The Shadow Side to Being an Asian American Over Acheiver

Andy* a 34 year old Taiwanese American living in San Francisco, could easily be seen as a person who has “made it”. A UX designer at a prominent company, he spent 7 years steadily climbing the career ladder, receiving much praise and acknowledgement for his artistic talents and focused work ethic.

But shortly after he became promoted to a senior position, he realized that he was completely miserable.

Amazed, I asked him, “How did this happen?”

Andy took me back to his childhood. As a teenager, Andy hardly had any spare time for a social life because he was too busy with school and extracurricular activities. His parents, who were worried when they saw too many B’s on his report card, put him through hours of after school Kumon tutoring, SAT prep courses that started in the sixth grade, violin lessons, Mandarin lessons, and sports. He was given math textbooks to read over the summer. He became a hardworking perfectionist, conditioned to strive for the best.

Andy’s story is common for today’s young people in an increasingly competitive society. We see a lot of concern in the media about whether we are putting our youth through too much stress in school without enough consideration for their emotional wellbeing. Parents are encouraged to look for warning signs of excessive anxiety in their children, and many schools incorporate “socio-emotional learning” within their curriculum.

But if you ask an Asian American family, you might hear that it’s entirely appropriate and necessary to push our kids to excel and reach high goals with a hearty dose of tough love. On the recent hit show “Glee”, there was a memorable episode called “Asian F,” where Asian American character Mike Chang is scolded by his father for getting an A- on a chemistry exam.

That’s right, an A- is equivalent to an Asian F.

Despite the exaggeration, the story resonated with many former Asian kids. They remember what it was like to be reminded of their immigrant parents’ struggle and sacrifice, so that they could have a better life. Even if they didn’t receive the messages overtly, immigrant children are likely to feel that their family’s future weighs on their shoulders. Being smart, hardworking, and studious is the only way to a bright and secure future.

As a result, Asian American college enrollment and academic achievement has surpassed that of any other race including whites, demonstrating the immense value of this type of parenting. The media has highlighted the phenomenon of Asian American success as either a sign of great accomplishment, or a threat to American security.

But lately, people have started to pay attention to its emotional cost. Research shows high instances of depression and suicide among Asian American high school and college students, a fact often masked by their achievements. A recent study at Cornell University found that among 21 on-campus suicides between 1996–2006, 13 were Asian American. A task-force and outreach center was created at the school specifically to address the needs of their Asian American students.

In 2002, San Francisco’s Lowell High School lost 16-year old Thomas Hoo , described as a “seemingly untroubled” teen, whose hidden depression led to his suicide. Lowell High School is the most competitive public high school in San Francisco that selects its students based on merit and academic performance. Their student body is predominantly Asian American. More recently, Palo Alto experienced a spike in suicides among upper-middle class high school youth, many of them Asian.

Being good at school doesn’t mean you’re good at life, and we often overlook this fact. Asian American students frequently fall under the radar when screening for mental health issues in schools.

Andy said that he never questioned what it was that he wanted for himself. In complying with his parents’ demands, Andy developed the strengths he needed to meet similar high standards in college and graduate school, although always driven by a perpetual feeling of inadequacy.

It wasn’t until he started his career when his mental strategies started to fail him.

“When you’re in school, there’s a sense that you’re stressed out now, but at least there’s an end in sight. But when you apply that same mentality to work, you realize there is no end. The way that you’ve always done things, it’s not sustainable. You look into the future and think, ‘Am I going to do this until I retire?” And that’s when the hopelessness sets in.”

Like Thomas Hoo’s story, Andy’s perfectionist battle with himself went unnoticed. Feeling disconnected from his colleagues, he became irritable, resentful, and even developed serious physical symptoms, including tendonitis from computer-related repetitive stress.

One day, he finally decided he had to do something about it.

“I realized that all of the rewards in the world won’t make me feel good about the work I was doing.

“I had this feeling that I’m missing out on a whole world of emotions that I don’t know how to express,” Andy explained. He decided to begin personal therapy and career coaching to think about what it would mean to live and work for himself and not others.

His journey to find himself began, and he now works in a different field.

Beneath the image of the hardworking, successful Asian American, people like Andy have complex and nuanced desires and feelings that are a part of what makes them human. A lifetime of avoiding failure and disappointment can prevent one from ever sharing who they are inside- and as we’ve seen, the consequences can be deadly.

