What is it really like to be Asian? And how does the “Asian experience” differ for individuals? These are two questions we are focusing on during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month here at Zebra. We are always striving to be better as individuals and an organization, and growth can only come from curiosity. So, I asked a few colleagues – all members of Zebra’s A2Z Inclusion Network – to help us understand what we’ve long misunderstood about Asian culture and members of the Asian community based on their personal experiences. Find out what they had to say:
Laura: Considering there are more than 50 different Asian cultures, do you think we’re doing a disservice to those of Asian descent by speaking about “Asians” holistically? Or do you find there to be shared cultural underpinnings – and perhaps challenges – that are worth categorising under “the Asian experience”?
Jackson He: I think it depends. When Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white Detroit autoworkers who were angry with the perceived threat from imported Japanese automobiles, fear and anguish were deeply felt by all Asian-Americans alike. This and similar events, including hate-crimes committed against Asians during the pandemic, demonstrate that sometimes being or looking Asian is the defining characteristic and original sin separating them from their majority neighbors. Under these circumstances, Asians do feel the same or have similar experiences.
But in general, to understand Asians better, we need to understand that there are vast differences underneath the banner of “the Asian experience.” After all, the majority of the world’s population is Asian, and to talk about “the Asian experience” is not very different from talking about “the human experience” – you may get some mileage out of it, but you cannot get very far.
And it’s not even enough to simply separate Asians by their countries of origin. Among diasporas in the U.S., the Chinese immigrants who came before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese immigrants who went through Japanese Internment Camps had experiences that cannot be more different than those immigrants who came to the U.S. in more recent history.
Ken Poon: In my opinion, while it’s important to acknowledge the diversity and uniqueness among the Asian cultures, there are certainly a fair share of common cultural underpinning, and challenges are worth recognizing. The emphasis on family and community, the importance of education and hard work, and respect for seniors and elderly are some examples of the shared cultural underpinnings that we often treasure and celebrate. That said, it’s also essential for us to recognize certain collective challenges we may still experience, such as lack of representation, discrimination and prejudice.
Tilak Kesavapillai: I agree. There may be many cultures within Asian geography, but there are many similar values across all of them. Asian countries also share certain similar cultural identities, which can lead some to believe “the Asian experience” is the same for all people to a certain extent.
Laura: Knowing this, do you feel that an inclusion network or employee resource group (ERG) geared toward members of the Asian community can fully support their shared and diversified needs? Or do you feel like other types of ERGs would be more valuable, such as those geared toward parents, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community?
Farazana Farouk: It's good to have groups that allow employees to connect with others of their culture and groups that allow employees to be part of something bigger than that. A group for the Asian experience can have larger impact and outreach. It can be a safe space for those experiencing unconscious bias. It can also be a place to celebrate Asian cultures, both within the group and with the entire company. The other groups can then offer more targeted support to people based on their individual needs.
Laura: There is a lot of talk about how the “bamboo ceiling” and “glass cliff” are affecting the careers of Asians. So, I’d like to get your take on that. Let’s start with the “bamboo ceiling.” Some say it only applies to certain subgroups of Asians, or that it only occurs in select parts of the world, such as the U.S. What are your thoughts on this?
Jackson: I cannot speak for people living outside of the U.S., as I have been living in the U.S. for most of my life, and before that I only lived in China.
However, I do know someone who felt that their development was restricted by the “bamboo ceiling.” They felt that they did not get their fair treatment when their white colleagues were being promoted yet they were not given a promotion year after year, even though they were receiving positive feedback from their manager and peers on annual reviews.
Ken: I also can attest to the bamboo ceiling being a real issue that affects many Asians, and it is not limited to certain subgroups or only specific parts of the world. I have a friend who experienced very limited progression and unequal treatment in one of the early companies he worked for despite his capability and consistent high performance. He ended up moving on to a new company with a more all-round focus on employee capabilities and progressed much better in his career in the years after.
This friend is proof that such an invisible barrier could limit or slow career advancement despite one’s qualifications and talents, and the degree of its effects depends on many variables that may or may not be identified or felt easily. For those who experience the bamboo ceiling, it is certainly frustrating and disheartening. After all, the bamboo ceiling is a complex issue.
Laura: Do you feel there’s a way to eliminate this type of barrier systemically?
Jackson: Employment-based discrimination is often hard to prove in the court of law, and it’s especially so when the person was not terminated. Furthermore, I believe most managers do not intentionally discriminate. As we learned during Zebra’s diversity training, people are instinctively more trusting of other people who look like them and have heritages like theirs. That’s only human. To be able to transcend that requires education, wisdom and courage.
Ken: I agree. Though the burden does lie on organizations to a certain extent, we need to be confident in ourselves as individuals that we are capable and deserving. We must also understand that we do have choices on how to deal with the bamboo ceiling.
Tilak: Yes, it needs to be addressed at an organization and industry level as well as individually. Many times, as an Asian, you may feel your opinion does not get the attention it deserves. Only inclusive leadership can solve this. I have experienced that feeling of not being valued in the workplace, as have others I know, and it tends to be amplified if you are in a leadership position with aspirations. Though in many new age social media companies and technology companies, these barriers to growth and authenticity have been addressed to some level.
