elementary school. I taught ESL school at night and I tutored to make ends meet.
Amy: And ESL, for those who don’t know, is–
Diana: English as a Second Language, ESL education, and I remember it very clearly. One of my co-workers that evening from my evening class said to me, “Diana, you like to travel like I do. You need to get into international education.” And I said, “International education?” I’m like, “Oh, what’s that?” And she’s like, “There’s American schools, international schools all over the world where you can teach. Why stay here? You’re young. You’re single. Get up and go. You love to travel. Go.” And she connected me with someone who she had worked with that could get me a job, and they had these international teaching fairs, and I went and I got a job at an oil school in Indonesia, and I left. That first year was incredibly difficult, but it didn’t matter how hard it was. It still felt right, and that was 17 years ago in August that I left the United States, and I haven’t really looked back since then. I tried to make it into a short story. It was a little long though. Sorry about that.
Amy: No, that was great. I think that background is important, because there’s somebody listening right now that’s sitting there with that same feeling you had of, you know, “This isn’t working for me. I really want to spread my wings and see what I’m capable of,” and there’s this whole world out there, and just like someone gave you permission to go explore it in terms of, you know, taking a different direction with your career, there’s somebody sitting out there now who has that same feeling who’s waiting for permission. So if that’s you, if you’re listening, go. Go. It’s a great big world out there, right?
Diana: It’s difficult though because my parents didn’t support me. In the beginning they didn’t support me. They were very fearful. I had to trick them into letting me go. So what I did was when I was in university I knew that I wanted to study abroad and I was never allowed to in the past, so I purposely enrolled in a major that required all the students to study abroad. So I wouldn’t have been able to graduate from college if I didn’t go. Like, that’s the way I had to do it. There was no other way. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I mean, there was no way my momma and my daddy were gonna be like, “Oh, you’re just gonna fly off to France and wear some beret and eating and flirting with those boys? Are you crazy?” But I did. I figured out a way to do it and I did it, and now they’re just like–it’s no big deal to them. When other people say, “Oh, my baby is gonna study for six months. What am I gonna do?” My parents are like “Six months? Are you kidding me? That’s nothing. Let me counsel you for a minute.” Like, they’re the experts now, but it didn’t start off that way. It took a long time, and I’m really proud of them because I share this so much, particularly for people of color, where we have very tight family relationships, and it’s not particularly common for us to go and study abroad, because when you’re abroad you’re alone. Your families are worried. Things could happen. We hear about it all the time on the news, more so now than 20 years ago, and it’s very scary for a parent. I mean, I’m not a parent, but I can only imagine how terrifying it may be for parents. And at that time, as much as they loved me, they really wanted me to have my dreams but within reach that weren’t gonna be so dangerous, and I still–in my mind it wasn’t being dangerous. The most dangerous thing is ignoring your dreams, throwing them in the drawer and pushing it in and not opening it up and taking the opportunity to just possibly let it fall if that’s what’s supposed to happen. I think that’s the scariest thing. And they were raised differently. They were brought up in a different time where stability was most important, and I can look back now and really respect that, and they can respect what I helped them to do by pushing them more forward-thinking into, you know, understanding about other cultures and other people and why that’s important, particularly now with everything that’s going on. They understand so much about the world because of the lens that I’ve been able to provide for them. So we’re both learning from each other, you know? I always thought that, you know, “Oh, your parents know everything.” No, they really don’t, but you still have to respect them. [laughs] No offense, Mom and Dad, if you end up listening to this. I love you.
Amy: We love our parents, of course. But I did want to ask you about your experience being a Black American in Taiwan, because that’s something that a lot of people are probably really curious about. How are you received there? What are the race dynamics like there?
