On Firsting, APA Heritage Month, and “Paper Tigers”


The month of May is more than half over, and if you haven’t boisterously greeted the next available warm body (of whatever sex, race or ethnic origin) with a loud and celebratory “Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month,” what’s your problem?

This is our month. By law (Section 102, Title 36 of the U.S. Code). It’s right up there next to Flag Day, the day that compels many to wear a little flag on their lapels.

Since you can’t really wear a little Asian American on your lapel (OK, try it, prove me wrong), do the next best thing: a loud obnoxious very un-Asian greeting (in the same volume and key as when overly self-satisfied Caucasian colleagues brag about their accomplishments). That would be startlingly refreshing. It may even make people say something like “Gee, Nerdley, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

Of course not. They don’t think about you–ever. You’re a quiet, docile drone. Forgettable. Non-descript. Except during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month when after holding it all in and saving it for that special time, you let it all out. That’s what May is for–to go amok, if you will.

Stand out. Be a firster. You might get noticed–for sure this month. The law’s on your side.

When I talk to audiences about Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I tell them it’s not really about history or the past. Nor is it about the food and the cultural dances at all the celebrations. It’s not even about listing all the historical events or even the breakthroughs of Asian Americans going where no Asian Americans have gone before (e.g., Missouri, or space like Ellison Onizuka, first Asian American astronaut, 1985, who died in the Challenger tragedy. Or here’s a minor accomplishment, yours truly, first Asian American to host a national news radio program on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” 1989).

I see the month more about the present, and one that encourages Asian Americans to be your own “firster,” breaking out of the comfort of your own skin to go beyond the immigrants’ path toward new and interesting aspects of life that add to our group’s collective American story.

Breakthrough Moments Last Week

Ed Chen finally did it. He endured two years as a political football kicked around by Republican politicos who wouldn’t confirm his nomination to the federal bench. What did they find in the magistrate’s past that was such a deal-breaker? As an ACLU lawyer, Chen stood up for minorities as a defender of affirmative action and was vehemently opposed to English only laws. Maybe he was too good to be judge? Last week, the right-wing blockade loosened up. By a 56-42 vote, the Senate confirmed Chen, who now sits in a district that includes San Francisco, whose residents are 35 percent Asian Pacific American.

Chen wasn’t the first Asian American to be appointed federal judge. In 1971, Herb Choy earned that distinction when he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. But there is such an under-representation of Asian American federal jurists. They’re practically an endangered species, like the Decorah eagles. When they hatch, we have to watch out for them. Will Goodwin Liu, another federal nominee held up by GOP partisans in confirmation limbo, be next?

Of course, since we’re keeping score, last week was good for Chen, but bad for billionaire Raj Rajaratnam, the Sri Lankan American convicted in the Galleon insider trading case. Rajaratnam, said to be the 236th richest American, earned an additional distinction for being the principal defendant in one of the first financial cases where evidence was obtained by wiretapping.

Civil libertarians should be bothered by this, but I don’t see too many “Save Raj” demonstrators out there.

Still, consider this: Not one banker gets put behind bars for the Wall Street crisis of 2008. But hot damn, we got Raj Rajaratnam just in time for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! And look what he does to dispel that darn Model Minority myth!

Paper Tigers

Because it’s our month, watch for more Asian American breakthroughs and sightings before the end of May. It’s one big societal dump. Ignored the rest of the year, we get shoved into May like cabbage into a big egg roll. Some will mention heritage month. Others will pretend it’s just a coincidence because we always see Asian Americans get high visibility promotions, show up on TV news stories, or have their faces featured on the cover of publications like New York Magazine. Right.

That New York Magazine cover story, Wesley Yang’s “Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?” was all the buzz recently.

For the most part, I found Yang’s latter-day identity exploration engaging, where the writer contemplates his self-described “banana-ness.” (Or, if you prefer, his “twinkie-ness.”) It’s really a piece on how to succeed in America in spite of your Asian-ness. But it’s as if that’s what’s holding us back. Our Asian style, our Asian values. (It’s not.) As the writer asks, “How do you undo 18 years of Chinese upbringing?”

First, there’s the realization that our rote memorization skills are useless. (Didn’t we know that?) The test-taking hierarchy is a fraud. There is no meritocracy after college. The spoils do not go to the highest scorer, necessarily.

Yang takes us through a gauntlet of modern day remedies including J.D. Hokoyama’s LEAP program, which teaches assertiveness skills to workers who are still shut out of the boardrooms and upper management in corporate America. But Yang also features J.T. Tran, a pickup artist who teaches awkward and nerdy Asian American guys how to smile and pick up white women. Like sleeping with white women is really the answer to all our problems?

In the end, after showing us some high tech nerds who have made millions, and after giving Tiger Mom Amy Chua a “get out of jail free” card for her divisive take on extreme parenting, Yang’s advice is to rage against the stereotypes that bind us with a loud defiance. “Dare to be interesting,” is his bottom line.

I’d like to buy it, but simply raging and being interesting isn’t enough. Not if you want what some would call success. You’ve still got to work hard, be good, and get lucky.

I’ve given out similar advice myself (to “go amok” is like raging and being interesting). But that kind of risk-taking often means giving up on society’s definition of success. Creating your own norms, and not relying on someone else to define you, isn’t bad advice if you’re an individual hell bent on living your life as a rebel.

How about people simply looking to maximize their potential?

They’re the ones who have worked hard, tried their best, even stuck their head out every now and then. But no matter how they try to transcend their Asian-ness, they’re still stymied, and left half-fulfilled. You can say that’s the breaks and that life is unfair. But there’s something else going on too, that every Asian has faced since coming to America.

We don’t like to acknowledge it much these days, because we believe we can overcome it all.

For the most part we have. We’re 17 million Asian Pacific Americans, five percent of the country, with the highest median incomes, the most education, but still exposed to this thing called racism.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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