Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Desperately Seeking Asian American Identity

There are some topics that I really would prefer not to comment on. It just hurts, you know? It cuts too close to the core. But the Asian American online community has jumped in, both feet thudding loudly, to praise and decry Wesley Yang's "Paper Tiger" cover story, all eleven online pages of it, in New York Magazine. The tag line for the Paper Tiger story is "What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?" which is not reflective of Yang's entire article that might be better titled "Desperately Seeking Asian American Identity."

My friend, Edward Hong, has weighed in at 8Asians (a collaborative blog of Asian Americans and Asian Canadians on all topics Asian) with some good insights, including an excellent Edward-to-Wesley commentary, "several things I want to say to Yang."

So, here I am, weighing in, too, at last. Thanks to my brother, Jon, for sending me the link to Yang's article yesterday. I did not anticipate reading Yang's article all the way through, but I did, and I found it stimulating at several levels. 

I am sorry and embarrassed as an Asian American woman and mother that Yang feels such self-loathing about being an Asian American guy with an Asian face. He has obviously internalized the meme that White faces are the norm and thus, better. I am sorry and embarrassed that Yang so thoroughly hates his Asian heritage that he says "Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility."

Really? All of it? None of it is redeemable in his eyes? I'm probably 20-25 years Yang's senior; so, I will stipulate to there being cultural differences in the way we've each processed growing up Asian American in these United States. Generational differences are significant. 

I do speak the language of my forebears, Cantonese, although I do not read or write it. I have parsed the Asian values and leavened them with American (Western) ones. I don't subscribe to the cultural norms of patriarchy or matriarchy, each evident in different expressions of family and society among the Chinese. I honor my mother and my father, but it's because they're worthy of being honored, not because it's expected or required of me.

I walked away from some of the educational and achievement expectations of my parents, because I believed that I had the right to exercise choices, even though I knew that my parents only wanted what they believed to be the best opportunities for me. My choices eventually made some parts of my life tougher than they had to be, but I don't regret any of those choices, including the dumb ones. My experiences have all contributed to making me who I am today, and I'm glad to be me in 2011, doing what I do, thinking what I think, loving whom I love.

I found Yang's comments about balance between academic monomania and social development to be spot on. I know that maintaining a balance between the two is supremely important from both my own experience - mostly a non-existent social life during my school years due to overly protective parenting - and my daughter's experience - a constant tension between encouragement to live up to her potential and support of a life outside of school that included competitive fencing and friends.

To be fair, let me report that my 25-year old daughter has said that she felt like I exerted a lot of pressure on her to succeed academically, which leads me to wonder if this kind of expectation and pressure from parents is reflective of more than just an ethnic value, that it is maybe merely reflective of a parental value of wanting something more and better for our offspring. Let me also report that despite the emphasis on grades and education by my parents, I turned my back on scholarships and a linear path, choosing what I characterized as life and experience. It was harder; I was smart, determined, ambitious and aggressive; and I found my way, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend my path to everyone.

Yang's observations about what he calls the "bamboo ceiling" do reveal a reality that many Asian Americans face through no fault of their own. There are many ways in which different personalities show up in the workplace that have nothing to do with race, national origin or ethnicity. It is a truism that managers seek out people who are like them, who make them comfortable, to whom they can relate without exerting themselves, and whom they surround themselves with and groom for promotion.

The kinds of courses that LEAP - Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc., the organization mentioned in Yang's article to combat the bamboo ceiling, - offers to help Asian Americans learn assertiveness, self-promotion, non-verbal communications, etc. were called management training workshops in the '70s and '80s and used to be directed at women and others who had not had the advantages of college educations or mentorship by senior managers.

The portion of Yang's article on Asian American men seeking to date White women and Yang's own admission that he, a Korean man, has never dated a Korean woman, makes me sad. In my dating years, I dated men from all races, ethnicities and ableness; being conscious, thinking for himself and having a wide range of interests were the qualifiers for me.

