The Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino

[also posted at]

 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.

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.

Saved by My Refugee Neighbors

Oak Park Santas 2-1

Here’s my essay recently posted on Christianity Today’s “This Is our City” series.  It offers snippets of our twenty years of urban ministry in Oakland, about which I’m writing a spiritual memoir. You can read the story here.

This is an excerpt about my Mien neighbor:

Faithfulness over Effectivenesss

While it is tempting to romanticize the kids and our communal life, the city’s violence born of inequality and structural racism has worn on me.  Over 2,000 individuals have been murdered during my time in Oakland and I have witnessed my share of shootings.  Even when we organized our neighbors and won a housing lawsuit that rebuilt Oak Park, the new apartment layout unintentionally eroded our sense of community. I had to move because of federal rental guidelines, and the families preferred to remain inside their enlarged units.

When the issues of our city appear too daunting, I likewise retreat and focus on my own personal life, where I have some semblance of control. After leaving Oak Park, my wife and I purchased a home two blocks away, and we built gates to keep out the city’s dangers. But, fortunately, our refugee neighbors continue to knock at our door to teach us kingdom values.

When we got our house, I borrowed a rototiller and cleared weeds in our huge yard. After an afternoon of hard toil, I gave up; all I had readied was a small plot 5’ by 10’.   The next day, I was surprised by a small, turbaned lady sitting up in our apricot tree, like Zaccheus.  Yien Saelee, a grandmother who is Iu Mien, was hacking branches.  She had seen that the lot was empty and came to start a garden with my permission. I agreed, but doubted her strength to do the work.

To my surprise, though, she returned with two other grandmothers, each armed with only a small machete, and cleared the entire yard.  They planted the Native American Three Sisters– corn, squash, and beans—and soon, my family received locally grown, organic vegetables to meet our daily required vitamins.

Yien later joined our church’s “Young Family” cell, which paradoxically came to include five grandmothers.  As we shared and prayed together, I learned more of her story.  During the Laotian Civil War, she had lost three sons—child soldiers fighting with the CIA—and her husband was assassinated.  Moving to our Oakland neighborhood as a refugee did not make her life much easier; she remained poor and constantly felt fatigued.  Her step-parents’ spirits tormented her such that they made searing burns on her arms.

After being resettled in Oakland, Yien became a Christian when God revealed himself in a dream to her.  Since then, she claims, “My heart is light now because I no longer have to bear the burden of the spiritual world; it was too heavy.”  Not only did she pray for us and support her own local Mien church, but also she regularly taped gospel songs to be sent to Laos.

In spite of their advanced years, Yien and her fellow grandmas collect aluminum cans and hawk their produce to supplement their scant disability benefits that were almost cut by welfare reform. Her sense of social justice isn’t about asserting her rights, but taking responsibility for others.  Always chipping in for our water bill, she states simply, “I’m happy for the opportunity not to starve.”

When my father passed away, Yien, her back bent from osteoporosis, took the time to stand with my family in our grief.  Despite our communication and cultural barriers, her unceasing prayers  and faithful presence comforted me.  Growing up with privilege, I came to expect to make my mark and to effect social change in Oakland.  Unfortunately, our neighborhood has not been transformed despite our church’s best efforts.  If anything, its persistent poverty reflects the growing inequality in our nation.

Yien models for me another way to make one’s mark.  The servant who is faithful is the one who enters the joy of the master. The persistent widow who prays boldly is the one who receives justice.

Memories from Asian American Equipping Symposium

Fuller Theological Seminary served as the venue for the 3rd Asian American Equipping Symposium this week Monday and Tuesday (3/19-20), thanks to the tireless effort of Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC). With 100+ ministry leaders from the worlds of academia, churches, ministries, and Christian counseling, the presentations and responses revolved around the theme of healing memories, in reference to the pains, scars, and wounds that are particular to the Asian cultural contexts. I was delighted to hear 2 of our NextGenerAsianChurch bloggers–Helen Lee and Kathy Khang— cited in a couple of papers presented.

These gatherings are few and far between, and much needed as so many Asian Americans in the church and outside the church are basically the walking wounded, needlessly carrying more burden and suffering than they ought. Yes, the healing that ultimately comes from God was referenced numerous times. The resources of talk therapy and emotional discourse had its share of mentions. And, again, the lament of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of bring emotional healing to personal (and collective) wounds amidst shame-based Asian cultures.

