VOLUME 28 NO. 13 | MARCH 21 - MARCH 27, 2009

How to get ahead in the workplace in spite of your “Asianness”
Females (and one male) chime in

Last updated 3-19-09 at 9:24 a.m.

By Michelle Kang
Northwest Asian Weekly

It never occurred to me that working in a company where minorities are few and far between would affect my work performance. For me, getting things done on my to-do list stood in the way of building relationships. Why chat when I had documents to edit and spreadsheets to produce?

Expect a culture shock

In an economy where jobs are being squeezed out, a tunnel-vision work ethic may need to change. Job performance also depends on developing “soft skills” that build on technical abilities. This includes networking and leadership training — things that are important but not emphasized in college. These are also traits not generally taught in many Asian cultures.
For new graduates, entering the American workplace is a culture shock because the work style emphasizes on communication skills and self-promotion.

Weiying Yu, a freelance graphic designer, said she had mixed feelings about her first experience in the working world. She said, “As an intern, I felt marginalized. A lot of times, I would enter a team group, and I would feel like an outsider imposing, not quite capable of understanding everything that was going on.”

She mused that this may be due to the types of jobs that skilled immigrants tend to take. “I also feel that as Asians, especially as foreigners, we feel more comfortable with technical skill jobs,” Yu said. “I hear from an Indian man at one of my projects saying that he feels that the people in charge don’t see how much skill he has. And he feels ignored because of that.”

Adjust to American culture … or not

Adjusting to a work environment that requires a different type of social interaction can produce stress. Overcoming that barrier takes constant effort.

Chiawen Chen, a mental health counselor who works primarily with Asians and Asian Americans, said, “I used to work in a phone counseling agency that was white-dominated. I also worked in a white-dominated university setting. I had to learn to adapt. I was more shy and introverted so my personality had to change a bit since then. I had to learn to ask for help and improve my English. I needed to adapt to mainstream culture.”

But she also acknowledges that it may not be the right choice for everyone. “I have several classmates who graduated from the University of Washington with me in my program and they moved back to Taiwan because they weren’t able to find jobs,” said Chen. “It’s easier to go back to your home country. If they did return, they would be able to speak better English than other people.

But if they wanted to stay here, they would be like second-class citizens because of the language barrier. … I don’t think it’s a bad thing to go back. If we do choose to stay, though, we need to make an effort to be happy here.”


Jane Hyun, author of the Asian-focused career strategies book “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling,” remembers that her own experiences at her first job as an intern at a well-known Wall Street firm jump-started some thoughts about navigating the career field with an Asian mentality.

“I would always think that my role was to work really hard and be diligent about the output of my work,” she said. “I would watch my peers work hard most of the time, but they also took time to go to the boss’ office and chat about life and sports and different topics. I didn’t know how to do this. I never had that kind of experience before. I talked with my peers and learned that they weren’t doing that to waste time. It was very deliberate. They wanted to spend time letting their boss know what they’re about and get to know the boss on a personal level, not just as someone to work for. They understood the value of relationship building. In Asian culture, that’s not always true. You don’t often think of your boss as someone who could be your friend.”

Do your homework

Hyun’s book provides good advice for new grads and seasoned professionals who come from a more traditional Asian background and have trouble understanding the dynamics of the American workplace.

She advises doing thorough research on the company and workplace culture before committing to a job. Knowing the values of the company will help to know whether those intersect with your values.

The book also acknowledges that career choices among Asians are often dictated by parents. She writes, “Many Asian Americans grow up understanding that a good education yields only a professional job in medicine, law, or engineering, or additional degrees. Business professions, which include finance and accounting, are often considered secondary alternatives only if the top three alternatives aren’t viable.”

Creative professions or non-traditional paths may have less appeal. She writes that understanding what your own talents and interests are can give you a wider range of choices and ultimately play to your strengths. But she advises to include parents in your decision-making to bring them on board earlier and help them understand your reasons for pursuing your goals.

Find a teacher

Mentorships are also crucial in helping new employees find a safe source for advice and feedback. They do not necessarily have to be Asian and can help bring out more assertive qualities in employees.

Justin Yu, a human resource specialist at Deloitte, recalls when his Irish American mentor sought him out. He said, “My mentor came to me asking for my help in understanding his adopted Asian sons. I was honored that he asked me. And I felt that I could offer him something, too. Even though our backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar, I really value having his insight on my job. He sees things that I can’t see.”

Hyun’s ultimate piece of advice is true, regardless of cultural background. “I would say that in all job markets, the most important thing is to know yourself. If you want to be good at selling yourself for a job, or going back to school, the same thing is true. … Know what your personal values are. Know your strengths and all the things that make up who you are. And if you can stay true to that, you can weather any storm.” (end)

Michelle Kang can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.


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