Diana: Okay. So I have been in Taiwan 15 years. When I first came, I would always get the question “Where are you from?” “I’m from the United States.” “Where are your parents from?” “My parents are from the United States.” “Where are your grandparents from?” “The United States.” I would get that question over and over again, but they weren’t rude. Every once in a while I would get the stare where someone would look at me and because I had darker skin and they would be like, “Eugh, that’s just disgusting,” and I would just laugh it off because in my thinking I’m like, “I grew up in the United States where, like, all of my white friends died for my color.” Like, they would sunbathe all day long, and I’m just like–it was effortless. [laughs] Everyone wanted the beautiful, tan complexion that I had, and over here everyone wanted bleached white skin, and there were times when it was challenging, but I wouldn’t say it was as challenging as other Asian countries because Taiwan is very unique where culturally I consider them to be more like Chinese Californians. They’re kind of hippie and open-minded. So they knew that I was different and they would comment on it, but at the same time they embraced the differentness that I possessed. Like, it attracted them, and it didn’t influence how they treated me for the most part. I mean, I’m not gonna say that this was 100%. Of course I had my run-ins with, you know, idiots every now and then, but I would say by and far I would say it was maybe 5%. But once Obama became president all that changed. I mean, his racial background was examined so much and talked about so much. It just completely–and I wouldn’t say just only in Taiwan. Just on a massive scale globally. People finally understood that “Wait a minute, you don’t have to be blonde hair, blue eyes to be an American.” There’s lots of different kinds of people who live in the United States, and not just only for the U.S. We watch the Olympics now and we can see a Black face represent Germany and not have these questions or have someone that looks aboriginal and they come from Australia. We’re not pigeon-holing everybody to looking a specific way when they come from a country anymore because that’s just not what’s true, and I really respect Taiwanese people a lot for that, because even though they didn’t understand when I first came they were open to understanding, and I really challenge if anyone’s interested in traveling, you know, if you happen to come across people who are asking you questions, Americans tend to be so… sometimes so easily offended because, you know, people’s PC lens isn’t up and they’re just being honest. It’s a part of education. It’s a part of people understanding who we are and what makes us different and realizing that these just aren’t bridges meant to separate us. They’re meant to connect us. So the more open you can be about talking about your hair texture and, you know, how you handle your hair and your color of skin and how you feel about it, the more people can understand. So be patient.
Amy: And that’s gotta be hard too, when you’re trying to learn a new culture, and instead of spending your time learning the new culture, you’re educating everyone on yours. What you really want to be doing is “Okay, but wait, how do we do this here?”
Diana: There are days that I have that, you know, I could just be, like, a pain in the ass and be like, “You know what?” Like, the other day I went hiking and a woman, you know, said, “Oh, I haven’t seen you here before,” and I’m like, “Oh, I’ve lived here for almost four years.” “Four years?!” I said, “Yeah, I lived in the city for 11 and I moved out here 4 years ago,” and she’s just like, “Oh, where are you from?” And I said, “I’m from America.” “America? There’s no way you can be American. You’re too dark.” And I’m like, “Okay. Ugh…” This is an older woman. I’m used to this. It’s the countryside. I said, “Oh, my parents lived there for many years, da-da-da-da,” and then she said something else, and I said, “You obviously don’t know American history,” and she said, “I don’t.” She said, “I’m sorry.” But this is what people really have to understand. You know, it’s hard for me, and when I have a bad day I don’t have patience. I’m like, “You know what? You’re just so stupid. Ugh.” “I’m, like, over this, okay?” But then with that attitude, sometimes it takes you back to being “You know what, Diana? You are not perfect either, girlfriend. You’ve got a lot of your own issues. There’s a lot of different things you don’t know about. There’s a lot of dumb questions you ask. Hey, not everybody had all the advantages that you’ve had.” So I felt bad when I said that to her. I was like, “I’m so awful.” But, you know, she was pretty cool about it. She said she was sorry and then, you know, she just kept on going. So the next time I see her hiking, you know, I won’t be so mean to her. [both laughing] We all have good and bad days.
Amy: Yeah, I get it. Now, to be fair, I know nothing about Taiwanese history. So if it was someone here and I asked them a question they could probably throw that at me and I would say, “You know what? You got me. I know nothing.”
Diana: It’s how you ask too. So culturally, you know, she was like, “[garbled],” and it was just like “[garbled].”
