Can You See Me? – An Asian American Experience

February 13th, 2012 by Celia Young Leave a reply »


Last Friday night, New York Knicks beat LA Lakers 92-85. I am not much of a basketball fan but I got swept up in the game because of Jeremy Lin, the Knicks’ point guard. Lin alone scored 38 points. To his fans, he represented a true “Cinderella” and an “Underdog” following a long road to the NBA. In New York, they call him “Lin-Sanity”. To me and all my friends at the dinner table, he represented the first Chinese American who made it to the NBA. When I saw his number 17 jersey, I cried.

During last Friday night, hundreds and thousands of iPhone, text and e-mail messages overloaded the network from both sides of the Pacific Rim. Our excitement for Lin was different than that for Yao Ming who was a Chinese player, sought after and drafted by the Houston Rockets. As a Chinese American, Lin was never drafted. Universities that are well known for their basketball programs did not want him. Finally Harvard took him in. From playing in the summer league, to the Golden State Warriors, getting cut and finally getting into the Knick’s development league and back up team, it was a long road that almost ended because his contract was to expire in 10 days.

The real story is not just about basketball. It is about how invisible Asian Americans are in the U.S. landscape. When I watched the Beijing Summer Olympic on TV in 2008, I danced up and down and cried at the same time with pride. Although I was not born there, I felt the cellular connection to the mother land. But China is far away and its glory might not have helped us Chinese Americans very much when it comes to making it in our careers in the U.S. When the movie “Joy Luck Club” came out in 1993, it stirred up so much emotion among many Asian Americans. Although not all their ancestors were Chinese, they celebrated this Chinese story because it was the first time that a movie was written, produced and acted in by an all Asian American cast. Since 1993, it has been a long time we Asian Americans saw the image of ourselves on the main stage of our society.

In the national dialogue on race, we Asian Americans are often not included. When it comes to minorities, people would think of Blacks and Hispanics first. Perhaps they do not think we need representation. But what happens to a kid who wants to be in theater or sports, or just wants to be a leader when there are not too many role models that look like him or her.

Just like when Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton and Earl Lloyd broke the color line as the first African Americans that got into the NBA in 1950, this time the excitement belongs to the Asian Americans. Until the day when it is not unusual to see Asians or any other racial minorities in any line of work, people like me will continue to get choked up about the news.

Here is a deeper issue: There is a difference between being Asian nationals and being Asian Americans. Average folks in the U.S. just cannot see it. Working with so many major U.S. corporations in the last 26 years of my life, I have not seen too many Asian Americans in the senior ranks. As long as we still measure a person’s career success by how high they climb on their career ladder, to be missing from the senior ranks is not a good success indicator. Very often, when we do see Asians in the senior ranks, they tend to be the Asian nationals who had succeeded in Asia working for either Asian companies or multinational companies with operations in Asia. They then got helicopter-ed back into the U.S. headquarters and landed in executive positions. In many cases, white management would pat themselves on the back to think that they did very well promoting Asians. But these Asian nationals did not grow up in the U.S. or climb the typical American corporate ladder. They did not experience the organization cultural bias and the glass ceiling. Often it is not easy for them to be the role models for their fellow Asian Americans.

While we cheered for Yao Ming’s success for getting into the NBA, how he got there did not necessarily help build the ladder for Asian Americans who were born or raised in the U.S. and aspire to be professional basketball players until Jeremy Lin.

We Asian Americans often live a double-edged dilemma. On the one edge, we have been raised and influenced deeply by our cultural upbringing that encouraged us to get into a “professional” career. Playing sports and getting into the theater certainly are not seen as real professional career choices by many of our parents. On the other edge, when we do try to break out, we are seen through a stereotypical lens by the society. If we show up as anything beyond our stereotypical profile, such as being good at math and science, we are seldom taken seriously. Perhaps those other universities did not see Jeremy Lin as a good enough athlete either.

It is wonderful to see an underdog on his way to becoming a superstar. Americans love an underdog because most of them see a bit of themselves that way. Cheering for the underdog gives them hope that someday they can make it too. This is how this country has been founded. However, Jeremy Lin is not just an individual. He represents a group called Asian Americans who most of time are not seen as minorities but are not whites either. So, where are they in this society? Maybe one day, race won’t matter. But at this moment, it does. For a white player to be a superstar or get promoted in a corporation, he or she just has to be better than everyone else. And he or she would only be seen as an individual. Whites are already in. This is why their whiteness never needs to come up.

Asians in corporate America have an inherent disadvantage because of the cultural gaps. Whether we are immigrants or born and raised here after so many generations, we still have our cultural traditions in our genes. We were raised not to stand out and not to self promote. Our communication style tends to be more indirect. With this indirect communication style, our strength is in our ability to listen and observe in order to capture other’s messages. Except in Corporate America, we are expected to speak up more often, speak well and come to the point more directly. Otherwise, we are not seen as leadership material. Asian Americans who do not fit this profile would tend not to be noticed. And we often do not get the promotion we deserve. Statistics show that we Asian Americans certainly do not have difficulties getting hired. But where did we go after we get hired? In any major U.S. corporation, potential leaders are encouraged to constantly build their network, market themselves and work on perfecting their personal “brand”. This is so opposite to the values that we Asians hold dear to ourselves.

