The Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino

[also posted at http://breadbeforerice.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-economics-of-asian-american.html]

 Age group competitive soccer in the San Francisco bay area is essentially comprised of two social classes: the affluent, predominantly white families that at away tournaments eat at nice restaurants and stay at expensive hotels and the non-white predominantly Latino immigrant families that bring their own food and extended family to games. At a recent tournament, I made small talk with one of the dads as we attempted to fit into the first group. He’s a middle-aged Russian immigrant and I asked him what he did for work. It turned out he’s a data scientist who works for a large insurance company. He creates data models that predict things like bay area housing price trends.
He in turn asked if I was a programmer. I told him I was a pastor but it was a good guess. He agreed. After all his algorithm had calculated the probability was high. I love immigrant candor.
This question encapsulates why I live in the bay area. Where else do I get mistaken for a software engineer? In the bay area, I can walk into a nice restaurant wearing outdoor performance gear and because the wait staff will presume I’m a stock option baller who works at Facebook or Google or some start-up company with a clever-sounding name that has a tenuous relationship with the product made, I will be seated pronto. They treat me well because I’m a nerd and in the bay area, nerds rule the world. If I lived in some rural town in the Midwest, people would see me and think “Who are you? Why are you here? Are you bringing me Chinese take-out?”
Asian American privilege, in its highest form, exists in major metro areas with a high rate of professional employment, a prestigious university, and a large immigrant population. In my new church, we have white people moving out of the area to quaint places like Shingle Springs, CA and Bend, OR. Educated Asian Americans don’t move to those areas. We have no privilege there. What kind of work would we do? More importantly, how would we eat? Who is going to seat us immediately when we walk in wearing a Patagonia 100% recycled fleece pullover? Who is going to serve Japanese noodle soup that we wait two hours for and then post pics of on Instagram? Where are Asian women going to dine with their white boyfriends? Where are Asian guys going to congregate? That stuff is important to Asian Americans like me.
My wife’s cousin from Taiwan can tell if someone at first glance is an American, including Asian Americans, not based on their attire but by their body language. There’s a difference in posture. We stand up straighter and we strut. We tend to look down on people rather than look up in submissiveness. We take up more space. If you’re a male, it’s called man-spreading. Our facial expressions are more expressive and we use expansive hand gestures. We are louder in public – not just louder in groups but louder in public as individuals. An American is the only person in the world that can be as loud solo as in a group.
I have British-born Chinese friends in Scotland. Their parents were Chinese immigrants (mainly from the Guangdong area) and came over to open restaurants. I observed their body language. When we were in public, it felt like they crept around the margins – not quite fitting in and feeling sort of invisible. That doesn’t happen very often to me in the bay area. When it does, it’s when the white to non-white ratio is worse than 10:1 like at an Irish pub in Los Gatos. And then I’m only invisible because everyone is taller than me. You’ll never see anything approaching a white:non-white ratio of 10:1 in any high-tech company except perhaps in the sales or HR department.
Therefore, body language is a proxy for the degree of privilege you enjoy. The greater the privilege, the more expansive the body language. That’s another metric for Asian American privilege. You’ll see it in the way bay area Asian Americans move. We strut around like we own the place. Because we often do.
Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine, writes:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites.
She doesn’t provide support for the first claim. And her second statement contradicts the claim of the first. I agree with her second statement but the adjective I want to challenge is Kim’s contention that Asian American privilege is “priceless”. That’s inexcusable hyperbole coming from a professor because it is simply not true. Privilege is quantifiable and it is bounded. The price of Asian American privilege in the bay area is between $1.5 – $2M. You can come straight from China with a boatload of cash and your suitcases of money will buy you an older three bedroom, two bathroom house in a predominantly Asian (or significantly affluent immigrant) city like Cupertino or San Jose neighborhood like Almaden. For the money, you will receive social cachet and the privilege for your children to go to school with their Tiger Mom-raised peers. This is where the future software engineers of America will grow up. For the same price, you can buy 5-8 decent homes in rural Missouri but you will be utterly priced out of the social cachet market. That’s why affluent Asian Americans live here. The housing may be ridiculously expensive but at least there’s access to social capital. Asian American privilege absolutely has a price tag. Your dollar can buy you privilege here whereas in other places it gets you pennies on the dollar.
Let’s take the economic perspective even further. Consumer demand theory dictates people consume goods and services in order to to maximize utility. Utility is the abstract amount of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a good or service. Given a scarcity of goods and services, a consumer will spend his money in a way that maximizes utility. Now replace “utility” with “privilege”. Privilege is the social status conferred from the purchase of goods and services – specifically, the house you live in (and its surrounding neighborhood) or your occupation. I’m absolutely arguing that privilege can be bought. So with that in mind, here’s my hypothesis:
A consumer will spend his money to live in an area or pursue an occupation that maximizes the amount of privilege he will receive in return.
This explains why ethnic enclaves (or “ethnoburbs”) exist. Immigrants move to an area/neighborhood, bid up home prices, make the schools more competitive, and once a critical mass is attained, the momentum of privilege will shift in their favor. That is what has happened in cities like Cupertino and neighborhoods like Almaden. The homes are ridiculous expensive but Asian consumers understand the privilege their money is buying. It’s privilege that can’t be bought in Shingle Springs or Bend. It’s the privilege of having your kids grow up in an atmosphere of software engineer aspirations and the accompanying pressure to excel in math and science.
It also explains white flight. The author of this article about white flight from “ethnoburbs” like Cupertino and Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, thinks it’s all about racism. She writes:
Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it. I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.
The half-Indian author presumes racism is the motivation behind white flight and yet somehow when we Asian Americans segregate in ethnic clusters, we aren’t guilty of the same thing because racism. And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we’re all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It’s not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they’re really saying is “The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians”. Of course they’re going to seek more affordable white privilege. They’re behaving as rational consumers.
Racism means privilege costs more when you’re not white but it doesn’t change the underlying economics. On the price spectrum of minorities, it’s cheapest when you’re Asian and most expensive when you’re black. But when you view the world solely through the lens of race, you’re holding a hammer and everything looks like a nail. There are other possible ways to view segregation. So before we start whacking on all the racist nails sticking out, it might help to put on a more pragmatic lens. It will lead us to an important possibility: it may be more helpful to understand segregation in economic terms rather than solely racial ones. At least that’s what my predictive data model says. You can trust me because even though I’m not a software engineer, at least I look like one.

