Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


Asian American Like Me: A Studies Response to Wesley Yang

 

I admit it feels a little strange to be responding to Wesley Yang at this -- by online media standards -- late date. But in my corner of the world, the conversation hauled into the media circus by Amy Chua, and joined in the ring by Yang, did not start with them, and will not end when their spotlight flicks off.

My corner of the world just wrapped up our annual conference, flying home from New Orleans or unpacking our bags yesterday. We conduct research and give earnest papers in a field called Asian American Studies, and the tiger oils Chua and Yang have been peddling to the American public of late are not new or mysterious to us. 

Research has been done on the following topics, for example, for the last ten, thirty, even fifty years: the emasculating Western perceptions of Asian men, the widespread reverence in Asia and Asian America for Western classical music, Asians and the corporate glass ceiling, the immigrant familial emphasis on higher education.  The hows, whys, and effects of these are covered pretty well in our refereed journal articles, in our university press books. But they don’t sell well to the general public; we don’t package them as Ancient Chinese Secrets. We tend to figure out that widespread patterns of behavior are responses to boring things like immigration law, admissions criteria, economic incentives. Carefully qualified analyses, even when they have strong explanatory power, don’t inflame the fears and imaginations of the mainstream reader.

You could say we are the Democrats to Chua and Yang’s Republicans. And so, resentfully, we find ourselves adopting this ridiculous Tiger terminology to reference our own research nowadays.

Time, though, for me to give Yang a fair shake and extricate him from Chua. They’re not really the same breed. It has to have been somewhat frightening for Yang to bare himself (literally), his pain and his self-loathing to an audience that public; it took some chutzpah to say that people rather like himself are socially ungainly, and then to set out to figure out why. This wasn’t a safe and sterilized bestseller; Yang shows us how ugly he thinks he is, and then refuses every makeover TV-show invitation. I find that rather endearing, and as for his quest for answers? He reinvents a lot of wheels en route (i.e., Asian American studies scholarship), but ends up not so far off the mark.

Some of Yang’s treatise on the state of Asian America is indeed miserable and indefensible. Some of it is miserable and unflattering, but not untrue. Let me address the former category quickly to get them out of the way:

  • Learning to become an “alpha male” who can confidently paw strange women is a sexist way of dealing with the sexism directed against Asian men. Needing to bed white people as proof that you’ve made it is a racist way of dealing with the racism directed against Asians. Yang claims in interviews here and here that his article doesn’t sanction either of those aims per se, but in that case he really should not have wrapped with this particular call to arms: “we will need more [Asians] … willing … to beat people up, to seduce women.”
  • A rejection of racism is different from a rejection of race. Yang’s piece sometimes loses sight of the former, forgetting that it’s a racist gaze he channels when -- in old-school, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man fashion -- he hates his Asian features in the mirror. He directs his vitriol not at the gaze but the glass, not the racism but the Asian. He resents being taken for a racial caricature, but is certain that the caricature is someone else’s true face.

Still, I feel for the guy. Margaret Cho talks about a similar mirror-loathing moment in her childhood. The despair is one I remember from mine, too. Thing is, many of us grow out of it; we realize we’re like puppies taught by cats that we are All Wrong. Insanity to keep looking at oneself this way.

But in the main, Yang also has a point, and it’s important enough that I’ll elaborate on it here. He makes the case that Asian parents in the US raise their children to excel by all the standardized measures available, but that these end in a middle-management cul-de-sac. Separating the masters of industry from their diligent underlings are unwritten codes of behavior and attitude with which the obedience-training of filiality is actually at odds. 

I argue along the same lines, in the third chapter of my book. I argue that the model children churned out by endless hours of isolated piano practice and math textbook study, trained not to question authority and ideally never to formulate an unapproved thought, are ill-prepared for many arenas beyond the walls of their homes or the halls of their high schools. There are “styles of conduct” specific to each social field, as Bourdieu might say, and to lack the habits (or habitus) of those who belong is to be without the secret handshakes of admission. This matters long before upper management, but the longitudinal view is important. The opportunity costs of obedience may not show themselves clearly until obedience is a real liability.

What Yang misses, though, in calling these the values and behaviors of Asian people -- is how very American they are. In the sense that they are behaviors an Asian person may ‘select for,’ in an American context that encourages and rewards them (to a point). 

