Problematic Tigers

SteelyKid is, as I have noted previously, half Korean, a quarter Polish, and an eighth each Irish and German. Her parents are irreligious, the extended family is Catholic (more so on my side than Kate's), and she goes to day care at the Jewish Community Center. In other words, a thoroughly American sort of upbringing. I can't wait to see what she finds to rebel against when she hits the teenage years.

For no obvious reason, three of the four kids she's most likely to play with on the playground when I pick her up in the evening (we play at the JCC for a while before going home, to give Kate time to get home and change clothes and stuff) have parents whose primary language at home is not English. Earlier this week, another parent asked me if Kate spoke another language, wondering how SteelyKid dealt with the bilingual thing; I explained that Kate's really from Boston, and we're a monolingual household. SteelyKid makes up for that by talking twice as much as any of her playmates.

(Seriously, she chatters almost constantly, with a wonderful sort of free-associative quality to it. The other day she asked what a large brown piece of paper in one of the classrooms was, and I said that it was some sort of art project, but I didn't know what it was. She looked at it for a minute, then said, "It's probably going to turn into a bear." Which was the start of a five-minute monologue about how it wasn't going to be a big scary bear with sharp teeth but a little tiny bear, not scary, and how the bear would play with her and her friends. It's a little like my own personal Axe Cop every afternoon.)

Anyway, this is the kind of thing I was thinking about when I followed a link from Steve Hsu to this New York Magazine piece by Wesley Yang about cultural obstacles to success for Asian-Americans. This obviously isn't a direct problem for me, but I wonder a bit about what sort of expectations people will put on SteelyKid as she gets older.

Unfortunately, I think it's a deeply, deeply problematic article.

The central idea of the piece is that many (mostly first-generation) Asian-Ammericans are brought up in a way that doesn't really fit with the dominant American culture. They do very well in school by dint of dilligent work, but don't pick up the informal social cues that are needed to really succeed in the business world. They unconsciously play into the negative stereotypes of Asians as "not really CEO material," and thus never reach the upper strata of the corporate world.

That's fine as far as it goes, and the sketches of people he talked to who suffer from these problems are very interesting. That part of the article is a moderately useful counter to the idiotic "Tiger Mother" panic that's been all the rage recently.

The problem comes when he starts talking about what to do about it. As Yang presents it, the only options are either a principled rejection of the entire idea of material success as defined by modern society, which is the route Yang has chosen for himself, or a path of total assimilation, exemplified by one of his interview subjects, a self-styled "Asian Playboy," who charges elite college students $1,500 for classes on, essentially, how to act like a white fraternity douchebag.

(Pro tip: a lot of self-help stuff becomes vastly more entertaining if you search and replace "alpha male" with "white fraternity douchebag." There's no significant loss of accuracy, either.)

There are so many things wrong with this that it's hard to know where to start. Regarding Yang's preferred route of principled failure, which he goes on about at tedious length, my main reaction is: "Congratulations on becoming a Beat poet." Only, you know, without the apparent skill at poetry. This is hardly an original solution to the problem.

Regarding the assimilation route, there's something really pathetically ironic about college students trying to get past the stereotype of being excessively academic overachievers by... taking a class. There's something faintly sadistic about the whole concept of that business. It makes me want to start up a counter-business in which for only $1,000 I'll come to your elite college and reassure you that it's okay not to act like a white fraternity douchebag.

Because, in the end, that's a pretty awful definition of "success." If the only options in your universe are "white fraternity douchebag" or "tediously self-righteous starving artist," you need to get out more. As noted elsewhere, Yang's article reflects a ridiculously impoverished view of not only what it means to be successful, but of the very ethnic group he's ostensibly speaking for. His picture of the problems of Asian-Americans is restricted to the problems of middle-to-upper-middle-class heterosexual male Asian-Americans, which is hardly the whole picture.

