Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Reply to the Korean

[This is in reply to the very interesting and impassioned reply to my piece in New York Magazine called "Paper Tigers", written by the blogger who goes by the name "The Korean".]

New York law firms have more Asian associates than they do associates of any other minority group. But those Asian associates make partner at a rate lower than any other group. That includes blacks and Hispanics. This, too, is part of the scoreboard to which the Korean is gesturing.

So, racism can't be the only explanation for this gap. We all agree that blacks and Hispanics have it worse in terms of the perception of others than Asians. Asians are perceived as competent, hard-working, and technically skilled. Thus, in the same leadership study I quoted in my piece, the same engineering resume with a white name at the top would get a lower score for technical ability than it would with an Asian name at the top.

And yet, for just this reason, all that hard work and competence can often get turned against Asians in an insidious way that really discloses how race functions today. We no longer face the enemy in riot gear with water cannons. We don't face an enemy at all. Instead, we have these fugitive impressions that subtly undermine women, blacks, Asians in the workplace. We have racial communities that are divided within between the Asians, and blacks, and women, who have a demeanor that fits with the normative American leadership culture, who are not perceived as racially other at all, and those women, and blacks, and Asians, who do not fit into that culture, and who hit a ceiling.

Asians have bought into grade-based meritocracy more intensely than any other group, and have mastered grade-based meritocracy better than any other group. And yet, this very mastery is turned against them as a mark of their deficiencies in other areas of life.

This is not my observation, but the observation of Tim Wu, and Jane Hyun, and thousands of graduates of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics. LEAP teaches Asian people: these stereotypes exist; they are applied to you by others whether or not you fit them; and even though they are half-flattering, they can easily end up being used against you, and get you cast as follower and not a leader, a technical grunt and not a creative visionary. And yes, I would add, and a great many Asian men would concur in this – a harmless nerd and not a person you'd want to go to bed with. 

This is an extremely subtle predicament that nonetheless ends up tripping up Asians, not just in banking and finance, but in every other field as well. And when these subtle micro-politics work themselves out over time, they produce these racially disproportionate effects, where 17 percent of an associate class at PwC are Asian, but only a handful of them can expect to make partner. These numbers obtain across the board, not just in the corporate world, but in government, academia, and elsewhere.

Another study found that a white American engineer given a math test will ace that test if he is told that he is being tested for quantitative ability in contrast to women. He will, however, do markedly worse on the same test if he is told that he is being tested for quantitative ability against Asian men.

Social psychological experiments like this are bringing to the surface all the hidden stereotypes that people carry with them, and they are showing how harmful they can be to the performance of the people who labor underneath them. We can also see the expression of these stereotypes by examining certain statistical regularities and irregularities. The bias toward height expresses itself: 58 percent of CEO's are over six feet tall.

My piece was, at its core, an inquiry into these racially inflected social dynamics as they affect Asian people. These stereotypes mean that Asian SAT scores are discounted to the tune of 140 points. Because when the deck is not stacked against them, they make up 72 percent of the school.

The controversial part of the essay, and the thing that has set the Korean off is that I also inquire into the relationship between those stereotypes and the reality of the way Asians behave. I do this not on my own initiative, but following the analyses and prescriptions of LEAP and Jane Hyun and other observers of the white collar workforce like them.

There is a dynamic relationship between stereotypes and the behavior upon which these stereotypes is based. We should acknowledge that relationship. Jane Hyun interviewed a group of 40 white executives about their perceptions of Asians. She found that it was the perception of these executives that Asians were hard working, cliquish, passive, unassertive, and tended not to speak up at meetings. These executives, I'm sure, were governed partly by stereotypes. They were also, I'm sure, observing things that were really happening in the actual behavior of their Asian employees.

These are the racial micro-politics of everyday life. Everybody gets their share of them - blacks, whites, women. Asians too. We can argue about to what extent the perception of Asian people is based only on racist projection or only on the behavior of Asians. There can be no definitive answer to this, since the answer only exists hidden in the minds of others. From one perspective, it looks like one thing. From another, it looks like another.

My piece tries to present a balanced view. It tries to flush out the racism of white people with the confrontational tone it takes at the beginning. It also tries to examine the behavior and values of Asian people for those aspects of the Asian demeanor and approach to life that don't work in an American environment and that require adjustment.

