Confessions of a Happy Asian American

Some people bitch about being Asian in the U.S. of A. Me, I live for it. I tried joining the majority once. No, it wasn’t some experimental race-change operation. My B’wana trip was while attending UC Irvine. Being surrounded all day by people who all bore a weird resemblance to me was very Twilight Zone. It made me feel invisible, ordinary and invaded somehow, all at the same time. It was a totally new experience for a kid who grew up in one of those leafy little 20th-century villages where everyone knew me as “that crazy Chinese kid”. But I’m delighted to report that since finishing school I’ve reclaimed my minority status. Life is sweet again.

Some people will read this and think, “Probably one of those lamers who’s always working the affirmative action angle.” Not me. I’ve had the academic thing wired since nursery school. Same goes for my adult career as a marketing hotshot for a hi-tech widget maker. I’ve never needed a helping hand. So what’s my bag? Why cling so stubbornly to my minority status?

Am I the only Asian who grooves on being in the minority? I suspect not. I think a lot of you out there are nodding with a knowing smile and going, “The cat is hip. Sure hope he doesn’t blow our little scam.” Sorry to disappoint you dudes, but it’s time we shared our insights with our slower brethren before our way of life gives way to an explosion of Americanized Asians entering the professional world.

It’s like this. Why would I want to lose myself in the majority shuffle when I’ve always had it better than most Whites ever have it? At this some of you are jumping off your ergonometric swivel chairs and shouting, “Hey, you rotten banana, what about all the discrimination and hardships faced by all those poor Asians living in ghettoes? What about Vincent Chin and Jim Loo and Wen Ho Lee?”

Hey, chill for just a New York minute! I’m not saying we Asian Americans live in heaven, okay? Who does? Sure, new immigrants work like dogs, live like dogs and are often treated like dogs. But did Uncle Sam go overseas and recruit them to our shores? You sure don’t hear any of the immigrants themselves bitching! They’re damned grateful for the opportunity to come here and build a better life and they accept the sacrifices as part of the whole newcomer trip, just like my parents and your parents and Joe Dimaggio’s did. Let’s face it. The bitching is always done by professionals moaners who make a middle-class career of it. As for victims of racist violence or discrimination, it’s a bad trip but the odds of something like that hitting you and me are about like being hit by lightning on the ninth green. Sure, it happens sometimes and we could moan and worry but that’s just morbid. I want to talk real here, and morbid ain’t the same thing as real.

So where was I before I was rudely interrupted? Why do I love being in the minority? Now I am not talking about being any minority. I’m talking about being an Asian raised in the U.S. which, I assume, covers most of the people reading this. We Asian Americans enjoy some unique advantages that derive from our unique cultural heritages combined with a unique time in the history of American society and the world. But I’m not interested in getting into all the abstract socio-economic gibberish so much as pointing out some practical advantages that I have come to appreciate.

So at the risk of sounding dumb and happy, here’s my ode to the joys of being Asian American, something I only truly came to appreciate while deprived of my minority status during my years at Irvine.

An easy presumption of uniqueness has always been the best part of being Asian American. I enjoyed the presumption growing up and I have now reclaimed it as part of the 5% Asian minority at our southwestern company. In school I assumed I was different because I looked different and my parents kept reminding me of that difference. In my mind the most prominent part of that difference was my knack for getting A’s. From that it was a small step to believing I was superior in other ways — more aware, more interesting, more gutsy, tougher emotionally and physically. As a consequence I became those things, quite a schoolyard boss, not always benign, universally respected, often feared and hated. My difference was liberating. It let me get away with more and not care as much what others thought. Personal failings and personality quirks were dignified as cultural differences. The most mindless of my utterances and simple slips of the tongue were praised as inscrutible pearls of wisdom. I was SuperSlant. People may have said nasty things out of earshot but, boy, did they say the right things to my face! I may not have enjoyed the popularity and acceptance of the rich brats and the superjocks but I had my share of friends, girlfriends, camp followers, fawning teachers and approving adults.

When I started at Irvine my expectations of easy primacy slammed up against a wall of indifference. Neither the Asians nor the Whites — most of whom were California-bred — considered me unique or even particularly different. To them I was just some banana with an attitude that just wouldn’t peel. I can admit this now, healed by the passage of a decade, but at the time I went into an emotional tailspin. I couldn’t decide whether I was awakening from a beautiful dream or having a very long nightmare. Eventually I learned to tune in less attitude and turn down the bass, but damn did I miss my years of living large! It was hard to believe that I had ever hankered after an Asian-majority environment!

Naturally, I chose an East Coast business school where I hoped to revive my dormant but cherished SuperSlant identity. Imagine my surprise when I again found myself surrounded by Asians. Not quite a majority of Asians, but more than enough to kill any thought of uniqueness. I adjusted, did well, even attained a small notoriety as a live one, but it was nothing like my sweeping adolescent triumphs. I was forced to hunker down and sketch out an identity like some ordinary schmuck, with no broad-stroke presumptions to help me along. Quel drag!

So when it was time to pick my first job, I didn’t dwell on salary, stock options, working conditions, opportunities for advancement. I went for the hinterlands, the Asian-free zones where I wouldn’t get elbowed out of an identity. Soon I slammed up against a brutal fact — unless I wanted to enter a smokestack industry, there are no companies without Asians on the managerial staff! I finally settled on a company that had a few Asian execs but only outside my department. It was the best I could do.

Some of the non-Asians I work with aren’t overly impressed with my Asian-ness because they went to school with Asians or work with Asian colleagues in other departments or with Asian clients. But fortunately the majority are unspoiled enough to regard me with the expectation that I may say or do something inscrutible, odd or simply amusing. I haven’t disappointed. In return I enjoy an unusual degree of influence for someone at my level. I routinely get away with saying and doing nervy things at unexpected times. It keeps my superiors attentive, my rivals off balance, my colleagues deferential and my underlings touchingly loyal. Best of all, the chicks are practically defenseless. In their minds almost anything I do is sanctified by the weight of a four-thousand-year-old civilization. It’s unconscionable. It’s paradise! I’m back to being the ringmaster, star and sideshow of my own little circus. I’m back to being a happy Asian American!