Reading “Battle Hymn” and “Triple Package” (review to follow) have made me look inward in the past few weeks.
The status of “immigrant” is like a layer of clothing we immigrants constantly have to attend. Does it fit? Is it the right fabric and color? Is there a point when I can shed it? Is there a way to shed it that doesn’t offend anyone, least of all my fellow country folk? (indeed, why should it offend anyone?) My “Chinese-ness” only became an “issue” when I came to the States. This extra layer of status gives immigrants, like me, an abundance of self-awareness that isn’t always our best friend, but it usually offers us extra strength if we learn to use it to our advantage. Of course, how is the key.
Amy Chua wants to define that how in her brand of “tiger parenting.” As I said in the previous post, her principles sound familiar but the extent of application of these principles is unfamiliar. I made two points in my notebook: 1. If Asians are so outstanding all the way through their highest degrees, why haven’t Asians taken over every aspect of the American workforce? 2. I wonder if the answer to this question lies in the weak socialization of ABC (American Born Chinese). If most Asian parents discourage their children from socializing with the “weak and loose” American children, then when these ABCs eventually go into workforce, they would have difficulties negotiating the subtle relational, emotional, and social milieu. They could not have acquired these negotiation skills in their lifetime of rote learning. Might this be one reason for the “bamboo ceiling?”
Wesley Yang, an American of Korean immigrant parents, echoes my questions and offers his observations in the article, “Paper Tigers, (link below)” in New York Magazine. This lengthy article offers much more than what “Battle Hymn” does, and what’s more, Wesley Yang writes better. It’s not as if “Paper Tigers” is written using serene or detached language while “Battle Hymn” is too much in your face: In one single passage, Yang uses more F words than all the implicit curses Chua offers. “Paper Tigers” is more in depth and offers many more dimensions of Asian immigrants for us to think about. “Battle Hymn,” by comparison, is almost cartoon-like yet vividly painful. (The funny parts are funny only in caricature, but not in their literal painting of the misery for the Chinese parent and the anguish of the daughters.) Of all the reviews of “Battle Hymn,” the non-review article by Yang offers the most well-reasoned perspective of Chua’s personal journey and perspective. “Chua’s Chinese education had gotten her through an elite schooling, but it left her unprepared for the real world…more than anything else, ‘Battle Hymn’ is a very American project – one no traditional Chinese person would think to undertake.”
I was not a traditional immigrant with a “tiger mom” on my heels, nor a second-generation child with an “immigrant tiger mom” bearing down on me. I came to this country when I was fairly young, to finish my undergraduate education. My mother was a mixture of tiger and otter; she was in my life but several states away. My older sisters were nearby but usually left me alone. I ditched computer science – seemingly the favorite choice of Chinese — as soon as I could and went straight to social sciences…almost as bad as an “English” major in the Chinese culture. I defied Wharton’s traditional quantitative study and embraced qualitative method whole-heartedly (and was recognized for it). In retrospect, I wonder if my “choice” of declining the conventional tenure-track professorial career was my way of ducking the issue of needing to fight twice as hard to earn tenure, as an Asian woman doing qualitative study in a predominately quantitative profession. I don’t know; it’s moot.
My way of “fighting” has always been nibbling at the edge, and perhaps that’s why I write in a “balanced” manner, unlike Chua’s bold style. Is my way the “Asian” way or “my” way? Sometimes, I feel like I am still exploring the answer to this question.
One of the perennial issues for immigrants is assimilation. Personally, it wasn’t until I allowed myself to be comfortable with/confident in/ being assimilated that I was able to discern the cross-cultural boundaries. By this I mean, in order to feel comfortable being both an “American” and a “Chinese” simultaneously, I need to be well immersed in both cultures so that I can pick my way around different cultural issues and values. For me, being cross-cultural is more liberating than being bounded by one particular culture. I love my Chinese art, food, and folklore, but I don’t like Confucius (I always blame him for advocating conformity). I love American sense of freedom and the liberty to explore (both within myself and my external environment) and define my own identity.
As I have understood these preferences, I have become more comfortable with being “American,” in the sense that I welcome and embrace the free space that I can create for myself, something not easily available in the Chinese culture. If this means surrendering aspects of being a Chinese, I am at peace. For better or for worse (mostly it’s been “for better”), I feel comfortable in my skin, without apology, especially not to anyone wholly unrelated to me.
I never envisioned taking up writing as I have done over the last few years. The “column” format definitely has given me the opening to do so. One of the reasons I eschewed the conventional academe was the writing style – not only was I expected to conform, but the format itself stifles me. Growing up in Taiwan imposed enough conforming that “doing by the book” is an automatic red flag for me, even though as a child I was able to “get away” with a great deal, what with being the youngest and totally spoiled by family friends.
My niche is small. I will never be able to write in ways I have admired in other writers. I can never paint in a carefree manner. I am not even sure of my “creativity.” My social science background has allowed me to appreciate others’ works, ground-breaking or otherwise, but I no longer have the patience to do in-depth social studies. In these respects, my struggles, angst, doubt, and spiritual needs are very similar to other people, of all backgrounds. That’s why Wesley Yang’s piece — and his conclusion about himself, written more eloquently than I can ever provide – speaks to my heart and soul. “Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life…I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.”
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
Direct Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.