The triumph and failure of Asian culture in America

David Brooks had an interesting response — “Amy Chua Is a Wimp” — to Chua’s “Tiger Mom” book. Brooks said Chua was not at all the “monster” some claimed. To the contrary, Chua was too soft on her girls because she pushed them hard on “easy” stuff, like academics and violin, while shielding them from the really hard social stuff, like teenage girls' sleepovers.

This very interesting article on Asian-American culture seems to validate Brooks' argument.

Yang notes that, academically, Asian-Americans are (on the whole) doing fabulously well. And they’re doing it by studying much harder than any other ethnic group:

Asian-­Americans, who make up 12.6 percent of New York City, make up 72 percent of [the city’s famed Stuyvesant High School].

This year, 569 Asian-Americans scored high enough to earn a slot at Stuyvesant, along with 179 whites, 13 Hispanics, and 12 blacks. Such dramatic overrepresentation, and what it may be read to imply about the intelligence of different groups of New Yorkers, has a way of making people uneasy. But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it. All throughout Flushing, as well as in Bayside, one can find “cram schools,” or storefront academies, that drill students in test preparation after school, on weekends, and during summer break. “Learning math is not about learning math,” an instructor at one called Ivy Prep was quoted in the New York Times as saying. “It’s about weightlifting. You are pumping the iron of math.” Mao puts it more specifically: “You learn quite simply to nail any standardized test you take.”

Yang contrasts this tremendous academic success with what Asian-Americans call the “Bamboo Ceiling,” an invisible barrier separating technical work and mid-level management from top management, that few Asian-Americans ever break through:

If between 15 and 20 percent of every Ivy League class is Asian, and if the Ivy Leagues are incubators for the country’s leaders, it would stand to reason that Asians would make up some corresponding portion of the leadership class.

[In fact], Asian-­Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents. There are nine Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5 percent of tenure-track scientists are Asians, only 4.7 percent of the lab or branch directors are.

Yang presents interesting examples of the cultural challenges Asian-Americans face:

[W]hen he arrived at Williams [College], Chu slowly became aware of something strange: The white people in the New England wilderness walked around smiling at each other. “When you’re in a place like that, everyone is friendly.”

He made a point to start smiling more. “It was something that I had to actively practice,” he says. “Like, when you have a transaction at a business, you hand over the money—and then you smile.” He says that he’s made some progress but that there’s still plenty of work that remains. “I’m trying to undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing. Four years at Williams helps, but only so much.” He is conscious of how his father, an IT manager, is treated at work. “He’s the best programmer at his office,” he says, “but because he doesn’t speak English well, he is always passed over.”

And then there’s the $1,450 school for Asian-American geeks desperate to learn how to attract the ladies:

Tran and Jones are teaching their students how an alpha male stands (shoulders thrown back, neck fully extended, legs planted slightly wider than the shoulders). “This is going to feel very strange to you if you’re used to slouching, but this is actually right,” Jones says. They explain how an alpha male walks (no shuffling; pick your feet up entirely off the ground; a slight sway in the shoulders). They identify the proper distance to stand from “targets” (a slightly bent arm’s length). They explain the importance of “kino escalation.” (You must touch her. You must not be afraid to do this.) They are teaching the importance of sub-­communication: what you convey about yourself before a single word has been spoken. They explain the importance of intonation. They explain what intonation is. “Your voice moves up and down in pitch to convey a variety of different emotions.”

…“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!”

For the intonation exercise, students repeat the phrase “I do what I want” with a variety of different moods.

Intelligence and hard work only get you so far. We live in a world full of people, so we must equip our children to get along well with others and collaborate. And memorizing to pass tests is lousy training for the inventiveness and creative thinking so prized in business today.

Posted by James on Monday, May 23, 2011