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Your Asian Heritage Can Give You a Professional Edge

Jim Iwamatsu grew up hating the Asian stereotype of being adept in technical and academic areas but socially, culturally and verbally deficient. He resented white friends and classmates for assuming that he was quiet and unaggressive based on the old stereotype of the meek Asian. Jim strove to resist the stereotype in every facet of his life. He would rather have played video games and write programs for his computer, but he drove himself to become a respected halfback on the football team. He joined the debating team. Despite his keen interest in the biological sciences, he pushed himself toward a legal career because he considered it non-stereotypical. He got into a top-five law school and made the law review. In his third year, he accepted an offer from a prestigious downtown Los Angeles firm. He passed the bar exam and looked forward to proving that he wasn’t anything like the stereotype of the timid nerd.

The only problem was, the law wasn’t what Jim had imagined. Rather than spending most of his time in court arguing motions and trying cases, he found himself immersed in legal research, drafting motions and attending monotonous series of cookie-cutter depositions. Within four years, the practice of law had become so meaningless and boring that each day became an ordeal.

Jim’s unhappiness with the law seemed even worse in light of what he was hearing from his younger brother. Mike had always been easy-going. Studies had come last in Mike’s priorities. Throughout high school Mike spent most of his time playing video games, watching martial arts videos and tinkering with his personal computer. He managed to get into the state university but had little interest in his courses. He came to share a house with a trio of Chinese Americans who also shared his passion for martial arts and video games. They soon came to devote most of their energies to building a website featuring a collection of obscure video games.

By Mike’s junior year, the foursome had sold the website for seven figures to a Taiwanese company that developed video games for a major Japanese gamemaker. As part of the deal, Mike and his friends were hired to direct the website and to recruit budding game developers for their Taiwanese parent. Today, at the age of 28, Mike Iwamatsu is earning significantly more than the big law firm salary of his older brother Jim, 31, without even counting the stock options whose value will likely be in the seven figures once the company goes public. Most importatnly, Mike is thrilled with his work while Jim, in despair, has made the decision to leave the law to devote his savings and several more years to earning a PhD in molecular biology in hopes of getting a fresh start in a field in which he has a keen intellectual interest.

“All I want is to be working at something that makes me look forward to getting up in the morning and doing something that means something to me,” says Iwamatsu, sighing deeply. The seven years he spent in law school and the law firm wasn’t a total waste, he claims, but he does feel the time could have been spent far more enjoyably and productively had he followed his own impulses rather than his compulsion to resist stereotypes.

“Frankly, I’m at the point where I no longer give a damn what anyone thinks I should or shouldn’t be doing,” says Jim Iwamatsu. “All I care about is how I feel about the work I’m doing. Having gone into the wrong profession for the wrong reasons, I feel strongly that the key to professional happiness and success is doing what moves you.”

If we were to draw a moral from the story, it isn’t that Mike succeeded because he respected his cultural heritage while Jim didn’t. Mike merely gravitated toward what interested him and is enjoying success and professional satisfaction. Jim, on the other hand, let social pressures influence him to move away from the field that truly interested him and into a field he felt he should be interested in. As a consequence, he is forced to make a costly course correction.

The true moral is that one’s race or cultural heritage should have nothing to do with one’s career choice. Jim Iwamatsu’s story isn’t unique by any means. An entire generation of Asian Americans have been so bent on resisting the insidious stereotypes about Asians that a large percentage have sidetracked themselves into fields for which they have little personal interest. Their mistake was that they put the cart before the horse. They let their Asian heritages dictate their career choice in a negative fashion rather than making their career choice, then asking themselves what role their heritages should play in their careers.

This article won’t try to help you pick your career. That’s a decision only you can arrive at. What it will do is to help you use your Asian heritage to best advantage in your chosen profession.

Some of you might protest that prejudice is still out there and that being an Asian American is a handicap that must be addressed in any career decisions.

Are bigoted and ignorant managers and recruiters still out there? Of course. But the difference today is that they are now faced with a considerably different mission statement than in decades past. The new mission statement of the digital age puts a premium on the cultural knowledge and contacts that Asian Americans are more likely to possess than their average non-Asian American peers.

Gone are the days when American businesses see themselves as operating in a white American universe. Since the early 1970s the U.S. economy has been globalizing at a frantic pace, arguably, more rapidly than any economy in the world. The U.S. exports a quarter of its output of goods and services and buys nearly a third of its non-real-estate goods and services from overseas. The largest portion of U.S. foreign trade by dollar volume is with Asian nations — 38%. That’s more than Western Europe (28%), Latin America (19%) or the rest of the world (14%). That creates a big and growing demand for Americans with command of Asian languages, cultures and contacts who can help deal with Asian customers, suppliers and partners. For the foreseeable future, not enough qualified applicants exist to fill that demand.

The demand for Asian Americans is enhanced by the importance of the Asian American market itself. According to U.S. Census figures for the past three decades, Asian Americans have been America’s best-educated, fastest-growing, most successful and affluent group. Consider

  • Asian Americans are nearly twice as likely to have college degrees as other Americans (40% versus 22%).
  • The Asian American population will have grown a projected 85% between 1990 and 2000 while Hispanic population will have grown only 45%, African Americans 22%, Whites 3% and the overall U.S. population 11%.
  • Asian Americans are nearly twice as likely as the U.S. average to be professionals, executives or entrepreneurs (23% versus 12% average)
  • Asian Americans have the highest median household income ($47,000 versus $42,000 for all Americans)

In fact, with their high demographics the 14 million Asians in the U.S. have economic power of all of Taiwan or three-fourths of South Korea. What makes Asian Americans even more important to the business community is that we are heavily concentrated in the nation’s biggest, most important markets. For example,

  • Asians are 14.3% of the population of California, the nation’s top market, and 10.2% of the population of the New York, the second largest market.
  • The average value of new homes purchased by Asian-surnamed individuals in California is $308,000 while the overall average value of new homes purchased is only $165,000.
  • Half of all BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes sold in California are bought by Asians.
  • Asians make up 37% of the collective undergraduate student population of the 8-campus University of California system (versus only 35% Whites).

Making Asian Americans an even bigger presence on the maps of savvy corporate marketing departments, is the fact that Asian professionals are heavily concentrated in the hi-tech fields that are leading the U.S. economic boom. In every criteria that matter, Asian Americans are among the elite of the U.S. population. Next

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