Paper Tigers

What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?

This is how this emotionally moving article starts. Paper Tigers is an exploration of the identity of Asian-Americans beyond the narratives of academic achievement. For a glimpse of the sort of emotions, read the quote below:

Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility.

Wesley Yang, the author, also makes frequent comparisons between Western and Asian people in the corporate world.

The law professor and writer Tim Wu grew up in Canada with a white mother and a Taiwanese father, which allows him an interesting perspective on how whites and Asians perceive each other. After graduating from law school, he took a series of clerkships, and he remembers the subtle ways in which hierarchies were developed among the other young lawyers. “There is this automatic assumption in any legal environment that Asians will have a particular talent for bitter labor,” he says, and then goes on to define the word coolie,a Chinese term for “bitter labor.” “There was this weird self-selection where the Asians would migrate toward the most brutal part of the labor.”

By contrast, the white lawyers he encountered had a knack for portraying themselves as above all that. “White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have. Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

This article is also a commentary on Amy Chua’s book on Chinese parenting and Chinese students educational achievements.

Much of her talk to the students, and indeed much of the conversation surrounding the book, was focused on her own parenting decisions. But just as interesting is how her parents parented her. Chua was plainly the product of a brute-force Chinese education. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother includes many lessons she was taught by her parents—lessons any LEAP student would recognize. “Be modest, be humble, be simple,” her mother told her. “Never complain or make excuses,” her father instructed. “If something seems unfair at school, just prove yourself by working twice as hard and being twice as good.”

Needless to say, the article has been the object of much attention (dare I say, dislike?) from the Asian American community. Paper Tigers is not only an interesting insight into the socioeconomics of  high achievers in academia and PISA scores, it is also an interesting insight into what is like to be an East Asian high achiever in the West.

Click here to read the article. And here is an interview following the article.