Because, what, are the industries of China, Japan, and India made up entirely of underlings? Are these societies wholly comprised of doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers whose parents insisted?

As many of my colleagues in Asian American studies have noted, Asian immigrants push their children hard because they recognize that discrimination -- conscious or not -- is real. That all other things being equal, the blue-eyed candidate will get the position -- and so the Asian kid has to make sure other things are better, to have a shot. 

Moreover, the routes these Asian parents funnel their children into are American ones: That standardized testing has metastasized to dominate our educational system in the US is a social fact to which Asian Americans adapt, not one they chose. And if scantrons reward children only for a single approved answer, or if a high score on the verbal section doesn’t indicate a thing about whether the test taker can write, these are problems that threaten all our students, not just the Asian Americans. Meantime, as the US turns ever more frantically to rote education, Chinese educators are looking increasingly to creative learning; the difference is not a culturally inherent one.  Should admissions criteria at the colleges and universities which are US society’s gatekeepers come to reward more supple and inquisitive intellects, or the kind and brave of heart, I suspect that all our early adopters will adjust accordingly. 

It is also an American phenomenon that the clamor for higher education to be profitable in the marketplace grows ever louder, and universities increasingly become factories for a professional-managerial class. As John Guillory argues, citing Lyotard, “The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation toward its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by its institutions.” Technically skilled functionaries are, in other words, the bulk of what the American economy desires and hires. The kind of rote memorization and “pumping the iron of math” which Yang mocks as the hallmarks of Asian training are instead, Guillory’s argument suggests, what an American education is now meant to produce.

This is an argument about society engineering the human resources appropriate to its purposes, and where Asians in America are concerned, there is another purpose to keep in mind. Remember that the model minority paradigm isn’t just about Asians being great. Asians were officially raised to this platform in 1966 to stand between the halls of power and angry racial movements demanding an end to institutional racism. (Before that we were considered about as untouchable as anybody.) Ironic, then, that Yang’s Bamboo Ceiling is about discovering that institutional racism is still alive and well. But that’s the rub of being hailed the Ideal Racial Buffer: you are not supposed to move out of your secondary position. You are scripted to do well (diligent, proficient, amenable -- good assistants), but not too well (not creative, self-assertive, or apt to challenge the status quo -- bad leaders). Do well and you are the model for other minorities; do too well, and you are the yellow peril all over again.

Which is to say that the second-generation robots Yang despises so? With their filial piety, grade-grubbing, Ivy League mania, deference to authority, humility and hard work, harmonious relations, sacrificing for the future, and earnest, striving middle-class servility? We were Made in America, fit for purpose. The Asian immigrant parent’s vision of the model child -- obedient, faithful, professional-managerial -- is none other than American society’s vision of the model minority. 

Last thing before I sign off. There’s an awful lot of Asian male self-pity in Yang’s article: “’Many guys just don’t realize how to project themselves.’ … Their mothers had kept them at home to study rather than let them date or socialize.”  Think the girls had more freedom? Yang, please. Read page 111 of my book. On the house-arrest event, we win this oppression Olympics hands down.

* * *

Crossposted here on HuffPo. Hyphen's earlier response to Yang here.

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Ben wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Bruce Lee

I'm just wondering what a cultural studies critique of Bruce Lee's masculinity might look like. Studies of Jet Lee, Tony Leung Ka-fai, and Johnny Nguyen might be informative as well, for they seem to defy the sort of bumbling martial arts comedian stereotype Jackie Chan--unfortunately--has come to embody in his later years. These men all play roles that strike me as masculine by any cultural standard. But Bruce Lee was the groundbreaker. How do Asian American feminist thinkers feel about him? Born in Seattle, raised in Hong Kong, sent back to the States by his parents in his late adolescence because of behavior issues at school, he was the quintessential Asian American, and he went on to become perhaps the most famous actor in the world by the time of his death, acting alongside Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Chuck Norris, George Lazenby, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He trained many of his co-stars including Norris. His roles were not funny, and his life was not small. His body, however, was. Somewhere near 5'6" and 137 lbs. at the time of his death, he was incredibly strong and agile, but certainly not your prototypical he-man. Yet I'm not sure anyone would call Bruce Lee anything other than masculine.

