Brow Beat

A Response to Wesley Yang’s “Paper Tigers”

Paper Tigers ,”Wesley Yang’s freewheeling,gonzo cultural analysis-cum-personal rant in the latest issue of New York magazine, is ostensibly aboutthe “Bamboo Ceiling.” That’s the Asian-American corollary to the glass ceilingthat’s kept women out of executive boardrooms, Oval Offices, and othercorridors of power. Yang’s thesis is that Asian-Americans are lacking a certain… something. A certain white something. We’re too “heads down,” too devoted tothe straight-and-narrow path, too reluctant to toot our own horns. (NicholasLemann described this “cultural style” in Slate as ” too passive, not hail-fellow-well-met enough and he wrote that 15 years ago, which givesyou some sense of how well-trod this ground is.)

As the accompanying headshotsof Yang, recent college grad Jefferson Mao, restaurateur Eddie Huang, and “pickupartist” J.T. Tran make clear, this essay gazes up at that woody canopy from adecidedly male perspective. The 9,000-word piece profiles several youngAsian-American men but there is only one woman a marketer for IBM who emergesas anything near a character, though she’s far less vividly drawn than any of themales. What’s more, male sexual inadequacy is a consistent theme in Yang’slament: Failing to master the nuances of American masculinity is portrayed as akey part of the Asian-American experience. (On the question of where thatleaves us Asian-American women, Yang is silent.)

The problem here isn’tthat Yang has decided he’s most interested in writing about a handful of welleducated Asian-American men and about their professional difficulties and sexualshortcomings. It’s that he does so while claiming to be writing about “AsianAmericans” as a collective. Yang has made their problems our problems.

Take this passage, forexample. Describing an Asian-American leadership conference, Yang wonders ifthe program would help people like Jefferson Mao and Daniel Chu, two recent,academically gifted Stuyvesant High School graduates who are having troublenavigating post-college life. Yang writes:

What if you missed out on the lessons in masculinity taught in thegyms and locker rooms of America’s high schools? What if life has failed tomake you a socially dominant alpha male who runs the American boardroom andprevails in the American bedroom? What if no one ever taught you how to greetwhite people and make them comfortable? What if, despite these deficiencies,you no longer possess an immigrant’s dutiful forbearance for a secondaryposition in the American narrative and want to be a player in the scrimmage ofAmerican appetite right now, in the present?

Regarding thosefirst two sentences: Do they describe most Asian men? Or do they merelydescribe the dweebs? It is certainly possible to be both Asian-American and a dweeb, and the former identity mayinfluence the latter but does one cause the other? And if so, does it do so across the board? Yang doesn’t addressthese questions precisely enough, and it makes his cultural analysis muddy. (Perhapshe thought he’d get away with it because of the low expectations for Asian popethnography: We’re so rarely discussed in the mainstream media, everydiscussion seems fresh and insightful.)

The fact is, every individual ismarked by severaloverlapping forms of identity not just ethnicity but also gender, class , attractiveness, intelligence, and distancein time and space from the emigrant country. Ignore these other factors, asYang does, and naturally everything becomes a simple reflection of ethnicity.

In my professionallife, for example, I’ve dealt with many of the issues he describes. I’m not as assertive as I’d like to be.I often fear that I’m more tenacious than creative or canny. These areprecisely the “typical” Asian qualities Yang describes. But do I feel this way becauseI’m Asian? I could just as easily seethose issues as a reflection of my status as a woman . In reality, both factorshave probably played a role as have other aspects of my background andpersonality. Yang builds a lot of his argument on thumbnail sketches ofindividuals, and in many of those examples including his own, personal tale, which he seems to havetrouble seeing past I didn’t come away convinced that Asian-ness was the keyelement at play.

I do appreciate Yang’sattempt to undertake a wide-angle analysis. As frustrated as I’ve been withsome of thepost- Tiger Mother ethnography , it’s thrilling, and important: Mybrothers and sisters, we are having a pop culture moment! But part of me wishesYang had stuck to the topic he seems most interested in, judging by the bizarrepersonal digression he takes in the final quarter of the essay himself.

(On tomorrow’s episodeof the Slate Culture Gabfest ,I’ll be discussing this article with Julia Turner, Dana Stevens, and StephenMetcalf.)