THE BLOG
04/28/2014 12:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2014

Everything My Asian Immigrant Parents Taught Me Turns Out to Be Wrong

I have been preparing for most of my life to write this essay.

My parents espouse, in addition to the virtues of self-improvement through formal education and the return on effort, the merits of conformity, tradition, and deference to elders. They believe in work and the importance of discipline. They recommended if not insisted on the study of a scientific or technical major, seemingly objected to relaxation never mind fun, and regarded failure as shameful. They do not promote complaining or making much of a fuss.

They are right. Yet they are wrong.

I have the utmost respect for my parents. Without the standards they set and the support they may have expressed in a manner unfamiliar to my friends' parents, I would not have accomplished anything at all. They also achieved their own material success at a level I could not measure up to in relative terms: They started with disadvantages in the midst of a world war and then a fight against Communism, moved halfway around the world, put down new roots, and raised a family -- I would need to journey to France and become one of the wealthiest individuals there to parallel them.

Despite the disclaimer, I am not persuaded that I ought to comply with their edicts. I am skeptical for myself and what's more for Asian Americans in general.

There is a germ of truth to some stereotypes. Take the sense that Asian Americans are insufficiently assertive. That may in part be a necessary accommodation in America to avoid backlash; there is no lack of Asians in Asia who are adequately aggressive. But the propensity toward submissiveness may have a basis in cultural norms, and it is useful to consider these origins.

It starts when people meet. The bow is about the past. It symbolizes obeisance and obedience in a complex protocol. The handshake is about the future. It represents equality and energy with its own etiquette.

Attitudes are communicated directly by what is praised and respected.

Many Asian cultures embrace an orientation along the lines of the Japanese proverb, "The nail that sticks up is pounded down." The Chinese aphorism warns that the loudest duck will be shot first by the hunter.

The American adage could not be more divergent. As we say here, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

I will give you a specific example from childhood -- and, yes, I am mature enough to acknowledge I should not be resentful decades later. When I was in high school, I was selected for a leadership role in student government. That in itself was an improbable outcome.

My parents forced me to resign immediately, because they believed such extra-curricular activities would take away from study time. They did not realize that for the elite college admissions decisions that they regarded as paramount, it would have been advantageous. The early training in leadership would have been intrinsically worthwhile.

I will add another example from the grown-up workplace. My parents were and are humble and modest, though I wonder if some Asian behaviors are stylized rituals which are misinterpreted as literal. If you visit my parents' home even today and you compliment them on the place, they will demur: "No, no, shabby house. Not as fine as your house." When I joined a major law firm, I did not have to be told that I would be shown the door posthaste if I apologized for the inferiority of my work product in comparable terms.

I see how this plays out for others. I have the credentials to be asked to mentor. I meet many Asian Americans my junior, and a few my senior, with superlative technical skills, who lack commensurate people skills. They have been unduly confident that the former are all that is needed. They also have been discouraged along the way from participating in controversy or taking real risks. They want to overcome prejudice, not challenge it.

Thus they have rendered themselves incapable of advancing, not only individually but also on behalf of a community they cannot avoid representing. They live up -- rather, down -- to stereotypes. (On the few occasions they react to adversity, their approach is alarming in its extremity.)

What makes me sad are the stories of people who will not stand up and speak out even for their own self-interest: They want to tell me about instances of discrimination that would constitute the basis for a winning lawsuit, except they are unwilling to pursue their claims. I've been told, "I don't want to embarrass my boss -- we Asians don't do that," to which I am incredulous. If they weren't so earnest, I would reply, "What? Your boss the racist? Please. Yes, you most certainly should embarrass your boss."

But what makes me sadder still are the persons who are destined to be unfulfilled. They appear to have made it. They have health, wealth, families, jobs, and every comfort; they have exceeded their ancestors. The only problem is that their parents, who to be fair are not exaggerating when they advise their progeny they have sacrificed everything for them, expected them to be a neurosurgeon and concert pianist -- not a neurosurgeon or concert pianist, but both; in extreme cases, even the neurosurgeon-concert pianist does not establish the bona fides in parental bragging contests, without being the best in both fields, and then having borne grandkids to boot.

My parents, probably similar to many parents of all backgrounds, consider me weird. They have asked me why I have not done better fitting in.

Although I am idiosyncratic, I doubt I could be otherwise. In the contexts I function within in, it is simply impossible for me to blend in. I usually have been the only person in the room with parents such as mine. So I would rather be an individual on my terms than an indistinguishable member of the horde depicted by Yellow Peril. An Asian American who "tries too hard" is called out. You're even stranger if you're Asian and identical to everyone else.

I had hesitated until now to broadcast these thoughts, not so much for fear of offending my parents than out of awareness that I might revealing myself to be overly assimilated. I was inspired by realization I am not alone.

I was listening to Gideon Yu discuss his career as a high-tech entrepreneur turned sports executive. He worked at Facebook, Youtube, and Yahoo, before becoming co-owner and president of the San Francisco 49ers football team -- the first person of color to run an NFL franchise. A Korean American, only slightly younger than I am, he grew up as I did: not someplace with a critical mass of others who looked like him, but instead where the only Asians whom he ever saw were usually people related to him. (For him, that was Nashville; for me, Detroit.)

He too experienced the shock of meeting other Asian Americans in significant numbers. He is accustomed to being stared at in public places back home, unlike his wife, who is Korean American but from Los Angeles. He reflected on the strategies he had not choice but to adopt. Asian Americans have had to adapt and continue to do so.

That's the best means of stating the point: it's all about evolution. Phrased positively, we should learn another lesson from our forebears. Come to think of it, my parents did not follow their own parents. From an objective perspective, they were even more radical than I am in that they departed the society from which they had come while I have sought to integrate within it.

Like their cohort as well as those who continue to come from overseas, my father and my mother should be sympathetic to what I have said. America offers opportunity. School here is less about memorization than creativity. Everything else too.

Since they arrived, strangers from a different shore in the words of the leading history of Asian Americans, a half century has passed. The China they left has transformed. The current wave of immigrants is creating new patterns and corresponding prejudices. Whether due to the one child policy producing selfishness or the economic rise of the East, they are gaining a reputation for the opposite of reserve and self-effacement.

It all confirms that what has worked for one generation in one time and place will not necessarily be optimal for their children in another era and culture. Asian Americans today cannot remain the same as Asian Americans were yesterday. Neither Asia nor America has been static. As we define ourselves, we also redefine our great nation.