My mom recently went to DC to give a lecture on ADHD in the Asian American community.
One of her colleagues in the audience sent her the following article:
The piece started with an intriguing question:
What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?
which was predicated on a very thought-provoking observation:
“But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it.”
At this point, I was ready for the article to start talking about during or after college these guys find that their lives simply stall, or at best plateau. The cause? The abrupt removal of parental pressure keeping accelerator pressed to the floor and of academic structure keeping the steering wheel straight. Without these, these men find themselves coasting along directionless at best, stalled and/or lost at worst.
Instead, the article swerved towards listing the typical complaints of the “traditional Asian” household:
“When you grow up in a[n Asian] home,” he says, “you don’t talk. You shut up and listen to what your parents tell you to do.”
and ultimately devolves into just another victimization narrative:
Huang had a rough twenties, bumping repeatedly against the Bamboo Ceiling. In college, editors at the Orlando Sentinel invited him to write about sports for the paper. But when he visited the offices, “the editor came in and goes, ‘Oh, no.’ And his exact words: ‘You can’t write with that face.’ ” Later, in film class at Columbia, he wrote a script about an Asian-American hot-dog vendor obsessed with his small penis. “The screenwriting teacher was like, ‘I love this. You have a lot of Woody Allen in you. But do you think you could change it to Jewish characters?’ ” Still later, after graduating from Cardozo School of Law, he took a corporate job, where other associates would frequently say, “You have a lot of opinions for an Asian guy.”
What could have been a searing, soul-searching introspection turned instead a litany of cliche grievances:
- blame your parents
- blame university racial quotas
- blame the white-alpha-male paradigm
- blame anybody but yourself
Bitch, bitch, bitch. Whine, whine, whine. Bitch-moan, bitch-moan, bitch-moan.
Of all the characters in the article – the author included – the only one who demonstrated any agency over his environment was the pick-up artist.
Where Are They Now?
A more interesting angle – or at least, the one I was expecting – would have been to play it like an E! True Hollywood Story profile. You know, where they take former child stars who faded from the limelight as adults, showing how they dissipated into alcohol and memories of faded glory. Think Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone or Haley Joel Osment from The 6th Sense but with SAT scores instead of Oscar nominations.
“These bright starlets showed so much promise as children – where are they now?”
For instance, the version from my life might have charted my descent from high school 2nd degree black belt karate instructor with some stupid number of AP classes to college where, absent parental pressure, I failed class after class until I found myself on academic probation.
Then jumping forward 8 years, finding myself adrift in London: overweight, overworked, stressed and depressed from a job where I was promoted to Vice President at a company whose business I didn’t understand and in an industry that was slowly imploding.
Both phenomena can be traced to the sudden loss of drive (parental pressure) and direction (academic linearity). And I agree with the article that this trajectory is probably common among Asian American males.
But where I disagree with the article is in deflecting the blame on these external factors: parents, colleagues, female norms of attractiveness, etc. I’m not saying these aren’t real factors, but that they’re irrelevant. The article is denying ownership of these problems, which in turn denies agency to fix it.
In my case, I was sick of my job, sick of my city, and sick of my life in London. But when I acknowledged that this job/city/life were mine and mine alone, I recognized the option of walking away from it all. Which is what I did: quit my job, went backpacking for a year, and blogged the shit out of it.
Solutions are possible only insofar as one takes ownership of the problem.