Asian Americans, Bamboo Ceilings and the Immigrant Strategy

Bamboo Ceilings continue to plague Asians and Asian Americans. Everyone’s got their own thoughts on why it happens, but the opinions generally reflect a very basic idea: Asians are just bad at self promotion.

It’s true. Ever since I was a little boy, my parents taught me the immigrant strategy. “Whenever you encounter a problem, you should adapt and work hard,” my mother always said. “Don’t complain. And don’t brag.” These lessons were likely learned by my parents who realized that if you’re an immigrant in America, it’s best to keep a low profile, adapt yourself to your circumstances, and work insanely hard. It’s probably why so many highly educated immigrants happily take on labor intensive jobs, like working at the dry cleaners or at a convenience store. It’s also probably why so many children of immigrants attend prestigious schools.

The immigrant strategy gives you a dominant advantage when it comes to school and tests. Complaining about how your essay was unfairly graded is unlikely to help you earn your way into a prestigious college. Bragging about your meager MCAT score won’t help you get into medical school. But figuring out your shortcomings and working insanely hard works wonders (although, as I’ve written before, it’s not a flawless strategy). The immigrant culture idolizes these values.

But at the same time, the strategy is terrible in the corporate world, especially if you’re trying to advance. I remember when I was interning at a law firm, I avoided the big, high profile corporate securities matters in favor of the smaller employment law cases. “I’m just not experienced enough,” I’d tell myself, “and what if I make a mistake? Might as well learn slowly, and one day I might be good enough.” Meanwhile, my non-Asian colleagues were all climbing all over each other to get some of the highly coveted securities work. Apparently they were not infected by the same insecurities as I was. What should I have done?

Suggestions abound. The author of the article says “Asian Americans need to pitch and promote themselves in an elegant way to improve others’ perception of our race.” Other articles say things along the lines of “learn how to network,” or “take on leadership roles,” or “be more outspoken.” They all make sense. In Corporate America, the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. I should demand to be placed on the high-profile, important matters while attending law firm social events and work hard to impress the higher ups.

The ironic part is that by listening to these commentators, I’m actually diagnosing my problem and adapting to my circumstances. As I try to move ahead in the world, it turns out that I’m following the very same immigrant strategy that worked for my parents.

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About Lexington

Lexington is the son of immigrants who came to the United States from Taiwan. He was born and raised in New York City, the immigrant capital of the world. In his free time, he blogs about law, his childhood, and his observations about people at
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