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Paper Tigers, Bamboo Ceilings, and the American Dream

The latest article about Asian Americans to cause a stir, Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers after the test taking ends. This 9000+ word opus by Wesley Yang describes his experience and the experience of other Asian Americans to find "success" in America. On the heels of the Tiger Mom article and debate, this is the latest example of the increased media attention Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) are getting. With less than 4% of the US population, APAs would be irrelevant if they were not "succeeding" on some levels.

A few facts pointed out in Yang's article: Asians graduate from college at a rate higher than any other ethnic group in America, including whites. They earn a higher median family income than any other ethnic group in America, including whites. This is a stage in a triumphal narrative, and it is a narrative that is much shorter than many remember. Two thirds of the roughly 14 million Asian-Americans are foreign-born. Tiger

Yang attempts to unravel and reveal the truth about the struggle many APAs face in their quest for "success". Frankly, while the article is provocative in asserting the inadequacy of the total education of many APAs, which is the plight of many immigrant populations. APAs are 67% immigrants. How do immigrants become Americans? What is the right formula to adapt to American ideals and culture? How do people "assimilate", acclimate, and advance in American culture? These are the questions that ALL immigrants face.

Asians in America, driven by their homeland cultures and their DNA have emphasized educational attainment as the recipe for success. Isn't it slightly ironic that we mock a group for doing this? Why is academic success questioned in a country that has fallen behind the rest of the world and still Waiting for Superman?

And this success has led to discrimination. Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade has calculated that an Asian applicant must, in practice, score 140 points higher on the SAT than a comparable white applicant to have the same chance of admission to elite schools. Is this fair?

Yang writes: I’ve always been of two minds about this sequence of stereotypes. On the one hand, it offends me greatly that anyone would think to apply them to me, or to anyone else, simply on the basis of facial characteristics. On the other hand, it also seems to me that there are a lot of Asian people to whom they apply.

Like all worlds, the truth lies somewhere in between. Both sides have serious blind spots. We can not stereotype all APAs as academic overachievers lacking social or leadership skills. APAs are so diverse they defy simplified "truths". Parenting, economic challenges, generational differences, and cultural values, varies greatly within the APA community. By the same token, parents who do not recognize the holistic development of their children and their unique skills by measuring success solely by an academic measure short changes their kids.

Through the generational maturation and development of Asian Americans (APAs), there is a realization that additional skills are necessary to succeed in life especially in America. As a sansei, third generation Japanese-American/APA, I have gained greater insight to adapt through my parents, osmosis, mentoring, and just paying attention. My Dad pushed me to become a "public person" when I was a teenager--to become a better public speaker and to network. I learned quickly that if I only associated with people that looked like me, my path would be limited. That feeling different and uncomfortable, even discriminated against, was part of the deal if I wanted to move up. I learned that education was crucial, but I had to have much more than degrees from schools people recognized. I had to have the ability to navigate, persuade, assert myself, and develop a broader set of relationships.

It has been estimated that full assimilation takes 4-5 generations.

In 1992, JD Hokoyama the head and founder of LEAP, asked me to talk about my career to a room filled with APA engineers who were colliding with the bamboo ceiling. The bamboo ceiling is the APA version of the glass ceiling erected by corporate culture to limit the diversity of its highest echelons of leadership--management, the C suites and the board rooms. These APA engineers did face out right prejudice and were struggling with breaking out of their imposed and somewhat deserved stereotypes. At that time APAs were a tiny but growing minority in colleges and in major corps. And engineers suffered from their super technical skills and their general lack in the soft skills. Long story short, JD asked me to do the same thing again and again. Through LEAP and other opportunities I have addressed thousands of APAs and I have seen the potential of APAs and it is awesome! Out of these experiences I developed my networking and mentoring workshop, this blog and a way of life. Like Yang, I have observed the growing friction between the bamboo ceiling and the obsession of academic achievement. While some progress has been made, new immigrants and more success have increased the APA community's challenges to break through.

Yang continues, The failure of Asian-Americans to become leaders in the white-collar workplace does not qualify as one of the burning social issues of our time. But it is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation.

APAs are seriously under-represented in all forms and sectors of executive leadership.

To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It’s racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking.

So I agree with the much of what Yang writes. Success is built upon personal and professional risk taking, but not just by the APA individuals, but by the employers--the corporations.

Here's the reality. The larger society in America still does not know what to do with APAs. The mixture of the model minority myth, the diversity of the multiplicity of Asian descents and cultures, and the continuing lack of APAs in visible parts of our daily lives keeps APAs out of the consciousness of America. -With more APAs graduating from college than African Americans in this country. -With greater consumer and political power APAs should be viewed as a resource and a vital part of theis country's diversity. -With so many fully qualified APAs waiting in the wings. And with APAs unheralded contributions to so many critical elements of this nation's success. The future of this country will depend more on APAs than in the past if we can just open our minds.

This country needs successes and to nurture successes. It is frustrating to me to see that some in this country do not see the greater untapped potential of APAs. It is a burning issue when potential is wasted. Some will mock the Tiger Moms and the Paper Tigers. I see enormous potential and opportunity to help a growing and under estimated part of our country continue to rise. To take the academic prowess, creativity, work ethic, and loyalty make it a more impactful and visible part of our country's leadership and her future.

Thanks for reading. John

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