Looking At The 'Bamboo Ceiling'

Michele Norris talks with writer Wesley Yang and business adviser Jane Hyun about the challenges of Asian assimilation — and the challenges of busting stereotypes and the "Bamboo Ceiling."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. This week, we're looking at the shifting demographics in America; and what it means, given those changes, to be considered all-American.

That phrase - all-American - is often used to convey a certain idea. A dictionary definition, for instance, says it's something or someone considered to be typical of the United States, and respected and approved of by Americans; in other words, a seal of approval, top-notch, the best of us.

And that brings us to the next conversation in our series. Recently, New York Magazine published an article called "Paper Tigers: What Happens to all of the Asian-American Overachievers When the Test-Taking Ends?" The "test-taking" in that headline refers to Asian-American students' over-representation in almost every index of achievement in education. And the "what happens" question refers to their under-representation in corporate leadership.

Wesley Yang wrote that article, and he joined us, along with Jane Hyun. She's a leadership strategist and executive coach, who's the author of "Breaking The Bamboo Ceiling."

Yang says the challenge Asian-Americans often face, is when the messages about success they learned at home conflict with the definition of success in the workplace.

WESLEY YANG: In many cases, Asian-Americans - even second-generation or even third-generation Asian-Americans - will come into the workplace with a set of behavioral norms and expectations that they've been trained to meet in their households, or in the ethnic enclave in which they've been raised; that are different than what - the way you're supposed to behave, to be a success in corporate America.

NORRIS: Jane, you're the author of the book "Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling." How common is this across the country?

JANE HYUN: I think the bamboo ceiling is something that's pervasive inside these organizations, the Fortune 500. And I talk about it as individual factors as well as organizational, because I think that there are some cultural nuances that keep Asians from really being perceived as a leader.

NORRIS: Such as?

HYUN: In an organization, you do need to understand how to promote yourself - in a graceful way - to get ahead, and to let people know what you're doing. And I think if you talk to most of the Asian individuals who are working in these organizations, most of them are uncomfortable with that because they didn't grow up with that as something that was valued; the idea that you can actually boast about your accomplishments, and talk about what you've done and really, you know, pitch yourself in a pretty open way.

NORRIS: So have either of you had experiences crashing your own foreheads against that bamboo ceiling?

YANG: I have not. I don't think anything that happened to me had anything to do, career-wise, with my race. But - so no.

HYUN: I have a little story there. When I was early on in my career, I was in a job where I did a lot of spreadsheets and analysis, and I worked it with a team of people. And I noticed that a co-worker - and colleague - of mine would go into my manager's office once in a while to connect informally; engage in banter and discuss a variety of different things, work and personal-related, with him.

And so at the time, I didn't understand why she did that because for me, the message that I got about how to be successful - right - was to put your head down, work hard, and then you'll get rewarded. Somebody will see that you'll do the hard work, right. That was - I didn't know any differently, right. This was a second year inside of a Fortune 500 company.

And so I actually asked my friend - who was my peer - who tended to do this, and said, you know, why do you go in there? You can get a lot more done if you actually spend 20 minutes more at the computer, or finishing up a response to an email. What she said was really interesting to me. She said well, you know, I just go in there to shoot the breeze, to build a relationship with the boss.

And that was the first time I had that a-ha moment of really getting the fact that, you know, you can actually - without being asked to come to the meeting or without scheduling a meeting, you can actually go in unannounced and unscheduled, to have this very informal relationship with a manager. I didn't see that as a possibility because I thought hard work was working alone at your desk.

And so that moment was kind of a turning point for me; to realize wow, you know, there's some cultural - deeply embedded cultural messages, scripts, that I operate under, that maybe I need to understand better so that I know how to work effectively across a variety of different spectrums. And so that really was a turning point for me that helped me in the rest of my career.

NORRIS: Wesley, you said that you haven't had an experience bumping up against the bamboo ceiling. But you write, with great candor, about the assumptions that people might make when they see your face.

YANG: Yes, that's true. One of the main reasons - I included an account of a guy named "Asian Playboy," who teaches Asian men how to project themselves in a way that will be attractive to members of the opposite sex. And he gave this description of this thing called the Asian poker face.

And when he gave that description, everybody in the room burst into laughter. And the example that he gave was: How many people in this room have had this experience where they will be at a party, and a white person will come up to them and say, "Is something the matter? Are you angry?"

And of course, the people weren't angry. They simply had their ordinary Asian faces that were visible to others, and they had this thing called an Asian poker face. And I, in fact, have an Asian poker face. It was very useful...

NORRIS: What does that mean?

YANG: An Asian poker face is - appears to white people to be an expressionless expression that is perceived as being inscrutable - right? - and that many people will read all sorts of wrong emotions into just because they have a different set of norms and expectations.

There's a lot of countries in the world - not just in Asia, but also in Europe - where if you were to go around smiling at people, you would be perceived not as a friendly person but as a crazy one. But the United States has a different expectation. And if you don't meet that expectation, there will - in many cases - be a barrier to trust and acceptance that you will carry around with you for your whole life; on the basis of something that seems so trivial and also, on the basis of something that can be changed.

That was, for me, a really interesting and powerful moment. And discovering what that was, discovering that I had it - and discovering that so long as I had it, my social experiences were going to be not as positive as they ought to have been, or not as positive as they might have been otherwise - was really interesting and ironic and sad and - but also, very helpful to me.

NORRIS: And you write about learning how to smile.

YANG: Yes, I - myself - have not, in fact, learned how to smile. But I do write about a group of people who went through a process of being coached to smile more; and discovering that by doing that, they could help themselves in every aspect of their life.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you. It's been wonderful to talk to you.

YANG: Thank you.

HYUN: Thank you, it was great to be here.

NORRIS: That's Jane Hyun; she wrote the book "Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling." We also heard from Wesley Yang, a contributing editor for New York Magazine.

Tomorrow, we talk with a man who straddles two races, and we hear how he chooses to identify himself.

BLOCK: I checked more than one box - the black-African-am-Negro box. But the other box that might apply to me is white.

NORRIS: That's tomorrow in our series that explores the evolving term "all-American."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: