Why You Should Never Listen to Asian American "Writers" of Angst

[Note: This post is a reaction to Wesley Yang's article on New York Magazine, titled "Paper Tigers".]

First, I have to clarify and apologize for my use of the term "Writer" in this post. I myself am a writer of sorts. Obviously, I like writing. I would not have spent years writing a blog for a hobby otherwise. I also admire other good writers. I voraciously consume their works and attempt to improve my own writing by emulating them.

But, in my mind, there are writers, and there are "Writers" -- and I hope that the capitalization in the term "Writers" makes clear that the term, as I define it, does not refer to people who write for living or people who enjoy writing. My definition of Writers points to a peculiar breed of writers, frequently encountered in places like New York. The defining characteristic of Writers is their undeserved sense of self-importance. "Writers," for one reason or another, have achieved little or nothing in their lives. But that does not stop them from assuming their air of smug arrogance. In fact, in their little universe, the nothingness of their being is a perverted evidence of their genius, so far ahead of their time that the lowly world does not understand. So they often hate the world, and hate their parents who set the world order. They hack away toward building a masterpiece that, in their minds, even the stupidest of the people with whom they are forced to share the oxygen will not be able to deny. A handful of them do succeed, but most fail. Even those who succeed often leave a trail of misery for themselves and their family and friends in the wake.

I know Writers well because I have a lot of Writer within myself. I read a ton of books as a child, and I have always written well. I received a lot of praise and compliments from my teachers and parents of my friends for my reading and writing habit. As an elementary and middle school student, I was one of those insufferable 12 year olds who thought he got everything in life figured out because the grownups could not answer his clever little questions. Left unchecked, I would have been a Writer too -- the kind that bloviates on the unfair world that fails to recognize my genius, the kind that wonders why the stream of praises and compliments stopped coming just because I am no longer a 12-year-old smart aleck but a 30-year-old college graduate without a job.

Instead, I received enough good education from my parents and my schools to know that the world is full of people who are smarter than I -- and they spend less time bragging about it. I learned that B-students routinely beat the snot out of A-students in life with unrelenting diligence and effort, that nothing in life will be handed to me just because I can put together a set of some pretty sentences. I might yet change my job and make my living by writing things, but I will never become a Writer. In fact, my pen name for this blog -- The Korean -- is a self-mockery of my Writerly tendency that still rears its head from time to time. On this blog, I constantly engage in a third-person speak to remind myself how ridiculous I sound if I started taking myself too seriously.

(More after the jump)

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Reading Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers" makes clear that Yang is a classic example of a Writer. Yang's description of his own "career" speaks for itself:
I wanted what James Baldwin sought as a writer—“a power which outlasts kingdoms.” Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world’s business. Who does not seek after material gain. Who is his own law.


Throughout my twenties, I proudly turned away from one institution of American life after another (for instance, a steady job), though they had already long since turned away from me. Academe seemed another kind of death—but then again, I had a transcript marred by as many F’s as A’s. I had come from a culture that was the middle path incarnate. And yet for some people, there can be no middle path, only transcendence or descent into the abyss.

I was descending into the abyss.

All this was well deserved. No one had any reason to think I was anything or anyone. And yet I felt entitled to demand this recognition. I knew this was wrong and impermissible; therefore I had to double down on it.
(Emphases mine.)

But Yang is not simply a Writer -- he is an Asian American Writer, which means his Writerly narrative takes on a distinctive ethnic twist. And the favorite hobby horse of AAWA -- Asian American "Writers" of Angst -- is to shit on the remarkable success of Asian Americans. Instead of marveling at the magnitude and the improbability of Asian Americans' success, AAWAs sneer at it with a series of "yeah-but"s. "Yeah, Asians are more likely to be college graduates than anyone, but they are test taking machines"; "Yeah, Asians get better grades than everyone, but they lack critical thinking, creativity and social skills"; "Yeah, Asians have the highest median family income among all ethnicities in America, but they are no more than middle management fodder."

In this particular iteration of the sneering, Yang drags out for display all the familiar parade of horribles about Asian Americans: how a bright student named Jefferson Mao (which has to be one of the greatest American names, by the way) is pushed into being a doctorlawyer instead of -- gasp -- a writer; how all the high-achieving Asian American students at Stuyvesant High School are math-solving robots; how Asian Americans have good grades but are bad at job interviews; how Asian Americans are not leaders in business; how Asian American men are neutered sheep, requiring them to take a class on how to speak to girls.

Never mind that these stereotypes are wrong, wrong and wrong some more. Just a glance at this list quickly disproves the stupid idea that Asian Americans are creativity- and charisma-lacking automatons. Yang attempts to get around this by positing that Asian Americans who are successful -- or, to be precise, more successful than America expects them to be -- are so because they struck out their own path and "obviate[d] the need for Asians to meet someone else’s behavioral standard." And that may be true for the individuals listed in Yang's article. But what about all the Asian Americans who succeeded within the system, by not only meeting someone else's behavioral standard but also reshaping it? We are living in an era in which two of the top four characters of the television's number one show are Asian Americans. Our Asian face that Yang so loathes ("I’ve contrived to think of [my] face as the equal in beauty to any other") is in fact a new, highly sought-after addition to the ever-expanding standard of American beauty. And yes, that includes Asian American men too. Just within my blog, the far-and-away most popular question is: "How do I meet Korean guys? Do they like white/black/Latina girls?"

But make no mistake about it -- regardless of what the headline written by the editors of New York Magazine states, Yang's article is ultimately not about how traditional Asian American education is doing a disservice to Asian American children. (It does not, by the way.) Wesley Yang's article is about Wesley Yang -- all else is just mirrors with which to show Wesley Yang's multifaceted glory. The article, quite literally, begins with Wesley Yang and ends with Wesley Yang. So here, it is pointless to give a detailed analysis of why the commonly held stereotypes about Asian Americans are all wrong, because that does not matter to Wesley Yang. What matters to Wesley Yang is: Wesley Yang is better than everyone; people who are like Wesley Yang, like Jefferson Mao, are also better than everyone; and the world, and specifically Asian Americana, is stupid for not recognizing the greatness of Wesley Yang. This message cannot be clearer in this passage:
I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.

Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.

The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.
(Emphases mine.)

But problem with AAWAs is that no matter how personal of a story they weave, it is invariably taken as some kind of a larger cultural comment. Such is the fate of anything written by an ethnic minority in America. (The maelstrom that followed Amy Chua's autobiography is a good recent example.) Worse, sometimes AAWAs actually believe that they are, in fact, making a larger cultural comment, although all they can do is to offer the story of their own failure (which is always the fault of their parents or their culture) and play the "anecdotes game," dredging up the old stereotypes and find someone who fits the stereotype in order to validate the many excuses of their own failure, knowing full well that their position cannot be defeated because no one can truly win the anecdotes game.

And AAWAs can get away with this self-indulgent bullshit because we Asian Americans who made something out of ourselves, instead of being a Writer, do not feel the need to speak of our victory. We, for the most part, have no angst that compels us to complain about the world. We are content to enjoy the spoils of our triumph. If someone challenges the validity of our success (as many before Yang have done and many after Yang will surely do,) we can politely, but firmly, point to the scoreboard.

*                   *                   *

And here, I will present my own scorecard in the spirit of fairness, since I made this criticism quite personal to Wesley Yang. (I had to do it because his article was about himself, but still.) All the "Asian values" -- filial piety, grade-grubbing, Ivy League mania, deference to authority, humility, hard work, harmonious relations and sacrificing for the future -- that Yang so denounced, I embrace completely. I was not always like that, however. Anyone who knew me through early high school would describe me as a seriously rebellious child, talking smack to the teachers' face and getting beaten up as a result. Then my family moved to America when I was 16, and my immigrant drive kicked in. My acknowledgment of the supreme sacrifice that my parents made in order to bring my brother and me to America (filial piety) finally killed the lazy Writerly habit in me. Relying only on repetition and rote memorization, I learned to speak college-level English in two years.

I studied hard in school (grade-grubbing), because I knew that good grades were the only chance I had. I did not have enough time or resources to engage in any significant extracurricular activity. (I did manage to muscle my way into my school's award-winning newspaper program, however.) I did well enough to give a high school graduation speech that no one listened to. I killed the SATs. I went to UC Berkeley, and had all kinds of fun. I joined the student government, dated girls and got my hearts broken by them, participated in protests, established a service fraternity and worked as a school tour guide. I attended football games and took down some goalposts. And oh, I also got good grades and killed the LSAT again. I went to an Ivy League law school, where a position at a big law firm with six-figure income is all but guaranteed upon graduation. I started at one of the best international law firms in the world. Then the financial crisis hit everyone hard, and I was not an exception -- but I managed to weather the storm by working incredibly hard and being completely loyal to the brilliant but demanding partner that I worked for.

See, not one of the Asian values served me poorly. In fact, the biggest regret that I have right now is that I moved away from what served me well in law school. Caught up in the irrational jubilation of the pre-financial crisis, I slacked off in the second and third years of my law school because I was already sitting on a job offer. I should have studied harder and gotten good grades, which would have served me really well right now.

Having said all this, here is my score. I married a beautiful and talented Korean American violinist. We moved to Washington D.C./Northern Virginia where my wife is from, and I find the region to be quite pleasant. It suits my Californian temperament better than New York, where I had to suffer through the stench of urine in the subways. We live in a nice apartment that has enough space for a practice room for my wife and a home office for myself. (I decorated it with framed pictures of Malcolm X and Seo Taiji.) I kept my beat-up car, but my wife got herself a nice new convertible. (Don't tell her I bought it for her. She gets upset.) I changed the firm as I moved, and I love my new firm. The people are friendly and the hours, while still significant, are much better than New York's. The work is still challenging and intellectually stimulating. But I have concerns that I am not cut out for the business of being a big law firm partner, so I am trying to envision an exit plan that I will execute in four to five years. Maybe working for the government, maybe going into academia. Either way, as long as I keep working hard, I know there are options open for me in every part of the country -- the kinds of options that are not available to the people that do not have my resume. Barring a disaster, my finances will likely be secure for the rest of my life.

My hobbies protect me from the inevitable stress that comes with working for a big law firm. I am away from my New York poker buddies (one of the few things about New York that I miss,) but we still can meet up at Atlantic City or fly out to Las Vegas to catch up. I finally learned to golf properly, and it is much more fun than I ever remembered. And of course, this blog keeps me entertained to no end. I had no idea that anyone, much less the thousands of people a day that this blog attracts now, would be interested in my little scribbles. Yet people keep coming, and I learn so much from the discussion with my readers.

My family is my greatest source of happiness. My wife and I always have a great time together, whether it be my attending her concerts, our trying out together a recipe from a newly acquired cookbook, or reading together in bed while talking about the most emailed articles in the New York Times. For Mother's Day, we took my in-laws on a brunch river cruise on the Potomac River. True to form, despite having lived in the area for more than a decade, my in-laws had never been on a boat on the Potomac. They were very happy, as the weather was perfect. In the summer, my wife and I will be in Korea to finally have my wife formally meet the rest of my family in Korea. As my wife and I bow down to my 95-year-old grandmother, I know I will feel an inordinate amount of joy -- the supreme satisfaction that I made my parents and ancestors proud, that I did not waste any of my God-given talents, that I earned myself the freedom to do whatever I want with my life and career.

*                   *                    *

Forgive me if I was a little too onerous with my life story. As people say, no one wants to sit through your life story. But, you know, Writers do it all the time, as if it is the most important thing in the world. Wesley Yang proudly airs out his own dirty laundry: "I haven’t had health insurance in ten years. I didn’t earn more than $12,000 for eight consecutive years. I went three years in the prime of my adulthood without touching a woman. I did not produce a masterpiece." And he attempts to justify it by positing that Asian American values failed him.

This kind of narrative by the Asian American Writers of Angst does a particular damage to my life. I have never failed to have health insurance at any point in my adult life. I always earned six figures as long as I had a job. My adulthood had more years with girlfriends than without, and I don't particularly regret the years I spent without a girlfriend. I produced a blog visited by thousands of people every day solely on the strength of my ability to analyze and write about what is available to me. All of these are thanks to my Asian American values, and all of these are legitimate points of pride for my life. But not so for AAWAs. They harp and screech about how my life is "middle class servility," as Yang put it; how I will amount to no more than middle management; how all my achievements are attained by robot-like test-taking ability; how I will never be able to attract pretty girls (not that I have a need for one at this point.)

I am sick of hearing it. I am sick of hearing that the life that I worked so hard to achieve is a fraud. I am sick of the AAWAs, the Wesley Yangs of the world who tell America that my Asian American values made me into some kind of dickless slave who has no critical mind of my own, all because they do not have the kind of secure and stable happiness that I have -- the kind of happiness that Yang's parents surely must have wanted their son to enjoy.

And I know I am not alone in this kind of happiness. Overwhelming majority of Asian Americans I have met through my life are quite happy with their lives, precisely because they listened to their parents. The doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, and even musicians, artists and writers -- they are all pretty happy. If they are unhappy, their unhappiness is not any different from the kind of unhappiness felt by members of other ethnic groups in similar positions. If they are unhappy with their career, they change it. They do quite well at their new ones because after all, the secret of success is not that different no matter what job you have. Ken Jeong was a doctor before he was a comedian. Joe Wong was an engineer before he was a comedian. Vera Wang was an Olympic level figure skater before she was a fashion designer. Eddie Huang was a lawyer before he was a chef. (And here is one thing to know about these changes -- they do not happen in the reverse direction.) But according to AAWAs, this is all lies, all frauds, and we are supposed to feel empty inside because our parents made us that way.

Enough of this. I present my own story here not because I want to say I am better than anyone; I am not. You don't need six-figure income and an Ivy League diploma to be happy. But you do need a stable income and a college degree to be happy in America today. And that is the point I want to make by talking about my life: we Asian Americans are doing great in America because of the values we inherited from our parents, and there is absolutely no reason why we should apologize for our success or for our parents. There is no reason why we should capitulate to the stupid, self-pitying narrative of the Asian American Writers of Angst. Instead of regurgitating the tripe about how Asian Americans are ill-prepared for the real world, our focus should firmly rest on real Asian American success in the real world. The stories of Eric Shinseki, of Norman Mineta, of Yo-Yo Ma, of I.M. Pei, of Dr. Jim Yong Kim. The stories of success and happiness. The stories of American Dream.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.