But can you say that Asian Americans are not good leadership material? Just come to Silicon Valley, California. There are so many entrepreneur companies that were founded and led by Asian Americans. We just lead differently. The question is: why can’t the large companies see that and value us more as who we truly are?

At the Friday night’s dinner, my friends wondered out loud if Jeremy Lin’s life would have been different if he actually got admitted to one of those major basketball schools. If he did not get dropped by the Golden State Warriors, would he have become a superstar much sooner? Perhaps he had to take such a long and lonely journey, risking losing his contract in 10 days to get to his “superstar” performance on Friday night. Good for him.

What lessons did we learn from this? We learned that individual perseverance against all odds can work. We also learned that the environment needs to open its eyes and create opportunities for people who normally might not have been the obvious choice for the next job or the next promotion.

In his book “Outlier” Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “…The University of Michigan law school, like many elite US educational institutions, uses a policy of affirmative action when it comes to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Around 10 percent of the students Michigan enrolls each fall are members of racial minorities and if the law school did not significantly relax its entry requirement for those students – admitting them with lower undergraduate grades and lower standardized-test scores than everyone else- it estimates that percentage would be less than 3 percent.” In fact, Gladwell went on to write that the University’s affirmative action program became a case disputed in front of the US Supreme Court. But a few years ago, when the school decided to track their students after graduation, they found that there was no difference in the rate of career success among the white graduates and the minority graduates. Perhaps it is not as important as to how the minority students got in the school. It is more important to provide opportunities to a group of people who otherwise might not have a chance to succeed in life. Jeremy Lin might not be from a disadvantaged background, but he was perhaps disadvantaged because no one recognized his true potential.

“Players don’t usually come out of nowhere,” Kobe Bryant said after Lin helped New York snap a nine-game losing streak that dated back to February 2007. “If you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. But no one ever noticed.” (USA Today) Jeremy Lin did not get that chance until Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Soudemire and Baron Davis were out injured. It is like all of a sudden the understudy got a chance to step into a Broadway play. Sometimes you might have worked very hard and all it takes is a bit of luck and to be given a chance.

Asian Americans often don’t stand out as obvious choices for leadership. Because of their lack of visibility, they don’t often get the kind of assignments that present career enhancing opportunities. When they don’t brag about their own achievement, senior management doesn’t usually have them on the radar screen when it comes to career advancement. Should the corporation ask its Asian employees to do all the changes in order to assimilate? If yes, we will not only force them to become who they are not but also lose all their unique and different talents.

In order to capture all the diverse talents, organizations need to be open and welcoming to these talents instead of changing them. Remember, sometime all it takes is giving people a chance.

People said that ever since they got into the NBA, black players have changed how the game is played. I hope that Jeremy Lin and the other Asian American players that come after him will change the game with their unique talents too.


Celia Young consults to major corporations in maximizing the values of their diverse workforce. She also specializes in Asian American Leadership Development.




  1. Celia:
    I enjoyed your commentary on Asians and Asian / Americans. As a professor of architecture at USC, this year over half of my graduate students are Asians. Our Dean of Architecture is from China and he is a leader and a star. It’s interesting how certain arenas are changing faster then others.

  2. Yvette Hyater-Adams says:

    Hi Celia, great piece here. I teach an online college course on race and cultural diversity, and just last week we were talking about the Asian American experience–in particular the pressures of being coded the “model minority” and the impact on Asian Americans at the individual, group, and systems levels. Good stuff. Keep writing!

  3. Eleanor Hooks says:

    Several years ago, a young Korean man rented a basement apartment from me, while he attended Johns Hopkins University for a graduate degree. I was delighted to learn more about his culture, but also to get to know him as a fellow human being. Even though he was an excellent engineering student with an A average, he confided sadly to me one afternoon that he really wanted to be a lawyer, but thought he would not be accepted in this country in that career.
    Perceptions and the implied worth of individuals can be lethal. Perceptions of whites in corporations as “just…better than everyone else,” as a reason for their advantages, forgives the US society for their erroneous assumptions. Whites need to be white, connected to whites and championed by whites to be successful. Society’s “outsiders” must cherish their own gifts, maintain their networks and model inclusion of other groups. As an African American, I support and encourage everyone to follow their bliss and reject the notion that a dream can be deferred.

  4. Hi Celia,

    I see you! And, I love your posts. My sentiment is that it is about time an Asian American got recognized in something other than the stereotypical roles that get displayed and perpetuated in nearly every media out there.

    Given the diversity work you and I have done together in EYCA I felt pretty aware of the way Asians are perceived and how racism exists in the US by race. But, admittedly, I was clueless about Asians feeling invisible until you spoke up at the 2011 NTL Meeting. Since then I’ve had a hightened awareness. Thank you for sharing your voice then and now.

    May Jeremy Lin’s experience be the beginning of positive change in this country regarding how different identity groups gets perceived.

    Please continue your blog posts. I often lean in to hear your voice and thoughts. I enjoy connecting with you through social media even though I may not always post a comment.

    Take care,


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