Asian American Like Me

Some of Wesley Yang's treatise on the state of Asian America is indeed miserable and indefensible. Some of it is miserable and unflattering, but not untrue.
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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 and 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 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, inside 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, or 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. Freedom fries, anyone?

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. It's 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 U.S. 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: 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, "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.

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Crossposted here at Hyphen magazine.

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