The Hyphenated Asian Experience at Work
To positively contribute to the #StopAsianHate movement happening right now, I would like to share my own experiences as an Asian-American with the intention of creating more awareness and empathy for the hyphenated Asian community. I don’t have all the answers on how to solve racism and Asian discrimination. But I do have a voice and a platform, and I do have personal experience with Asian discrimination. So I am hoping that sharing my perspective on this might help others understand the context that many of us carry with us. And since my blog is focused on the workplace, I will highlight specific ways this shows up at work.
First, let me start with what it means to have a hyphenated identity
I am Korean-American-Canadian.
- Born in the U.S.
- Grew up in the U.S. and Canada
- Raised by South Korean immigrant parents and maternal grandmother
- Worked predominantly in the U.S. (and now in Amsterdam)
My parents are immigrants from Seoul, and I grew up speaking only Korean at home, eating Korean food, and upholding Korean traditions. My parents were very intentional about making sure my sister and I knew the culture where we came from. In retrospect, I have come to appreciate their authenticity to their culture.
We moved around a lot, partly because of my parents’ career but also because they wanted to create a better life for us and get us into better schools as they earned more. I’ve lived in 7 cities across the U.S. and Canada, and as a result I speak 4 languages: Korean, English, French, and Spanish. Sometimes, I was in diverse classrooms and other times I was the only Asian in the room. Regardless, I always felt like I was an outsider trying to become an insider. I’ll cover more of that below.
Having a hyphenated identity can be lonely. I identify with each culture but I don’t feel like I belong 100% within any of them. When I am among Korean people, I am often categorized as being American. When I am among Americans or Canadians, I get asked if I am from China. With every group, I feel like I’m categorized as “Other”. It’s a constant cycle of Otherness that I try to navigate with grace.
A survival skill that hyphenated Asians learn is how to code-switch, especially at work.
I remember bringing a Korean lunch to school early on in elementary school. It smelled different from other foods, and I got made fun of about it. I never did that again. I started eating cafeteria food that wouldn’t attract that kind of attention and allow me to sit at the cool table. This was one of many ways I started to learn how to blend into the background.
For many hyphenated Asians, we learn to be just different enough to be identifiable but not threatening. I can’t tell you how many times someone called me by the wrong name (thinking I’m another Asian colleague) and I awkwardly smiled back. Or how many times colleagues have told me Asians all look the same. Or how many times I was told I was “cool…for an Asian”. In order to be memorable, I learned to be different enough from other Asian colleagues but not too different to alienate people. I would highlight my dimples, be loud, and try to be interesting enough for people to pay attention to me. This stuff goes really deep, all the way down to our personal values.
In Asian culture, humility, service, and harmony are highly valued. In some ways, personal erasure is part of the cultural norm. But in Western workplaces, there are different values and different rules. You don’t get a promotion by being invisible and humble. You have to learn how to present yourself, promote yourself, and sell yourself constantly in a hyper-competitive environment. For ambitious Asian-Americans, this results in compartmentalizing our Asian values and swallowing the guilt we feel for taking up space.
There isn’t a clear definition of success for Asian leaders.
Asian representation at senior levels is an issue. We don’t fit neatly into Western archetypes for success. This is something I carry as a personal purpose: to role-model what a successful Asian leader looks like in U.S. corporations. I am learning to define “success” in a way that is authentic to my whole identity. I wish there was more precedence in hyphenated Asian leadership development but there isn’t much.
Gender bias and racial bias affect hiring, promotions, and recognition for people like me. We have made a lot of progress, but bias will always exist because we are human. In my experience, my starting point as an Asian female who looks young is being seen as a humble, quiet, hard-working, and submissive employee. Bonus points if I’m pretty to look at. When I don’t play into those stereotypes, I am often met with resistance and criticism for not knowing my place. But in order to get ahead at work, I have to get people to see me differently. I am often a polarizing employee and leader: some people love me and some people don’t like me. What I focus on is leading with integrity, trust, and authenticity. Even then, I have plenty of critics on how I should be showing up.
Many of us face bamboo ceilings that prevent us from rising farther up the ranks.
Because there isn’t a clear definition of success for diverse people from diverse cultures, Asians receive feedback that is highly contextual and subjective. I feel like I am walking a very thin line, trying not to be too much of this or too much of that. Being humble but also promoting myself… speaking up but not taking up too much space… being assertive but not intimidating… being Asian without being too alienating…
At this point in my career, I choose what part of the feedback I will work on versus let go. But there’s a big part of me that wishes I wasn’t beholden to such a narrow definition of success. I wish more senior leaders would be willing to place bets on bringing Asians up and empowering us. I hope more companies will create systems that allow diverse talent to be authentically themselves at work and celebrated for their Otherness. Oftentimes, Asians get to the senior levels by working 10X harder than others and proving their worth again, and again, and again while they watch their peers get pulled up from sponsors and allies who look like them. We need more people to pull us up and we need to pull more Asians up with us too. This is what winning looks like. I hope to be part of this change.
This isn’t just an Asian-American issue. This is an Asian-___ issue.
In this moment, as the Asian community is hurting and facing hate crimes, I ask that you stand in solidarity with us, that you get to know us, and that you support #StopAsianHate. This is not just an American issue. It’s a hyphenated Asian issue. In this moment, we are realizing that we need to speak up now because the aggression starts in elementary schools… continues in the workplace… and is leading to violence against our elderly too.