The New York Magazine just published Wesley Yang’s lengthy, fascinating and sure to be controversial piece on Asian-American males. It’s entitled “Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?”
Here, Constant Gaw, a second generation Asian American, shares his reaction.
Speaking plainly, I was floored by Yang’s piece. This is a conversation-starter that needed to happen.
I can absolutely relate to what he writes about, with the exception that I’ve taken a more optimistic path through life, rather than dwell in bitterness. Everything he’s talking about here actually happens: the social difficulties, work dynamics, difficulties with women – this shit is for real. I’ve hit each of these elements at various points in my life, and I’ve realized that any success I’ve had in those arenas has been due to an overcoming of the natural tendencies I carried into adulthood. Now, I want to be clear that I’m not writing to vilify the tiger-mothers or dragon-ladies or whatever other idiotic, zodiac-appropriate term is in vogue. Anyone that beats their child for getting an “A-” on a paper or demands nothing less than aneurysm-inducing levels of success will not get a gold star from me. But, away from the extremes of Asian parenting is a relevant, shared experience and I think Yang’s article touched on it.
I should clarify that while I don’t typify the “tiger-raised” Asian-American by any means, the roots of cultural tradition indeed run fucking deep, and they get expressed in ways that can be quite undetectable to the self at times. Learning to socialize well with a broad spectrum of white people was a long process, and in many ways is still something I’m working on these days. That may seem like a bizarre thing to read if you know me, but the truth is that with every stage of your life as a minority, you expose yourself to racial dynamics that are slightly different from the last stage. What worked before may not be as relevant in the present moment, and unlearned socializations can emerge later to assert their significance.
Dating, too, was something that only happened after I had acclimated enough to a broader culture. Even today, despite having dated primarily non-Asian women, I often still feel some measure of intimidation when approaching them. Why? Because it’s hard to overcome the feeling that you’re at an inherent cultural and perceptual disadvantage, and that messes with your confidence. It’s already difficult enough for a “tiger-child” to learn to be socially confident, but it’s a whole another business to have to project that onto someone that has already bought into the stereotype of your social ineptitude.
Recently, I started dating a Chinese woman who also defies the tiger-child template. Surprisingly, she, too, subjected me to the sort of instant stereotyping more often associated with white preconception, except in reverse. Because I was affable, expressive and playful, she immediately thought of me as a very white-washed dude. After we went on a few more dates, she began to see other sides of me that complicated that perception; I actually had to “earn” back my Asian-ness, in a sense. It’s amazing how widely the stereotypes of Asian culture, rightly earned or not, have been disseminated.
The corporate aspect of the Asian-American experience is also something that I’ve become a lot more conscious of over the last few years. I, too, naively believed that I had found an industry that functioned as closely as possible to a pure meritocracy and would be devoid of all politics, but of course I was incorrect. While I’ve had some frustrations, I’ve ultimately adopted a more pragmatic view of office jockeying. Being “forced” to socialize in the work environment and assert yourself in ways that feel unnatural may be something to rightly rail against, but those approaches are ultimately successful because humans are humans and there are certain dynamics that hold true and operate the way they do regardless of your feelings on the matter. Rather that sulk, I strive to adopt the patterns of behavior that are strategic, while consciously avoiding transformation into a douchebag (or, at least, into someone that feels quite divorced from who I truly am).
After reading Yang’s article, it became clear to me that the most relevant debate isn’t whether or not the essential dynamics he describes are true, but rather how we confront them. He, for better or worse, is the consummate artist: isolated, misunderstood, and reveling in the righteousness that comes from maintaining that purity. I actually completely relate to him when he describes the patterns he sees and says, “Fuck this, I refuse to give in.” He’s an angry, bitter idealist. A part of me wants to live like him, but I ultimately know that’s not a route that leads to happiness or the kind of fulfillment I seek.
Just as the less-deserving alpha-male prospers in life by knowing which rules to break and which to follow, so must the artist learn to part with his idealism (at least on occasion), or risk being devoured by a inescapable singularity of his own making. He’ll look glorious while doing so, but no-one will ever see it. And then he’ll be gone.
Constant Gaw is a video game designer living in Southern California and is perfectly happy with the way his tiger mamma raised him.