Influenced by a number of philosophical systems, he was bound by none, and in fact, was an avowed atheist. When asked if he believed in God, he replied: "To be perfectly frank, I really do not." He didn't like Confucius or the Confucian approach to life, but argued to "Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it." As one of the previous posters noted, there are real and substantial differences in issues faced by women in every culture, and feminist studies programs often teach only through a white lens. So Bruce Lee through the Asian American feminist lens: how does he appear?

Thanks,
Ben

erin K Ninh wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Bruce Lee

Hi again, Ben.

I'm no expert on Bruce Lee scholarship, I'm afraid, so can't speak knowledgably on this.  But anecdotally/impressionistically, what I'd venture is, "Who doesn't like Bruce Lee?"  He's a point of pride for Asian Americanists of any politics I've come across; the only bitter thing about this sweet icon generally being that, this many decades after his death, his stature in the mainstream pubilc eye has yet to be equalled. 

Though I have to say, I think the US media representation of Asian men has been looking up recently.  We haven't got another Bruce Lee, but we've got a rising tide.

Best,

erin

 

 

A wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Response to One Comment

A comment was made that "...in this sadly undying contest between angry Asian men and women, I think feminists see, grant, and sympathize with the slights and injuries to our brothers. But I don't think many angry Asian men see their sisters at all, even when they're locked in the same room."
----------------
This comment is pretty unfair and I beg to differ. The past few decades of "Asian American" literature include prominent Asian-male-hating feminists like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Lisa See, etc. The same can be said for many "Asian American" movies, in which Asian American men are emasculated, demonized, or invisible.
Many of the criticisms of the Wesley Yang article remind me of some harsh criticisms of 'Better Luck Tomorrow'. Yet these same Asian American critics remain silent over the vast libraries of male-centric American movies and TV shows that populate most of Western entertainment, like 'The Hangover' and others that come out on a regular basis. Those same criticisms absolutely apply to these films, yet they aren't bashed. Why the silence and double standard? If people are going to criticize those Asian Americans who emulate the sexist behaviors that define Western masculinity, then an admission must be made that Western masculinity is inherently more sexist/misogynistic than the Asian cultures from which the emulators were predominantly raised. This can a pretty hard perspective to swallow, especially for minority feminists raised on white feminism, which itself may have a hard time acknowledging when some minority cultures may actually be more progressive than its own.
You empathize with your Asian brothers Erin (and others like yourself actively involved/educated in things like Hyphen and the like), but I don't think that statement applies to the vast majority of Asian Americans; in fact I think the most frequent reality is the opposite of that comment.

erin K Ninh wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

good points

Hi, A, and thanks for your comment.

Had a sinking feeling as I was composing that reply last night that I was going to get in trouble for it.  :)   A minefield, this debate.  The further ya venture, however reluctantly, the greater your odds of stepping on the wrong words and blowing something up.

Point taken:  there are indeed Asian/American "feminists" who do Asian men a bad turn, and you're right, Lisa See and Amy Tan are major offenders in this category.  (But on Kingston I'd differ with you; have you read China Men?  It's the companion volume to TWW, in which she does exactly what I'm describing: devote a great deal of heart to imagining how hard it must have been for the men in her family, to be "chinamen" in America.  TWW, moreover, is very much a book about critiquing patriarchy, *both* American and Chinese; it is not a book about bashing Asian men.  Difference.) 

Anyway, you're right to remind me that far too many AsAm women mistake Asian male-bashing for feminism, and I stand corrected on my overgeneralization.  The truth probably is that empathy is in shorter supply in *both* directions than I get to feeling it is, here at Hyphen.  After all, we're the Mr. Hyphen folks, right?  And you know who started our signature event?

A roomful of AsAm feminists did.  It's a hugely raucous love letter, to the men in our community we know to be talented and funny, generous and noble, smart and eminently beddable.

So we want more feminists like this.  And we need more angry Asian men like you.  Who see us.  Like we see you.

With heart,

erin

Patrick Chen wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

We're halfway there

Hi erin,

I wholeheartedly agree with much of what you have written. Truth be told, I agreed with a lot of what Yang wrote but your piece was more to the point and devoid of much of pretense and chest-beating that came across in his piece.

Your quote, "Asian parents in the U.S. raise their children to
excel by all the standardized measures available, but that these end
in a middle-management cul-de-sac." are words I can imagine myself saying. Much of the resentment I feel in regards to my upbringing stem from a perceived pressure to be the absolute hardest worker bee in the whole hive. Not that I am against hard work, I just feel that academic excellence is only half the battle.

