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Asper alumna Bonita Paquette (née Wong) [BComm (Hons)/93]

Bridging the cultural divide

June 29, 2016 — 

Although she was born and raised in Canada, Asper alumna Bonita Paquette (née Wong) [BComm (Hons)/93] knows first-hand the challenges of cross-cultural communication.

As the Director, Internal Audit for Brion Energy, a multinational owned by PetroChina, Paquette works closely with Chinese ex-patriots on a daily basis, and sees the challenges and misunderstandings encountered in the workplace by both ex-patriot and local employees. An example provided by Paquette is “a head nod to Canadians typically signifies agreement, but this is not necessarily the case for our Chinese counterparts. This can make coming to a consensus in meetings a little tricky.”

Meanwhile, her husband Randy Paquette, who works as the Senior Director of Development (Institutional) at the University of Calgary, sees similar cultural challenges for international students. And when the two were married last July, they witnessed their own extended families — hers originally from Hong Kong and China, his from Northern Ontario — navigate their own cultural divide. Paquette shares a story which took place during their wedding reception held at a Chinese restaurant in Calgary’s Chinatown: “I had fun watching my father-in-law eat jellyfish for the first time… I told him it was cold noodles!”

These experiences have all played a key role in fuelling Paquette’s passion for facilitating trans-cultural connection and understanding — a passion that has led her to spearhead a remarkable project. Last year, she and her husband started Feel Foreign, a not-for-profit that builds bridges across cultures using video as the main form of expression.

In their first initiative, the Feel Foreign Film Contest, “we invite people to share real-life stories in three- to five-minute videos that ask viewers to experience and embrace different ways of seeing the world,” she explains. “Some of the stories are about learning a new culture, or addressing stereotypes, or discussing cultural differences in an entertaining way. We believe storytelling is a fundamental approach to increasing cultural awareness.”

In the fall, the top three videos will receive cash prizes totaling $10,000. In the future, Paquette says they plan to expand the competition into a TEDTalks-style annual conference “to really get the dialogue going and to build and strengthen connections between different cultures and communities.”

Earlier this year, Paquette also helped coordinate the inaugural national conference of the Hong Kong-Canada Business Association in Calgary. She has been involved with the HKCBA’s Calgary chapter for six years, and as president for the past two years, says she’s enormously proud of the event’s success, which drew over 200 delegates. The organization is one of the largest bilateral trade associations in Canada and aims to expand commercial relationships between Canada and Hong Kong (and Asia more broadly).

“I like the challenge of connecting people with the right opportunities and resources to help them achieve their goals,” she says.

That includes business students, who were invited to participate in an investment pitch competition as part of the conference. Fourteen universities across Canada duked it out in the Dragons’ Den-style showdown, with a total of over $50,000 in cash prizes, seed money and consulting services going to the top three finalists. “It was exciting to see them present their ideas for forging business connections with Asia,” she says, “and to help them get their ideas off the ground.”

While it might seem that working in both the corporate and not-for-profit sectors requires Paquette to switch constantly between vastly different skill sets, she says the opposite is true.

“I use the same project management and teamwork skills at Brion as I use as president of the HKCBA, or in my work with Feel Foreign. It’s all about knowing how to interact with other people effectively. Learning those skills in business school has been incredibly valuable.”

Paquette adds that she has benefitted from the insights generated by her projects as much as anyone.

“Through Feel Foreign, for instance, I’ve become even more aware of certain cultural differences, such as the hierarchical social structure that my Chinese counterparts are more comfortable with, and I’ve learned how to interact with that difference in mind. At work, I am seeing our ex-pats learning to understand our culture and the ways we are used to working together. It goes both ways. It’s a conversation. Seeing that conversation lead to greater understanding and helping people achieve their goals, is why I’m so passionate about what I do.”

Feel Foreign is accepting submissions (international submissions welcome!) for this year’s contest at until August 1.

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