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Paper Tigers

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Takayasu took the weeklong course in 2006. One of the first exercises she encountered involved the group instructor asking for a list of some qualities that they identify with Asians. The students responded: upholding family honor, filial piety, self-­restraint. Then the instructor solicited a list of the qualities the members identify with leadership, and invited the students to notice how little overlap there is between the two lists.

At first, Takayasu didn’t relate to the others in attendance, who were listing typical Asian values their parents had taught them. “They were all saying things like ‘Study hard,’ ‘Become a doctor or lawyer,’ blah, blah, blah. That’s not how my parents were. They would worry if they saw me working too hard.” Takayasu had spent her childhood shuttling between New York and Tokyo. Her father was an executive at Mitsubishi; her mother was a concert pianist. She was highly assimilated into American culture, fluent in English, poised and confident. “But the more we got into it, as we moved away from the obvious things to the deeper, more fundamental values, I began to see that my upbringing had been very Asian after all. My parents would say, ‘Don’t create problems. Don’t trouble other people.’ How Asian is that? It helped to explain why I don’t reach out to other people for help.” It occurred to Takayasu that she was a little bit “heads down” after all. She was willing to take on difficult assignments without seeking credit for herself. She was reluctant to “toot her own horn.”

Takayasu has put her new self-awareness to work at IBM, and she now exhibits a newfound ability for horn tooting. “The things I could write on my résumé as my team’s accomplishments: They’re really impressive,” she says.

The law professor and writer Tim Wu grew up in Canada with a white mother and a Taiwanese father, which allows him an interesting perspective on how whites and Asians perceive each other. After graduating from law school, he took a series of clerkships, and he remembers the subtle ways in which hierarchies were developed among the other young lawyers. “There is this automatic assumption in any legal environment that Asians will have a particular talent for bitter labor,” he says, and then goes on to define the word coolie,a Chinese term for “bitter labor.” “There was this weird self-selection where the Asians would migrate toward the most brutal part of the labor.”

By contrast, the white lawyers he encountered had a knack for portraying themselves as above all that. “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.”

This idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking—where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense—is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice. LEAP appears to be very good at helping Asian workers who are already culturally competent become more self-aware of how their culture and appearance impose barriers to advancement. But I am not sure that a LEAP course is going to be enough to get Jefferson Mao or Daniel Chu the respect and success they crave. The issue is more fundamental, the social dynamics at work more deeply embedded, and the remedial work required may be at a more basic level of comportment.

What if you missed out on the lessons in masculinity taught in the gyms and locker rooms of America’s high schools? What if life has failed to make you a socially dominant alpha male who runs the American boardroom and prevails in the American bedroom? What if no one ever taught you how to greet white people and make them comfortable? What if, despite these deficiencies, you no longer possess an immigrant’s dutiful forbearance for a secondary position in the American narrative and want to be a player in the scrimmage of American appetite right now, in the present?

How do you undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing?

This is the implicit question that J. T. Tran has posed to a roomful of Yale undergraduates at a master’s tea at Silliman College. His answer is typically Asian: practice. Tran is a pickup artist who goes by the handle Asian Playboy. He travels the globe running “boot camps,” mostly for Asian male students, in the art of attraction. Today, he has been invited to Yale by the Asian-American Students Alliance.


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