The truth is, if we don’t allow ourselves to make mistakes and disappoint others, we won’t be able to ever know who we are beyond what people expect us to be. And that is never a sustainable way to live.

Perhaps a better way to thank our parents for all that they’ve done for us, is to show them that we’re not afraid of failing. Every once in a while, that is.

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality


Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

(Originally published for Psychology Today)

“If you are male, above 6 feet and white, those are the 3 factors that help you be successful in America.”

Sam, a Korean American in San Francisco who is Vice President of a software start-up, says this to me without a hint of doubt in his voice. He has spent enough time in corporate America to know that this is just the way it is.

According to a recent survey with Asian American men across the country, 62% surveyed believe that there are race-related obstacles blocking their own career advancement.

To be clear, Asian Americans have a high representation in white-collar, professional work settings, unlike Black and Latinos who are still a slim minority. But research shows that while Asians make up almost 30% of the workforce in Silicon Valley, only 13% are represented in management and executive levels.

In the media, they call this the “bamboo ceiling.” In a city as diverse as San Francisco, with an Asian population that has surpassed 33%, one would assume there would be proportionately higher Asian leadership. But this is not the case.

Asian Americans are seen as great employees, but still have a long way to go to be the leaders. As a psychotherapist in the Bay Area who works with Asian American professionals, I decided to interview other men to find out how this image may impact their lives.

Sam is fortunate to be 6’2, yet he nevertheless has had his share of being judged by his Asian “younger” appearance, especially when he was first starting out in his career. “I used to be rounder and baby-looking. I was always being asked how old I was, and having to justify my experience and qualifications.”

As he spoke, I couldn’t help but nod in silent understanding. Asian Americans of all genders can relate to the irritating “How old are you?” question. From time to time, getting carded at the bar or asked if I’m still in school can be an annoying, yet harmless, interaction.

But at work, it’s different.

Being perceived as young and asked how old you are by your coworkers and managers can also be felt as a demeaning insult to your intelligence and competence, as well as cause considerable doubt in yourself. Now, just imagine how much more difficult it might be in a work setting where all of your superiors are white.

For Martin, a Chinese American who works in finance management at a law firm, his frustration is clear.

“My biggest trouble is trying to tell these people that I’m capable of the same things as the managers. I’ve asked to be promoted 3–4 times already. I get the feedback, but nothing really comes. At times it really got to me and I wondered whether it was worth it to continue.”

Martin wants to be a manager and later run his own company, but feels there is little opportunity for him to grow. The law firm where he works has very few Asian employees, and all of the managers are white.

Like Sam, Martin noted his young appearance and short height as a limitation and obstacle in being recognized for his talents. Additionally, he has a quiet, reserved personality that doesn’t fit with the culture of social extraversion among white leadership.

Martin isn’t hopeful that things will change. He told me, “If I didn’t have a family to provide for, I’d pack my bags and leave.”

If Sam and Martin feel that white men are the image of success, then they are each likely to wonder how he, an Asian American man, can prove his worth, despite the fact that he does not look the part.

Proving yourself can become an infinite struggle.

Several men I interviewed described how they tend to “overcompensate”, to feel they have to work harder than white men in order to gain the same credibility and chance to level up. This can lead to resentment, increased anxiety, fits of anger, and disruption to work-life balance and personal relationships.

The Solution?

Is the struggle worth it? Maybe.

But instead of working yourself to death to get the respect you seek, it might be more efficient to change what you do have control over, which is how you see yourself. Beliefs about yourself are powerfully influential, driving your thoughts and actions on a mostly unconscious level. While it’s important to validate the reality of race and discrimination, being able to examine your own role in shaping that reality is where empowerment begins.

Here are a couple steps you can take to break out of the bamboo ceiling:

1. Find Your People. You are not alone! Connect with other Asian American professionals and seek out role models and mentors who can relate to your experience.

2. Be Seen and Heard at Work. Sit at the table, as Sheryl Sandberg advises women. Take risks to do things you’ve never done.

3. Go Deeper. It is often frustrating to hear others say that the onus is on you to take responsibility when the larger society gets let off the hook. If left unaddressed, these feelings can seep their way into your personal and professional life, secretly sabotaging opportunities for success. In these times, speak to a therapist to examine the thoughts and feelings that hold you back.

Asian men (and women) have the potential to be great leaders, managers and CEOs. But first, they must see it within themselves.

To learn about building confidence and developing leadership skills or share your own story, email I’d love to hear from you.