Sunday, May 15, 2011

Asian Like Me: Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?

Wow, this is the third time in the past week that I've read an article-of-the-year candidate (the first was Chris Christie's speech at Harvard's ed school – by the way, I found the video link at:– and the second was Joel Klein's Atlantic article this week).  This one, the cover story in this week's New York Magazine, is entitled Asian Like Me, and it's simply extraordinary – I couldn't put it down.  Here's the excerpt that appears on the cover:

Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people "who are good at math" and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.

Based on the title and this excerpt, I was expecting an article similar to many I've read before about how Asians in the U.S. are very successful are in terms of academic achievement and having good jobs, yet face discrimination and stereotypes – topics the article does indeed cover – but it's so much more thoughtful (and thought-provoking), diving deep into the traditional Asian culture and how it both helps, but also holds back, so many young Asians. 


While it's about Asians, the lessons in this article apply to everyone.  Culture is an issue I think a lot about, but struggle to put my finger on (and struggle even more to write about because it's really easy to perpetuate stereotypes and/or get branded a racist).  Culture is MASSIVELY important, yet incredibly difficult to define, much less teach/convey to kids – both as a parent, and even tougher as an educator.  Yet the best schools all have strong cultures and transmit certain values to their students (most of them anyway).


The author, Wesley Yang, highlights how successful Asians in the U.S. are in terms of academic achievement and average income, yet they are massively UNDERrepresented in the highest echelons of American life.  These statistics blew me away:

The researcher was talking about what some refer to as the "Bamboo Ceiling"—an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership.

The failure of Asian-Americans to become leaders in the white-collar workplace does not qualify as one of the burning social issues of our time. But it is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation. 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. One succinct evocation of the situation appeared in the comments section of a website called Yellowworld: "If you're East Asian, you need to attend a top-tier university to land a good high-paying gig. Even if you land that good high-paying gig, the white guy with the pedigree from a mediocre state university will somehow move ahead of you in the ranks simply because he's white."

Yet Yang doesn't take the bait that the underrepresentation is due solely (or even mainly) due to racism, and instead really dives deeply into cultural factors:

Maybe it is simply the case that a traditionally Asian upbringing is the problem. As Allyn points out, in order to be a leader, you must have followers. Associates at Pricewaterhouse­Coopers are initially judged on how well they do the work they are assigned. "You have to be a doer," as she puts it. They are expected to distinguish themselves with their diligence, at which point they become "super-doers." But being a leader requires different skill sets. "The traits that got you to where you are won't necessarily take you to the next level," says the diversity consultant Jane Hyun, who wrote a book called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It's racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It's simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and "pumping the iron of math" is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.

Finally, in the conclusion, Yang provides a fascinating perspective on Amy Chu, the famous (and infamous) author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother:

Chua's Chinese education had gotten her through an elite schooling, but it left her unprepared for the real world. She does not hide any of this. She had set out, she explained, to write a memoir that was "defiantly self-incriminating"—and the result was a messy jumble of conflicting impulses, part provocation, part self-critique. Western readers rode roughshod over this paradox and made of Chua a kind of Asian minstrel figure. But more than anything else, Battle Hymn is a very American project—one no traditional Chinese person would think to undertake. "Even if you hate the book," Chua pointed out, "the one thing it is not is meek."

"The loudest duck gets shot" is a Chinese proverb. "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" is a Japanese one. Its Western correlative: "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." Chua had told her story and been hammered down. Yet here she was, fresh from her hammering, completely unbowed.

There is something salutary in that proud defiance. And though the debate she sparked about Asian-American life has been of questionable value, we will need more people with the same kind of defiance, willing to push themselves into the spotlight and to make some noise, to beat people up, to seduce women, to make mistakes, to become entrepreneurs, to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone's happiness, and to dare to be interesting.


Paper Tigers

What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?

 Subscribe in a reader