“Paper Tigers”: An Asian American Man responds

The New York Magazine just published Wesley Yang’s  lengthy, fascinating and sure to be controversial piece on Asian-American males. It’s entitled “Paper TigersWhat happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?”

Here, Constant Gaw, a second generation Asian American, shares his reaction.

Speaking plainly, I was floored by Yang’s piece.  This is a conversation-starter that needed to happen.

I can absolutely relate to what he writes about, with the exception that I’ve taken a more optimistic path through life, rather than dwell in bitterness.  Everything he’s talking about here actually happens: the social difficulties, work dynamics, difficulties with women – this shit is for real.  I’ve hit each of these elements at various points in my life, and I’ve realized that any success I’ve had in those arenas has been due to an overcoming of the natural tendencies I carried into adulthood.  Now, I want to be clear that I’m not writing to vilify the tiger-mothers or dragon-ladies or whatever other idiotic, zodiac-appropriate term is in vogue.  Anyone that beats their child for getting an “A-” on a paper or demands nothing less than aneurysm-inducing levels of success will not get a gold star from me.  But, away from the extremes of Asian parenting is a relevant, shared experience and I think Yang’s article touched on it.

I should clarify that while I don’t typify the “tiger-raised” Asian-American by any means, the roots of cultural tradition indeed run fucking deep, and they get expressed in ways that can be quite undetectable to the self at times.  Learning to socialize well with a broad spectrum of white people was a long process, and in many ways is still something I’m working on these days.  That may seem like a bizarre thing to read if you know me, but the truth is that with every stage of your life as a minority, you expose yourself to racial dynamics that are slightly different from the last stage.  What worked before may not be as relevant in the present moment, and unlearned socializations can emerge later to assert their significance.

Dating, too, was something that only happened after I had acclimated enough to a broader culture.  Even today, despite having dated primarily non-Asian women, I often still feel some measure of intimidation when approaching them.  Why?  Because it’s hard to overcome the feeling that you’re at an inherent cultural and perceptual disadvantage, and that messes with your confidence.  It’s already difficult enough for a “tiger-child” to learn to be socially confident, but it’s a whole another business to have to project that onto someone that has already bought into the stereotype of your social ineptitude.

Recently, I started dating a Chinese woman who also defies the tiger-child template.  Surprisingly, she, too, subjected me to the sort of instant stereotyping more often associated with white preconception, except in reverse.  Because I was affable, expressive and playful, she immediately thought of me as a very white-washed dude.  After we went on a few more dates, she began to see other sides of me that complicated that perception; I actually had to “earn” back my Asian-ness, in a sense.  It’s amazing how widely the stereotypes of Asian culture, rightly earned or not, have been disseminated.

The corporate aspect of the Asian-American experience is also something that I’ve become a lot more conscious of over the last few years.  I, too, naively believed that I had found an industry that functioned as closely as possible to a pure meritocracy and would be devoid of all politics, but of course I was incorrect.  While I’ve had some frustrations, I’ve ultimately adopted a more pragmatic view of office jockeying.  Being “forced” to socialize in the work environment and assert yourself in ways that feel unnatural may be something to rightly rail against, but those approaches are ultimately successful because humans are humans and there are certain dynamics that hold true and operate the way they do regardless of your feelings on the matter.  Rather that sulk, I strive to adopt the patterns of behavior that are strategic, while consciously avoiding transformation into a douchebag (or, at least, into someone that feels quite divorced from who I truly am).

After reading Yang’s article, it became clear to me that the most relevant debate isn’t whether or not the essential dynamics he describes are true, but rather how we confront them.  He, for better or worse, is the consummate artist: isolated, misunderstood, and reveling in the righteousness that comes from maintaining that purity.  I actually completely relate to him when he describes the patterns he sees and says, “Fuck this, I refuse to give in.”  He’s an angry, bitter idealist.  A part of me wants to live like him, but I ultimately know that’s not a route that leads to happiness or the kind of fulfillment I seek.

Just as the less-deserving alpha-male prospers in life by knowing which rules to break and which to follow, so must the artist learn to part with his idealism (at least on occasion), or risk being devoured by a inescapable singularity of his own making.  He’ll look glorious while doing so, but no-one will ever see it.  And then he’ll be gone.

Constant Gaw is a video game designer living in Southern California and is perfectly happy with the way his tiger mamma raised him.


4 thoughts on ““Paper Tigers”: An Asian American Man responds

  1. Constant, interesting take on the article. It is true that dwelling in bitterness does not help and I like the fact that you are taking an optimistic route. Hopefully we learn lessons and can use them for the future.

    What was interesting to me about the article was how much I could relate to the problems that Asian American men face (I am a south asian muslim female). I was also taught to focus on school and the perfect grades and not think about social dynamics or boys. It was not until I graduated college and started working that I realized how much social dyamics and gender relations play a role in success. It took me a few years to work on these skills. I was amazed at how political the work environment was. Also, since I never dated in high school or college, navigating the dynamics of gender was also new to me. It is interesting how many people (male or female) from south east asian and south asian families face the same realilties.

    The lessons I learned for the next generation is as follows: high school politics and cliques are very real and they will continue into adulthood. Learn to play the game. Instead of spending time trying to get A+’s (an A- or B is fine) enroll children in competitive sports and let them go to prom and learn how to deal with the opposite gender. I realized that the real winners are those people who learn to balance their lives. Hopefully, Asian americans will learn that and attain more leadership positions in the future.

  2. I feel like a lot of people dismiss the problems that Asian people face because they perceive Asians as an advantaged minority, and the prevailing attitude seems to be, “Why are you complaining when you’ve got it so good? Good grades, good jobs, good salaries, why are you bellyaching?” The problem with this is twofold:

    1) Stereotypes, even positive ones, are still bad. What happens to the Asian children who can’t live up to the overly high expectations about their race? What happens to the children of poor Cambodian immigrants in the ghettos of Los Angeles whose parents can’t afford to invest as much in their education as their more upper-class counterparts on whom you base your assumptions, children who feel as if they’re left with little other recourse than to join Khmer Pride because they’re just never going to be good enough?

    2) Having lived and worked in Asia, and having been raised in heavily Asian communities, I have seen first-hand the social effects that tiger parenting can have. I don’t dispute that it works. It works. It works shockingly well. But at what emotional cost to the children? At what emotional cost to kids who have been pushed so deeply and so hard into their academics, never having been given a chance to learn how to operate in the social world, that they are left clueless about how to do everything from finding a mate (20% of Asian men will never marry) to talking their way into a promotion (Asians make up a much larger percentage of Silicon Valley white-collar workers than CEOs in those same businesses)?

    I think it’s important that we recognize the reality of the bamboo ceiling. Wesley Yang was absolutely correct, and I’m not the only one who thinks so:


    • This is why women, including Asian women, don’t want to date and marry Asian men, even though Asian women are often pressured by their parents to date and marry Asian men. It’s because they have tiger attitudes like their parents. And not to mention, Asian men are often very possessive, high maintenance, and controlling in their relationships because of this. Hispanics and Arabs, for example, are the same thing since those groups like Asians often have immigrant parents that are strict.

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