I came across an online news article in the Guardian that surprised me because it was written by an Asian-American (Jennifer Lee), on the subject of Asian-Americans - the Guardian is a British news outlet. In the article - written, somewhat, in response to the recent Amy Chua claims on how culture affects success, and based on studies conducted by Lee and Min Zhou - Lee suggests that "we" need more US Asians - US Chinese in particular - to move away from the rigid definitions of success that have typically driven their apparent economic and academic successes. The gist of the article was - as the article's title suggested - that Asians should expand their definition of success beyond the "limitations" implicit in presuming success to mean a high educational attainment leading to a successful professional career and the financial rewards that such a career brings with it and move into the arts.
I have heard this sentiment being expressed several times before elsewhere and it seems to be a common feeling in Asian-America that somehow seems to based on an assumption that succeeding in the arts is a piece of cake. Whilst I believe that real social change occurs mainly through the process of changing attitudes by means of a strong cultural voice - that is, a creative voice - I also think that we have to be aware of the prevalent culture that seems to condition a negative knee-jerk response to any Asian successes and find fault with it at any cost. Or, on the flip-side, find Asian successes problematic because Asians are simply the wrong kind of minority.
But this narrow framing of success comes at a price: young people who don’t “make it” are made to feel like failures and under-achievers, often leading them to isolate themselves from their ethnic communities and reject their ethnic identities. These “under-achievers” told us that they “don’t feel really Chinese”, “aren’t like other Asians”, or have become “the black sheep” of their families because they haven’t met what they perceive to be the expected levels of achievement for Chinese Americans.This is somewhat insulting.The implication here is that a career in the arts is somehow not measured by financial success and academic achievement is less of a necessity, or, even worse, that failure in the arts is somehow less devastating than failure to make it in the professions. This is plainly false.
In truth, in order to succeed in the arts, one has to work extremely hard just to outperform competitors, and then hope that an agent or patron of some kind can find an angle for your work and then pitch it to the right people to pitch it to the general public. In the meantime, the artist often lives a life in which financial uncertainty becomes a way of life. Of course, if you are lucky and manage to make it, then the rewards are probably worth the effort, but for every successful artist there may be dozens more who don't make it. It is that hard, even if you don't add in the ingredient of prejudice that Asians may encounter - as the article says - working in a field where rewards are often derived from the subjective whims of audiences, who may be swayed by prevailing racialized attitudes. How this describes a less stressful career choice or one that carries a "softer" failure I don't know. I would not be surprised to discover that most artists - writers, fine artists, classical musicians and the like - actually do achieve at least a master's degree or above, and that these folks even excelled in their studies.
Even popular musicians - including the self-taught - typically will spend hours in practice, and years performing in dives gaining vital experience. The point is that for every painted masterpiece there are dozens of sketches and rejected ideas, for every hit song, there are dozens of bad takes and rejected verses that never see the light of day. And even when - or if - an artist does produce a masterpiece, there is no guarantee that the world will recognize it as such until well after the artist dies. So, to suggest that a career in the arts leads to more happiness, or is in some way a better way to define success is simply nonsense. The point is that regardless of whether one chooses a professional career or a career in the arts, the application and drive to succeed are fundamentally the same, and success often follows a successful academic career. The only difference between those who choose the professions and those who choose the arts is the vehicle that people are using to get to the same end of financial security and acclaim.
Clearly, regardless of which career choice one makes, the fact is that to succeed in that field, one has to work equally hard, put in thousands of hours of practice and apply oneself in education,the goals of which are fundamentally the same as they would be in a professional career. To imply otherwise is misleading - the arts require an extremely high degree of educational attainment so I am always somewhat puzzled when I hear Asians speaking about a career in arts as though it is a breeze to achieve.
But there is another aspect to this way of thinking that I find troubling. This what the article says....
Americans often measure success by the three M’s: money, Motorola, and Mercedes. Most Chinese immigrant parents, on the other hand, define success as getting straight A’s, graduating from an elite university, pursuing an advanced degree and becoming a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist or engineer.......Could this be why the children of Chinese immigrants are, on average, better educated and wealthier – with higher paying jobs – than the general US population?.......
Given these consequences, why do Chinese and other Asian immigrant parents frame success so narrowly?.......They do so because they come from countries where education is one of the only paths for mobility. And, as non-white immigrants in the United States, Asian immigrant parents fear that their children will experience discrimination in their careers. So parents shepherd their children into conservative, high-status professions in which they may be most shielded from potential discrimination by employers, customers and clients.......
Based on our interviews with the children of Chinese immigrants, we learned that their parents believe that careers in writing, acting, fashion and art are risky because these professions involve subjective evaluation, thereby making their children vulnerable to bias. By contrast, careers in medicine, engineering, law or pharmacy require higher credentials and advanced degrees, which protects their children from the usual types of discrimination.What strikes me here is that the article is suggesting that because some people struggle or ultimately fail in their attempts to enter the professions with impeccable educational credentials that this is somehow a good reason to re-define the terms of success. As I explained above, success in any field is fundamentally measured by the same criteria; acclaim from peers and community and financial security so, in reality, success is not actually being re-defined. It is merely the means by which these goals are achieved that has been changed and that carries with it the same, or greater, risk of failure.
