A perspective look into what it means to be an (East) Asian-American in the United States today.
The original cultural, political, and social foundation of the United States, I would argue, did not expect any significant Asian population to reside within the confines of American borders. For roughly the first 150 years, America was a place where Asians were a (in comparison to other ethnicity/races) minuscule percentage of the population. It was not until immigration reform of 1765 did a larger and larger waves of Asians began to immigrate into the Unites States and the number of Asians in the States exceeded one million.
Granted, hundreds of thousands of people is an acknowledgeable size, but not one that would change the culture or affect expansive communities. With the increase of Asians in the sixties, seventies, even until today, this racial group faced a challenge which I argue is unique in comparison to others. There has been a significant white, black, and Latino presence within the United States since the 1700s, a presence that Asians were, understandably, not apart of based upon historical context.
Thus in search of a new life within the United States, as many come to the States for, many Asians, but especially their Asian-American children in particular, had and necessitated the opportunity to define their identity, culture, and values which were largely absent prior to the increase in the late twentieth century.
But they faced a problem. America really had no precedent for them to base their identity off of as other racial and ethnic groups did, no precedent as to who they are or who they would become. America was built, I would say, on a “black and white” system, not really referring to race or the color of one’s skin but in a metaphorical term, built on defined extremes. There are the poor, then the wealthy. There are the educated and uneducated, the healthy and the sick, the dependent and the independent, or liberals and the conservatives.
I think the Asian-American experience is one that similarly falls within these extremes. The question, however, is which direction to take. Understandably, a more positive direction—the desire for a better life—was taken. This I place on the white end of what I also believe is slowly became more of a spectrum in the United States, with the middle class, but is slowly fading away.
Before I delve into comparing Asians in America to other racial/ethnic groups, there are six races recognized in the U.S. They include: White, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Black/African-American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and also Multiracial. Notably absent is the commonly used term “Hispanic” or “Latino,” which is in fact considered an ethnic group as it so diverse. This ethnic group in and of itself is very racially diverse, thus does not constitute a “race.”
I argue that the inclusion of “Asian” as a race is, like “Hispanic” or “Latino,” incorrect. Taking any map or going online can easily show you the sprawling nature of the Asian continent. Granted, the term “Asian” in the United States is used to refer to people of origins from East Asia (including China, Korea, Japan), Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, various island nations, and more), as well as the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Nepal, and more), thus not referring to everyone of Asian (continent-wise) origin, but the diversity within this definition is difficult.
First I would point out that the modern usage and categories that make up the various races is archaic, offensive at times, and not inclusive. But that is a topic of another writing, perhaps.
Race is categorized. These categories are made up of people, differentiated simply by differences in biological, physical traits that are socially important. This is the definition of race I plan on working with, as it is the most accurate one that I believe I have come across (as with the argument that there is simply one human race, for the sake of length, I will not breach that topic). Other definitions that I have come across also call the divisions and the usage of “race” to be traditional and arbitrary.
Straightforwardly, race today is a matter of the color of our skin. What I have a trouble with is that every “race” includes a spectrum, and this is more evident, I believe, in Asians. Like the ethnic group Latino and Hispanic, Asians are just as racially diverse in this context—as are whites, blacks, and most of the “races.” Thus the arbitrariness that makes up the categories of race is definitely problematic.
That argument boils down to this: I believe my focus and discussion can only fall into Asian-Americans with origins from Eastern Asia (China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan), as I do not want to begin writing sentences that are inaccurate or even offensive. This area, coincidentally, largely falls under the “sinosphere,” a region that has historically had cultural and political influence from Imperial China.
In comes the Tiger Mom. Or as many of my peers in high school would say, simply “mom.” The upbringing and rearing of East Asian-Americans, first generation and later, take in many of the things the infamous Tiger Mom did. Instruments were thrusted upon children, as were demands for certain grades, achievement, so on and so forth. While I cannot say that this applies to all children of Asian backgrounds, I refer to my own experience and the experience that I’ve observed with my peers—but more importantly, however, the experience that is stereotypically seen to be “Asian.”
I do not mean to discuss stereotypes and I do not believe in all of them, but sometimes generalizations and overreaching truths that some stereotypes just am possibly be are a good place to begin discussing the Asian-American experience in the United States.
Which brings me to discuss this experience in and of itself. I believe each experience to be unique, undoubtably, based on surroundings, location, social class, etc. Some things, however, are constant, at least in the lives of many first-generation East Asian-Americans.
Take values. The Tiger Mom was bashed and ridiculed in the way she pushed her children and worked them to “succeed,” but that overreaching thought of pushing and getting good grades is something that exists extensively in many parts of Asia. Students in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, or parts of China slave away hours studying, taking tutoring classes, perfecting this and that in order to get where they want to be.
This notion doesn’t change much here in the United States. It stays the same, although perhaps to a lesser degree. The San Gabriel Valley outside of LA holds one of the (if not the) largest concentration of Asians within the United States. Within the Valley, there are countless numbers of tutoring centers, SAT prep classes, or music teachers.
A study from the journal Sociology of Education finds that more students and children from East Asian backgrounds would attend a test-prep center, at 30%, compared to 15% for “Other Asians,” 10% for Whites, 16% for Blacks, and 11% for Hispanics.
When it comes to the SAT score itself (on the 1600 scale), East Asians also hold the highest average, at roughly 1140 (refer to the study for details), while “Other Asians” are at just under 1000 average, Whites just around a 1145 average, Blacks around 830, and Hispanics hovering at mid-890s.
These statistics are absolutely fascinating to me, personally, but while I do not doubt the integrity of this research, I question the similar arbitrariness of the categories—East-Asian is a highly more specific and smaller pool of possible students compared to the other four sprawling groups.