In my varied career, I have run into many, Asian, non-Asian, and white coworkers who excel at standardized tests and school in general. However, I've found that academic excellence does not always translate into "real world" success. Excelling at standardized tests and going to Ivy League schools is definitely a laudable achievement. My issue arises when Asian parents hold this to be the end all, be all of a successful life. I have found that the piece of paper that is signed by the Governator that says I have graduated from UCSB merely opens a door. My on the job performance, in part through continuing to learn skills that are not taught in any book, are what allow me to be successful.

Though I agree with your assessment that to "paw strange women is a sexist way of dealing with the sexism." I can identify with his feeling that there was a huge amount of social education that was withheld from us. These are similar to the social rules that everyone else seems to know about in the workplace, but us sheltered Asians were never allowed to experience while we were growing up. This social learning is what I feel like my parents pushed me away from learning and I believe that this type of education is as important, if not more important, than learning how to take a standardized test. As in the corporate world, there are no standardized tests and no GPA to measure your success. A very successful business person once told me "C students hire A students." While I don't know how true that saying is (I have been both C student and A student in my academic career as well as both done some hiring and been hired), I do feel that it does take a certain amount of social savvy in addition to educational smarts to climb into higher management. I am constantly left wondering, if making money is the ultimate goal, why did my parents push me so hard in academia, when that is only half the necessary skill to succeed?

Finally, disagree with you throwing your hat into the "Oppression Olympics" ring. I feel that these types of arguments of who had it worse marginalize everyone's unique experiences. Hearing that others' terrible experiences categorized as being "worse" then your own can marginalize those feelings and cause resentment within the oppressed group. In reality, how poorly I may feel about my own oppression is as bad as anyone else feels about their own oppression. In short, any amount of "house arrest," no matter the degree is unacceptable.

I'm not sure if this is common to all Asian American males, but I sometimes find it difficult to connect with Asian-American females because of this feeling that I should never voice my dissatisfaction as Asian-American women have it worse as they are a double-minority and any put down I've encountered is somehow less painful or relevant than what they have to go through. All in all, none of us has it very easy, and each of our experiences are terrible in their own unique, but ultimately equal, way.

Cheers,

Patrick

erin K Ninh wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

oops

Hi, Patrick.

Thanks for your very thoughtful response (go, UCSB!), and especially for the last point. 

My parting shot about oppression Olympics was meant tongue-in-cheek, actually, as I agree:  being competitive about social injuries breeds animosity rather than empathy.  Plus it's just not good for you.

So the flippancy was supposed to make light of Yang's woe-is-me, but also my own.

Guess that didn't come off so well.

Anyway, thanks for the chance to clarify.  Here's my meaning, in long form:

Is it hard to be an Asian male in the US for the reasons Yang details?  Yes.  But in that article, those difficulties are construed in such heterosexist, masculinist ways ("solipsistic" is the term writer Jeff Yang -- no relation -- used to describe the writer's inability to see beyond his mirror), that it was possible for Wesley Yang to write the following sentence without noticing its application to anyone other than heterosexual Asian men (i.e., himself):

"Their mothers had kept them at home to study rather than let them date or socialize."

(I could go on at some length about the Freudian fear of the castrating mother in that sentence, but won't because that wasn't my original intent.)

For one, any household in which sons are not allowed to date, I can assure you, does not allow its daughters to date (or socialize, or leave earshot), either.  Restrictions for the girls for their educational and professional futures would be compounded by restrictions for preserving their sexual worth.

But that's just a reminder.  The real point here is that, in this sadly undying contest between angry Asian men and women, I think feminists see, grant, and sympathize with the slights and injuries to our brothers.  But I don't think many angry Asian men see their sisters at all, even when they're locked in the same room.

Tata for now.

erin

Mitch wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Assimilation?

Thanks for this wonderful critique erin.

I wish I had read this before my visit to SB and certainly would’ve given you an opportunity to express your insightful views. I also appreciate the comments expressed in this blog about how this phenomenon plays out differently by gender and in the life of an “Ivy Leaguer”.

Although I can write you directly to tell you how great this is, I write here because others would also benefit from reading your response to my questions below.

It appears that you are suggesting that the model minority paradigm is also an intentional strategy adopted mostly by immigrants to address discrimination. In this strategy, the goal is to demonstrate excellence through the “standardized measures available,” which makes those who adopt this strategy very “American” since those measures are grounded in American values and aspirations.

