Cracking the Bamboo Ceiling: On Debunking the Survivalist Immigrant Mentality

The proverbial glass ceiling exists for women in the workplace. Unfortunately, for Asian American women professionals, we face two ceilings, not one. The bamboo ceiling and the glass ceiling. A lesser known ceiling — the bamboo ceiling — prevents us from advancing past a certain level. The reality is,

“Asian women face a ‘double whammy’ of racial and sexual discrimination” — a recent study of five top tech companies found that, for every 287 Asian women professional jobs, there is only one Asian female executive.

Fact: the numbers are bleak for us.

But numbers can change if people change. This piece is intended to help you shatter the bamboo ceiling and overcome invisible barriers at play by questioning engrained assumptions.

Five year old me in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before I knew anything about ceilings.

Unconscious bias manifests in microaggressions and small slights that amount to a thousand paper cuts. Describing and claiming bias is a slippery thing to do. You can’t prove to someone who doesn’t believe bias exists against you. However, bias manifests in events and we can talk about events to describe bias. When these events are analyzed individually, the invisible discrimination Asian American women face may seem trivial but the sheer accumulation of events is what separates an engineer from engineer manager, an executive from an entrepreneur, and an entrepreneur from a venture capitalist.

Early on in childhood, anecdotes and microdiscriminations taught me that I was different. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was four from Xi’an, China. My family spent three years in Ann Arbor, Michigan where my dad completed his research fellowship. We moved to Portland, Oregon when I was seven where I spent the remainder of my childhood.

When small events amount to a thousand paper cuts

In high school, when my debate teammate’s mom picked us up from state championships, she insisted that I had an accent even though I grew up in the same city as her son — predominantly white Portland, Oregon. I sat fuming in the backseat of her Subaru, not saying a word.

When I was five, my ESL teacher told my dad that I wasn’t learning as fast as my friend Jasmine. “Why?” he asked. Because I didn’t speak up as much, she replied. Jasmine smiled a lot during class and nodded often whereas I would furrow my brows when focusing. If I understood something, I would move on and start reading ahead, not paying attention to the teacher who thought I wasn’t understanding the material. My dad told me to to smile more, talk more, and nod more. So I did, cracking a fake smile occasionally, nodding rigidly, and raising my hand begrudgingly.

Jasmine (L) and me (R) during Halloween in kindergarten. Clearly, she smiled more ☺

These moments taught me that people perceived me as a quiet, meek Asian girl without knowing me first. From that point on, I vowed to myself I would not become the “meek Asian girl” with an accent only a non-immigrant mother could hear.

Not a huge fan of Niagara Falls

Split Identity

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, where the population is 76% white, 6.3% black, and 7% Asian (the inspiration behind Christian Lander’s book Stuff White People Like), I was the token Asian.

I have never fully embraced my identity as an Asian American first generation immigrant partly because Amy Tan painted a bleak picture in The Joy Luck Club. I read that book and watched the movie religiously hoping to peer into my future. According to Tan, I was destined to a life of inner conflict where I would neither be fully accepted as “American” nor “Chinese.” I saw myself most in June, the renegade writer and misfit who didn’t conform to the ideals of the “perfect” Asian child but fought fiercely to love her mother in the only way she knew. I was June in my circle of Chinese American peers. While other Chinese children excelled at math, I excelled at writing. While Linda was busy passing her level 10 Syllabus exam, I was at Iowa Summer Debate camp. While my cousin married a rich Taiwanese business tycoon, I swore off marrying anyone for money.

The truth is, I neither identify as “Asian” nor “American” but rather as the space in-between.

I never felt like I could fit in anywhere. A sense of mis-belonging helped me blend into to disparate social groups at school: Science Bowl, MathCounts, debate, student government, Model United Nations, lacrosse, swimming, Portland Rose Princess Festival etc. I was the chameleon, the nerd whisperer, the class president, all because I was restless — itching to find a place to call home.

To find my people who were also social nomads, hybrids, bordered identities, and just overall confused, like me.

Cracking the Bamboo Ceiling

Meek, quiet, introvert are all words used to describe Asian Americans. We are the “model minority” partly because we are invisible. Because Asians are perceived this way, we are pigeon-holed into particular career paths and not others like actors, models, CEOs, venture capitalists, or politicians. Rarely do we shine in the media limelight. Hollywood paints us as meek geishas, evil villains, and flying ninjas.

Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, I was told not to ruffle any feathers. My dad came to the United States on a World Health Organization fellowship to conduct hearing research at University of Michigan. He moved to the U.S. on a meager stipend, lived on instant ramen, and sent money home to his family in rural China. My dad instilled in me an unwavering work ethic. If something was hard, if something was unfair, you just worked 10Xs as hard as everyone else.

My dad built his own laser interferometer to measure the path of sound waves through the cochlear at the Kresge Institute

And I did, until somewhere along the way I saw that hard work alone is not, and would never be enough.