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The Conservative Silence on Race

How come conservative Asian American believers don’t want to talk about ethnicity and race?

In this conversation with Nate Lee, we explore the following:

  • Defining a conservative Asian American believer – 1) someone who is politically conservative – i.e. values limited government, lower taxes, and traditional values OR 2) someone who is theologically conservative – i.e. evangelical, literal interpretation of the Bible, gospel-centered, traditional view of Christian sexual ethics.
  • Nate’s experience with the “narrowness” of conservatism – how both ends of the political/theological spectrum believe they are correct and don’t want to listen to other people
  • Nate’s journey of discovery in seeing how culturally-defined his faith was/is based on mainstream white evangelical culture
  • How seminary caused me (Fred) to think more broadly about theology and culture and be more open to different points of views, especially concerning God
  • What is the role of “whiteness” for Asian Americans? Is it wrong or inappropriate that we, as Asian American believers, worship in ways influenced by mainstream white evangelical culture?
  • The importance of a group of people having a story – our person-hood, our history, our worship practices
  • Fred’s experience in the immigrant church that many Asian American Christians are fearful of beliefs that might threaten their faith values even though these values may be culturally-derived and derived from the gospel.
  • What we would recommend others do to have a more expansive view of the gospel that is open to other cultures and not simply what we have grown up in

