Alistair Kwun always ﬁnds great articles on personal identity. The latest is from Wesley Yang in New York, discussing the Asian-American experience, and why, despite having such good grades at school, are there so few Asian-American leaders in the US? (Incidentally, this is a strange term: what do Americans call non-oriental Asians?)
I applaud Wesley in writing this piece, because it’s an issue that needs a voice. Whenever you write an article that covers an entire race, it’s always going to be tough. The debate he’s generated is very valuable, and it’s through that that we can improve ourselves and our systems.
You almost need to base part of it on stereotypes, no matter which race you talk about. And Wesley highlights that there may well be racism in the US against Asian-Americans (just as there would be in China against Caucasian Chinese if someone did an article from that perspective):
If between 15 and 20 percent of every Ivy League class is Asian, and if the Ivy Leagues are incubators for the country’s leaders, it would stand to reason that Asians would make up some corresponding portion of the leadership class.
And yet the numbers tell a different story. According to a recent study, Asian-Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate ofﬁcers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents. There are nine Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate ofﬁcers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5 percent of tenure-track scientists are Asians, only 4.7 percent of the lab or branch directors are, according to a study conducted in 2005.
But here’s what I don’t get. The idea that because we retain our values, we’re worth less as leaders. That somehow, having decent values means we lack some kind of ability to take risks.
Wesley doesn’t generalize. In fact, he points out numerous examples of Asian-Americans who did take risks. And, when I think about it, among my peers, our propensity to take risks isn’t far off any other group’s.
Here are the two paragraphs that struck a nerve:
Chu has a pleasant face, but it would not be wrong to characterize his demeanor as reserved. He speaks in a quiet, unemphatic voice. He doesn’t move his features much. He attributes these traits to the atmosphere in his household. “When you grow up in a Chinese home,” he says, “you don’t talk. You shut up and listen to what your parents tell you to do.”
And the attempt to connect that with the following idea:
Aspiring Asian leaders had to become aware of “the relationship between values, behaviors, and perceptions.” He offered the example of Asians who don’t speak up at meetings. “So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”
So being considered, taking in everyone’s viewpoints, and not being brash about something is a bad thing?
In a decent, multicultural society, one would hope that we can appreciate different norms based on how someone is raised. And it’s not just between two races. Even in a single race, you can have someone whose parents taught them to be quiet and another whose parents encouraged lively debate. Is one person worth less than the other? Is one less suited for leadership? I don’t think so: so many other things need to be looked at.
Surely the “weapon” for any race is the ability to have perspective and to be proud of all your cultural norms? While Wesley’s examples are about a few Asian-Americans who want the recognition they deserve, those of us who are proud of our culture and have done all right because of it—and being smart enough to bridge our traditions with the host nation—might think the following, as one of Alistair’s friends did:
My issue with articles like this is that they seem to encourage disdain for our heritage. I am trying to raise my daughters to have pride in their ethnicity.
My view was this, initially, and I’m still quite happy with this comment on Al’s wall. Naturally, I could not extend it to our other oriental cousins because it’s a statement founded on personal experience, but I’m sure some would agree with this. I added the italics for emphasis here:
I would have thought that because we are “different”, it would make us more suited to challenging “the Man”. We can question them because we come from a culture that affords us perspective—and it’s not just us Chinese, but anyone with any ethnic background. (I was even chatting about this to a white Irish–American New Zealander recently.)
But is there a ‘traditional’ pathway? If there is, I don’t know of it, and was never told it. Maybe I won some genetic lottery and had parents who were smart enough to realize that having values is not an impediment, if you can make them work to your advantage. I also had parents who took risks—the risk of going to a new country, the risk of starting their own businesses—and where my mother, when she was working for someone, refused promotion because she didn’t want the extra responsibilities.
But isn’t risk-taking something instilled in all Chinese émigrés? In the US and here, it was those who headed to the 金山. Those were the pioneers and they had a hard time. Those of us with grandparents who fought the Japanese. Those of us who came out with our parents. If we respected their histories, we should realize—and maybe this is me talking in hindsight—that we have our own mark to make like our forebears, and that means having our own adventure.
I don’t believe there’s something about our culture that holds us back from speaking our minds, being subservient or taking risks. We invented enough stuff to show that we have decent lateral thinking among our ranks. What about Honda? It’s a motorcycle and car company now making jet planes—how many companies started doing bikes and now makes planes? I have always thought the “meekness” that Wesley writes of is, in itself, a stereotype: if you buy into it, then you’ve just hurt yourself by conforming to someone’s false idea of what it means to be Chinese.
Goodness knows the number of times I’ve heard (though, interestingly, not last year) ‘I thought Asians weren’t interested in politics.’ Well, obviously, we are, and we’ve had more of them for a lot longer than a lot of other cultures. (Try telling Peter Chin or Meng Foon of their supposed disinterest over the years.)
The mark of an open-minded society is one which values people equally, realizing that everyone has a different way of doing things.
The mark of maturity is having perspective, which has come about through contact, dialogue, travel or endeavour.
If the failure of an Asian-American to speak out prevents them from being promoted, then maybe we need to look hard at that organization.
Because I honestly don’t think blame should be levelled at the person for being the way they are.
What it does show is that there are systems that are inherently racist. When it comes to denying Asian-Americans their rightful place, it’s apparently now our fault once again for being who we are.
I’m hoping to high heaven that the stats in New Zealand aren’t as dire as the ones Wesley cited, though we sure are under-represented politically. I don’t blame the voters, and I don’t blame the potential candidates. But it should make us wonder about the fairness of the system and the institutions behind it.