The world is not a meritocracy. In college, I saw how fraternity brothers collaborated and colluded in study guides (oftentimes recruiting me to contribute) and passed down used exams from professors. The same happens in Silicon Valley where recruiting is driven heavily through friends referrals and nebulous cultural fit questions. I saw how people could have an unfair advantage, thanks to an exclusive network.

I started to see how my survivalist immigrant mentality of “keeping your head down, working hard, and not disturbing anyone” was not paying off.

I want dividends, not payoffs

In his New York Magazine piece “Paper Tigers,” Wesley Yang wrote about how a first-generation Asian American Berkeley engineering grad was interviewing at IBM in the nineties. An older researcher, also an Asian immigrant, looked over his resume and said,

“Listen, I’m going to be honest with you. My generation came to this country because we wanted better for you kids. We did the best we could, leaving our homes and going to graduate school not speaking much English. If you take this job, you are just going to hit the same ceiling we did. They just see me as an Asian Ph.D., never management potential. You are going to get a job offer, but don’t take it. Your generation has to go farther than we did, otherwise we did everything for nothing.”

After reading Yang’s piece, it hit me. It is now my turn to push the boundaries and make that generational quantum leap. However, that can only be done by cracking the invisible barrier of the bamboo ceiling.

But how do we strive for more when the very values embedded within us hold us back in the real world?

Myths about the bamboo ceiling

We need to change our frame of thinking and behavior to break through invisible barriers. Below are solutions to identify and debunk the bamboo ceiling assumptions and instincts that are ingrained in us.

1. Do not disagree with people.

Chinese culture taught me to hold my tongue and “bear all.” Contrary to this notion, my experience has shown me that people respect you more when you disagree. Don’t be passive to someone who has stronger opinions than you. Questioning assumptions and sharing your own opinions will garner you respect, demonstrate passion, and build your own self-confidence.

2. It is rude to ask for more.

Chinese culture is about generosity. As a host, you should always offer more to your guest. As a guest, do not ask for anything. I have learned that this notion has hurt me in salary negotiations and promotions because I felt guilty and greedy asking for more. Instead, I’ve started forcing myself to practice asking for more, in order to overcome that fear.

Ever the conservative parents, my mom and dad warned me about asking for too much, afraid my would-be employers would rescind their offers. For my past two jobs, I have negotiated relentlessly with competing offers. I’m happy to say no one has rescinded their offers. In fact, a company values you more when you value yourself first.

3. Being loud is bad.

Being extroverted and speaking your mind as a girl is generally viewed as unattractive. My cousin told me that I scare away men because I spoke “too forcefully.” Another friend’s mom said I was “too manly.” Don’t take this cultural norm at face value — know when to speak up.

Just like in my ESL class, my teacher mistook my silence for incomprehension. If you’re the only one silent in a meeting, your manager and coworkers may think that you are 1) too smart to participate, or 2) have no thoughts to share with the team. Both assumptions will hurt you. Try speaking up. Have an ally in a meeting who will back you up if you don’t feel comfortable at first.

4. Do not brag.

There is a difference between good bragging and douchey bragging. Douchey bragging is when you are pompous and arrogant. Douches brag to other douches just to prove they’re the alpha douche. Good bragging is sharing your wins and providing proof of what you are good at so next time when someone needs something, they can count on you. I try to start all my 1:1s with a wins list.

I am afraid of breaking the bamboo ceiling

Sometimes I struggle with debunking all these assumptions. Sometimes I write a blog post I feel passionately about but fear people will perceive me as an angry Asian woman. Sometimes I feel guilty asking for a vacation. Sometimes I still ask for permission, instead of forgiveness.

But I push past these fears. Like exposure therapy, I try to test each one by putting myself in an uncomfortable situation. I present at conferences and participate in Product Debaters events even thought I burn myself out with anxiety before public speaking. I go through great lengths breaking down the barrier between fear and reality. I call my anxiety “productive discomfort” because it has the power to shatter the bamboo ceiling.

I love opening my mouth in a meeting and surprising people. I love debunking assumptions. I love arguing with people now. Sometimes I get really heated in product, design, social issues debates and need to walk it off. I cool down but I don’t back down. I have opinions; I have a lot of them and share them freely.

I am not afraid of being called “an angry Asian woman” like Margaret Cho or Kristina Wong because I realize these are labels for people who make you feel uncomfortable. I want to make you feel uncomfortable so that you question your assumptions on race, gender, and unconscious bias in tech and the world at large. I feel deeply about gender, cultural diversity, cognitive diversity, and cracking the bamboo ceiling. And will do anything in my power to help champion others.

Like June in The Joy Luck Club, I have found my voice through writing. I will no longer remain silent like I did in the back of that Subaru. I have found my voice. So the next time (and every time) someone assumes I’m a meek Asian woman, I am going to speak up. And walk away hearing the bamboo cracking.

Written on Shuttle #commuterwritersgroup