Other good points were raised, these are just a few: what can we learn of social harmony and incorporating that into our understanding of shalom? What can we do if immigrants are not equipped (by Confucian-influenced Asian cultures) for emotional discourse? Why does increased church attendance directly correlate to lower self esteem? What would it look like for Asians to experience healing apart from talk therapy? What do we do when the notion of “boundaries” is based on a western individualistic model of the self doesn’t readily fit in an Asian/ Asian-American context? … I’ve included a sketch of my Day 1 notes below so you can catch a few sound bites.
I’d venture to say that a majority of those in the room were quite accomplished (yes, many letters behind the name were swirling around on business cards) and we already know much about these issues, and as such, to review what we’ve already experienced and known may have only been most helpful for those who are at the entry level and starting on their healing journey or beginning deeper ministry engagement. Much more is needed. Much much more. Nevertheless, events like these are notable and worthy.

Who Am I? And What Do I Want?

Trout Island, MI

Years ago, I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, taking a class in Interpersonal Communication that was famously known as “The Island Course.” The professor would personally fly the class, two by two, in his twin-engine propellor plane to Trout Island in the northern part of Lake Michigan, which his family owned. As islands go, it was tiny, but still roomy enough for one grassy airstrip and one casual summer home with enough beds for our entire class of 9 students, plus our professor. Think of it like ten days of “Survivor”, without the risk (or blessing!) of being voted off.

It was during this course that I was introduced to the “Who Am I? What Do I Want?” exercise, in which you would pair up with another person and ask them these two questions, then switch, then keep going for as long as you desired. What we found is that as we kept answering the same questions over and over again, in time we would reveal layer upon layer of information, much of which we had never revealed before. Most of the pairs conversed for hours and found themselves in tears before the end of their time, my duo included.

And while I cannot replicate the experience here, my hope is that as we use this blog to share both who we are and what we want to see happen or change in the world, we will be able to do so deeply and openly, with grace, compassion, and understanding, and that this would become a safe place for us all to reveal ourselves and get to know one another–contributors and commenters alike.

“Who am I?” I am currently calling myself a “writer,” although writing is just one of my many wide and varied interests. I have finally written one Jeremy Lin-related post; authored one book (The Missional Mom) and co-authored another with a group of amazing Asian American leaders and pastors with whom I was deeply honored to work (Growing Healthy Asian American Churches). If all goes well I’ll be at work on another book this spring and summer. In my previous journalistic life, I worked at Christianity Today and re:generation quarterly. But I have secret dreams to 1) write an Academy-award winning screenplay someday, 2) start a business again someday (I have an MBA in entrepreneurship and once launched my own dot-com business that is no more…that is a story for another day!), or 3) finally declare victory over the daily beast that plagues me (otherwise known as “laundry”).

The Lee Family at Moody Bible Institute

But for now, my daily life now is largely consumed by mothering and homeschooling my three boys (4th grader, 1st grader, preschooler). I’m a second-generation Korean-American, married to a second-generation Korean-Canadian (the Korean-CANADIAN distinction is very important to my husband, and as I have learned over the years, we are definitely in a cross-cultural marriage!) Hubby Brian Lee is a classical pianist and professor music at Moody Bible Institute. Our family attends a largely Asian-American church in Chicagoland which Brian and I helped to plant 16 years ago. I am a huge supporter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as it was through this ministry that my faith grew by leaps and bounds while I was in college, and it was also through meeting Asian American IVCF staff workers (Peter Cha, Jeanette Yep, Jonathan Wu, Greg Jao, Henry Lee, to name a few) that I finally understood my ethnicity as a Korean-American was not a curse, but a gift to be cherished.

“What Do I Want?” At this stage of my life as a 40-something middle-aged adult (yikes, it’s scary to type that out!), I’m less concerned about understanding my own ethnicity and identity, and more interested to see the broader Christian culture demonstrate greater awareness and inclusion of the Asian American voice. I also want to challenge Asian American Christians to let go of cultural influences in their lives (both from Western and Asian culture) that are not God-honoring, and that encourage a particular definition of success and accomplishment that is more culturally- rather than biblically-defined. I’m excited and hopeful that this blog can be one vehicle to see these “wants” lived out, and honored to be a part of this group of contributors!

Please find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or visit my website! I look forward to getting to know you better.