"paper tigers:" a response

a week ago, emily liu sent me a facebook message with a link to this article by wesley yang, which graced the cover of new york magazine and sparked the biggest flurry of discussion in asian american circles since amy chua’s washington post essay. later that day, david michael asked for my thoughts. this comes a week late, which is like a year in internet time, but i figure it’s not too late to add to the discussion.

as with almost everything these days, my feelings about the article are mixed. i’ll start with what i liked about it:

– i give yang props for putting this out there. the article is bold, gutsy, and unapologetic, and the fact that asian americans are having two pop culture moments in the span of 5 months… that’s more airtime than we got in the whole of the last decade. so yay for that.

– his first main point is solid: asian americans only dominate through college. so what is everyone else so scared of? is all of our achievement in high school and college even that significant? the bamboo ceiling is a sobering, sad reality for us, held in place by factors both external (e.g., stereotypes of asian americans, covert racism, the old boys’ club) and internal (e.g., asians are much less likely to push their own product due to cultural values of modesty, shutting up and working hard, not talking back to authority, not saying anything unless you have something really, really, really important to say…). yang does an excellent job of fleshing this out.

– i also agree with his final thought: we don’t need more asian americans who just play it safe and do what they’re told.

“And though the debate [Amy Chua] sparked about Asian-American life has been of questionable value, we will need more people with the same kind of defiance, willing to push themselves into the spotlight and to make some noise, to beat people up, to seduce women, to make mistakes, to become entrepreneurs, to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting.”

(i take issue with the “seduce women” part, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

so that’s what i liked. here’s what i didn’t like:

– early on in the article, yang paints a pretty stark picture of What Asian Americans Are Like, which he reinforces throughout. however, there are plenty of people who don’t fit this stereotype, a fact he ignores through most of the article, then angrily spits out on page 8, saying that we should have known it all along. yes, i knew it all along, but you sure tried your damndest to convince me otherwise.

of course, yang’s portrayal of asian americans strikes a personal chord with me, because i feel misrepresented. i’m socially adept. i smile at people when i pass them, and so do my parents. i have lots of asian friends and lots of non-asian friends. my parents played board games with me. my family talks -– a lot, and at high volumes –- and politics are a frequent topic of discussion at the dinner table. the majority of my parents’ male friends were executives at big 3 auto companies -– all taiwanese-born engineers who broke the bamboo ceiling. and i graduated at the very top of my high school and college classes without cram schools, coaching, or a tiger mom, thankyouverymuch. the unconfident, loser-ish asian american that yang describes is the minority in both my personal and professional experience. granted, my sample is somewhat biased, given that i’m hanging out with other social people and working with asian americans who are brave enough to come to therapy. but i felt that yang’s was an unfair depiction of a race that i find to be pretty sweet.

additionally, what yang describes as an asian upbringing doesn’t apply exclusively to asian people:

“What if you missed out on the lessons in masculinity taught in the gyms and locker rooms of America’s high schools? What if life has failed to make you a socially dominant alpha male who runs the American boardroom and prevails in the American bedroom? What if no one ever taught you how to greet white people and make them comfortable? …

“How do you undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing?”

there are people of all races to whom these questions apply; they’re not exclusive to asian americans. nina shen rastogi takes this point a step further:

“Do [the first two sentences] describe most Asian men? Or do they merely describe the dweebs? It is certainly possible to be both Asian-American and a dweeb, and the former identity may influence the latter—but does one cause the other? And if so, does it do so across the board? Yang doesn’t address these questions precisely enough, and it makes his cultural analysis muddy.”

– the misogyny. oh, the misogyny.

“Yes, it is about picking up women. Yes, it is about picking up white women. Yes, it is about attracting those women whose hair is the color of the midday sun and eyes are the color of the ocean, and it is about having sex with them.”

“What is good in life?” “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentation of their women — in my bed!”

oh my goodness. really? really? i get that this is a part of the traditional definition of masculinity — but seriously? it’s 2011. you look like an asshole, and no one’s going to want to sleep with you now, much less actually date you.

and speaking of women -– where are all the asian american women in your article? did you exclude them because they’re at the top of the food chain of social desirability and thus negate many of your arguments? did you conveniently neglect to specify that this article is really about asian american males so that more people would pay attention to it? did you exclude asian american women because they have an even harder time in the workforce than asian american men? or do you just not respect them because they’re 1. women and 2. not white? it’s hard to tell.

i suspect that these two issues are the main reason why, in my non-random sample of asian american friends, far more males relate to this article than do females. both the depiction of white women as trophies and the lack of asian american female representation in this article are striking and embarrassing.

– i found it interesting that yang claims to have rejected “the manners and mores of [his] white peers” and yet uses their benchmarks throughout the article to measure success. white women, white behavior, white social status, white everything. as sam han wrote brilliantly in his response (and akiba solomon echoed), the common thread in all of yang’s responses to being asian is:

“… the desire not only to be white but to be white men, that is, to be like the top of the racial-gender strata. There is no hint of questioning the strata itself. What we are left with is quite frankly a meditation on how to acquire white privilege, not the questioning of the value-system of privileging based on race and gender itself.”

the latter of which, i might add, is a hell of a lot harder than what yang is talking about.

– the article reeks of yang’s own self-loathing. he fronts like he’s some empowered, liberated asian american man, but his own self-hatred and insecurity permeate every page. i alternated between feeling repulsed by him and feeling sorry for him.

– the article also reeks of self-indulgence, especially in its final pages. get a load of some of this rhetoric:

“Instead, I set about contriving to live beyond both poles. I wanted what James Baldwin sought as a writer — ‘a power which outlasts kingdoms.’ Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world’s business. Who does not seek after material gain. Who is his own law.”

i puked in my mouth as i read that. but it continued:

“Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.”

really, dude? really? you sound like a self-righteous, pompous ass. mix that with your poorly-hidden self-loathing, and you have the perfect cocktail of traits that no one wants to be around.

so… these are my thoughts. in addition to the ones i’ve already cited, there are lots of good critiques online, like this one (interestingly, when you google “paper tigers wesley yang,” 10 of these critiques appear above the article itself). i’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

one final thought, though –- could we get a good asian american article without the word “tiger” in the title? i’ll let this one slide, since the metaphor is fitting. but seriously, no more tigers.

One thought on “"paper tigers:" a response

  1. Hi there, just discovered your blog.

    “one final thought, though –- could we get a good asian american article without the word “tiger” in the title? i’ll let this one slide, since the metaphor is fitting. but seriously, no more tigers.”

    I think the thing is, it’s hard to get as much attention as Amy Chua, Wesley Yang, Jenny An, etc. without the eye-catching self-loathing, arrogance, or what have you. A pity that it seems like the definition of radical for Asian Americans is one of the aforementioned qualities.

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