There seems to be a lot of stuff going around on the internet these days about the West and Asia’s relationship. All of this economic growth is making the West a little antsy and maybe even willing to listen to the rest of the world. Since I am a white guy with 10 years of experience living in Asia, I thought I would comment on all the recent brouhahah (to use the Latin).
Wesley Yang, a Korean-American writer over at the New York something-or-other wrote an article on his experience being an Asian-American man, along with a handful of cultural anecdotes and case studies. It wound up being quite good and a quite bracing look at being an outsider in the USA.
Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.
Read the full article.
Yang basically sums up the life of The Other. The easiest way to define a culture or group is by what it excludes. These are the people or groups who do not fit in the social structure. Once you have defined The Other, you make it easy to exclude, subjugate, ignore, and dehumanize.
One way Yang describes the Othering process is the “bamboo curtain“, or the rarity of Asian-Americans (now shortened to Asians because I’m sick of hyphens) in upper management. Last seen in Amy ChuWhat’sherface’s (she doesn’t need any more publicity) memoir, a lot of Asians bust their asses to get into top tier schools. They apply a similar work ethic to their careers. Yet there are only a handful of Fortune 500 companies with Asian CEO’s.
(I think this speaks to the myth of meritocracy in Western culture. We proppend to reward people for their deeds, but in reality, we have few good ways of measuring or judging others. So we reward people we like; people like us.)
I think this lack of promotion is a normal phenomenon. As a foreigner in China, I have exactly zero chance of working in management in a Chinese company. I would never be promoted ahead of a Chinese person. On an individual level, my equals at the company would feel distrust of me and my subordinates would feel angry and belittled. Promoting outsiders ahead of insiders demoralizes people within the company. At an organizational level, a company is a cultural artifact. It springs from a set of shared values and an outlook. An Outsider is always suspect of not holding those same values, and thus not put in a position of power. Chaos would ensue if people started thinking differently and asking questions and whatnot. This is one of the big reasons why I won’t work for a Chinese company.
Of course the big difference between Asians in America and Americans in Asia is the power difference. I am going to speak to the elephant in the living room and say that Western culture is more empowering to individuals than Asian cultures. I’ve had a different experience in Asia than Yang has had in America. I have a world of options, that he and/or his family perhaps does not. I can afford to mess around in other countries for years because I have a great deal of personal power and choice.
Finally, I think Yang is overly fixated on getting the respect and attention of others. He wants to be recognized. He wants the “face” he feels he deserves. And to that I say “Dude, get over it”. That is a bottomless pit that will never be full. Your inner life will continue to be at the mercy of others as long as you are looking for their respect and admiration.
Feedback is welcome. You know my email address (or you don’t ).