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Face Palming The Force Awakens’ Identity Politics

daisy-ridley-and-john-boyega-as-rey-and-finn-in-star-wars-the-force-awakensSpoiler alert. I’ve read many film reviews of latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, but my friend Jonathan’s critique is brilliantly written but funny and incisive especially in regards to the farcical nature of its diversity politics:

The lack of Asian characters in the first Star Wars films didn’t prevent me and my brother from enjoying the story, admiring the characters, collecting the toys, and re-enacting the epic lightsaber battles in our living room when we were young children. It was always the story of Luke, Han, and Leia that captured our attention. No amount of “diverse casting” can fix horrific writing and bad story-telling. I don’t see any Japanese crying that they can’t relate to Naruto because he looks more Danish than Japanese. And I certainly don’t hear any African-American men complaining that Dragon Ball Z’s overabundance of Asian-looking characters is a hindrance to their aspirations of one day achieving Super Saiyan-level strength. In the West, it seems “diversity” has now just become another item to check off on an every-growing list of criteria for socially acceptable media. But realistically, who among us is really so pedantic about such things like the proportion of races in each film such that we desire “equitable representation” over actual substance? Again, how is this anything other than making slaves of ourselves to a ridiculous idea?

Diversity for the sake of diversity is not the gospel. We do not find worth in having a contrived role in a polyester world. Jesus, whom we would now regard as a white man, died on our behalf as a perfect representative of all humanity. The disciples were also twelve white men. Jesus’ breakthrough on behalf of women and Gentiles came in the context of actual alienation, oppression, and marginalization. Skin color matters not because it brings out the full range of the visible spectrum but because there is an embedded history of injustice that accompanies our heritage. Fighting injustice certainly isn’t about asserting the superiority of woman over man in the manner Rey disparages Finn and how she is able to perfectly wield light saber the instant she picks it up. Likewise, Finn is the prototypical bumbling male who needs to be rescued by the female heroine.

I celebrate the ascent Jeremy Lin because he is a real person. He, by his own admission, is not a perfect basketball player. I identify with him as a Christian Asian-American man who is flawed and faces adversity like the rest of us but has managed, through the providential grace of God, to enjoy worldly success that most of us will never achieve. His story is real. But when I watch Star Wars, the storytelling is hampered by the CGI diversity in the same way a Michael Bay blockbuster attempts to distract us from the absence of plot with loud and vivid explosions.

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Reparative Therapy and the Asian American Church

Summary: Making gay people straight is not the most important goal. Brian Hui (pronounced “Who-E” – one syllable) and I riff on the helpfulness of treatment efforts that aim to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. We talk about celibacy and its relationship with the gospel. Lastly, we segue into how Asian American’s cultural emphasis on family and belonging can help heal the mismanaged sexuality we all suffer from. Plus: a seemingly random connection with Weight Watchers.

No catchy intro music and it took us 5-8 minutes to warm up but we did our first podcast!

Happy New Year!

 

Related Links:

Mark Yarhouse’s popular book  on homosexuality

Christopher Yuan’s website

Robert Gagnon’s website 

Mark Yarhouse’s blog

Notes: 1) I highly recommend Christopher and his mom Angela Yuan’s memoir – cover above. It is ridiculously good and touches on some of the ideas we talk about in the podcast. 2) My upload speed at church is SO slow and it makes me sound like I’m a call-in guest and not the host. I will be working on this.

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How to Date an Emotionally Repressed Asian Guy

When I glanced at the title of Susan Walsh’s post How to Let Go of an Emotionally Repressed Man, my first thought was:

Wow. Sounds like most Asian guys.

And once I read it, that’s exactly who the emotionally repressed man turned out to be.

Here’s the advice I would write to the 29-year old presumably white woman who is dating a 30-year old Taiwanese American man:

My first instinct when I read about your situation is to tell you is to dump the guy and swear off emotionally repressed men forever.