Laura: Is there a single belief or cultural aspect you see as fueling the bamboo ceiling?
Farazana: I can only speak to what I see in the U.S., but there is an assumption about what leaders are supposed to “look” like. When you see someone in a leadership role not fitting that assumption, it’s difficult to see beyond that. Within the Asian community, the belief that a leader can be someone other than a white man is sometimes difficult to see because you didn’t grow up seeing that. Some Asians might explain away not getting promoted to it “not being their turn” – that they need to work harder and wait to be rewarded later.
Laura: Interestingly, on the flip side, there is concern that some Asians are being promoted to top leadership positions in precarious situations – that they’re essentially becoming scapegoats for when an organization fails. This is commonly called the “glass cliff.” Do you find this is a widespread concern within the Asian community – and one that might deter certain Asians from pursuing professional growth opportunities?
Farazana: There are two ways you can look at situations where people of color or women are promoted during times of crisis: they were either promoted due to their ability to handle and navigate the choppy waters due to their unique skillset or they were chosen because failure is highly likely no matter who was out in the role. I don’t know if I find this a widespread concern within the Asian community, but I see it as an opportunity to either turn the ship around or have a great learning experience very few would have. That way, when something similar presents itself, you will be one of the few prepared to handle it.
Tilak: I agree, and I would not categorize this as widespread and neither as Asian-community centric. There are cases in the technology industry, for example, where some are promoted to the top due to an organization’s diversity aspirations and it is sometimes seen as a “glass cliff” scenario when they fail. It’s not widespread, though we do have to address potential glass cliff scenarios with the right level of coaching and guidance so that we don’t face such failures.
Laura: Do you feel cultural values around hard work, sacrifice and compliance contribute to the glass cliff scenario? Perhaps people see Asians as less likely to push back when there are significant risks? Or more likely to keep pressing forward and, therefore, more capable of shouldering the burden of failure?
Jackson: Yes, at least to some Asians, due to the differences between their heritage culture and the prevailing culture they found themselves in.
In the aspect of risk versus reward choices, I do not see any uniformity among Asians, at least not any more than among the general population. The balance between avoidance of risk and pursuit of reward is very individualized, and Asians – like others – have different approaches to it.
Farazana: I agree that it depends. Most Asians (and non-Asians) I know or interact with take a strategic view – they weigh the risk versus reward to determine if the push back will get them the result they are seeking.
Tilak: Personally, I have experienced many times that people from Asian cultures tend to have a fear of communicating risks and failures. But this goes back to the notion that the “Asian experience” is not the same for all. The people I know tend to feel comfortable communicating successes and hold back communicating failures and risks. This is part of always wanting the “feel good” factor. This is an area in which many in the Asian community could learn and improve.
Laura: Do you believe members of the Asian community should be asserting themselves more, whether in everyday society or professional settings, when they are being mistreated due to stereotypes?
Jackson: This is the other side of the coin of differences between their heritage culture and the prevailing culture. Some Asian cultures, such as Confucius’ teachings, emphasize the greater good of the collective, and the sacrifice of personal gains. While this is an effective strategy to avoid conflict and promote harmonious relationships and environments, it may also hurt the chances of success or growth for their practitioners.
In the aspect of risk versus reward choices, as I mentioned before, I do not see any uniformity among Asians, any more than among the general population. The balance between avoidance of risk and pursuit of reward is very individualized, and Asians have as different approaches to it as anybody else.
Tilak: Based on my personal experience, I do believe members of the Asian community should assert themselves and push back when they see or experience discrimination. In general, Asian culture is seen as submissive. The only way to change the perception is to speak out, push back and do what is right.
Farazana: Agreed. Everyone who feels mistreated due to stereotypes should feel comfortable and supportive expressing their concerns, no matter their culture.
Laura: Let’s talk more about stereotypes for a moment. Would you say they are apparent around the world?
Farazana: A former co-worker from India expressed he was mistreated due to his caste. Of course, there was also a lawsuit in the U.S. regarding caste base discrimination. In fact, the City of Seattle has listed “caste” as a category to the list of protected classes. So, discrimination is, unfortunately, a global issue and one that we can fight back against if we unite across borders.
Tilak: There are unconscious biases based on religion, color, region within country and appearance. In APAC, most of the countries have employees from within the country. This is changing to a global workplace in APAC as well. As we adapt to change in APAC toward the global workforce, companies have to pay attention to this stereotype of discrimination.
Laura: Do you believe it will ever be possible to stop discrimination and hate against members of the Asian community? If so, what will it take?
Farazana: If it's possible to stop it, we're far from doing so. It's going to need continuous monitoring and mitigation for the foreseeable future.
Tilak: Though a lot of hate and discrimination is most evident outside workplaces due to geopolitical environments, organizations must do more via inclusion programs to support and spread knowledge about the Asian community within workplaces. People must feel comfortable openly talking about stereotypes and unconscious bias as it relates to the Asian community.
Jackson: With the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam, instinctive discrimination is almost a part of being human, and overcoming it takes education, wisdom and courage.