Note: These views are entirely my own, based on my observations and my own anecdotal evidence while growing up in a predominantly Chinese family and environment. Though I am half-Chinese, I don’t pretend to know everything about Chinese and Asians and their experience as minorities in this country.
Dear Mr. Kristof:
Since you published your piece ‘The Asian Advantage’, you have gotten a lot of feedback and criticism on your overly generalized and white biased views on Asian American academic achievement in America and why they outpace other minorities and even white kids.
Right now you in need of a good “read” from someone and I appointed myself to be that someone.
In fact, you needed to be handed a good “reading” a long time ago, but I resisted because I know deep down you are trying to do good with the power of your pen and platform as a well known journalist. I know that your white-washed and over-generalized views are just a product of your race, upbringing and how you view the world, which is through the lense of a privileged, heterosexual, white male. Because you frequently acknowledge your privilege and you try to use your privilege to do good for not just people here at home but for the underprivileged all around the world, I resisted the urge to give you a “reading”. But after your last mis-informed piece about Asian-American achievement, I can no longer resist.
Just like the black experience in America, one must be black to fully appreciate what it’s like to be black in America. To face racial prejudice daily, ugly stereotypes about your morals, ethics and intelligence, not the least your own personal safety when just going about your daily business. The same is true for Asian-Americans (to be very clear, I am not equating the Asian-American experience with the black experience at all, I am just making an analogy). You cannot know what challenges Asian-Americans face just by virtue of your proximity to the Chinese-American community. You will forever be an outsider looking in.
A well intentioned white male such as yourself, even with your deep ties to the Chinese-American community and with your broad knowledge of Chinese culture when compared with your other white peers does not make you an automatic expert on Asian-American issues. First of all, we have a geography problem we need to address first. The term Asian-American is a term assigned to all persons of Asian origin who live in America. Asian-Americans have been reduced to a mass monolith. The people you (collective white people) refer to as ‘Asian’ covers peoples who originated from India, through China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and every country in between, roughly half of humanity on this earth. Half of this earth’s humanity have been reduced to ‘Asian-Americans’, have you any idea how insulting this sounds? The variety of cultures, languages, dialects, local customs, cuisines and traditions which originate from this vast land mass and what people refer to as ‘Asia’ is so enormous, to even attempt to lump them together as one ‘Asian-American’ monolith is farcical. Would you lump Bulgaria and Germany together and refer to them as the ‘European Peoples’ just because they reside on the same continent and share similar facial features and skin color?
Next, to the subject of your column, which is about Asian-American achievement, particularly in the STEM fields, which you attribute to positive stereotyping, because we are expected to do well in math and sciences, so voila, magically we do because we need to fulfil that stereotype (oh how I wish that were true, it would make my life so much easier). This is supposedly based on research and science, but I defy any researcher or scientist worth his or her salt to sign his or her name on such general finding. Never mind the fact that in any given race, population or ethnic group, you naturally have people who are gifted in the arts, humanities or math and sciences. And we don’t need science or a research to tell us that. What you also don’t realize is that behind that achievement is a lot of relentless and unnecessary pressure on young Asian-Americans. Many young Asian-Americans have been driven to despair due to the relentless pressure (by parents and now society) to perform well academically. If they don’t perform well academically, it’s not only letting their parents down but now society’s ‘perception’ of them. Only after all this hard work and ‘achievement’, they are to be held back in their careers by the ‘bamboo ceiling’.
Writing a piece such as you just did does not only add more the pressure to some Asian-Americans (as if their parents breathing down their throats isn’t enough) but you also diminish the other achievements of Asian-Americans who are not in the STEM fields. Asian-Americans are artists, writers, poets, business owners, restaurateurs, fashion designers, homemakers and yes, engineers too. Talking about Asian-American ‘achievement’ within the confines of the narrative of immigrant or minority achievement allows the Establishment to overlook the problems of discrimination and racism that Asian-American still face today.
You claim in your piece that you don’t seek to generalize. You understand that there are different achievement gaps amongst the different groups of Asian-Americans. But the fact that you wrote about this very complex subject on your weekly column, where you are allowed a finite number of inches, shows that you are still generalizing. Asian-Americans, especially the high academic achievers, this constant mention of ‘The Asian Advantage’ or ‘Model Minority’ obscures the challenges Asian-Americans face. It leads the not-so-well informed public to believe because Asian-Americans are high achievers academically, even at times out performing white people, then they must have no challenges and face no racial barriers in the corporate world and that is far from the case.
Finally, the below exchange took place at an elementary school in Northern California (a very diverse part of the state). The Chinese children here were being mocked by their white classmates. Apparently people still find this sort of thing ‘funny’.
The truth is, with all other factors being equal, if the Asian student gets better grades and is ten times smarter than the white student, the white student will likely still get ahead sooner and earn more during his lifetime than the Asian student. Unless this type of inequality is addressed and pay equality is legislated across all genders, race, ethnicity and country of origin, all the academic achievement in the world is just a piece of paper.