My Retort to “Paper Tigers”

By now, if you’re Asian, you’ve probably come across this article called “Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends” written by Wesley Yang. If you haven’t, it’s a worthwhile read about what it means to be Asian American, namely East Asian American. You can find it here.

The article is essentially an 11 page barrage of why Asian Americans 1. suck at being leaders, 2. suck at getting girls, and 3. suck at being successful in life. Of course he gives a few examples of relatively more successful Asian Americans, like Steve Chen and Tony Hsieh, but for the most part his vignettes focus on the shortcomings of upbringing within an Asian culture epitomized in this one sentence:

“How do you undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing?” 

My retort is, Why would I?

I can see his point – his examples of the nerdy Chinese kid knowing only how to study and take tests, nerdy Chinese kid not having the confidence to pick up girls, or the nerdy Chinese kid being a hard worker but never speaking up or getting promoted – these people do exist. I can see myself in each of the vignettes he highlights. But it’s a poor representation of Asian Americans. And it’s not just an Asian American problem.

By now you can sense that I don’t agree with everything he says. I have 3 main reasons:

1. His definition of success is problematic. From reading this article, you get the sense that being successful means making a lot of money, getting girls and being at the center of attention, namely breaking through what he calls the “Bamboo Ceiling.”

“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 reaches of leadership…so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation.”

Fortunately for us, there’s more to life. What about being a good father? A good friend? Or a good team player? And honestly, is there something wrong with being good at studying and taking tests? How can that just be an Asian thing when our United States education policy grades teachers and schools on test scores and test taking ability (i.e. No Child Left Behind)? When our schools, whether it’s colleges or grad schools, make test taking a big requirement for admissions? Last I checked the United States government and admissions committees aren’t made up of Asians. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

2. His coverage of Asian Americans is imbalanced and skewed. His vignettes delve a lot deeper into why Asian Americans fail but he fails to delve into reasons why they also succeed. He spends approximately 1 page out of 11 pages on successful Asian Americans. I would challenge the author to write another 10 pages highlighting why Asian Americans are successful at life. And they do succeed, not just in America but also around the world. I would argue that the very reasons (i.e. racial stereotypes) he claims to limit Asians, such as valuing filial piety and self-restraint, can also help them succeed. And the very reasons (again racial stereotypes) that may help someone succeed may also cause them to fail, like this one below:

“White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have.”

When I read this, the first thing that came to mind was why would anyone want to work with these tools. What ever happened to striving for a balance of approaching things with confidence and humility?

3. Finally why is this article so focused on the shortcomings of Asian American guys? Actually wait, Asian American guys who go to Stuyvescent High School. Being from the South, what about all the Asian Americans in Texas or the Midwest? There, we ride horses and hunt our own food. The only female he critiques is Amy Chua who probably has as much testosterone as any other guy. What about the unique experiences of being an Asian American woman? His argument is that Asian American guys, though hard working, are socially awkward, aloof, and generally terrible at picking up girls, namely white girls:

“Yes, it is about picking up women. Yes, it is about picking up 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…White guys do what they want.”

My suggestion: the author should interview my neighbor. He’s an Asian FOB, speaks with an Asian accent, AND he’s dating a pretty white girl.

I don’t deny the facts. Yes, there are a lot of things that we Asian Americans as a whole can improve on and I don’t disagree with the examples the author give. He makes good points, albiet a bit imbalanced, but thought-provoking and going a bit extreme to force people to discuss these issues and think about breaking stereotypes. His conclusion?

“We will need more people with the same kind of defiance, willing to push themselves into the spotlight and to make some noise, to beat people up, to seduce women, to make mistakes, to become entrepreneurs, to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting.”

My retort: don’t start becoming who you’re not. Find and do what you love, with those you love.

6 Responses to “My Retort to “Paper Tigers””
  1. The article was all too overgeneralized. Asian Americans can be found in any niche group you want to describe. Nothing wrong with group achievement and how does Yang know about the sex lives of all Asian males. Maybe he associates with a narrow cohort. Moreover, he defines success rather narrowly. Hardly important enough an article to warrant a post from Elusions.

  2. Sarah S says:

    I like your retort, Eric. I read that article (rather quickly) but couldn’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t like his conclusions. Good thing you’re so articulate that you can say what I was feeling! The paradigm of success by which he measures the world and especially his fellow asian-american men is not one that I think is necessarily worth striving for. It is centered on appearances of wealth, power and fame.

  3. Liz S. says:

    Ahh thanks for allaying my growing sense of indignation and disdain. Well-put, Eric! (By the way, as I was reading his tantrum about the deficiencies of AA guys, I was totally thinking “what about AA women?!” I hope he got an earful from the many vocal, outspoken, strong-headed AA women out there. haha.)

  4. Um, yeah, the article just described why stereotypical Asian American males aren’t stereotypical tools (i.e., Trump). Even if it were true, I’d rather work with/for the guy with “Asian shortcomings” any day.

  5. Emily says:

    I’m a little concerned about the first point in your post — the one thing I did agree with in the article was that the Bamboo ceiling does actually exist and is a very real problem. Sure, you might not want to be part of corporate America, but unspoken/unconscious prejudice against Asian Americans (perhaps in part perpetuated by some culturally-influenced behaviors) is a very real problem, and the one thing that the author of the article does well is highlighting that.

    That said, I completely agree with all of your hatred against the article. After reading your piece and going through the article again, here are my main gripes:

    1) he considers “Asian American culture” to be a monolith that is entirely bad in every way. which a) is foolish and b) doesn’t even play out in all of his examples, some examples point to cultural attitudes towards praise/blame and others point to cultural expectations of what careers are good for you and still others, especially those regarding the people that *did* succeed, focus on how Americans view Asian people or otherwise hold them back from rising to the top in corporate culture. Which has nothing to do with how we’re raised at all. Way to buy into a stereotype while tearing down a stereotype.

    2) I think it’s really just a complete travesty that he is focusing so much on Asian American male culture. And sadly, I can’t help feeling like this was a strategic choice because many of his arguments for all-the-terrible-things-that-happen-to-Asians just flat out don’t apply to Asian females. We aren’t expected to be high earning businessmen/doctors/engineers (but good wives, but that’s a whole other problem). We don’t (or at least not stereotypically perceived to have) trouble getting sexual partners. Again, he’s pretending that we’re all the same in order to prove his point. A ridiculous position to take when you’re trying to combat / rail against stereotypes.

    3) He claims that Asian Americans aren’t getting recognition, but as many others have pointed out, the very reason that Amy Chua gets featured in the Wall Street Journal and that he gets featured here in New York Magazine is *precisely* because Asian Americans and their mixed success in America have gotten a lot of interest & attention lately. There are probably lots of reasons for this. But it makes it all the more ironic (in a pretty obnoxious way) for him to be self-effacing himself and his culture in order to make a grab for all that attention that is being directed towards it

    Sorry for the long comment. Just wanted to also express my general pissed-off-ness.

  6. premedc says:

    Great post, Eric. I think this topic is of the ‘Elephant-in-the-room…’ category. Thus, whatever the article said, it started a discussion about it, which is by far more important than the actual subjective final opinion each person will form.

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