The Asian American focus on test scores and reinforcing the bamboo ceiling

by doorhalfopen

I’m sure by now many of you have heard of the New York Magazine article by Wesley Yang, Paper Tigers: What happens to Asian-American overachievers once test-taking ends?. It’s very long and has drawn a lot of criticism. The writer is uncompromising in the points he makes, which is one reason why the article generated so much buzz. It’s not hard to see why, with passages like this:

But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it.

Did an Asian American just generalize Asian Americans? That seems to be a major problem with this article right off the bat. If the writer wasn’t Asian himself, there would be masses of people out for his blood. As a result, a lot of responses are aimed at what was wrong with his points.

The problems with his writing and point of view are thoroughly covered in the many responses to it, such as the ones I linked to above. Instead of that, I want to focus on the points he does make, the issues that he does shine light on. After all, he is taking what he sees around him and interpreting it, with a few assumptions and generalizations thrown in. Biased as it might be, it’s still based on observation and I think it’s worth exploring.

Something that I heard in the workplace recently got me thinking. I was speaking with a coworker about someone else in the office, who I have yet to meet. My coworker is Caucasian, and has always been respectful, especially when it comes to sensitive issues like sexual orientation or race. In describing this person, my coworker mentions “he speaks very authoritatively—for an Asian guy”. He did apologize immediately after, in case I took offense. I didn’t, because I was too busy thinking about who in my network I would call an authoritative Asian guy. I couldn’t come up with very many.

One of the criticisms against the article is that Wesley Yang is saying we should make ourselves more “white” in order to progress, to be more “American”, and are dismissing the article due to this.  Let’s forget about him for a moment. I have a lot of Asian friends, and I am not always keeping track of the habits and behavior of each one. At least, not actively doing so. I went ahead and gave it a try.

My friends are not “faceless” or “nameless”, but are they generally less animated than those of other races when speaking? Do they seem more quiet and reserved? I can’t perform a study or anything, but looking back I am inclined to answer “yes”. Of course I am not insulting my friends, but is it not interesting to think about why these differences exist? And if we can somehow figure out the cause, is it something we should change? What effect would this have for Asian Americans in, say, the workplace?

Assertiveness, enthusiasm, and confidence are not “white” characteristics. One recurring theme on this blog is that our community should not work to break stereotypes, but respect diversity within our community. I don’t think our community is filled with faceless, nameless faces. However, from my own observation (which is inevitably subject to my own biases), there is a disproportionately large number of Asians who are quiet and reserved, who have a severe lack in self-confidence. From the conversation with my coworker, I also realized that I see very few Asian Americans who have, either developed or just inherent in their personality, the qualities that would make them great leaders.

It’s not really possible to write on a topic this broad without including lots of holes, so for the sake of discussion let’s assume the following are true. We can then focus on a very specific and (possibly) disproportionately large subsection of the Asian American community.

  1. A leader must be assertive, distinguished, and passionate. These three things don’t make a leader, leaders have these characteristics.
  2. A good portion (> 50%) of Asians get into their school due entirely to test scores and grades.
  3. Asians focus on tests and grades at the heavy expense of everything else in their lives
The conclusion we can derive from this is simple. Because test scores got a majority of Asians into their schools, they are more likely to focus on classes and test scores. Because of the focus on tests and classes, which do not teach them to be assertive, distinguished, and passionate, they do not gain leadership skills. As a result, Asians do not become leaders. This is clearly an oversimplification, and simple overarching explanations like these are probably why Wesley Yang received received so much negative feedback. Of course there are a lot of people who don’t follow the second and third assumptions, but that’s not the point. We are talking about the people who do.Yang provides examples where schools that place heavy emphasis on test scores for admission end up accepting a very high percentage of Asian students. There is some empirical evidence of this in my own surroundings. I see this happening to schools in Cupertino, for example, so I am confident that it happens. Drawing a second conclusion based on my own experiences, if the focus on test taking doesn’t directly hinder Asian Americans’ ability to succeed in the real world, I believe it’s at least correlated.
There’s something called the bamboo ceiling in corporate America. Yang describes it well in his article.
The researcher was talking about what some refer to as the “Bamboo Ceiling”—an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership.

This isn’t something he made up. It’s something that every Asian I’ve met who has been in Silicon Valley for over twenty years is very familiar with. They were almost all immigrants when they started their career here, and there were probably many other factors at play–cultural differences, language barriers, etc. In a way the bamboo ceiling for people who grew up overseas, while not fair, is a little more understandable.What about their kids? Having spent their lives here, they speak English at a young age, are immersed in American culture, and grow up the same way non-Asian kids do. Therefore they should be fully integrated into our community, right? Not necessarily. After all, they are brought up under the roofs of these people. Many of these parents did not grow up going to American schools. As a result, they may be inclined to treat education for their children the same way they treated education themselves when they were younger.

