We Asian Americans stand at the crossroads between west and east. We feel the currents swirling together in opposition to form thunderheads with the potential to unleash cataclysmic storms. We know better than most that these storms, past and future, are fueled more by misperceptions than actual inimicability of interests. If we feel helpless to intervene, it is understandable. At times America seems to measure its strength by the arrogant impenetrability of its ignorance about half of humanity.
We have all seen the cataclysms that can occur on our own soil from an arrogant faith in American invulnerability. As an American I will do my part here to perforate that ignorance.
I’ll begin with a gross understatement: for four generations Americans have had less reason to understand Asians than Asians have had to understand Americans. Fortunately for America, this state of blissful ignorance was secured by overwhelming superiority in every material respect. But the sustained surge of nations like Japan, Corea, and now China is leveling the transpacific playing field. Add to that the inestimable advantage conferred on Asians by intimate knowledge of the United States, and America’s willful, not to say scornful, ignorance begins to border on self-destructive.
From my years as a dismayed and frustrated observer of American dealings with Asians, I have verbalized the biggest misconceptions. Yes, this is a criticism of American complacency. But more, it is an effort at spreading necessary truths in the hope they may help avert unnecessary conflict and suffering.
1. Asians devalue dignity and human life.
It is better to be the head of a rooster than the tail of an ox, goes one formulation of a universal Asian sentiment. American misperception has it that life is cheap in Asia, ergo, Asians have little dignity. The source of this misconception? Americans visiting Asian nations while they were devastated by generations of wars and colonial exploitation saw that labor and goods could be had dirt-cheap and concluded that life and dignity too must be cheap.
More astute observers have noted that life is cheap in Asia only when measured against dignity. Remember that the great Asian movements of the past century for the dignity of self-determination have succeeded, albeit at a cost of many millions of lives. Even the antics of Pyongyang’s Kim family have, at bottom, the determination to resist American domination. And as incredible as the scenario might have seemed a few years ago, the December 2002 Corean presidential election suggests that sentiment may be shifting toward sympathy with Pyongyang, once again showing that Asians value dignity above security and expedience.
When I see Uncle Sam lecturing China on human rights, I cringe. Does China lecture the U.S. about economic disparities or race relations? Asians don’t like being patronized and condescended to any more than anyone and perhaps harbor more intense resentment at the indignity. Many Asian nations are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure that they aren’t subjected to such indignities in the future.
Bringing the discussion closer to home, Asian American entrepreneurs proliferate at a rate greatly exceeding that of any other ethnic group because so many of the most capable Asians would rather be the head of a rooster than the tail of an ox. It is this overwhelming value placed on dignity that also best explains the remarkable sacrifices made by Asian Americans to obtain higher education for their children.
2. Asians are wannabe Americans.
Stories of Asians risking death for a chance to come to America have fed the insulting notion that Asians are wannabe Americans. The reality is that only the most desperate or undervalued Asians, representing a miniscule fraction of the populations of their respective nations, would consider leaving their homelands. U.S. immigration quotas for Japan and Corea, for example, have gone unfilled for some years. Some Asians may envy American opportunities or lifestyles, but more are repelled by what they see as a crassly materialistic society that breeds alienation, drug-dependence, pointless violence and lonely old age. The bland American assumption that Asia would be better off if it would wholesale adopt the American social model finds little support in statistics on crime, homelessness, divorce and seniors in retirement homes.
Asians who have the opportunity and the means go out of their way to retain their ancestral culture. Asian American families devote thousands a year and much of their leisure time to preserving ties to their Asian heritage. The proliferation of Asian food markets and shopping areas, Saturday Asian-language classes and college Asian American studies courses are among the more visible signs of Asian devotion to their own cultural heritages. Some might even argue that in many large cities Asian culture is actually expanding its influence to non-Asians.