But upon reflection, there may be hope for this relationship but change will require courage, humility, and trust by both parties.

I want to give some perspective about what it feels like to be an emotionally repressed Asian American man. Emotional repression is not my particular dysfunction (rage and insecurity are my modus operandi) but as an Asian American pastor in the Chinese church who has worked and counseled dozens of Asian men over the years, I can assure you emotional repression is fairly typical for Asian American men mainly because of cultural differences in the way Asians communicate. We tend to avoid conflict, be uncomfortable with emotional expression particularly negative ones like grief, pain, and loss, be self-deprecating, and have difficulty expressing our needs/desires/wants.

So this is what your man may be feeling when, in your words, you pressure him into responding emotionally:

Fear.

He’s afraid of how you’ll receive his emotional expression. He’s afraid of being vulnerable. He’s afraid of sharing his feelings and being rejected. He’s afraid you’ll respond the way his parents did when as a child, he expressed his needs or fears and had them dismissed in a cursory way, was ignored, or was patronized with advice-giving. He has a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look when you ask him how feels because he has never been exposed to a healthy model of healthy emotional expression. He feels tremendous pressure to appease you because that’s how he dealt with his family’s expectations and thus he is afraid sharing anything deeper because he senses it might threaten your relationship. He is afraid to initiate conversations about improving the relationship because it implies your relationship isn’t good enough and that threatens him. He is afraid to initiate dates because the fear of rejection or failure is so strong.

All this fear causes paralysis and a feeling like he’s being flooded and his instinct is to retreat into himself. In the end, his emotional repression is probably some amount of shyness and cluelessness but mostly fear.

What can you do?

Turn the pressure way down. If you understand the fear behind his actions, then you will make an effort to help him feel safe and secure. Give him time to think about what he wants to say. He may even need a separate conversation to compose his feelings.

Re-frame his emotional distance. This is, after all, the reason you were attracted to him in the first place. Statements like “I’m not a thoughtful person” coming from an Asian guy should NOT be taken at face value. In a shame-based culture, self-deprecating remarks are self-effacing comments meant either to elicit humor or demonstrate humility.

Be explicit and specific about how you expect him to be thoughtful. I think all guys are clueless about this. And we are afraid to ask at risk of appearing clueless. Fear of rejection and failure is big. Look for signs of progress and be pleasantly surprised when he’s more thoughtful than he gives himself credit for.

To temper your expectations, I’m not convinced that a dating relationship is the best place for an emotionally repressed Asian guy to work out his issues. You also need to confront the reality that on an emotional expression scale (10 being unrestrained emotionality), he’s probably a 3. He may someday move from 3 to 5 but he will never be a 7 much less a 10. You also need to accept he may always be a 3.

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Joining the nextgenerasianchurch chorus

My name is Fred Mok and I’m the English pastor of Chinese Church in Christ – South Valley. My personal blog was supposed to be about issues affecting Asian American Christianity but I couldn’t keep it that narrowly focused.

I had been thinking about how to have a broader platform by which to address the gospel and Asian American Christianity and I’ve always admired this site. I found myself dissatisfied with the frequency of the posting. I felt like I was wandering in the wilderness and starved for regular sustenance.

I admire the work of more theologically focused minority blogs and the more activist but I was looking for something with a a bigger theological tent and something that could rebuke activist/liberal/progressive tendencies because I am secretly a white man, at least on the inside. Not really but I’m certainly sympathetic to how white people feel and skeptical of the “down with white people” feel of activist/SJW culture.

I also have friends that are better writers and thinkers than I am and I wanted them to join me in getting our voices out there.

At the Exponential Conference, I met up with DJ Chuang, who helped found this site,  told him about my idea to start a group blog, and he said:

Why not take over nextgenerasianchurch.com?

He offered to connect me with other co-founder, David Park and the video above is the product. I’m looking forward to what is to come!

Or, listen to the audio (download mp3 audio)

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