Growing Up Asian in America, Memoir of A Tiger Cub

Over the years, I’ve thought of what it means to be an Asian American. This is not the easiest concept to grasp much less explain, as the Asian identity that most people are aware of and know are terribly limited. Then again, forming a concrete concept of “being Asian” is as difficult as grasping the geographical boundaries of the continent. Unarguably, Asia is the biggest continent on Earth. Expanding from the tundra of Siberia to the desserts of the Iraq, the continent of Asia is made up of the most diverse cultures, ethnicity and people.

However, ironically, every time I meet someone from this vast and diverse continent, and we share personal stories about growing up in America, I can immediate relate to them, as it seems that our experiences are almost synchronized. Perhaps, this is a story that all children of immigrants growing up in America can relate to, but I am always surprised to find such similarities among those who are descendants of Asian heritage.

Even now, I remember the disciplines I’d grown up with, almost a mantra in our family. Respect and listen to the elders especially the teachers, stay away from any and all trouble (even the things that might be perceived as being trouble), and always study, study, study. Education was an intrinsic part of our future, to our happiness and to our overall lives.

It was engraved in our minds that if we studied hard and work hard, we will be successful in life, which inevitably was the key to our happiness. Although this is a belief that is prevalent in America and is ideology that most immigrants instill in their children, in Asian American communities throughout this country, it’s an obligation … a duty that we cannot veer away from. It’s as intrinsic to “becoming American” as having to take and pass the Civics Test to gain an American Citizenship.

Therefore, when I tell people the story of my joy of scoring 98 on a test being crushed by my mother who, without hesitation, would ask me what happened to the 2 points, or bringing home an A just to have her ask whether anyone in the class had gotten an A+ and if so, why I hadn’t, my Asian friends would give me a knowingly nod with a smile as my non-Asian friends would glare at me with a horrified look on their faces as if I was professing an abuse I’d experienced. Whether from Lebanon or South Korea, these are shared experiences that we could all relate to as children of Asian immigrants.

Sadly, the paradox of this doctrine is that life doesn’t always work out the way our parents … or we’d envisioned. Success can’t be define by grades or job titles, and money truly can’t buy happiness. Contrary to our hardworking immigrant parents’ dream of us becoming the next Barak Obama or Bill Gates (which in itself is a paradox considering that Mr. Gates dropped out of collage to achieve success, a concept that’s unfamiliar and unacceptable to most Asian Americans), our doctrine of merely studying hard and working even harder would not always get us there.

I remember when I was a recruiter for a Fortune 500 company interviewing applicants for various entry level positions, I would get resumes from students who were about to graduate from some of the tops schools worldwide. As I read through hundreds of resumes and CV’s with near-perfect GPA’s and pages and pages of academic accolades and achievements, there were only few things that really stood out to me: the number of languages they spoke and the amount of international exposure they had, whether it be volunteer work or study abroad program they’d participated in.

From my conversations with recruiters from other international companies, they were using a similar method of candidate selection. The reason being that all of us recruited from the best universities, and most students who came to the job fairs had strong GPA’s. So, the only means of deciphering between the candidates was to look at their individual attributes, something that made them unique and different from others.

Being Asian, most of us are not taught to be different or unique.  On the contrary, conformity is strongly encouraged, and we are taught to think of our families, the community, and the group before ourselves and our own needs.  Narcissism is considered as one of the worst qualities in a person, only to be trumped by laziness.

Of course, I’m not disparaging these principles or discounting that someone with passion, ingenuity and drive cannot benefit from great education and hard work. However, most of us are encouraged to follow the rules and not make waves, and blindly going along with the system, not stopping to reflect on ourselves or reflecting who we are as individuals don’t always prove to be beneficial to our career nor ultimately, to our lives.

As a recent study on Asian American achievement found that while Asians represent 15-25% of Ivy League enrollment, they comprise less than 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs and corporate officers, which means that although most of Asian Americans study hard to get to top universities, their academic achievements don’t always translate to obtaining success in conventional careers.

Speaking from a personal experience, it’s certainly not due to lack of ambition or drive. However, what is lacking is the understanding of the limitation we face as an ethnic (minority) group. As the overwhelming aspect of our culture dictates, we are taught from an early age to conform, to “fit in”, not only amongst our families and communities but also the society in which we live. Drawing attention to ourselves is frowned upon, and complaining or seeing ourselves as victim is unthinkable. And why would we, as my mother would always remind me that “We’re living the American dream.”

However, no matter how much we study, how well we do in school, and how hard we work, ultimately, what determines the success in our lives may have very little to do with the grades we get or what college we end up going to … or if at all. Perhaps, we can stand to benefit from a bit of narcissism, and putting our own identity before others.

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About S. In

a cultural critic, an avid traveler and a purveyor of social justice and education equity View all posts by S. In

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