Avoiding Conflicts with Asian Colleagues

Let me tell you about my first experience with an Asian colleague in a mostly white workplace. Dex was the epitome of a slick, successful corporate lawyer. He had been a Yale Law Review editor. In high school he had quarterbacked the winningest team in his high school history. He was groomed and dressed like a Versace model. He was married to a blonde who was not only a model but an MBA. Best of all, Dex seemed to like me, enough at least to give me a coveted flyback. He was taking a turn as managing partner of L.A.‘s most impressive small firm, started by four law-review editors of top-10 law schools. They had been the stars of their associate class at the state’s leading megafirm.

“You’re taking a gamble,” a third-year student warned me. “If you fit in, you’ll be on the fast-track to partnership. If you don’t, you’ll be starting from scratch when you leave.”

I was so awestruck by their charm, success and sense of style that I passed up offers from two top L.A.-area firms to join Dex and his dream team. I liked them all, fell in love with them the way summer clerks fall in love with colleagues who embody everything about which a naive law student dreams. They treated me like a younger brother. They made time to go out to lunch, to play tennis, to introduce me to famous clients, teased me mercilessly.

Trouble began from the most unexpected quarter — Dex himself. His teasing was always more biting, less smiling. Good-natured ribbing about the way he draped cashmere sweaters across his back would be greeted with retorts like, “That sweater cost more than your wardrobe!” If he felt I had pushed a joke too far or was too quick to correct a slip of the tongue, he seemed to relish putting me in my place. “Who are you?” he would say, as though peering at a botanical find. “Oh, you’re one of our summer clerks.” The other partners found his harsh responses hilarious. I found them baffling.

I chose to take Dex’s retorts as just another element of his devastating repartee. There was always a lot of kidding on all sides; I figured Dex just had a meaner, nastier way of showing affection. All that changed toward the end of my clerkship. I was doing research in the firm library. I felt a pair of cool female hands slip over my eyes and a warm, fragrant cheek press against mine. “Guess who?” One of the secretaries, was my guess. It turned out to be Dex’s wife. She had mistaken me for Dex. The awkward silence that filled the library turned to mortification when Dex strolled in and his red-faced wife felt obliged to tell the story on herself. Everyone laughed except Dex. His eyes had gone cold. My eyes returned to the Cal Reporters.

My career at Dex’s firm lasted a while longer but the seeds of my departure had been planted. Dex never lost a chance to paint me as his inferior in everything from diction to dressing. My role model had become my nemesis. Only years later did I begin to understand what happened.

A harsh reality of working with Asian colleagues is how often the pressures of working as minorities can create spurious rivalries. We typically begin with genuine warmth and empathy toward the rare Asian colleague. Instant camaraderie and a natural alliance seem possible. Who knows better our daily highwire act between asserting our ethnic identities and trying to be one of the guys? Then come the daily realities of survival and advancement in a white society.

First, come remarks like, “You seem more Americanized,” “I feel more comfortable with you,” and “You fit our office culture better.” Then come subtle questions about our eating habits, the way we dress, the way we speak English. The implied comparisons of our levels of acculturation pressure us to into petty competition to prove our American credentials. To the loser goes the prize of becoming the token. To the winner goes the burden of perpetually distancing himself from anything that seems foreign. Intra-Asian office politics puts us into a no-win situation.

So how do we avoid falling into these destructive rivalries? Here are some tips:

1. Turn the tables on competition.

Just as a rivalry built on denying our Asian heritage assures mutual self-destruction, rivalries built on asserting our heritages produce mutual advantage. “I speak better Cantonese” is liberating. “I speak better English” is debilitating. “I don’t really care for Corean food” is undermining. “I try to have at least one Corean meal a day” is self-affirming. By flipping social pressure onto its head, we can help free one another from constricting competition.

2. Be sensitive to one another’s situations.

Not even the most admired and accomplished Asian American is immune to the pressures of being a minority. I had assumed that Dex was so secure as a founding partner that he couldn’t be threatened by a mere summer clerk. What I couldn’t see was that Dex had struggled to establish his unique place among his partners. One aspect of that place was his identity as a Japanese American. In giving me a flyback he had taken more than the usual gamble; he had exposed that part of his identity. My mere presence had undermined his position. My insensitivity had forced him to reduce his exposure by becoming meaner, more acrid. In recruiting me he had put himself at risk in hopes of cultivating an ally to lessen the burden of being the firm’s only racial minority. By presuming to be overly familiar, I had taken advantage of that vulnerability. Sensitivity to one another’s positions can help make gamble’s like Dex’s pay off rather than backfire.