Breaking from the Hive

by syaffolee

With all the stereotypes that people heap on Asians, it’s a wonder that they don’t use the metaphor of a swarm of bees rather than a tiger.  Then again, most metaphor makers don’t worry too much about biology.  Anyways, there is so much to say in response to Wesley Yang’s thoughtful essay, Paper Tigers, on the Bamboo Ceiling and the downsides to being the so-called model minority.  But this quote pretty much encapsulates my own frustrations about being caught between two cultures:

If we are a collective juggernaut that inspires such awe and fear, why does it seem that so many Asians are so readily perceived to be, as I myself have felt most of my life, the products of a timid culture, easily pushed around by more assertive people, and thus basically invisible?

My own response to that rhetorical question is mostly cranky: If I seem invisible to other people, it’s because they haven’t been effin’ paying attention.  It doesn’t matter how much I, or anyone else for that matter, jump and scream–if other people don’t put in the effort to listen rather than jabber on endlessly about themselves, we’re going to remain invisible.

For me this is complicated by something a lot of grad students and academics, regardless of race, suffer from: the imposter syndrome.  This makes me feel guilty and I end up putting in longer hours at work in an attempt to assuage that guilt.  I’ve been called “a robot” or “a machine” and while I pretty much blow off those problematic nicknames, it makes me wonder what I’m doing or not doing to enjoy life.  But if push comes to shove, I’m just going to keep doing whatever the hell I want whether people think I’m a maverick or a conformist.

Oh sure, there is a lot about my childhood that could be described as stereotypically Asian.  But then again, I didn’t live in places where there were tons of other Asians around.  (And when there were other Asians around, they were usually much, much smarter than me.)  I never studied for standardized tests (unless you count flipping through test prep books for about 20 minutes the day before as studying) and I wasn’t particularly diligent in practicing for my music lessons.  I sucked at memorization.  I didn’t do my homework until the last minute, to my parents’ consternation.  I managed to do okay in school despite not doing things that I should have done.

I finally met a substantial number of other Asians my age when I went to college.  And frankly, at first, it was kind of alienating.  There was the group, of course, who wanted to become doctors and engineers (and the ones who decided science wasn’t for them decided to become lawyers).  Virtually every Asian biology major I knew were pre-meds, making me feel like the ultimate rebel for wanting to go to grad school.  And then there was the other group who seemed to be suffering existential angst every other day–torn between what their parents wanted them to do and what they wanted to do.  And if they weren’t conforming to the stereotype of nose-to-the-grindstone Asian, they were conforming to the stereotype of moody and mentally unstable artist.

I’ve never really felt part of either group.  For someone who is supposedly from a collectivist culture, I really disdain the thought that fitting in should be the best policy.  If I seem like I’m fitting in, I assure you that I’m only doing it for me, not anyone else.  One could make the argument that I’ve been westernized–I’m no follower, but I don’t want to strive (deliberately) for that top dog position either.  Mostly, I’m in my own “screw it” camp–just do whatever I like and what I find interesting without too much concern about societal expectation and neurotic flakery.

My philosophy on surviving as a minority in a society with western mores mirrors Yang’s except with a heavy dose of practicality.  One would have to follow the rules to some extent if one wants a roof over one’s head and food on the dinner table.  But after that, one is free to do anything to alter and enhance that basic level of comfort, happiness, and fulfillment.  What I don’t agree with is the notion that success can only be achieved if you are willing to push yourself into the spotlight and make noise–particularly if all you’re doing is following someone else’s formula to do it.  Success can be measured in a variety of ways other than the size of your bank account, your status in the corporate hierarchy or whether your name is on everyone’s lips.