Ignorance as bliss

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Asian American Yuppies (hereafter known as AAYs) are a subset of Yuppies I find particularly intolerable. Like white Yuppies, they operate within a tightly enclosed, self-serving circle whose collective goal is to achieve the Good Life. But in my mind, they're slightly more objectionable than white Yuppies, because like the African American who opposes affirmative action, they seem to think that the fruits of their labor alone have earned them a place in the privileged jet set. It's the sort of thinking that allows them to remain mostly ignorant of or apathetic to the hardships and obstacles overcome by their immigrant parents.

The irony is that these same parents instilled them with the belief that a financially sound and conventionally prestigious career should be their main objective in life. This isn't ludicrous, given that parents usually want and aspire to make their children's lives happier and more successful than their own. At the same time, it's simply annoying that the dreams of immigrants can only be realized in their children's sound, prescriptive, predictable, and profitable professions in medicine, finance, and law--especially if that's not want their children truly want to do. While some of these professions are arguably noble pursuits, I find nothing noble or admirable or even particularly interesting about following a given path for the sake of making enough money to enjoy the finer things in life--that is, weekend trips to Reykjavik, Armani shirts, plastic surgery (already?), the latest techno-gadget advertised in Wallpaper, etc.

"But what's so wrong with wanting the Good Life?" one might ask. Do I wish some war or economic depression or natural calamity upon these AAYs? No. (At least, I wouldn't wish it earnestly.) On the other hand, given the spate of self-serving, narrow-minded, and often downright clueless behavior I've seen exhibited by some perfectly well-educated (Ivy League, no less) AAYs, those purposefully insular lives begin to look all the more offensive.

I submit these behaviors:

1. Making a mad dash to do volunteer work at non-profit organizations prior to preparing a business school application, though having never considered doing so before.

2. Not having read a book since graduating from college, and publicly admitting this. 

3. Thinking there was no discernible difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates in last year's U.S. presidential election.

What pains me most, though, is when AAYs don't know their history and consider their difference from their non-Asian peers to be a few clichéd tropes like eating kimchi every other day or knowing one Jacky Cheung song by heart. Once when I remarked to a Chinese American Yuppie how lucky it was that our parents, old friends who fled the mainland to Taiwan after the Communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949, were spared the miseries of the Cultural Revolution, he looked at me blankly. He had no idea what I was talking about. No doubt he knew that the South was defeated in the Civil War, or that the Allied forces defeated the Nazis. But what his own parents went through? No idea.

Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that we grew up learning white American history. And that we fed ourselves on the convenient illusion that we are American. I call it convenient because calling ourselves American allowed us to unload the burden of preserving our parents' culture. When we were kids, and our parents criticized us for speaking their native language badly, we could easily retort with a saucy, "Hey, I'm American. You raised me here, remember?" And we could usually get ourselves off the hook.

That claim was an assertion of identity, and we wielded it as such in our classrooms, on the playground, and now in the workplace. But it was a hollow battle cry, because many of us were often not treated as Americans or seen as such. Stubbornly calling ourselves American, flashing our American passports, and even speaking flawless, idiomatic English did not and still does not erase the perception of our foreign-ness, which still persists in America. The Wen Ho Lee case--and, more recently, the media reaction to the China-U.S spy plane reaction--exemplified this reality in a frightening way. ModelMinority.com ran an article after the plane incident reporting that a host at Fox News & Friends advocated firing all Chinese American employees at federal laboratories (an astonishing conflation of the two recent events involving Wen Ho Lee and the plane collision). According to the same report, a national talk show host said that Chinese Americans should be put in internment camps, as 110,000 Japanese Americans were during World War II.

AAY-ness--which, in all fairness, is more a state of mind than a set of professions--would probably ignore such disturbing realities. It contends that as long as we have some of the same opportunities as other Americans to attain financial success and security, we should be perfectly content. Nowhere in its vocabulary are notions of advocacy, awareness, or struggle. Instead, it shores itself up on the ideas of self-preservation, conformity, and one-upmanship.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing for every banker or consultant to burn his or her suit and come out rallying for social causes; not everyone is an activist, and that's absolutely fine. But what about risk? What about the rugged individual? What about demanding more than the luxury of comfort?

Perhaps these aren't particularly pressing or interesting questions to them. My friends who became AAYs are cushioned now--in part by their outrageous salaries and also the equally outrageous amount of time they spend at work, which allows little time to do anything more than sleep. They're mostly grateful they don't have to read Kant or Barthes anymore. They think Newsweek is liberal, Poetry in Motion on the subway is literature, and Dean & Deluca is affordable. When they see me, they muster up the cheeriest expressions of surprise, program my phone number into their cell phones, complain about their lack of sleep, and exhort that we must get together sometime and catch up.

I love the last part. It always makes me think, But haven't we already said it all?


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Written and photographed by Harry Mok | Interact | May 14, 2001
A visit to China reveals what was gained, and lost, in one family's journey to America

The Occidental Asian

Ignorance as bliss

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