Amy: Got it. So your work now though is focused on helping U.S. companies understand Chinese cultural norms so that they can be more successful in business, because we’re operating in an increasingly global economy, and I know that that’s just such an overused phrase, but it’s so true. Right now during kind of peak pandemic around the world we’re seeing how connected we all are. So how do you engage with these companies? And for those of us sitting in the U.S. who are not as familiar with Chinese culture and do not have roles where we interact internationally, can you tell us what’s something basic that we need to know as we prepare ourselves to enter into this global marketplace?
Diana: I would say the first thing that you need to prepare yourself for before you enter the global marketplace is to understand how much you don’t know. I have found so often–and I don’t want to say this about everyone, but Westerners in general tend to talk a lot in comparison to Eastern people. They tend to think they know a lot in comparison to Eastern people, and after living here for a long time and seeing how the Buddhists and Daoists and Hindu–like, all these different Eastern philosophies really mold the people into being more timid, more observant, very good listeners. Not so quick to react. More mild-mannered and controlled. It’s such a big difference to Western thinking and approach to handling business in particular, so you really need to understand how much you don’t know. Even if you think you know, you don’t know. And be humble to that fact. Always just walk right in to a situation and admit that there’s things that you don’t know and ask open-ended questions, and YOU wait for the responses, and YOU listen and take in the responses. Hear their pain points. Hear what they’re interested in doing. So often we’re busy talking talking talking talking talking talking, and they’re busy listening and taking everything in, but at the end of the day they’re the ones getting the best deal and we’re wearing ourselves out, and we’re thinking we’re the ones who got the best deal when we really didn’t. So I would say that’s probably #1, just learn to listen and understand that you don’t know everything that’s going on. That’s first, first, first, ’cause the cultures are just so different.
Amy: I would say that’s great advice not just if you’re dealing with Asian countries but if you’re dealing with anyone, right? Ask more questions, listen more than you talk.
Diana: Yeah, and it’s interesting that humility, that listening component, and I try to share it with people over and over and over again, and I see that same mistake done again and again and again, and they don’t make that mistake because most of the time they’re busy thinking, and they’re in it for the long game, and we’re busy running our mouths and saying different things, and we really don’t totally understand. We’re not seeing the big picture. We think we do, but you have to really look–to understand the big picture, you need to be able to examine things on a bunch of different sides, and to know everything from a bunch of different sides you need to also–the most important thing is you need to know that you don’t know. So you have to just get the input from all these different types of sources. And that was a hard lesson for me to learn as, you know, a Black woman from Philly. I was just like, “Oh, no. She thinks she’s da-da-da-da,” you know, and I’ve learned. I’m like, “You know what, Diana? You put your foot in your mouth one too many times. You thought you knew what you were doing and you didn’t,” or it appeared as being one way or it wasn’t or she or he came off as a little abrasive but they really aren’t. So many times throughout the years I really thought that I had it all figured out, and the older I get and the longer I’m here, the more that I know that I don’t know.
Amy: I think that’s good advice. And I think a lot of us, as we get older we start to learn that naturally even if we haven’t traveled the world. [laughs] But there’s that moment, right, where you think, “Oh, man. Did I really spend all my life speaking like that?”
Diana: But you know, Amy, I’m still meeting people though… I’m still meeting people though where they haven’t learned that, and they’re older than me, and I’m like… “Ugh, you’re supposed to be my big sister in this situation. I’m supposed to be looking to you as my role model. Why am I not seeing this?” But I digress. [laughs]
Amy: We all get there in our own time, and some of us don’t get there at all, but that’s a story for another day. So Diana, tell me a little bit about what you see in terms of trends in the work that you’re doing, this consulting work cross-culturally that you’re doing. Do you think that this is going to be a growing industry, or do you see it leveling off?