From my limited knowledge of Hong Kong’s school system, it is developed in such a way that most schools look primarily at exam scores to determine admission. This isn’t just college; it includes middle schools and high schools as well. Many Asian countries follow a similar system. Naturally, the parents who had to pass these exams to get where they are now will pass it onto their kids. In addition, many of them came to the US to create a brighter future for their children, and one major step in achieving this is to make sure the next generation’s future is secure.

This is when the test taking comes in. Getting the kids into good schools will give them valuable degrees required to secure a great job and do the parents proud. Making sure the children admitted to a great school is not a preference; it’s a requirement. At least that’s how it might sound on paper.

And yet the numbers tell a different story. According to a recent study, Asian-­Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents. There are nine Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies.

So what exactly is the problem here? Assuming that good test-taking will get people to good schools, and good schools will lead to success in the workplace, we should be seeing very different results. Somewhere along this process, an assumption has turned out to be false. The bamboo ceiling is affecting people who were born and raised in America, who understand the culture and speak perfect English. What the parents originally thought was holding them back, and made an effort to correct for their children, is not making the impact that they had hoped.This helps us narrow it down a little. In Yang’s article he writes that culture may still be playing an effect, but not as glaringly obvious. Instead of the superficial differences–manners, vocabulary, etc.–could it be that a fundamental piece of the individual’s behavior, shaped by Asian cultures, is limiting their success in the workplace? One example brought up in the article is the classic classroom scenario–Asian students do not speak up or ask questions in the presence of a group. Again there is no data to support a claim like this; it’s based on observations of my own as well as many of my peers (including my mom). Someone who does not speak up or ask questions is not someone that people generally associated with leadership.
 “So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”

The tendency not to speak up is an example, but too specific to be the culprit. It’s more of an indication of the cause, which I believe has to do with perspective. Attitudes that are frowned upon in Asian cultures may be a key to success in the US. Different cultures inevitably have different standards, and whether one is superior over another is up to debate. It is not necessary to abandon one culture entirely for another. If the objective of moving to the US is to find success here though, it important to understand which parts of the culture should be passed onto next generation of Asian Americans and which parts need revision. If all the data cited in Yang’s article is true, then a lot of these parents are focusing on the wrong thing. One part of the article that I liked in particular was his comparison between two Asian proverbs and a common saying in English:
“The loudest duck gets shot” is a Chinese proverb. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is a Japanese one. Its Western correlative: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Continuing with this metaphor, these parents are more focused on how to make the wheel look like the others, rather than what gets the other wheels grease. In America, you must be heard to be noticed, and you must be noticed in order to be truly successful. While the Asian American population continues to grow steadily, it looks to me like there is a steady stream of immigrant families who continue to be unaware of this. Ultimately, I feel like this contributes a lot–maybe even the most– to the bamboo ceiling we still see today. Racism is definitely still part of it, but it’s hard for me to believe it would continue to be so severe if these Asian parents spent a little less time concentrating on getting their kids into the best schools and a little more time thinking about how to help them integrate into society. This can include encouraging the kids to socialize with different racial groups, teaching them more about different cultures, or anything else that gives them an understanding of people in the US in general. Test scores are important too, but showing them that you care about things other than school can do a great deal in reducing the bamboo ceiling in the long run.

How to actually accomplish this is up to the parent of course, so I won’t get into that.

I had a lot of trouble planning out this blog entry because there is a lot to nitpick about. What if it’s better for society to accept different types of leaders instead of striving for the typical American archetype of a leader? What if there were classes that could teach anyone to be confident, social, and dominant? What if the proportion of Asian parents pushing for high test scores to this extreme is the same as any other race? Clearly I don’t have enough information to prove or disprove these (does anyone?). What I hoped to accomplish here is to look at more specific groups and to apply some of Wesley Yang’s points. Seeing it through this point of view, I believe he makes some good points. He didn’t inject as much personal opinion into the article as might have been suggested on the first page. He took a look at many different groups and individuals that each had different niches but ultimately just want things to be better for our community. He drew his conclusions based on what he saw and how he grew up.

That’s sort of what I do myself. From my own perspective, many Asian families haven’t been in the US long enough to know that great test scores only help bring success in the short run. This might not be creating a bamboo ceiling, but it is definitely making it harder to break. It is fine to agree or disagree. The most important thing that we should do, and perhaps the most positive outcome of the article, is create discussion about this topic. It seems like the only thing someone like me can do to help the community regarding this issue is to generate awareness. Once enough of us think about what else can be done to help our children break barriers like the bamboo ceiling (since the current solutions aren’t working), we will see results. Until then, keep arguing and discussing.