It wasn’t until I found myself in Le Marais over spring break, engrossed in a three-hour heart-to-heart over strong Parisian coffee, that I realized how fulfilled I was. There were no meetings to run to, no career plans to lose sleep over, and no seemingly endless to-do list to check off. Being a spontaneous tourist was a refreshing change from stretching myself thin with overcommitments and my own unrealistic expectations.
In search of some mental quiet, I escaped the Princeton bubble, even home, where childhood friends, loving family, sunshine, and delicious ethnic food always await me. As much as I love sunny California, home is a constant reminder of what it means to be a successful Chinese American, given that a sizeable population of first generation immigrants (the majority from China and India) reside in the Silicon Valley, living comfortably only because they had to sacrifice immensely to get where they are today. In fact, my parents uprooted themselves in China and worked tirelessly to provide a more comfortable life for me. For that I, as a Chinese American, consider myself incredibly lucky and feel nothing but the utmost admiration towards them. But despite how inspiring these success stories are, they come at a price, heightening the expectations placed on the children of first generation immigrants.
My own uphill battle with perfectionism can be traced back to an only child’s quest for success that seems to follow me in every aspect of my life. Before learning long division, I could already name a list of family friends attending the best schools in the nation. My uncharacteristically large Chinese thighs were the source of many backhanded compliments for how “sturdy” I was, and the guilt and frustration that brought me all too frequently to the little black and white scale in my bathroom. Recently, I have fruitlessly defended my own career ambitions (of ending up in advocacy or public service) against “practical” ones often imposed by my surroundings. My harshest critics have dismissed my concerns as petty and insensitively privileged, but in light of Amy Chua’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month speech as well as the Arianna Huffington and Anne-Marie Slaughter conversation about redefining success, I think that there are some key underlying issues facing Asian Americans that need to be addressed. Through extensive introspective reflection and long talks with friends sharing the same challenges, I now seek to reclaim “success”.
Many Chinese Americans can relate to the family friend potluck scene where parent conversation inevitably turns to the recent slew of impressive college admission decisions or career paths of ambitious partygoer sons and daughters. Parents engage in sharing secrets to success, as if there is one recipe for every child (presumed to have the same interests and personality) to secure a spot at a top university and “make it” in life. It doesn’t help that among Chinese parents, Amy Chua and hubby Jeff Rubenfeld’s recent book has a devout following in that it supports the belief that there somehow exists a magic formula to becoming a successful minority in the U.S. The authors claim that there is a “triple package” for actualizing the “American Dream” — a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. In Chua’s elucidating speech at Princeton, she shared that equally as important as the triple package is discovering one’s own passions and rebelling through creativity that sets individuals apart, two nuanced yet highly significant arguments that many Asian American parents simply disregard when laying down draconian law around the house. There is nothing wrong with parents wanting a better life for their children. However, these well-intentioned desires often create a harmful pressure cooker environment that promotes highly unrealistic achievement goals and even high rates of adolescent depression and suicide when Asian American children struggle to make their parents’ sacrifices “worthwhile.” My dad and I joke that I need to be at least ten times as successful as him, given all that he’s provided for me. All humor aside, my fear of disappointment and letting my parents down is a genuine one that had me fixated on doing whatever it took to do everything well, and often effortlessly well.
Formulas for attaining success are dangerous because they feed into the “Asian model minority myth,” which is the false notion that somehow all Asian Americans or immigrants attain a higher level of material success than the average American. Not all Asians are the same, yet they are lumped into a category of superhuman achievers, as it was first discussed on NBC’s Nightly News. Politicians have used the model minority myth to justify reducing public services like welfare, bilingual education and community development programs for at-risk Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotian populations. Socioeconomically vulnerable Asian American populations are thus confined to obscurity and deprivation, when compared to their Chinese, Korean, and Japanese American counterparts who earn six or seven digit salaries and drive around their luxury sedans. A more benign yet equally problematic consequence of the “model minority myth” is the ease with which many typecast Asian Americans. I personally do not find it flattering to be pegged as a pre-med or math major everywhere I go. Making snap assumptions about my talents and characteristics doesn’t qualify me as human being with unique quirks, but rather confines me to a narrow mold. Envisioned as robotic overachievers, Asian Americans may be envied, but are not well liked.
As communities like the Silicon Valley depict, some Asian Americans obtain high levels of family income and education. There is no reason not to be proud of this; however, fixation on success has grave ramifications when it is reinforced on the individual level, within the home, and by the broader American public, further entrenching often untrue stereotypes. Asian Americans may be expected to achieve the American Dream easily, quietly, and effortlessly, with no license to complain. Yet we still face “bamboo ceilings,” which are the racial barriers unique to the Asian American experience that hinder career advancement. To this, income and educational return gaps fail to go away for Chinese, Japanese and Korean Americans. Further, it’s still hard to come by Asian American politicians, artists, athletes, and A-list movie stars, limiting the number of Asian American idols that young people have access to look up to. In a rather controversial episode of the The View, Chinese American news anchor Julie Chen shared her plastic surgery procedures that allowed her to conform to a more western definition of beauty in the name of career advancement. Asian Americans are pegged to have “made it,” yet are not viewed as true-blooded Americans- we just happen to be successful.
Reclaiming what it means to be a successful Chinese American gives me new perspective and invigoration to bridge my cultural roots with a redefined outlook emphasizing fulfillment. Coming to terms with the fact that it’s not always possible for me to always look put together, ace my classes, and pursue formulaic career goals hasn’t exactly been easy. But, I am beginning to grasp that success can no longer the be-all and end-all, nor should it continue to connote misaligned expectations from my surroundings. There is no quick-fix solution, and at the end of the day, what I find most fulfilling is the process of self-growth and giving back along the way. Finding my voice has been incredibly empowering and I hope this journey of mine will play a part in spreading awareness about the often complicated and concealed realities, double standards, challenges that many Asian Americans will inevitably confront.