Diana: Well, before COVID-19 I definitely did (think it was a growing industry). Everything’s changed because of COVID-19. Pre-COVID-19 things were… well, I don’t want to say pre-COVID-19. I would say a year before COVID-19, anything Chinese was, like, very, very hot, and then there was the U.S.-China trade war where things leveled off quite a bit because, you know, the U.S. and China with the tariffs and everything. It was just a back and forth war that was going on, and as a result quite a bit of the visas–the Chinese visas were rejected, so very, very few Chinese were able to come to the U.S., and when they come to the U.S. they have incredible buying power. Out of all of the tourists that come to the U.S., 20% of all sales are from Chinese tourists alone. 20%. So particularly for luxury goods, but not even just for luxury goods. Drug store products. They dominate it. So everyone wanted and encouraged Chinese consumers, but then when everything happened with the U.S. trade war it slagged off substantially, I would say probably by 70%, and then of course with COVID-19 it’s at almost nothing other than, you know, university students and Chinese-Americans who emigrated after university or what have you. And now like I said for the most part everyone had to go back to China or Taiwan if they were university students. If they’re full-time workers they’re still in the States, but a lot of those statistics aren’t even available now because of COVID-19. I believe that it will make a comeback, but we’re in such uncertain times right now that until we get a vaccine I’m not sure exactly what the future holds. I’m just like everybody else, wondering “How will this play out?” For Chinese consumer behavior globally. They’re so important globally. Like, every country cares about Chinese tourism and consumer behavior because they’ve got the money. They’re the largest market in the world, and they travel, particularly Chinese New Year, but now the fear after COVID-19 had spread mainly during the Christmas New Year and Chinese New Year holidays it was able to spread all over the world so quickly. So I hope that doesn’t affect people and their views of Chinese people, because it’s like anything else. I mean, nobody had control over the virus. It’s something that happened because of the use of wet markets in Wuhan. But I’m fearful of the discrimination that has arose, particularly in Western countries, after COVID-19 approached, so I really hope in the future that it will make–I’m sure it will make a comeback, but I hope that it will be sooner rather than later, at least for my business, but for now I’ve realized that I have to pivot.
Amy: So thank you for that, ’cause I think it’s interesting. We’re in this weird moment, but I think long view things even out. If someone’s interested in doing what you’re doing, in cross-cultural consulting or even foreign language, which we didn’t even have time to talk about all the work you do in foreign language public speaking. If that’s something that they’re interested in, where can they learn more about this kind of work?
Diana: Well, if they’re interested in foreign language public speaking they can look at my website at speakingseed.com. You can find me. I can help you if there is a speech that you want to write in another language. I also published a book. It’s not on sale on Amazon in the U.S. yet. I’m so sorry. But it is in Taiwan, and I can also give you a .pdf copy if you email me. Yes, an advance reader copy, and you can just go to speakingseed.com. You can send me an email, and I will give you an advance reader copy if you’re interested in taking a look at it, or you can just get a sample at the website. And my website is very good where under the About tab it explains the whole process of why foreign language public speaking is important, how we can use public speeches to be able to accelerate our foreign language learning. That was basically how I was able to improve my Chinese speaking, by making speeches to help with my Chinese fluency, because I really, really struggled and regular classes weren’t cutting it, and all of the other methods I was just too lazy to do. So I made speeches. That’s what I did.
Amy: That’s wonderful. So you compensated for laziness by public speaking, which most people public speaking is the exact opposite, right? It’s not a motivator. It’s the thing that they run from, so I love your approach, Diana.
Diana: I love speeches, so it worked for me ’cause I got the writing practice, the reading practice, I was able to work on my intonation and just my fluency improved. It was hard, but everybody finds–when it comes to language learning, you kind of have to find that secret sauce that works for you. It’s not the same for everybody, and we’re learning that. With foreign language learning research, they’re recognizing now that the traditional reading, writing, listening, speaking, pronounciation and la-la-la-la, it doesn’t work for everybody in that exact format. Different people learn different languages in different ways, and it’s all based on motivation. What motivates you? For some people it’s not speaking at all. They don’t even want to really speak. They just love literature. I know plenty of people here where their spoken English is horrible but they can read Shakespeare, and they love it because that’s what motivates them. That’s what works for them. And then I know other people where their reading and writing is terrible and they’re very fluent English speakers. So you have to find that secret sauce that just works for you and keeps you motivated and interested in using that foreign language and understand that that’s that connection to help you understand other people in the world.
Amy: That is beautiful. Diana Watson, thank you so much for your time today. This has been so fun.
Diana: Thank you, Amy. Thank you for having me.