Inside Change: Patrick Chew
What is your role at Change? What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?
My official title is “Internationalization Manager,” which focuses on not only the ‘international’ aspects of supporting and managing the language services (translation and localization) at Change.org, but also emphasizes the more product/development-focused aspects, as well, like being an extra pair of eyes to check over copy and help minimize code-breakage when it gets beyond English. It’s a relatively unique role, in that my own multilingual/polyglossic strengths get put to use here, where most orgs would have to hire a few more folk to get the same coverage.
While a lot of my work is ‘behind-the-scenes’ and not always the flashy feature-stunning work or the tireless and thankless work that many others do to keep the site up and running and our users safe, knowing that I’m helping give a voice to so many and knowing that change is being made in more places around the world than just English-speaking countries is pretty darned soul-satisfying, and I look forward to continuing to expand and deepen the reach of Change.org’s facilitation and amplification of social change in the world.
That said, I definitely find it challenging to keep up with not only languages that I don’t have daily in-person contact, but moreover all of the local evolutions and changes in language nuance as time rolls on. There’s also the balance of “it’ll do” and “get it right” PoVs between various teams to balance, as well…
Why did this type of work interest you and how did you get started?
My ‘story of self’ has often involved the snowball effect of my formative years in being exposed to a decent amount of languages and cultures (despite the ambient suburban US environment), as well as a yearn to be able to help bridge the gap between languages and cultures, taking a large part of the frustrations growing up amongst heritage languages and cultures and the “gaps” with ‘mainstream’ culture.
Life has made me eat crow chapter after chapter in my life, and I’ll gladly acknowledge it all: “I don’t want to be a linguist; that’s boring! I’m going to focus on…” (my academics are in linguistics); “I’ve done interpreting and translating before… never again!” (here I am assisting with translation); “I don’t need to know how to code, I’ve got my languages to keep me busy” (I left academia and have worked at tech firms, thankfully able to meld my language skills in); etc.— tl;dr is that Life’s opportunities to reflect and realign have led me here.
How would you describe your linguistic background and current multi-language usage?
As a 5th-generation US American of Chinese heritage, I grew up with a number of speech varieties and cultural contexts; growing up, English was primary, but there were multiple Chinese “dialects” spoken in the family. (Also, because of my Father’s WW2 and Korean War military service, other Chinese dialects, and some Korean, were also present). Pretty much all of my other-languages have been contextually learnt—some with classwork, but the majority by community/friend use that’s supplemented by my own curiosity.
Currently, Change.org supports 13 languages (19 locales), which means that I still have to keep a minimum modicum of understanding the basics for these 13 languages, while at the same time trying to keep straight the nuances and differences between the varieties of the same languages that we support. Basically, I have to chameleon linguistically/culturally, sometimes at the drop of a hat. (Is it 100% perfect? heck no… as time goes by, I recognize my humanness!!!)
What do you notice when you change between languages in terms of cultural expectations?
There are surfacey expectations when switching between languages, like the hierarchization in many Asian languages… but, those all get factored into an even more multifaceted matrix when factoring other ambient language/cultural expectations. An example is looking at when speakers are comfortable in X language, but then switch to Y… because that signals a number of unspoken framework shifts, which could be an internal mental shift, another speaker introduced, differences in comfortness in a particular topic, etc.
To insert a tangible example of linguistic/cultural differences when hopping between languages, I’d like to mention Turkish. Turkish requires that you mark your verb with a suffix (-miş-/-mış-) to indicate that you do *NOT* know first-hand/verified/concrete state-knowledge of whatever you’re asserting or talking about (truth vs ‘story’); theoretically, this would make ‘stories’ versus ‘truths’ easier to distinguish, but…
One anecdote some longer-tenured team members like to bring up is when I was handling support tickets solo… when I’d read out loud some of the ticket requests to myself, I’ve been told that my voice would adjust, as well as body language—the usual example brought up is Italian from an irate user.
How do your language skills enhance who you are and what you do?
The story I tell myself (it’s only a story, because I’ve not done any statistical or empirical analysis) is that I subconsciously function in most all of the cultural and linguistic personae at the same time, with relevant ones emerging stronger when needed, which I hope indicate a bit of adaptability. (I won’t say “Sensitivity,” because I can sometimes be crass… in *any* language.) If anything, the different approaches to the world that each language and language variety uses allows me a very multifaceted/multi vectored view of something.
What challenges do you face as a result of your language skills?
Because I automatically have access to a broader range of potentialities, sometimes I forget that not everyone else has the same. Sometimes that means orthogonal approaches by myself and others I’m interacting with.
How do you view the relationship between language and culture?
To me, they’re pretty intertwined. That said, I find that my cultural crossovers are often not always as appreciated when a narrower native scope is sometimes expected. Playing with and intentionally breaking cultural expectations within a language often confuses others, sadly; sometimes, though, it garners good deep belly-laughs.
If you could go back five years, what advice would you give yourself?
Be kind—not just to others, but to myself… and pay it more forward…
Better present complex things in a simpler way that draws more people in.
How do you think your identity has impacted your professional experiences?
I think that there are many internal identity arguments that I’ve had that have impacted my professional experiences. As an Asian-American, there often comes a time for someone in their childhood to either embrace or reject one or the other set of culture—heritage and ambient—because the usual case is that it’s harder to balance both. The thing is that one will never be fully in the in-group in either, because of the erstwhile cross-cultural conflicts, but… that’s why I decided to choose both, and… all, rather than only a single one.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to professionals who may be trying to manage their identities in the workplace?
We’re usually conditioned to silo off Otherness, whether to protect the Self or to not alienate others; I’d rather recommend that there are ways to incorporate and share that so-called Otherness to make it not so… Other…