Like Paper in Fire


Politics designed to fit on a bumper sticker may not be effective in the real world.

I kept thinking that as I read Wesley Yang‘s 2011 piece in New York Magazine, “Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?”  I came across it in an anthology (yet to be reviewed in this space) and feel compelled to take the unusual step of addressing it on its own.

Yang is struggling with duality. He’s a red-blooded American writer who just happens to look in the mirror and see an Asian face looking back. He’s not big on the standard list of things he’s supposed to be big on: filial piety, deference to authority, getting good grades, hard work, humility.

Early on Yang mentions Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It’s hard to say whether or not that publishing event set him off, but he did have a reaction. It’s best, I think, to let Yang speak for himself:

open-inverted-comma…absent from the millions of words written in response to the book was any serious consideration of whether Asian-Americans were in fact taking over this country. If it is true that they are collectively dominating in elite high schools and universities, is it also true that Asian-Americans are dominating in the real world? My strong suspicion was that this was not so, and that the reasons would not be hard to find. 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?

Stuyvesant High School with admission stats shown. Source: WNBC News

Stuyvesant High School with admission stats shown. Source: WNBC News

Yang builds from here. It is, I must say, an impressive piece of journalism. He talks to students at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, the most elite of the city’s magnet schools. He talks to the winner of a creative writing award at  Williams College. He talks to Asian-Americans in corporate life, including IBM and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who have counseled younger Asian-Americans to behave differently to get ahead. He even finds a guy running a boot camp that teaches Asian guys how to pick up non-Asian girls by acting like the worst form of cartoon American male.

Along the way he introduces the idea of a bamboo ceiling. He quotes statistics on the proportion of Asian-Americans in the C-Suites of the Fortune 500. He questions whether there really is a meritocracy or if it’s a con perpetrated on his ethnic group. And he vents his anger. That ties in with his whole paper tiger thing which, evidently, is a Chinese euphemism for a seemingly threatening yet ineffectual presence.

I suppose what’s new about this is that he’s Asian and there’s a stereotype of the uncomplaining Asian. That is, sadly, real. Only recently a Chinese-American colleague told me her boss described her as “egoless,” which was evidently intended as a compliment. Another Chinese-American friend says she believes non-Asians take one look at her and attach a set of behavioral expectations all of which are limiting. None of this makes me happy, but none of it strikes me as new, either.


Norman Mailer, circa 1955
An angry, young, first generation American member of an ethnic group from an earlier generation.

What Yang believes is novel is really just the immigrant experience in America. Go back to the pull quote above. I can think of half a dozen, first generation Jewish-American writers who could have penned a similar screed, maybe even the same screed, with just a few words changed.

It’s this insistence on particular ethnic experience being unique and trumping all that ultimately undercuts Yang, even in his preferred metier of the arts. I don’t blame him. I blame a generation of activists who have evangelized the pernicious idea that only a member of a group can understand that group’s experience. And that such experience is so different that it has never before been experienced in human history.

Great literature, like a great pop song, works because it finds the universal in the particular. It is transcendent. If only Japanese people can truly understand Bashō; if only the descendants of Russians can truly divine Chekov; if only the Irish are able to apprehend James JoyceGermans to get Goethe and American Jews to correctly interpret Philip Roth, then the whole experiment that began during the Enlightenment is over.

That’s my history-loving philosophical side speaking. The social science guy in me is appalled by the torturous argument Yang makes. The plural of anecdote is not data (although it is probably long-form journalism). You shouldn’t make claims about rates without a reference set. A fair argument would also showcase rates and data for other groups.

no irish no blacks no dogs

Putting the ‘other’ in their place has a long history among human beings. That privileged white person sitting across from you just might have some experience with disadvantage.
Photo circa 1966.

All that might undercut the case for the unique plight of Asian Americans. There are editors involved here so Yang isn’t solely to blame. But no one wants to read alternative explanations.

At one point, though, Yang comes close to understanding what is probably really happening. Speaking of one of his subjects who experienced a ‘typical’ (presumably of European heritage) Christmas with a girlfriend’s family, Yang writes, “…here, at last, was the setting in which all that implicit knowledge ‘about social norms and propriety’ had been transmitted. There was no cram school that taught these lessons.”

Of course there wasn’t. This is Bourdieu‘s argument about social capital writ (very) small. But no editor, no middle class kid who went to Rutgers, wants to argue about class and social capital. That’s a class argument and class must transcend race.

And in America, transcending is one thing we just don’t do.


One thought on “Like Paper in Fire

  1. Pingback: They’ll be Calling You a Radical | An Honest Con

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