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Asian American, Categories, Identity, Race, Self-Reflections

Reflections on Yang’s “Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian American overachievers once the test taking ends?”

Written May 12, 2011

Certain Monday nights tend to be hectic. We have monthly meetings to discuss the church’s role in our small Gardena community. After much banter and deliberation, the meeting adjourned an hour early and I was left with my own somewhat pessimistic thoughts to digest our discussion. Alone in the vacant building, I hastily packed up my things and headed home.

My mind cleared as I strolled home in the cool night air. But an uneasy feeling lingered. I plopped down on the couch and flipped open my laptop. “Paul Matsushima, you read. Now,” said the updates page on my Facebook account. It was an article entitled, Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian American overachievers once the test taking ends? by Wesley Yang. I scrolled down through the article; ugh, 17 pages long. For the sake of wanting to both sound intelligent to others and to hear what this writer had to say, I put on my reading glasses and got to work.

With an air of a person repeatedly trampled on by “the man,” Yang explores the disparity between the high numbers of Asian Americans in the prestigious Ivy League schools and the subsequent drop off of these overachieving graduates in their respective managerial positions. The “bamboo ceiling,” as this social phenomenon is otherwise known as, is an invisible barrier that allows qualified Asian Americans into the professional realm, but stifles them from reaching top levels. He attributes this “pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America” to the institutional racism that favors whites and the cultural traits that disfavor Asians. For example, studies show people have difficulty imagining the “corporate boss” with an Asian face or last-name; and Asians are viewed as lacking initiative because they do not speak up in meetings or complain when overworked yet get underpaid. In these ways, Asian Americans in the corporate and capitalistic-driven world are at a double disadvantage to their (usually white) competition.

Yang ends with a polemic:

“If the Bamboo Ceiling is ever going to break, it’s probably going to have less to do with any form of behavior assimilation than with the emergence of risk-­takers whose success obviates the need for Asians to meet someone else’s behavioral standard.”

He argues that Asian Americans cannot and should not seek to change themselves simply to get ahead. If Asian Americans navigate a social and cultural reality where they are treated as second class citizens, invisible, marginalized, and overlooked, behavior modification is not the answer. Instead of choosing the safe middle road of catering to the dominant culture’s desires, as Asian Americans are so prone to do, the other choice is to break out, be bold, take risks, make mistakes, be “the squeaky wheel [that] gets the grease.”

As I finished the article, I was so far slouched into the couch that I could feel my scoliosis setting in. I closed the laptop, set my glasses onto the coffee table, and rubbed my eyes. Yang’s arguments made sense to me, yet I felt uneasy, unsettled. Yes, I could tell that Yang was thoroughly upset with the white privilege rampant in this nation; I could tell that he wanted Asian Americans to stop living as if tiptoeing around on eggshells; and I could tell that he knows it is not just Asian Americans’ cultural downfall or America’s preferential treatment towards Caucasians; the problem is something much deeper.

The next morning I awoke early as my wife drove off to her second day of nursing school. After my routine coffee-fix, I sat back down on the couch, deep in thought. Although I felt tired of the embittered voices of well-educated people of color who blame whites for their situations (as I also am so prone to do), Yang’s article struck a chord with me. Is there a possibility that I am the Asian American exemplar that defaults to the middle road? Who fears getting hammered down? Who conforms to the nation’s socio-cultural pressures? Damn. And I felt self-justified and superior to Yang’s arguments.

Perhaps there is some truth in Yang’s critiques after all. Even though I dislike the lingo of, “if you can’t change the system, you can still change yourself,” perhaps Asian Americans can learn something about boldness. There are the few and the mighty among my Asian American networks who have chosen to say, “F*** it,” who realize either transcendence or “descent into the abyss” are better than eternally teetering on the fence so as not to cause waves. It is from those who give me a greater sense of hope and the inspiration to keep pursuing.

To Ann and Alex: thank you for your vision, you desires of creative expression to help, love, and transform those around you, and for the ways you inspire and energize all of us.

To Daniel: thank you for your efforts in Christian-higher education to create contextualized and relevant practical theologies for different communities.

And to Kevin: thank you for your challenges that continue to give heed to a voice that is not always heard but always needs to be remembered.

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Every night before saying goodnight, my father prayed for his children to "be strong and courageous." This blog is an attempt to live up to that hope.

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