Wrong Country Wrong Culture

After four years of college, I’ve been to my share of job fairs. During long hours of waiting on queues to talk to job recruiters, you can’t help but overhear a few things. I’ve heard enough elevator pitches to fill a congressional filibuster, some good, some bad, and others where I silently shook my head and asked myself, what in god’s name was the kid talking about? Many times, I see Asian American kids walking in, handing the recruiter a resume, being told to apply online, and walking away from the recruiter without making so much as an attempt at raising rapport; rinse and repeat. Well if all we had to was apply online, why would the companies pay money to have a sandwich board rep stand and talk to applicants? The diminutive Asian American stereotype is particularly guilty, especially when the job recruiter isn’t instantly blown away by their GPA – the Asian American recruit ends up looking like a one trick pony. This is a problem that seems much less prevalent among the youth of main-stream America. Can the cultural divide between the American and traditional Asian upbringing, be so wide that it blows back on their livelihood? We might be on to something here.

Take, if you will, the standard Asian work mentality. For those unfamiliar with this routine, it goes something like this: 1. Work hard 2. Keep your head down 3. Pick up your check. Repeat this process enough and you’ll get what’s due. That’s the mantra that Asian American kids are taught growing up. In a complete meritocracy, this holds true, but the United States is by no means a complete meritocracy: The one who screams the loudest here is often the one who ends up with the turkey leg.

From a very young age, Asian kidsIMG_0491 are taught that grades are the gospel. They worship them from the day they start elementary school to the day they ship off to the Ivy Leagues. What they’re not taught, however is the importance of speaking out. By age thirteen we have a generation of shy introverts who can barely muster the courage to look an adult in the eye. It’s not the kid’s fault. And although people naturally jump towards blaming the parents, it’s not their fault either. Like a divorce with irreconcilable differences, no one’s to blame here. However, there’s no denying that the issue exists. When the issue becomes so obvious on the national scale, ignoring it is the equivalent to pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.

Being an academically focused introvert is by no means a bad thing. However if you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder, that one-dimensional focus may end up costing you. The values of one society, which can play a key part to success in one culture, do not always transIMG_1649late into success in another. When immigrants arrive in the United States, they impart their old values onto their offspring. In many cases, these values have served Asian Americans well as a whole. But there have been less amicable consequences.

While 5% of Americans identify themselves as Asian, less than 2% of the executive roles in fortune 500 companies note themselves to be of Asian descent (According to a 2011 report from Work-life policy). This statistic is somewhat lopsided considering that Asian Americans have the greatest percentage of degree-holders who have attained a bachelor’s degree or better. What traditional values may do is land young Asian Americans a job. It’ll ensure they have a stable living as a high end wage earner, but what it won’t do is impart the tricks of the trade that will push them into upper management.

Let’s look at the converse example, if an American businessman were to try to succeed in a traditional Chinese business structure, he would face the roadblocks of a bureaucracy strictly based on seniority and ranking. The informal day to day banter between employer and employee would be taboo and his likely attempts to express his discomfort, which would have almost certainly manifested themselves by this point, would be disregarded as the ramblings of an “upstart.”

The key phrase here is adapt or die. Features of different cultures that carry over, can and often do bring a fresh set of perspectives to the table; that’s the beauty of a globalized industry. But we can’t afford to ignore the differences that chafe when different value systems collide. For some, this may mean going against deep-set convictions that were engrained from a very young age. For others this may not be a problem at all. What we need to take away from this is: although there exists differences in values that stem from diverse upbringings, we still need to recognize what’s needed to succeed in a new environment with a different set of rules, and adapt accordingly. To do anything less is insanity.


Ode to Old Town


Chinatown, Portland

“I wish they’d stop calling this place Chinatown,” said Jeff, the owner of the faux museum. After taking a deep sigh, he continues, “The city really needs to do something to attract the Asians back to this area. They’ve all moved.”

I met Jeff on my first visit to Portland’s Old Town, or what is more commonly known among the hippie lovin’ locals as Chinatown. You would have thought it was a post-apocalyptic homeless shelter if it weren’t for the ostentatious, large gate that commonly adorns Chinese neighborhoods around the country. The Chinese characters for Portland Chinatown are etched across the black sign that hangs from a bright red arch, supported by two bold columns. At the feet of the gate, two intricately decorated stone fierce lions… and a homeless encampment known as Right2Dream2.