If so, might this be an assimilation strategy? In other words, is the real end goal of being funneled into these routes ultimately assimilation into U.S. society?

The baggage surrounding assimilation and its subsequent limits are well documented in the body of scholarship you pointed to at the beginning of this blog. Might we also need to evoke that body of work in our discussion of the model minority paradigm? In doing so, should we also acknowledge how this cuts differently across class—namely, that this strategy of becoming American is not viable for those facing the most challenging economic circumstances?

If all of this reasoning holds, it may also be said that the great enthusiasm for entering the most elite colleges and universities among a sub portion of Asian Americans, particularly those with sufficient means, is in essence a deep desire to assimilate into American society in hopes of reaching colorblind bless…until the ironic shock that a Big Time U degree makes us curiously more Asian and not less.

Cheers!

erin K Ninh wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

"multiculturalism"?

Hi, Mitch. 

Thanks again for coming out to campus!  And for your own piece here on Monday.  (http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2011/05/busting-myth-are-asia...)

I don't have the actual citations at hand just now, but your question reminds me of some social science conversations recently about how "assimilation" means something much different for AsAms nowadays than it did 50 or 60 years ago.  That in this "multicultural" and globally interconnected era, where culture is both an asset and a commodity, AsAms feel comfortable compartmentalizing their objectives:  assimilate full-force economically -- but retain markers of ethnic and cultural distinctiveness.

You can see this, actually, in the immense pride with which Amy Chua peddles her "Chineseness," even as she and her family climb the socioeconomic ladders of power and prestige in the US. 

So I don't think "colorblindness" is the goal now -- or at least, not what that term used to signify.  But yes, I do think these strategies overall are about adapting to and becoming integrated into US society in some very real ways.

As for class differences, absolutely: Harvard was much easier for Chua and her daughter to achieve, given their family's several generations of social capital, than it is for the lower-income Asian kid whose parents didn't go to college. 

One of the points I try to make in my book, though, is that the model minority isn't just about statistics and income brackets, or even GPAs.  The model minority is an *identity,* so people can *identify* with the ideology of being the model minority even if they don't have the markers of hyperachievement.  An immigrant family may in fact push their kids *because* they are poor, and want MBAs in the next generation. 

It's system of belief that I go by, Mitch, not current or even future empirical measures.  Why?  Some businesses operate in the red; others in the black.  If their goals and methods are the same, aren't they equally capitalist?

Great hashing this stuff out with you!

erin

 

Ben wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Re: Erin

First of all, thanks for responding. Your blog and the Hyphenated as a whole are great. Really good work. I did read the Yang piece. It's long, really long, but I liked it. Though I am a Vietnamese scholar, I claim no Asian ethnicity, but I can't help thinking the diasporas of the last few decades along with globalization have contributed greatly to gender conflicts that are as strong as generational conflicts. A female friend of mine--a fairly Westernized entrepreneur and journalist--from Ha Noi once told me a saying common among Vietnamese women in her circles: "There are no men in Viet Nam." Yikes! Less-defined gender roles, advanced degrees that mean nothing to American institutions, the harsh reality that bootstraps are often illusions, trouble with language, and bodies--generally--smaller and less muscular than those of American peers competing for the affections of the same women--or men--at nightclubs can lead to a profound loss of self worth.

As far as the students go, unless he or she can land a green card or citizenship, his or her visa is incredibly restrictive both in time and job opportunities. Basically, this is the cycle: Serious students from the Asian continent come to study for PhDs and MBAs and what-have-you. When they graduate, the federal government kicks them out, which leads to a massive talent drain. Our immigration laws are screwed up. So the Indian moves back to Delhi, and the Chinese moves back to Beijing. They'll make good money, though often they'd rather stay in America, having found a home after 6-7 years of living here, and America loses experts in fields suffering from shortages. A woman can usually marry a citizen and citizenship. After all, Asian women, with their petite willowy frames, their fetishization and mythology in the Western male mind, their dark hair and eyes, potential in-laws half-a-world away, have both sex and marriage appeal. They get to stay. The men? Not so much. Unless men with doctorates are willing to buss tables and deal only in cash, they most often go back home. And they take their dignity with them.

Cheers!
Ben

erin K Ninh wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Re: Ben

Hi again, Ben.

