Off top, I know I’m going to get this wrong.
I say “wrong” because I know how it feels to have someone who lurks outside of my upbringing, culture and racial experience probe the work I pull from my guts as if it’s just an intellectual exercise. That outsider intellectualizing—with its demands for symmetry and debate club cred—can serve as an emotional bulldozer, a potato at the end of a pistol, a chop to the throat.
I’m not trying to chop Korean-American writer Wesley Yang in the throat.
But as a fellow person of color—and the proud owner of a vagina—I am profoundly disturbed by “Paper Tigers,” his lengthy “New York” cover story. In some 10,000 words, Yang makes lots of generalizations about how traditional Asian-American parenting produces meek children, who perform well on standardized tests and outnumber even white people in elite high schools, but peter out in so-called real life. He’s delightfully honest about his frame:
Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility.
He’s also statistically thorough, and his interviews with a pan-Asian-American group of mostly men do support his idea. But then comes the unspoken. It seems that Yang’s definition of “success in real life” equals “Asian men rising, then dominating corporate and social structures that uphold clubby white male supremacy.”
Early in the piece, he predicts what the reader is thinking of his face (which looks kind of cute to me):
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 yet devoid of any individuality. … Not just people ‘who are good at math,’ and play violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.
Self-perception is a tricky thing. Of course Yang, who says he’s never dated a Korean woman, doesn’t have Korean friends and describes himself as a “Twinkie” (“yellow on the outside, white on the inside”), has experienced profound feelings of alienation and invisibility. But I’m dying to know who pops into his head when he imagines that “other American.” Is that American a Sioux mother of three? A transwoman construction worker of Mexican descent? A black woman from Down South who is being deployed to Afghanistan for a third time? Or a White Guy?
I vote White Guy.
After all, much of the piece focuses on how Asian-Americans might transcend 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 reachers of leadership.”
Yang cites the nature of the Bamboo Ceiling, which “does not seem to be caused by overt racism” but “unconscious bias.” He also wonders if it is “simply the case that a traditionally Asian upbringing is the problem” because it creates highly functioning worker bees rather than assertive leaders.
At this point, I wanted to scream—OK, I did scream—“It’s white, male supremacy, stupid!” I mean, does it really take a Miley Cyrus-style photo shoot or 30 more seconds of Rush Limbaugh mocking the Chinese president’s speech with “ching chong” to grasp the old-fashioned truth of this thing? Can we get just a little context, outside of blaming Asian-American immigrant parents for their coping mechanisms in a country that has been so damn hostile to a myriad of people of color?
Even more jarring is Wang’s bemused coverage of one J.T. Tran, who was once “an exemplary Asian underdog” due to his shortness, unremarkable looks, social ineptness and lack of sexual presence. Frustrated by his lack of play, Tran turned to what he calls “the seduction community,” a group of equally lady-less men online. He and his crew crowd-sourced techniques for tightening up their game, and now the former aerospace engineer who was beaten as a child for earning B’s runs workshops to teach Asian men how to stand like alpha males, smile big and convey emotion to attract women.
On its face, nerd confidence-building is uncontroversial. Except, according to Yang, Tran is unapologetically fueled by his desire for white women.
Yes, it is about attracting those women whose hair is the color of the midday sun and eyes are the color of the ocean, and it is about having sex with them. He is not going to apologize for those images of blonde women plastered all over his website. This is what he prefers, what he stands for, and what he is selling: the courage to pursue anyone you want, and the skills to make the person you desire desire you back. White guys do what they want; he is going to do the same.
This description made my black, female, hetro head spin because I could swap in any number of my African-American brethren who describe their exclusive desire for white women as some sort of organic personal preference rather than the result the ever-present white beauty standard. Tran seems to have internalized a very damaging idea: That the way to establish your manhood and equality is through the sexual conquest of blondes. I’m not clear how any group, including blonde-haired, blue-eyed women, is winning with that.
And what about Asian-American women? Although many of the article’s 507 commenters claimed these sisters have had their say via works such as Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club” (seriously), I’m with the one who wrote,
Where are all the ladies here? The ones that aren’t Ms. Tiger Mom? We need a Virginia Woolf for all the Asian ladies. And I don’t mean some “let’s all get together and hug Joy Luck Club” kinda of way. Asian women get the double whammy-Asian Female. Bamboo ceiling, my a**. Asian females get the lead ceiling.
You know, one of the blessings (and curses) of online communication is that everybody can weigh in on internal conversations. That’s how you get a million frustrated words about Asian-American masculine identity from an African-American woman raised in a Black Nationalist household who as a kid went to prep school around the very white girls so coveted by folks like Tran.
I feel insecure about the value of my critique here; as I said up top, I’m bound to get this wrong. It just pains me to see “the real world” equated with “elite white maleness.” I pray that’s not the goal of unlearning lessons borne of oppression—to be more like the White Guys.
My Asian brothers and sister, please share your thoughts about Yang’s piece and my take in the comments!