3. Asians are hitchikers on modernity.
Americans have only to look around to see compelling proof of Asian ingenuity, industry and social organization. Computers, cars, cellphones, video games, flat-panel displays and every manner of consumer goods are more likely to have originated in Asia than any other continent. The notion that Asians are primitives who recently stumbled onto modernity by grasping western coattails is grounded on hoary faith on the seminal importance of western inventions like the light bulb or the transistor. That’s like saying that the NASA moon landings should be credited to An Wang’s invention of the magnetic-core memory which enabled computers, an essential component of space launches. Progress may be facilitated by certain technological advances, but advances have never been dependent on any single society or race.
Those fixated on invention as the apex of human achievement might note that the U.S. Patent Office gets more submissions each year from Asian than non-Asian applicants. Collectively, Japan, Corea and Taiwan register more patents in the U.S. than does the U.S. itself. And that doesn’t even count the large percentage of U.S. patents filed by Asian Americans. Then there are those who accept on faith that the progress leading to modern civilization was enabled by western social systems. They forget that commerce and capitalism had been thriving in Asia for a thousand years before they began taking root in Europe. Democracy is a political innovation of indisputable value, but it is hardly the foundation of social progress. Corea, Taiwan and Singapore attained industrialized status without it. China didn’t need it to pull off history’s greatest social engineering project — raising a billion souls from post-colonial destitution while building a middle class larger than Britain’s in the span of 50 years.
4. Asians disrespect women.
The western myth that Asian culture accords little respect to women appears founded on works like Madame Butterfly that pander to chauvinistic fantasies and the hunger for exotic grotesqueries. Such depictions of Asian women are typically drawn from the practices of the lower classes or anomalies created by extreme economic hardships. Images of devalued Asian women are kept alive by bargirl stories of generations of G.I.s who served tours of duty in impoverished, wartorn nations.
Add to that the countless books and articles published each year about Asian women sold into sexual slavery or wealthy Asian men with numerous concubines and mistresses. The truth is, such practices have occurred (and continue to occur to this day) in Europe and even the United States as well. Regardless of time and place, women in the lower classes tend to be victimized to a greater degree.
Comparing apples to apples, middle and upper class Asian families have traditionally placed women on an equal footing with men, albeit in differing roles. “Women hold up half the heavens” is a well-known Asian saying. Western women are expected to take their husband’s surnames at marriage. Asian women traditionally keep theirs. In western households women are often placed on an allowance. In Asian households women typically control the finances. Asian women are traditionally expected to observe outward signs of deference to husbands, but in private they are allowed to be as outspoken or even as domineering as their personalities allow. In ironic contrast, western societies expect men to show signs of deference to women in public but are often allowed to be petty tyrants at home. “A man’s home is his castle,” isn’t an Asian saying. Social constraints of duty and respect toward wives have always reached into the Asian home. The truth is that until the past half century western societies have rarely given women the level of value and dignity enjoyed for milennia in Asia.
5. Asian’s don’t value children.
Among the most damaging of misconceptions is the notion that Asians devalue their children. This belief seems to have originated from the availability of Asian children for adoption. This sad state of affairs resulted from the fact that until recently most Asian nations didn’t have American- or European-style welfare systems that pay mothers for the support of illegitimate children. Rather than raising kids in extreme poverty and with the stigma of illegitimacy, some Asian mothers have chosen to put infants up for adoption, especially in poor nations.
Today the number of babies available for overseas adoption is decreasing steadily due to the growing prosperity of Asian nations and dramatically lower birth rates. In fact, advanced nations like Japan and Corea are experiencing birthrates too low to sustain current population levels, expanding the domestic pool of couples looking to adopt.
A more telling measure of the high value Asians place on offspring is the high level of sacrifice made by Asian and Asian American parents to give kids optimal home environments and the best possible educational and social opportunities. The remarkable success of young Asian Americans in elite colleges is compelling evidence of the value Asians place on their offspring relative to other American groups.