Tiger Brother: An Interview With Wesley Yang

Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers" voices some of the deepest fears of the Asian-American community. "Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans," he writes, "an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it...a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter."

When I met Yang in Koreatown last week, his face was certainly distinguishable enough. A young student interrupted our conversation to praise his story. "I really liked it. And so did a lot of my friends," she gushed, "Especially the guys." And far from invisible, Yang's eyes are plastered on the cover of this week's New York above the bold words "Asian Like Me." If nothing else, it is a profound expression of our newfound relevance.

Four months ago, the Wall Street Journal set off a veritable shit storm by running an excerpt from Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother under the headline "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." At the time, Yang bemoaned, "A dignified, nonhysterical account of our peculiar sufferings untethered to the American upper middle class's Ivy League fixation and (richly justified) fear of national decline remains elusive." He went on to produce precisely that account. What follows is just one of the many lively, long overdue, refreshingly honest conversations Yang's epic article spurred. Here's to many more.

SK: In a way, you take advantage of the racism your piece condemns. You wouldn't have been able to write this piece if you weren't Asian. And because people have this perception of the Asian-American community as a uniform one, you can approach this subject as an insider. In reality, you had a very different upbringing than the one you write about. You weren't raised by a Tiger Mother who demanded perfect grades and forced you to drill math. You aren't a member of that community.

WY: When the Amy Chua piece came out, my editors came to me and they said, "You're Asian! You should write something about Asian people!" And my attitude was that a story on "Asian people" as a whole can only be a kind of a failure because the term encompasses such large groups of people who have different immigration histories, class backgrounds, and nationalities. But the Tiger Mother phenomenon was about a very specific thing of interest to the readership of New York. I am writing about this group not because I shared all their experiences, but precisely because I didn't, and yet had to live all my life in their shadow.

So part of the devotion to study of this group that was always present, and that I always rejected, was their obsession with acquiring credentials at any cost. This created a large number of students who could, as one Stuyvesant graduate told me, get an 800 on the verbal section of the SAT "without being able to write for shit."

And the truth is that these people are out there, and everybody knows it. They are not a racist myth used to keep Asian people down -- although the assumption that all Asian people are like this is a racist myth. So, it's racism to look at a person with an Asian face and assume that he's just another Chinese kid who drilled his way to high scores who can't write. We have to call bullshit on that.

On the other hand, we also have to look at the way those other kids are being trained - where they are being pushed through this educational mill where getting the grade is all that matters, and where the student's focus on perfection leaves no room to discover their real passions, and real interests, and thus their real self, which can then be successfully projected in the real world -- and call bullshit on that too.

SK: But is the overall message of your piece provocative or just unusually direct? One of the people who you profiled, for example, offers a $1,400 course teaching Asian men to nail blonde-haired, blue-eyed women. Now, most Americans place a pretty high premium on that ability. It's phrased in a vulgar manner, but the goal itself is fairly mainstream. It's true that the Asian playboy and his students aren't deferring to white, Western expectations for Asian-American behavior, but is that kind of submission any worse than deference to white, Western definitions of success?

WY: The key point is not to mistake what I portray in others for what I really think. For starters, I never was interested in corporate success. Neither do I have a fetish for white women, even though my girlfriend happens to be white. Indeed, I was estranged from Asian women insofar as they were part of Asian culture and estranged from Asian culture insofar as it was totally materialistic and focused on corporate success. I think this is all there, implicit in my dropping out of society for many years while living on next to nothing in Jersey City.

SK: And in all fairness, Asian-Americans don't have a heightened responsibility to reject this framework. In fact, empowering us to achieve these rigid definitions of success is the only way we can truly reject them. Otherwise we're just accepting, on a practical level, that we can't win that game. And I'd certainly agree that some of the people you profile are exemplary in that they succeed without compromising -- because of their defiance, not in spite of it.

WY: I think Tony Hsieh (founder of Zappos.com) and the emergence of more people like him will destroy the bamboo ceiling. Once people see CEOs who are socially awkward Asian guys, they'll realize socially awkward Asian guys can be leaders and CEO's. Once we make that leap, they're no longer going to look at the way Asian people behave and decide that they can't be leaders. People need to be willing to make noise, and make themselves visible.

And that will mean the end of this rule that immigrant groups have to worry what people are going to think of us and we have to pretend for outsiders like we don't engage in cultural practices that deserve serious scrutiny. We must get stuff out into the open, tear the scab off this wound, apply a stinging astringent to it, and cauterize it with a blowtorch.