The great "Hung Far Low" sign stands as a reminder of a noble past. The Restaurant itself is no longer.

The great “Hung Far Low” sign stands as a reminder of a noble past. The Restaurant itself is no longer.

I ventured through the gates eager-handedly with my Nikon D-40, but moments after, I felt more inclined to hide it away in my bag. The streets of Chinatown were cluttered with gangs of homeless people, lying across the pavement and huddling under bus stops. I quickly snapped photos of rusted, worn Chinese architecture, and the iconic cheerful restaurant sign, “Hung Far Low – Chop Suey” – I was sad to learn the restaurant had long been closed down.  “Kill all the Chinese!” yelled a skinny, fist swinging, vagrant. Unphased, I looked ahead, walking past him and his junkie skateboarding crew.

An abandoned grocery store, a couple of strip clubs and bars – that is what years of tradition have amounted to. I continued down the dystopian landscape until I encountered an old building, the Faux Museum (It was a pretty lame museum. And I’m a very tolerant person).  “Hey! Come on in!” yelled Jeff. He was a skinny gray haired lanky man. Stereotypical Portland. After a brief exchange of introductions, I had to ask.

“So, if this place is called Chinatown, where are all the Chinese people?”
Jeff looked at me with a shake of his head. “They all left. There’s really nothing Chinese about this place.”

At night, Chinatown is bustling with teens and the middle aged trying to get into bars and clubs. But it was nothing like the Chinatown I was used to. The smell of fresh fish markets, the tune of unintelligible Chinese shouting, and the bustling vibe of busy elderly ladies pushing little grocery carts is my dream of the past. That term will always have a place in my heart.


Few and in between shops from the old days

The Chinese community of Portland grew with the transcontinental railroad, and unfortunately disappeared with it as well. Is this the fate of Chinatowns across America? I lament how the street cobblers, food carts, soy milk shops, cafés, and dumpling houses lining the crowded streets of my childhood will eventually be gone; gentrified, hipsterfied, and unwoven from the urban fabric.

“Gentrification is natural. And I think it’s a good thing, because it’s these towns that are preventing them (ethnic communities) from Americanizing,” says one of my friends. The topic of race came up as we were having lunch, and she ardently believed that gentrification is a positive phenomenon. And she’s not alone in this thought. Many of my friends of all backgrounds share the same opinion.

But that’s not the case. Neither immigrants nor their children use the Asian community as a crutch. Legislation and racism during the gold rush and ‘yellow peril’ forced immigrants into the small boundaries we know as Chinatowns today. We’ve moved beyond that for sure, and now these ethnic communities are an extremely important resource for immigrants. Without language barriers and cultural differences, it’s a place where they can continue building their future.

My penniless mother came to America during the 1980s, not knowing English, having only a high school education, and not having any real skills. My dad didn’t even finish high school. While he worked as a cab driver day and night, my mother went through training at the Chinatown Manpower Project (An organization dedicated to providing career services; my mother got her first job as a typist through CMP). My grandma helped out the family by working as a home attendant through another community employment organization. There were family education events about the public school system. Because of these resources, my family was given the opportunity for social mobility, and I was able to grow up comfortably (albeit with tiger mom schooling).

Today, the racism that established the need for these communities is nowhere near that of the 1900s. Racial trust is no longer pertinent today – and as communities prosper, individuals are more likely to open their own small storefronts to compete with legacy businesses. In that sense, gentrification is natural.

What you see in today’s Chinatowns is a different story: beautiful modern tall buildings and classy storefronts in the center of old worn architecture are all part of the expanding SoHo district. Government incentives for larger and wealthier businesses to move into the neighborhood are not natural. Menus solely in English and $10-$20 lunches do not serve the community, but instead, draw in a wealthier middle class and displace residents. Many of my friends have moved to the more affordable neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn.

As I walk through Old Town, I see a stark reflection of what could someday be New York City’s Chinatown – A dead town during the day, a red light district at night.