Agreed, that Asian women are capable of responses just as full of internalized sexism and racism as those of any Asian man. I find these responses miserable and indefensible, too.

Also agreed that the immigration policies which make it so difficult for foreign scholars to stay are not wise or long-sighted social policy. Though on behalf of the Asian female PhDs and MBAs you mention, I venture/submit that marrying a fetishizing Westerner for his citizenship is not a less demeaning plan B at graduation, than bussing tables.

Thanks for reading Hyphen, Ben.

erin

 

Ben wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Just not sure.......

Erin,

As an academic--albeit a nonfiction writer teaching composition and creative writing courses--at a state university with decent sized populations of mostly affluent Asian and Asian-American students, I see some of these struggles play out every day in the classroom, the workshop, and the coffee shops, bars, and boutiques surrounding campus. I haven't read Yang or Chua, so I can only respond to your words. I don't want to generalize, but East Asian students here on exchange seem to revel in American pop-culture and stereotypes. Free from parents, money to burn, L.A. to explore on the weekends, Ed Hardy and American Apparel and Gucci and stores selling Coach purses to spin through, they party, party, party. Cultural boundaries do seem to be easier for women to move through than men, and I have to think this has much to do with young women from Taiwan and Hong Kong recognizing and exploiting opportunities that arise from the very fetishism that cultural studies scholars--rightly--decry. I've heard female Japanese students marvel at the size of the penises of the black men they'd slept with over the weekend as if they, the women, had completed the conquests, and checked another item off their to-do lists. What to make of it? I don't know. I just write what my senses experience. How would I feel if I were a Japanese man listening to the conversation? Probably not very masculine.

I also see another paradigm enacted daily, and I read of the struggles of students who, but for family alters and celebrations of Chinese New Years, and pho for breakfast on occasion are American. As you write: "We were Made in America, fit for purpose. The Asian immigrant parent’s vision of the model child -- obedient, faithful, professional-managerial -- is none other than American society’s vision of the model minority." In the rainbow of Southern Arizona, where every shade of skin moves easily through the Tucson streets, and increasingly throughout a multicultural but corporate America, take out the words "Asian immigrant," exchange "minority" for "citizen," and you just about have it.

Again, your words:

"That standardized testing has metastasized to dominate our educational system in the US is a social fact to which Asian Americans adapt, not one they chose.......as the US turns ever more frantically to rote education, Chinese educators are looking increasingly to creative learning; the difference is not a culturally inherent one. Should admissions criteria at the colleges and universities which are US society’s gatekeepers come to reward more supple and inquisitive intellects, or the kind and brave of heart, I suspect that all our early adopters will adjust accordingly."

The ability of an authoritarian regime to adjust on the fly and get things done--i.e. high-speed rail--cannot be discounted, and Chinese educators engaging students in creative learning anything outside the realm of the increasingly corporate and homogenized American system is a suspect proposition. The Chinese come here to study. Chinese educators look to the American model for guidance. We train them, and then we send them back. This is true of all international students studying in the States, and it's great for multinationals that need managers, and yes, even corporate officers, in Bangalore or Beijing. Creative? If you're the head of G.E. or Nike, of course. Where does this leave the young Asian-American man? He's not heading to Singapore or Taipei anytime soon. He is an American, probably not even fluent in his parents' tongue, with American roots, American dreams, and an American soul. His sisters have no trouble pairing up, though his parents might not want them to date outside the race. What if he's gay? What then? I have no answers. Do you?

Thanks,
Ben

erin K Ninh wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

briefly

Hello, Ben.

Thanks for writing, and my apologies in advance for a reply much shorter than your comment.  It's very late now and so I'll address your main points quickly.

1)  I agree that wealthy Asian exchange students are very different from Asian Americans.  My post is about the latter, not the former, and I make no claim that either their upbringing or their angst is the same as ours.

2)  I'll actually send you back to Wesley Yang's piece for a response to your comment about the ease with which Asians move through multicultural and corporate America.  Figures are available for the dramatic scarcity of Black, Latino, and even white women in the higher (even middle, in some cases) echelons of the corporate world, politics, and even education, and I invite you to look.

3)  If you know of data to indicate that most or all of the leaders in Asian countries are actually US or Western trained, I would certainly be curious to see that; otherwise, it's a little appalling to think so.  But yes, I am aware that currently, international students are still coming to the US for college; we are not sending ours to China.  Perhaps you are aware that such differentials do shift over time, and that there's been some concern lately about the state of American education.