The fact is that it's a little bit of both. There's a way you're supposed to defer to a Korean authority figure in a Korean workplace or in a Korean home that is just different than the way you're supposed to act in America. And if you do the Korean thing in an American workplace, because that's how you were trained at home, the fact is that you're not doing yourself any favors. That's just true.

Now, lots of Asian people do make this adjustment seamlessly and without any need for outside intervention, and if you're one of those people, great. These people make up the 0.3 percent of corporate board members who are Asian, the 10 percent of managers in Silicon Valley firms, (which are 30 percent Asian among the engineers), etc. We need more of you and the likelihood that more will emerge with the passage of time.

But lots of Asian do not. If they did, we would not have any Bamboo Ceiling type numbers. We would not need a group like LEAP.

Another controversial observation I made was that just as Asians are over-represented in elite high schools and colleges, they are also overrepresented in pickup classes. Now, pickup classes are not a normal thing for any group. I'm not saying that all, most, or even more than a tiny handful of Asian guys do it or need to do it.

I am saying, however, that when Asian Playboy explained what an "Asian Poker Face" was, and gave the example of being at a a party and having a white dude ask him "Dude -- are you angry?" -- a packed room full of Asian American students at Yale burst into laughter. Did they do this because they did not know what AP was talking about from their own experience? Or did they do this because they did? I will submit to you that they laughed because the same thing had happened to them. I can same this with confidence because the same thing has happened to me too.

Did the Yale Asian American Students Assocation invite Asian Playboy to speak at a Master's Tea in Silliman College because they thought he was a creep who was bringing a message that had no relevance at all to the lives of Asian American men? Or did they invite him to speak at a Master's Tea in Silliman College because they thought he was a creep who was bringing a message that had some relevance to Asian American men, such that a roomful of Asian American Yale students would pack into the Master's living room, making for what the Master told me was the largest and liveliest such event of the year?

Does this mean that I am calling the Korean or any other Korean man a "dickless slave"? No, I wrote about AP because he was funny and great copy, not because I endorse his message, or because I think it applicable to anyone in particular. It is applicable to the readers whom it is applicable to, and the response I've been getting suggests that those people are not few in number.

But the aspect of my piece that angered the Korean, and most of my detractors the most, was obviously the personal material. I open by saying that it feels strange to be reminded by my reflection that I am Korean because I never bought into any of the cultural things that are supposed to define Koreanness. This is how one man -- me -- feels, though I know for a fact that I am not alone in this feeling. I'm entitled to express that feeling, as the Korean acknowledges. So, when I say Fuck this and Fuck that, I'm demonstrating rhetorically on the page how much I break from these values, because no person who bought into them could possibly write and publish that passage. I say this not because I want to boast about how unique I am, but because I am identifying myself as a part of the relatively large fractions of Asian American who feels as I do.

But. I still have a Korean face, and I am considered by others to be this thing that I am not. Saying fuck these values does not mean that I think Asian values are the reasons that Asian people face problems in the workplace. The problem is, as I explain in the LEAP section of my piece, is that these values lead to behaviors that are interpreted by white people in a certain way that leads them to perceiving Asians in a certain way.

They then impose  that perception on all Asian people -- including people like me, to whom they really do not apply -- which adds another layer of difficulty and complication. So if you fit the stereotype as defined by others, as many Asians do, they put you in a box and give you math problems to solve. And if you break from the stereotype, as many Asians do, they might say, as they did to Eddie Huang "You have a lot of opinions for an Asian guy." You're damned either way. Unless you are a very good and very adept, you're going to struggle. And the percentage of people who are adept in this way is going, by necessity, to be lower than the percentage who manage to do well on tests.

This is a kind of "post-racial racism" that I find fascinating. I told you about myself as a set up for the section in which I showed how it applied to me, despite my disavowal of these values for myself. I don't have Asian values, but I do have an Asian Poker Face. Not all Asian people have Asian Poker Faces. But as it turns out, I do. And this Asian Poker Face really was acting as a barrier to trust and acceptance by people who thought my demeanor meant one thing when it really was just my ordinary Asian face.

Lastly, I want to clear up something about my alleged "bitter loserdom." I am not a bitter loser. I am, in fact, more successful in my chosen field than the Korean is in his. Writing is poorly paid, and often involves a period of financial hardship at the beginning. It is a field in its way, just as competitive as finance or law. My period of hardship lasted way too long. But I've been doing well over the last three years and, with my contributing editorship at New York Magazine, and the recent sale of my last feature for New York to Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures, I've been doing even better this year. Writing is not steady work with a steady income, but once you've made it, it gets a lot easier. I now have a strong voice and a visible platform, and I can do and say what I want, which is all I ever wanted out of life.

