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Paper Tigers

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J.T. Tran  

Chu remembers that during his first semester at Williams, his junior adviser would periodically take him aside. Was he feeling all right? Was something the matter? “I was acclimating myself to the place,” he says. “I wasn’t totally happy, but I wasn’t depressed.” But then his new white friends made similar remarks. “They would say, ‘Dan, it’s kind of hard, sometimes, to tell what you’re thinking.’ ”

Chu has a pleasant face, but it would not be wrong to characterize his demeanor as reserved. He speaks in a quiet, unemphatic voice. He doesn’t move his features much. He attributes these traits to the atmosphere in his household. “When you grow up in a Chinese home,” he says, “you don’t talk. You shut up and listen to what your parents tell you to do.”

At Stuyvesant, he had hung out in an exclusively Asian world in which friends were determined by which subway lines you traveled. But when he arrived at Williams, Chu slowly became aware of something strange: The white people in the New England wilderness walked around smiling at each other. “When you’re in a place like that, everyone is friendly.”

He made a point to start smiling more. “It was something that I had to actively practice,” he says. “Like, when you have a transaction at a business, you hand over the money—and then you smile.” He says that he’s made some progress but that there’s still plenty of work that remains. “I’m trying to undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing. Four years at Williams helps, but only so much.” He is conscious of how his father, an IT manager, is treated at work. “He’s the best programmer at his office,” he says, “but because he doesn’t speak English well, he is always passed over.”

Though Chu is not merely fluent in En­glish but is officially the most distinguished poet of his class at Williams, he still worries that other aspects of his demeanor might attract the same kind of treatment his father received. “I’m really glad we’re having this conversation,” he says at one point—it is helpful to be remembering these lessons in self-presentation just as he prepares for job interviews.

It is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that meritocracy comes to an abrupt end after graduation.

“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.”

While he was still an electrical-­engineering student at Berkeley in the nineties, James Hong visited the IBM campus for a series of interviews. An older Asian researcher looked over Hong’s résumé and asked him some standard questions. Then he got up without saying a word and closed the door to his office.

“Listen,” he told Hong, “I’m going to be honest with you. My generation came to this country because we wanted better for you kids. We did the best we could, leaving our homes and going to graduate school not speaking much English. If you take this job, you are just going to hit the same ceiling we did. They just see me as an Asian Ph.D., never management potential. You are going to get a job offer, but don’t take it. Your generation has to go farther than we did, otherwise we did everything for nothing.”

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.”


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