4)  Very useful reminder of the emasculating Western perceptions of Asian men.  I do recall mentioning it above, and don't recall saying that it doesn't exist.

Best,

erin

David wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Never responded this way before, but a question for Erin

Dear Erin,

I've never commented like this before, but something about what you wrote prompted me.

Amy Chua and Wesley Yang, and now this, offer me suddenly a rich interpretation on Asian America, when a year ago there was no interpretation at all. I would have liked to send you an email (but saw no link and none readily google searchable), so to keep things general but with some introduction, Chua, Yang, and now this article are highly relevant to me: I am Asian, my parents have provided me a good education throughout my life, and I now attend an Ivy League institution. Only in college have I felt a noticeable undercurrent of the racism Yang mentions to ask questions about it (what is it exactly? where did it originate), and I remained puzzled without a path to explore it until now.

To get to the point, in context, I find this bit highly insightful: "We were Made in America, fit for purpose. The Asian immigrant parent’s vision of the model child -- obedient, faithful, professional-managerial -- is none other than American society’s vision of the model minority." It made all the nuances of "being Asian" clearer. You mention Asian American studies as a body of criticism, it seems, so I'm sure there are other interpretations of contemporary life in the US as an Asian American, but your interpretation is at least one highly plausible summary to me. It finally turns the key to a once unmovable door.

This is my understanding, correct me if I'm wrong, but the way that many parents have pushed their children to achieve has resulted in successful children of immigrants, who on the whole served its own purpose as a social phenomenon. I see many of my friends and myself become more interested in US-Asia relations in college. After a year of pretty focused pursuits in the field, personal encounters in my native country have left me disillusioned. My life and heart belong to America, but then I was at a loss about my identity here in context of the racism that does exist.

But your writing inspires me. It's ironic, but it's comforting: we DO belong in the US; through so many years of history we've established a place for our behavior.

In addition, this understanding leads to the conclusion that we do not have to blindly rebel. Something disconcerting about Yang's piece is that it seems to rebel against the rote schooling, yet if we indiscriminately remove ourselves from that system and such practices, it completely sweeps the floor from under our feet and we're back to square one. Your insight tells me our parents have done 90% right; we should try to discover that 10% that is wrong with the system and undo it.

At this point, I have a question for you. What is this 10%? Where should we start? My question isn't simply looking for a quick-fix, a formula; that would fall back into the trap that current exists. Mine is more existential, something to look at for a lifelong pursuit of happiness, the way that your one statement has inspired in me a new perspective on life in the US. Hope you can help, thanks!

Best,
David

erin K Ninh wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

thanks for writing

Hello, David.

I'm glad you decided to write; conversations like these are pretty much why these blogs are worth running. 

You're right that the Asian American conversation has gone big and mainstream in recent months, like no one's seen before -- and your sense of relief at this is shared by many.  It's flooding after years of drought.

As for your wanting to feel that you were made here, are part of this place (and can't be told to 'go back' to some other place that doesn't claim you, either), that's time-honored.  I think it may very well be the feeling on which AsAm studies was first founded.  Sounds like you're about to start sifting through AsAm scholarship and history, and I picture you at the door of a warehouse, which someone stocked with tools you might find useful.

You're right that I think giving everything "Asian" the finger is not particularly helpful strategy.  That's cute in high school, but in the long term traps us with everything we are afraid to be.  But it's important, too, not to be too conservative with adjustments.  For me, keeping 90% of parental training would be too high.  A) because the professional-managerial model isn't roomy enough for me; there are other things I want to care about.  B) because the easiest way to make high-performing people is often to build them with guilt, shame, inadequacy in hyperdrive.  Reprogramming that stuff, takes changing much more than 10% of who I am.

10% might be all that you need undoing.  But you might want to *examine* all of it before you decide that: make your Keep, Toss, and Maybe piles.  And if it's any comfort to you, Ivy Leaguer, I think we manage a bit of that meaningful happiness here, at this little magazine.  Where we make it our business to redefine Asian America inclusive of art and culture and community, and our unofficial tagline is the Overachievers Club.

Advice given because advice asked.  You'll have your own to share soon enough, so do report back.

Bon voyage,

erin

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About The Author

erin K Ninh

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.

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