I’m asian. there’s no denying that. But I used to.
I didn’t know I was different until my first day of kindergarten. My kindergarten teacher mispronounced my name. It was supposed to be pronounced ‘T’ not ‘thigh’. After correcting my teacher, the kids with names such as David and Joey, still laughed at both pronunciations. The possibility that someone’s name would be of an inanimate object or of an alphabet letter was apparently funny to everyone but me. All of a sudden I felt a feeling I had never felt before. I felt uncomfortable. I felt I didn’t belong.
For a brief moment, I decided to abandon my name for something more common, such as Jennifer. There were already 3 other Jennifers in the class, I would fit right in.
In hindsight, this was not a quick fix, nor a plausible one. I didn’t look like the other Jennifers. I looked like an alien. I was also severely shy in class. Afraid of even approaching the teacher, many assumed that I did not know English. My mother was a 2nd grade teacher so by the time I was four, I was already reading at 1st grade level. But because of the way I looked, or the name I had, I was erroneously shepherded into the ESL class.
I was born and raised in america. But i was born from Vietnamese immigrants. There was a constant struggle between my two different lives – my Vietnamese roots at home versus my American influences outside. Growing up, all I wanted was to belong, and it seemed impossible to really belong to both worlds. I had to make a choice. Because I watched a lot of tv, the American influence was much more attractive than the traditional Asian route. So it wasn’t surprising when I chose to affiliate myself with the American side. However, unbeknownst to me, my definition of American automatically equated to a white man. The predominant images from the media that bombarded me were of white people. The characters that I related to and aimed to become one day were of white males. I had a crush on Zach Morris, I wanted Doug Funnie as my best friend and I emulated Harrison Ford. I was a tom boy, fuck being a girl. I was white (loving mcdonalds, hating fobs), fuck being Asian. I was determined to assimilate as much as I could to the prevalent/powerful image I saw — a white man, essentially denying my Asianness.
And then when I finally decided to commit myself to a career in acting, where physical looks are very much weighed in for the type of roles you could get or will get, it was disconcerting when I quickly noticed that there is barely a demand for asian women. Casting listings have tons of male roles. It seemed to me that out of 20 roles to be filled, 19 of them would go to males, and only 1 role was for a woman. And usually it was a call for a Caucasian woman or a star name only. And IF there was a call for a non Caucasian woman, i.e. an ethnic woman, I would be up against a black woman or a latina. There are days where I wish I looked anything but an ethnic/Asian woman so that the odds of me succeeding in this business increases even just a little.
And when I wish this, I feel defeated. There’s no demand for me, there’s barely any north stars that I can follow, I should just pack it up and go home. When I get to this negative, hopeless feeling, I am doing a disservice to myself. I am literally setting up limitations and paralyzing myself from succeeding. I am placing a bamboo ceiling in my way.
So I’ve just finished this book called “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling” by Jane Hyun. It points out that there is a disconnect between the assumption that Asian Americans are the “model minority” — that they thrive under pressure and excel in their careers, and the reality — where many Asian Americans enter the professional workforce but rarely do they make it to the corner offices.
Alright, so I’m not trying to make it big in the corporate executive world. But I saw this book as a chance to not only understand why I place certain limitations upon myself, but also to learn how to break this nasty habit!
So first, understanding the problem:
Asian cultural values : collectivism, maintenance of interpersonal harmony, reciprocity, placing others’ needs ahead of one’s own, deference to authority figures, importance of family, avoidance of family shame, educational and occupational achievement, ability to resolve psychological problems, filial piety, conformity to family and social norms, self-effacement, self-control/restraint, respect for elders and ancestors (8).
Mainstream western values: spontaneity/casualness, acceptability of questioning authority, promotion of personal accomplishments, tough/individualistic/authoritative leadership (25).
Reading this book made me even more aware that the problem was not just skin deep. Why am I so against networking? Or self promoting myself, or even speaking up if I have a problem? Why can’t I express myself effectively to get noticed? To be remembered? Such qualities are keys to gaining a foothold in Hollywood. My Asian cultural values that have been ingrained in me since birth were at odds with the mainstream Western values that surround me everyday.
Ok, so what do I do about it?
The key lessons I learned from the book are:
Know yourself and how others see you: understand your skills, strengths, areas of improvement, blind spots, and cultural values. Self-awareness is the first and most important step in breaking your bamboo ceiling.
Understand how Confucian values might present challenges in a socratic world: asian culture tends to emphasize harmony, collectivism, and self-control, while mainstream western culture values individual achievement and questioning authority.
Maintain the best of your Asian values: don’t be afraid to be yourself. Seek to keep the richness and depth of your asian heritage, and introduce your knowledge to others – food, culture, family values, respect for authority and traditions – while letting them know how fully american you are. Don’t let the negatives your cultural values stand in your way of success, but do take pride in your background. Your ethnicity shapes who you are, and you must lead in a way that is true to yourself. Your unique stamp will enrich workplace interactions (267).
BE YOURSELF. The after school specials fucking knew it all along!!! No shit Thi, be yourself, be loud and proud that I am who I’am today. The author even takes it further and says,
Many Asian Americans’ potential remains untapped in the workplace, and a company that can look past cultural barriers to harness the underlying diverse talents will excel in this increasingly complex and global marketplace. As an Asian American, it’s your responsibility to take charge of your career, by understanding what you have to offer, determining what skills you need to get ahead, and then learning the skills. Tooting your own horn, speaking up in meetings, asking for a promotion, questioning business decisions, and making your career aspirations known, all in you own style of relating, are examples of developing new skills in the workplace. They have nothing to do with undermining your cultural values and everything to do with operating flexibly in a competitive work environment. … Develop the critical qualities of flexibility and resilience early; they will always serve you well. Be creative about leveraging your identified strengths, including your cultural assets, so that you can achieve your career and life goals (272).
Hollywood could benefit with my added flavor to the mix. I just have to have the courage to be myself. I just have to be the fucking change I want to see in the world.