But even though the article outlines clearly that perceived and real experiences of prejudice and discrimination have already shaped Asians practices and attitudes towards careers and success - that is, Asians have already re-defined success to adapt to these experiences - Lee's piece somehow manages to avoid the elephant in the room by suggesting that Asians should reappraise of how we define success as a separate dialogue from the factors of prejudice that largely shape them. In effect, Lee is saying that Asians should put their heads down and unilaterally adapt - again - to the obstacles of racism and prejudice that shape how we may approach career choices without, presumably, addressing the issues that have limited, and caused Asians to self-limit, their career choices.
What I am getting at here is that if we know and acknowledge that stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice, play a significant role in shaping or limiting the avenues for opportunity that Asians feel are available to them, then any reappraisal of this has to be culture and society-wide, and include a reappraisal by society of its attitudes that limit Asian participation in all aspect and areas of the culture.
Certainly it could be argued that by making the decision to strive for success in fields where Asians are not "traditionally" to be found could create a shift in attitudes, but as Jeremy Lin has shown in sports, and several Asian actors have shown in film, even if you have abilities to succeed outside the Asian norm, the deeply ingrained attitudes can and will hold you back. But in both Jeremy Lin's case and that of Asian actors not being given opportunities, it could be argued that the support of the larger Asian-American community who have attacked head-on and basically stopped the overt dehumanizing stereotyping and characterizations of Lin has helped to smooth his path somewhat, and Asian responses to poor representations may have slightly improved opportunities for Asian actors.
The point here is that the combined efforts of of Lin's pursuing an "outside of the box" career and the head-on confrontations of the community to the racist backlash against him may have served to highlight the societal conversation about anti-Asian racism, and softened America's cultural conceptual barriers that see or accept a very limited definition of what it means to be Asian. Lee is fundamentally describing a shift whereby Asians act like a "model minority", by changing their own behaviour without necessarily rocking the boat of mainstream racist attitudes, despite the evidence that with a combination of personal application and community will we can soften, slightly, the blows of racist presumption.
Now the irony here is that Lee's piece was written almost as a refutation of Amy Chua's supposed model-minority-celebrating-new-novel in which she cited cultural characteristics as the cause of the successes - as defined by financial and academic achievement - of various American ethnic minorities, including, naturally, the Chinese. Oddly, Lee seems to be a champion for Asians to model-minority their way out of career and choice limiting prejudice in much the same way that Chua has been accused of doing. Even more funny, is that Lee actually reaches the same conclusions that Chua reached - cultural factors are responsible for the success of some minority groups, which is exactly what Chua has asserted. It seems odd to rebut an idea by seemingly agreeing with it.
My sense, though, is that Lee's piece is but one manifestation of the widespread embarrassment amongst Asians that Amy Chua has chosen - by default, perhaps - to not be contrite about Asian success and put it out there as - again perhaps not by design - something that deserves praise in and of itself without it being framed as an implicit affront to the cause of social justice and anti-racism. I'm a little fatigued by the constant reminders that Asians should be ashamed that being successful supposedly makes other minorities look bad, or that our successes are some kind of leverage to justify racism against other groups. On the contrary, the model minority stereotype first and foremost is used to justify racism against Asians, or diminish its importance.
Some suggest that we should throw off the model-minority stereotype for these reasons, I say that by allowing the stereotype to loom large in our consciousness we are giving in to the power of stereotypes to shape our lives. The fact is that regardless of who you are, if you believe stereotypes then you have accepted and utilized racist thinking. This holds true for the white racist who justifies racism against non-Asians by citing the model-minority stereotype, but also for the non-white person who allows themselves to develop racialized resentment towards Asians because they may have been told that they should "do what the Asians do".
We are not responsible for the stereotypes that are created about us and trying to not seem to be that stereotype is to allow racism to shape your actions, when the focus should really be on developing original approaches to shaping identity, our cultural footprint, and our inclusion in more aspects of the culture. Shaming ourselves about Asian successes is to accept the principles of racial prejudice. This is because anti-Asian racism manifests as a refusal to accept Asian-American accomplishments or view them as implicitly threatening, suspicious, or as a justification for resentment which are foundational aspects of anti-Asian racism.
How odd that it is being suggested that we can strike a blow against racism by encouraging shame and suspicion about successes that are largely shaped by that very racism. This behaviour allows the virus of racism to persist because, paradoxically, the carrot of economic success through academic achievement and a career in the professions is still largely held up as the goal for every other group but Asians who, apparently, should be questioning it. This means that decrying our successes supports the racist perspective that is threatened by, and suspicious of, Asian success.