The word “coolie” comes to us from a Chinese term for “bitter labor,” and in Park Avenue law firms to this day there is an assumption that the heirs of these immigrants are the ones to be given the grunt work. White people in the same firms, says law professor and writer Tim Wu, manage to float above that, to seem like officers rather than cannon fodder, managers rather than minions. Guess who gets promoted to partner and who doesn’t? “The loudest duck gets shot,” is a Chinese proverb. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is a Japanese analogue. In English, we say, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
In a culture soaked with identity-based grievance, it might be satisfying to blame simple racism for the relative absence of Asian-Americans from positions of power in American life. According to one study, only about 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and 2 percent of college presidents are Asian-Americans. Even in Silicon Valley, where Asian-Americans are about a third of the engineers, they hold only 6 percent of board seats.
Considering these disparities, Wesley Yang, in his astute and frequently pained essay collection The Souls of Yellow Folk, declines to point the finger in favor of peering into the mirror. He notes that 80 percent of Asian-American office workers queried in one poll said they were treated as individuals rather than lumped unfairly into a group. Asian-American students who were asked to list traits associated with their ethnicity, and then to list qualities associated with leadership, were dismayed to note that there was little overlap between the two lists.
Asian-Americans should do what Yang has done and consider the importance of behavioral assimilation. That can start with something as simple as smiling: Yang, who looks dour in his author photo, himself acknowledges needing to work on this. Those who present faces of stone in the workplace or in social situations are sometimes incorrectly assumed by others to be discontented or angry or bubbling with secret grudges. A Williams College graduate who fears being stereotyped but understands why that happens tells Yang, “I’m trying to undo 18 years of a Chinese upbringing.” Challenging established modes of doing things, questioning authority, and seeking out risk don’t always come easily to the children of tiger moms.
Yang considers how Asians excel at brute-force methods for breaking into the most meritocratic precincts of our culture. If Harvard’s admissions process were strictly meritocratic, and merit were defined exclusively by test results, its undergraduate student body might look a lot like that of New York City’s famed Stuyvesant High School: around 72 percent Asian-American. Yang notes that striving neighborhoods full of first- and second-generation immigrants from China and Korea are studded with test-prep centers where tutors say things like “learning math is not about learning math. It’s about weightlifting. You are pumping the iron of math.” Harvard could fill every slot with unsmiling, silent, anti-social automatons who got perfect scores on everything. But would Harvard still be Harvard then? Malcolm Gladwell pondered the question in a 2005 New Yorker piece and concluded:
The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. . . . [But] Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.
The importance Harvard places on intangible factors like “personality” harms Asians as a class, as Yang has himself movingly written in condemning the university’s admissions criteria. Yet there is such a thing as a well-rounded person whom others want to work with, and for. And there is such a thing as a humorless, rote study-bot who can’t or won’t play well with others — maybe can’t or won’t play at all.
Yang’s book isn’t entirely focused on such questions — a middle section consists of fairly routine magazine profiles of celebrated figures such as the historians Francis Fukuyama and Tony Judt — but he’s at his best when articulating the predicament of a “model minority” who nevertheless feels the yearnings and frustrations of outsider status. Asians enjoy much higher than average levels of education and income despite being (in the phrase turned into a novel and eventually a TV series by one of Yang’s subjects, Eddie Huang), “fresh off the boat.” Yet in the marketplace of dating, many Asian men feel utterly bewildered. This inability to crack the cultural codes, Yang finds, was a powerful force of alienation in the psyche of Seung-Hui Cho, the Korean-American Virginia Tech mass murderer who killed 32 people before turning a gun on himself. “What if you’re the loser whom everyone is shutting out?” asks Yang, in a devastating and profound character study that opens the book. “You wake to find yourself one of the disadvantaged of the fully liberated sexual marketplace.”
A less alarming, but still saddening, inability to make human connections is at the heart of Yang’s inquiries into the seduction techniques taught in seminars and in books such as Neil Strauss’s The Game. Those who seek such tutelage get mocked as Don Juanabees, but Yang finds its component of self-reappraisal useful. As it goes when trying to meet women, so it goes in the office or in other group settings — “Don’t be the guy trying to look all serious and deep,” advises a pick-up artist in Yang’s essay “Game Theory.” In a seemingly unrelated piece, “Paper Tigers,” Yang notes, “If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, no one will respect that, or find it intriguing . . . they will simply write you off as someone not worth the trouble of talking to.” Sullen, studious solitude is not the path to a fulfilling life.