I still vividly remember the conversation I shared with a high school friend of mine discussing his reasons and desires to leave the ‘land of opportunity’ and return to the land of the Morning Calm. Quite simply to my question of ‘why’ he answered, in more or less the following words, “Here in the States, I’m one of the crowd, only one of the Asians. In Korea, I’m somebody. I’m foreign educated and I stand above the crowd.” And he was right. I remember another conversation I had with my graduate school buddies in seminary about how the prominent preachers of America were Caucasian and most often tall. In a roundabout way of revealing my secret desires to become famous, I hypothetically asked them if they thought I, a Korean-American, could become a prominent preacher of a large church composed of mainly Caucasians. They thought for no more that five seconds and replied with a unanimous, resounding, “Of course not.” Whether for reasons of sociological logic or merely pessimistic realism, such a response was as a cacophony from one’s alarm clock shattering the sweet dreams of possibilities and potentials. I slowly learned of the so-called ‘Bamboo Ceiling’.
In his New York Magazine cover story appropriately titled, “Paper Tigers” (paper tigers are something that seems as threatening as a tiger but really harmless), Wesley Yang explores the nature of the bamboo ceiling experience for the Asian-American. In a very angst-y manner, he seems to come from a very American background rather than Asian as he manifests his sentiments toward Asian culture:
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.
I usually am not one to care much for discussions of the Asian-American under-representation in the upper echelons of American society. Though an interesting read, Wesley Yang’s article elicits more disappointment than not, in both argument and conclusion. The only redeeming factor in the article is the artistic snapshot views of the individual Asian-American experiences in the interviews and anecdotes. Yang’s racial/sociological argument is only narrowly applicable to the backdrop of America as the context, and rightly so, as he is discussing issues pertaining to Asian ‘dash’ American and not Asians. But the issues quickly become parochial without a global perspective. One interesting analysis of perpetuating white social hegemony is the Asian-American ignorance of ‘which rules to break’:
White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have. Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.
What Yang misses is underneath this rule obeying and rule breaking is the fact that rules exist because there are values in a particular culture. In a global perspective, such can change entirely. Whereas the West may value boldness, loyalty (which I’ve found Americans have very little sense of) is something as important in the eastern culture. These differing values give rise to different rules, and the ones you can break and must obey changes in that context. Yang also misses, well, better to say he assumes as a given, to the argument’s detriment, that to desire to be at the top of a society is morally irrelevant, that is, the reasoning behind why one wants to be significant is not worthy of questioning. It just is. He gets so close in reaching a better anthropological analysis when he quotes Chu in the following:
“I guess what I would like is to become so good at something that my social deficiencies no longer matter,” he tells me. Chu is a bright, diligent, impeccably credentialed young man born in the United States. He is optimistic about his ability to earn respect in the world. But he doubts he will ever feel the same comfort in his skin that he glimpsed in the people he met at Williams. That kind of comfort, he says—“I think it’s generations away.”
But he does not dig any deeper. Then to disappointingly close an artistically decent read, he concludes that the solution, or at least his own solution, is to proclaim his individualism twice as hard. Very American:
In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.
The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.
Though he does add a bit at the very end of the article about boldness, making noise, and having a bit of “proud defiance”, such individualism is ironic in the least, if not a plain contradiction. The fact that this article is on the cover of New York Magazine, that Yang even takes the time to explore the issue of ethnic social hegemony ironically shows that he is not expressing “obdurate singularity at any cost” or “unyielding.” He actually cares, maybe not for the traditions of his Asian background but for the traditions of profit. The all-American value of productivity. And that the folly is in not being able to see the meaning and value in the ‘bitter labor’, the paper pushing, the so-called mundane. As he touts ‘daring to be interesting’ as the ultimate way to escape through this bamboo ceiling, I guarantee Yang and all his mentees will only stand on top of that bamboo roof dissatisfied and ever more lost, still searching for that significance all in the wrong places.