The Occidental Asian
Politically apathetic, socially intolerant, and culturally
clueless--let's hear it for the Asian American Yuppie.

published June 19, 2001
written by Debbie Kuan / New York

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Growing up, I was not especially aware of social classes. Surrounded by wealthy Jewish families in a mostly homogenous Jersey suburb, I thought I was alienated for other reasons. Perhaps, I figured, because I was Chinese American, brainy (I was particularly fond of correcting everyone's grammar), or averse to the idea of bathing more than twice a week.

I also didn't have the Necessary Objects--that is, the goods that could facilitate Fitting In more expediently. My parents were proponents of a non-materialistic, non-commercial upbringing for my sister and me, which meant they weren't going to be duped, or allow us to be seduced, by "fads." This included Cabbage Patch dolls, Barbies, Atari, Keds, and Champion sweatshirts (remember when those were cool?).

Being marginalized was not as painful as it could have been. I always had one or two good friends, and my mother had, through her repeated insistence, indoctrinated me with her firm belief that the other kids teased me only because they were jealous. I liked this interpretation and therefore, made myself believe it (innate survival instinct, I suppose): Yeah, of course, they were jealous. I was weird, but obviously superior.

The first time I became aware of classism--and that this could be a factor in my difference from my peers--was when an old friend of my mother's came to visit with her college-bound son. I was eleven. My parents decided to take the Chens out to dinner, and we went to Ponderosa's to partake in the all-you-can-eat Grand Buffet. This was my parents' idea of a quality American dinner, and I'd never had any reason to believe the contrary. We were sitting separately from the adults at our own table, when Barry, their son, leaned in conspiratorially and began to deride the establishment as cheap and low-class, expecting us to join in. When we didn't, he, in a gesture of inspired contempt, grabbed a suggestion card off a wall to vent his distaste. My sister and I watched as he wrote, "I've eaten in greasy spoon diners off Route 6 that put this place to shame." Then he signed a bogus name at the bottom.

We were mortified. Up until that point, we'd just assumed that all Chinese American kids were like us--that we were all social equals. If we were different from anybody, we were different from the white kids, or the "American" kids as our parents called them, not from each other. And now it turned out, there is also this other division, independent of ethnicity or nationality, based not only on how much money our parents had, but also how much good taste they exhibited.

Now, in my twenties and financially independent from my parents, I have found that the classism I'd learned at eleven is even more pronounced. Especially among well-educated, bourgeois, Asian American children of immigrants, those of us who don't plan on pursuing a career that rakes in a six-figure salary and fatty benefits seem to be looked upon with a degree of pity and mild confusion. We're often told in what may be somewhat diluted condescension, "Oh, that's great. You're following your dream [my "dream" being, I assume, writing]." Which, either implies that I'm naive, and they're realistic; or, that we both had dreams, but I didn't give up, and they did. Or, the third and last possibility, that given the fact that I don't know what to say to them about their job, they also don't know what to say to me about mine, which is probably the most likely.

Call it a nuanced snobbery that occurs post-college graduation: twenty-something careerism. The difference between salaries, and consequently, lifestyles, at this stage in life, is dramatic. While a liberal arts graduate may be making about $200 per month teaching English in Hanoi, her classmate (same major, same degree) could be raking in upwards of $70,000 a year doing investment banking. I have classmates who did both, and I imagine that the Barry Chens of my childhood headed to Wall Street to become that latter strain of careerist banker, also known as an Asian American Yuppie.

The Occidental Asian

Ignorance as bliss

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