From the Archives: Fighting Guns with Battleships

10 May 2011

I have just finished reading an interesting article about Asian-Americans and their place in society called Paper Tigers. As a banana of sorts, I’ve always found it a bit weird reconciling two identities or the two sets of values that you adopt growing up – the one you have at home, and the ones you learn at school with your white, middle-class peers.

When I was in primary school, I was one of those ‘smart Asian kids’ who did very well in school. I always felt a little bit different from your regular ‘smart Asian kid’ because I never got extra tuition or did extra practice at home – in fact the quality of my education was exactly the same as most of the ‘other’ kids in school. But the fact that I was Asian meant that there was something about being smart that wasn’t as valuable as being white and smart… as if my Chinese face seemed to, in some way or another, discount my intelligence. Certainly, being smart never came as a surprise or was recognised to an achievement, but rather the meeting of expectations.

Yang’s article expresses sentiments that I think a large majority of young Chinese adults living in Western nations can sympathise with.

Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility.

There is a generation of young Chinese Americans blaming their upbringing for their inability to succeed – to push away the Bamboo Ceiling – in an American society characterised by aggression, confidence and charisma. Those are three qualities that Chinese kids don’t get taught. In fact, a traditional Chinese upbringing is taught the opposite – appease your enemies, be modest, and always keep your head down.

I sympathise with Yang. For a long time, I used to wish I had white parents who could teach me the subtle characteristics that would make me successful in a white society – from the intricacies of socalising to the elegance of eating with fork and knife.

The playing field isn’t level when you’re fighting a guns war with bows and arrows.

Yet I can’t help but feel uneasy with this newfound aggression of Chinese youth to be like their white American peers.

There is something salutary in that proud defiance. And though the debate she sparked about Asian-American life has been of questionable value, we will need more people with the same kind of defiance, willing to push themselves into the spotlight and to make some noise, to beat people up, to seduce women, to make mistakes, to become entrepreneurs, to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting.

I know I take it for granted that I’ve had it pretty good. Somewhere in my upbringing, I’ve learnt to appreciate the dual values that I’ve been brought up with and discovered how to switch between being a passive one-of-many at home, and a more aggressive every-man-for-himself in the work place. Following a philosophy of trying fiercely to just be myself – because I knew from the outset that whatever box I tried to fit myself into, I could never do it perfectly – I’ve been able to make my dual values work. It’s not that they’ve all balanced themselves out such that I’m now perfectly centre, but rather that I know when my Western values need to shine out, and when being more East-bound might be more beneficial.

There is something a bit odd about going to extremes and feeling the need to fight guns with battleships –

Before each student crosses the floor of that bare white cubicle in midtown, Tran asks him a question. “What is good in life?” Tran shouts.

The student then replies, in the loudest, most emphatic voice he can muster: “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentation of their women—in my bed!”

I had to double-take to check that he wasn’t joking.

There’s a sense of bitterness that feels dangerous and resentful. Trying to undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing isn’t the solution to the ‘invisible face’ problem. If anything, it’s about harnessing – to the best of your ability – your own passions and potential. There is no true duality.

It will be incredibly difficult breaking through a bamboo ceiling, but perhaps our goal isn’t to break through a bamboo ceiling at all. During the height of British colonialism, they never once apologised for taking over the cultures of other nations and never once thought to cede to the customs of another. So why, then, should a generation of young and talented Chinese youth be fighting to assimilate themselves within the standards of another culture?

The moment you see your own identity as a weakness is the moment you start winning at losing. The future of Chinese New Zealanders, Chinese Americans, whatever you like, is not to antagonise themselves against others but to use their cultural identity as a platform for success. There are so many companies that are beginning to recognise the value of understanding Chinese relationships because that is where the opportunities now lie. We must remember that there is no ‘centre’ of the world anymore.

The journey will no doubt be hard, but I believe a lot of what is attributed to this illusive ‘bamboo ceiling’ lies within people’s own perceptions of their inadequacy to challenge the rest of the world. The step to moving forward surely must be to embrace, and not antagonise, your past.


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