So, during the years when the Korean was racking up tons of law school debt, and working 70 hour weeks to pay it down, I was leading a confused bohemian existence in which I was poor and unhappy and during which I both bitterly regretted not becoming a well-paid white collar worker, and remained determined to make it on my own terms as a writer. For the last three years, I've been making it on my own terms as a writer, with the expectation of more success to come. I also have a wonderful girlfriend. So, things have worked out for me.

I'm not saying this because I want to brag or compare my happiness to the Korean's. He's making six figures, and has a happy family and beautiful wife. We're both Korean American success stories. Hard work and discipline contributed to my success as surely as it did his. But, in the end, a certain cultural brashness contributed to my success even more than hard work did. That's just the fact. I respect his success and would never write anything designed to tear it down. In fact, I would celebrate it. I say in my piece that there are areas of Asian-American devoid of alienation. If he and his friends live there -- great. But I also say, contrary to the Model Minority stereotype that says that Asian people have no problems and face no racial obstacles, we do still have the Bamboo Ceiling, which ensnares many, and we do have this weird William Hung-style baggage that affixes to men. These problems might seem silly and inconsequential to people who view them from a distance, but to the people who are living these problems, they can really suck.

So, all the people who are saying that my piece is a bitter loser blaming Asian values for my failure are simply missing the point, and distracting from the real issues my story raises, which I think is a shame. I'm not a loser, and since I never embraced Asian values in my life, I can't possibly, and thus do not blame them for anything having to do with my life, either good or ill.

I do, however, know that having an Asian face -- an Asian Poker Face -- definitely had something to do with protracting the length of the period of social alienation I endured. I did not go through three years without a woman only because I was Asian. I went three years without a woman because I was poor, and struggling, and unhappy, and alienated, and too proud. That's all obvious and present in my piece. But you know what? During all that time, I was nevertheless always a strong, healthy, well-educated, well-spoken, variously talented man in the prime of my adulthood, and dudes like that, if they are white, even if they are total losers, or assholes, or drunks, or drug-addicts, or on a half-dozen psychotropic drugs, always have some girl wiling to bed them in this city where I live in and everyone knows it. And that's just reality too. So would I have gone three years without touching a woman if I were white instead of Asian? Of course I would not have. I'm sorry, but it's true. And thus I understand well enough what the 26-year old Asian virgin is facing, as do must Asian American men who are not in denial.

That's why I had empathy for the people whose stories I told in my piece, and that's why I thought an inquiry into the social dynamics that disfavor them, and me, and all of us Asians, was worth doing. I think it's sad but not that surprising that the people who have the least empathy for these guys and want to dump the most contempt on them are other Asian people. And I think it's sad, and paranoid, that so many Asian people think that my inquiry into these issues was an attack on them personally, and I think it's grossly ironic, though not at all surprising, that these are the same people that are calling my honest, vulnerable, painstaking self-accounting in my piece solipsistic or narcissistic. These people should spend a little more time regarding themselves in the mirror.

All this said, I enjoyed reading the Korean's response to my piece. Something that all people who think Asians are nerds and weaklings that they can pick on with impunity sometimes discover to their detriment is that Korean men, in particular, are angry, violent people who will fight and fight dirty.

So I think in certain ways, the Korean and I are more similar than we are different, in that we are both combative Korean men, even if he is a corporate lawyer married to a Korean violinist and I am a freelance writer dating a Jewish journalist. I just want to point out that the Korean's anger is totally misdirected, fratricidal, and aimed at a person who is on his side, which also makes him, in the end, also a very typical Korean.


The Korean said...


I posted a brief reaction, and some observations as to why we have our disagreement:

oranges said...

Wesley. I just wanted to comment and thank you from the bottom of my heart for both your original article and this one. I have been reading 20-30 online articles per week for the past 8 to 9 years and, never before has an article addressed the Asian American man's experience (my experience) as honestly and completely as your did. Before reading your article, I could reasonably have expected to go through the rest of my life without ever seeing some of these issues dredged up from the margins or our marginal existence in white society and published. Needless to say, your New York piece really spoke to me, and this one only confirmed my impression. Thank you so much for your writing.