In general, I wouldn’t denounce the way that the Tiger Mom raised her children. I would simply say that she received so much criticism and hate, even, because she raised her children in a different way, in a way unfamiliar to most. This does not make it wrong, simply different.
Education, evidently, especially and emphasis on science and math, plays a large role in most students of East Asian backgrounds. The lack of creative freedom, even, is one of the hallmarks of certain Asian values. This sets Asian-Americans apart from much of the country—not better, no, but again, simply different, and unique.
When it comes to college acceptance rates, Asian-Americans have notably higher rates across the country, which has recently been a contentious point of debate, including talk about certain biases in the admissions process. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, 43% of its current undergraduate class are Asian, while only 33% are White, 4% Black, and 13% Hispanic.
Granted, there are a numerous amount of factors that contribute to such an astonishing statistic, with extremely underrepresented margins for certain groups that do not have the resources or backgrounds that other groups do, which is a point of conversation that America also needs to face—how there really is no equal playing field for our children and opportunity is not available widespread for everyone.
Before discussing discrimination in a broader sense, I have focused on education and the upbringing as I believe it is one that stereotypically has seen to define the Asian-American persona, not necessarily accurately or positively, but something that I believe truly affects this part of the population. And I do believe that discrimination does not always amount to something that seems negative, but can very well be so. Discrimination is the treatment of a certain group of people based on certain characteristics, in this case race, that is prejudicial—yet not always in a negative sense.
But I believe this very discrimination is what inhibits Asian-Americans from growing and expanding within the United States, and prevent my peers and I to have certain ambitions—which brings me to the so-called “bamboo ceiling” and the “sticky floor.”
Many are already familiar with the term “glass ceiling,” a term referring to the invisible but nearly unbreachable barrier women place in terms of advancement in the workplace, as opposed to the “glass escalator” many men have the opportunity to take.
The “bamboo ceiling,” then, refers to the invisible but even more unbreachable barrier Asian-Americans face in terms of advancement, supposedly due to a stereotypical notion of a “lack of leadership” or “lack of communication skills” that Asian-Americans supposedly have. The “sticky floor,” on the other hand, refers to the majority of Asians in the workforce that are simply stuck at low-level, but more importantly, low-mobility jobs.
It is absolutely true that the unemployment rate for Asians in the U.S. is one of the lowest, currently around 6.6% compared to the national average of 7.8%, or 14% for Blacks, 6.9% for Whites, and 9.6% for Hispanics. But to me, these figures mean little. Asian-Americans typically have the highest graduation rates at the high-school and college level, but they face impossible odds, more so than the average woman, I would argue with the ceiling they hit.
The purpose of this writing is not to answer why to any of these points that I have brought up. They are to point out that they are there with some commentary of my thoughts as well as my lived experience, and a call for conversation within the very Asian-American community that this affects.
But my point, undoubtedly, is that I find that the (East) Asian-American experience to be unique in its origin, it’s current form, and it’s place within American cultural, social, and political structures.
Thusly, I think it makes sense for me to finish off by discussing privilege within the United States, with the increasing discussions of white privilege in recent times. I believe that many forms of privilege exists, but due to human nature and the constraints we place on this privilege, some forms seem “better” than others. I argue that we all hold different forms of privilege, that there is absolutely some form of black privilege, Hispanic, or even outside of the racial boundaries, including geographic, social, cultural privileges which can be further divided into its many forms.
But it is because we have decided to label white privilege something that most of America cannot access, we forget that we have our own forms of privilege, and that privilege is almost like a sliding scale, a spectrum again, that varies—it by far does not mean that it is fair there some have more than others, rather that it is important not to forget that we all hold some form of privilege.
And in the context of the Asian-American experience, I would place our privilege on the spectrum right around the center (I realize there is a lack of context to this, but roll with this metaphor, if you will). I believe than on paper, black and white, statistically and stereotypically, we hold certain privileges that are incomparable. At the same time, there exists discrimination as well against Asians and Asian-Americans that almost necessitate this high graduation rate to be able to compete on paper, black and white.
Every group has their own boundaries and barriers they must face. I would argue that general American perceptions towards the LGBT community, for example, are significantly warmer than that of Asians’. Or, Thousands of potential great Asian artists may never pursue their dreams because of the “unstable” nature of the work. And even this idea that all Asians sit behind computers all day and are all good with computers or all being “nerds” or “smart” is another barrier that does cause many Asian-Americans themselves to veer off into following. Barriers are simply what constrain us, and everyone faces them. There are various other examples that exists—but the simple fact of the matter is, they exist.
There are boundaries and barriers that I have personally had to face and been placed into or behind because of my own personal circumstances. And while I would never deny that my privileges so far in life have been many and fortunate, I beg people to see that there are difficulties that we all must face and cannot blame any one group for being the root of the problem. Because I know that if I want to break that bamboo ceiling and have a “successful” career, I would have to do so on my terms and through my ability and work.
I can’t afford to wait for someone else to change my future or my present for me.
All of this commentary is my very own opinion, and I will never argue that my opinion is right—I am and will always be open for debate of anything I say. This is simply a collection of what I’ve observed.
References and Sources
"The Academic Success of East Asian American Youth: The Role of Shadow Education" by Soo-yong Byun and Hyunjoon Park
Employment Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Wikipedia page on the bamboo ceiling and sticky floor
"Piercing the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’" by Anne Fisher (CNN Money)
A friend just shared this article with me on Facebook. I almost want to disregard a lot of what I’ve said above. Nevertheless, this is an extremely good read, and as it comes from the Pew Research Center, it’s extremely more comprehensive, statistic-based than this essay is. I encourage you to read it.
"The Rise of Asian-Americans" from the Pew Research Center.