Cultural Resolution

Linda Mealey-Lohmann’s longtime passion for China

Published in 2023 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

By William Wagner on July 13, 2023


In the mid-’70s, Linda Mealey-Lohmann was a voice major at the University of Minnesota when the trajectory of her life changed. “I love languages, and as a voice major you have to sing in all different languages,” she recalls. “I was making my Chinese friends teach me Cantonese. At one point, they said, ‘You should take a Chinese class since you love language so much.’” She connected with it so well that she changed her major to East Asian studies—and that was just the beginning.

Now 68 and with a master’s in Chinese language and literature, Mealey-Lohmann has traveled to China 23 times; part of her mediation practice focuses on Chinese parties involved in employment and business disputes; and she is co-founder of a nonprofit, the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society, that is constructing a 1.8-acre, multimillion-dollar garden in St. Paul’s Phalen Park.

Mealey-Lohmann in front of the Chinese Pavilion in St. Paul’s Phalen Park.

Her first visit was in 1982. “China had gone through the cultural revolution from 1967 to 1976. It was completely closed off to the world,” she says. “They were just starting to open up by the time I was first there. Foreigners were a novelty. If I went out on the street, I would be surrounded by dozens of people just curiously looking at me.”

Although mediating disputes for Chinese parties makes up a relatively small percentage of her cases, it’s a differentiating niche. And Mealey-Lohmann’s familiarity with Chinese culture and language can be a decided advantage.

“An interpreter is always there,” she adds, “because as a mediator, you have to be neutral and you can’t look like you’re favoring one side or the other. But my knowledge of Chinese language and the culture is always really helpful in those mediations. You can read subtle things in the words they choose or their body language that another mediator might not catch.

“And sometimes the English translation [from the interpreter] is more of a summary than a literal translation,” she adds. “I can hear the original words and then hear the translation into English. That really helps me ask a different type of question to clarify what the meaning is. I get more information by being able to hear both the translation and the original.”

Mealey-Lohmann has also dedicated years to the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society, which she co-founded and led as president from 2005-2020. She’s now the organization’s secretary.

During her time as president, she oversaw the $1.5 million fundraising and construction leading up to the physical garden’s 2019 grand opening. The project is now raising funds to build seven new features, including a moon-viewing platform and Hmong plaza, whose construction will span several years. When the project is done, it will stand as a tranquil and welcoming piece of park space for people of all cultures—including the more than 100,000 Hmong residents of the Payne-Phalen area.

“The garden is really to build friendship,” she says. “We hope to have this visible presence in our park system that reflects the cultural diversity of our city. It draws on my legal skills when we’re negotiating contracts and trying to clarify various agreements. And the project has kept my connection to China and the Chinese Mandarin language alive.”

In some ways, it’s the culmination of a fascination with China that has endured for her entire adult life. “In four decades of traveling to China, I have seen such a significant transformation in all aspects of Chinese life,” she says. “When I first went there, no one had a car except for select government people. It was all carts and bicycles. Over the years, you saw the number of bicycles reduced and the number of cars increase. All of a sudden, cellphones and computers showed up; buildings went from one and two stories to some of the tallest in the world; the most modern cities popped up. It’s been incredible to witness.”

Mealey-Lohmann researched China gardens in Changsha on her most recent trip.

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