Grievances of a Chinaman in Silicon Valley
Being Asian in the Bay Area has its own difficulties
“Why don’t you ask one of your Chinese cousins in the factory how to do this?”
My co-worker sneered at me as she glued another back on a phone.
We were on the assembly line in one of Motorola Mobility’s first phone factories stateside. The Mountain View then-subsidiary had arranged an exchange program where employees from corporate could get a taste of being on the assembly line. “I don’t have any cousins in factories”, I mumbled back.
My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 80's, my dad pursuing his doctorate in Chemistry in Utah. The rest of our family stayed in Taiwan, where my cousins would become doctors, dentists, and computer scientists. After graduating, my dad worked for the US government on the missile defense system in New Mexico. My dad would always remind me in Mandarin: “We build the best missiles for the greatest nation on earth!” We were poor, but we were in the land of opportunity.
The Land of Enchantment
Growing up in New Mexico was tough. Being one of the only Asians in our city, I spent much of my time at school getting bullied: my chemistry teacher nicknamed me the “little Mongolian boy”, I would hear “pinche chino” as I walked through the hallways, I had knives pulled on me during lunch. Why was the great mixing pot so poor at mixing? I dreamed of getting out of there.
So I did. I left New Mexico to come to the great land of California. Here in Silicon Valley, people are diverse. Here in Silicon Valley, people are accepting. Here in Silicon Valley, Asians are not undesireable. Here in Silicon Valley, I would finally be able to put my race behind me.
I was wrong.
Death by Acupuncture
“Get out of our country, f — king Chinaman!”
As I stepped off of the plane at SFO, someone followed behind me, telling me to leave my own country.
Certainly, this isn’t as bad as getting sliced up in high school, but these sorts of small needles characterize the racism experienced by Asians in the Bay Area. Eventually, the needles build up and become paralyzing.
But what does the “model minority” have to complain about? Asians now make up a significant minority of tech occupations in Silicon Valley. Asians are more likely to have university degrees. Asians have had higher median adjusted household incomes than their white counterparts. On paper, everything is going well for us. The problem is in the office.
At least once a week, I get another small needle jabbed in my arm. I often get stopped badging in because security thinks I’m a Asian tourist trying to sneak a selfie. Jokes about cheap Chinese manufacturing abound. Accusations of selling company secrets to Kim Jong-Un are all the rage.
“Can you see the screen with those eyes?” Ouch.
“Chinese or Japanese or whatever.” Ouch.
Hidden beneath these small little quips lies a demeaning, derisive bias against Asians in the Bay Area.
“You’re overreacting. Get over it.”
It’s just words. No one’s getting hurt right?
Sadly, negative attitudes towards Asians in Silicon Valley have created a bamboo ceiling. Despite being a majority in tech, Asians are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to become executives. Of the twenty five largest Bay Area companies, twelve have no Asian board members. Despite this, political debates falsely claim that around three-quarters of Silicon Valley CEOs are Asian — debates that may heavily impact the H-1B visa program. Asian American women are often positioned as “wedge females” and are regularly passed over for promotion or expected to adhere to traditionally feminine “passive ways”. People are getting hurt.
Despite popular belief, being Asian in Silicon Valley is not easy. It’s filled with derision and feelings of self-doubt. It’s filled with dead ends and tiny needles. But the critics have a point — reacting and complaining doesn’t solve systemic bias. Breaking stereotypes and killing with kindness does. (Easier said than done.)
Cultural diversity is not truly achieved by co-location, but cultural exchange. What good is a stew if none of the ingredients mix? If a co-worker makes an ignorant comment, correct it gently and educate.
“Chinese factory workers often endure terrible conditions to support families who often live hundreds of miles away.”
“These are actually Korean characters.”
“Yes. I can see when I laugh.”
Finally, observe the blessings, and pay it forward. Asians have made tremendous strides in Silicon Valley, despite the disappointment and broken dreams. There are others who have great struggles in the Bay. Join with them. Encourage them.
hshieh.com | @chunggukpanda