(It's also an absurdly limited view of white culture as being only the culture of wealthy fraternity douchebags. I was not notably more successful as a pick-up artist than the sad sacks shelling out a grand and a half for lessons, and I know plenty of white guys whose social skills are worse than mine. The stuff he holds out as the cultural default is actually a pretty limited subset of mainstream society as well.)

I would've liked to see something more constructive. Some suggestion of how to break or at least soften the dominance of a ridiculously limited elite class, and to take some of the benefits of the stereotypical Asian upbringing that Yang talks about and adapt them for the benefit of society as a whole. That is, after all, the whole point of all the multicultural diversity stuff that we're always pushing in the academy-- that the existence of different approaches and different worldviews enriches us all. The notion that the only ways to deal with the current structure of society is total acquiescence of one form or another is just too depressing for words.

And at the end of the day, there are more paths to success than being CEO of a major company. The fetishization of the executive suite is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems we have as a society these days. When making a gajillion dollars in business is the exclusive definition of success, you push huge numbers of people into doing things that aren't particularly healthy for them, and produce little or no real benefit to society as a whole. And taken to an extreme, it leads to the current economic mess, in which the white fraternity douchebags at the top of the heap broke the world econome for the rest of us.

There's more to life than amassing huge sums of money. I mean, I probably could've gone to Wall Street after graduating college-- I had the right credentials, and while I'm not going to be mistaken for a mathematician any time soon, I'm not frightened of numbers. I probably could've made a whole bunch of money, had I chosen to do so.

I didn't, because I'd rather be happy than rich. While I could almost certainly do the tasks required of a successful businessman, I wouldn't enjoy it. I like what I do now a whole lot, and we're not exactly wallowing in poverty.

I have some idea of how much work goes into making tons of money in the business/ finance world. If I were doing that, I'd miss out on a lot of stuff that I consider far more valuable. Like the other day when I was pushing SteelyKid on the swings, and she spotted the moon in the sky, and announced her intention to kick it, leading into a long and fanciful story about how she kicked the moon down from the sky onto the playground, and it rode on the merry-go round, and went down the slide, and then it was sad so she picked it up and threw it back up in the sky.

And I wouldn't trade that for a swimming pool full of $100 bills.

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I read that article, too. Another article on how to pick up women without all that messy of stuff of, you know, getting to know them or caring about them. They're just a proxy for the executive office. If you can pick up white women, you can be a CEO. Nice message.

From the point of view of a grandchild of Jewish immigrants, the article was rather funny. I couldn't help thinking of the old joke with three Jewish "tiger" mothers bragging:

Mom 1: My son is a lawyer. He makes $150,000 a year.
Mom 2: My son is a doctor. He makes $300,000 a year.
Mom 3: My son is a rabbi. He makes $50,000 a year.
Mom 1: Is that any job for a Jewish boy?

You even have the quotas at the top schools because Asians are great at "test" knowledge, but lack real world understanding. They aren't the right kind of people. You have the immigrant emphasis on professions, small businesses and being one's own boss, because a first generation immigrant is hard pressed to fit into American corporate culture.

Even more resonant, you have the hunt for the shiksa, that is, the great American blond girlfriend. The Woody Allen reference was, if anything, underplayed. His characters might have had active fantasy lives and a shiksa fixation, but they would never take the sleaze bag approach to getting the girl.

If Asian Americans are unable to pick up on informal social cues then so are all first generation immigrant children.

The parents can only teach what they know - how to navigate their own culture. It's just more obvious when the high achiever is Asian that they are a new-comer. Not so obvious if the parents are Portuguese or Romanian.

Add to the mix, these first generation children tend to cluster. My daughters best friends were born in Saudi Arabia and Somalia. What do they have in common? Parents that were willing to travel half-way around the world to start over, and who expect their kids to step up and make all the hard work worthwhile.

Another cultural difference Americans don't realize ... many immigrants do not believe that corporate success is the pinnacle of achievement. In my husband's culture there is no greater achievement than being an independent businessman.