Yang wrote about a dating coaching business directed at Asian Americans that I actually checked out: the ABCs of Attraction Web site. I watched a video of the Asian Playboy or APB as ABCs of Attraction owner and chief guru J.T. Tran calls himself. Tran is a twenty-something Asian American who seems personable enough, who has put together a dynamic Web site with slick seminars, videos and other products for helping Asian American men get theirs. Why shouldn’t Asian Americans succeed in all the arenas open to Whites, including something as sleezy as the ABCs, which is promoted with blondes and boobs, and where men can plunk down $1,450 to learn how to smile, make eye contact and come on to women.

Yang does say late in the article, "I finished school alienated both from Asian culture (which, in my hometown, was barely visible) and the manners and mores of my white peers. . . I wanted to be an individual. I had refused both cultures as an act of self-­assertion." Yang wants the same thing today that I wanted over four decades ago as a young Asian American woman starting out in the world: to be an individual. What I said then, and I still say now, is "This is what Chinese American looks like, on me," because the not fitting in and not being recognized as "one of us" also comes from the Asian culture ("she's not Chinese enough"), but that's the topic of another blog.

Wesley Yang is a provocative writer and someone who also has a lot of internal conflicts despite his protestations to the contrary. I'm glad that he got to write a New York Magazine cover story, and I hope that it will garner him lots of new and lucrative opportunities. I also hope that the reading public will have the good sense to figure out that Wesley Yang is just one voice among many voices and that he no more represents all Asian Americans than I do.


David H-T said...

"I'm glad to be me in 2011, doing what I do, thinking what I think, loving whom I love.

"I found Yang's comments about balance between academic monomania and social development to be spot on."

Thanks, Lelanda, for your usual thoughtful post! I think you approach from your particular perspective a core issue for each and every one of us: to what extent are we "determined" by our heritage (genetic, cultural, etc.) and to what extent are we "'self-'determined." Western "civilization," and the United States in particular, has a HUGE myth (meaning Grand--not empty--Story) that any and every one can pull themselves up from their bootstraps and make of themselves whatever they imagine or want to be. This is of course ridiculous, although paradoxically it has some important truth/s in it as well.

What I see acutely with many of my patient/clients is that we all very much do have inheritances/traditions from which we emerge. Like so much else in life (I'm flashing back to ealier FB stuff this week on "human structures"!), there are good and bad parts in those inheritances/traditions. The goal is how to use our resources wisely, maximizing the positives while downplaying the negatives.

Overall, inspiring post! I may well try to wrestle with my thoughts about it more and try to create my own post with some of this stuff!

Blessings, as always,


David, thanks for reading and commenting, and for the compliments. Identity-and-culture is such a huge topic. I will be interested in reading what your thoughts are on the subject. ~~Lelanda

The Asian Playboy said...

I do love it when I can help create a stir of controversy.

The only problem with trying to be all inclusive is the fact that the readership has a minute attention span. Wesley's article was a gargantuan 11 pages, but imagine if he tried to include all groups.

It doesn't make it any more right, per se, but it certainly makes it more EFFECTIVE. After all, what's the enemy of being good? Trying to be perfect.

And to those who argue that the article was male-centric. You're completely 100% correct.

To which I would argue that the predominant (albeit rare) items that make it to the national level of American consciousness are primarily Asian American female demagogues and representatives like Amy Tan, Amy Chua, Lisa Ling, etc. As Asian men, we don't have a voice in the already incredibly small piece of the media pie.

But anyways, I enjoyed reading your response.

JT Tran

BTG said...

Hi My name is Keri. I am a sophomore at Indiana University. I am a Bridging the Gap editor for the Asian American Association at my school. Even though I am not asian, I am interested in Asian culture.

I used a certain blog about Yang in my blog. If you have the chance, please come and check it out as well as share your opinions. Thank you so much.