GHC15: Lunchtime Table Topics

So I gave a Lunchtime Table Topic talk at GHC15 on the topic “The Asian-American Identity in the Tech Industry.”

Some Background:

I was nervous over my choice of topic.  Let me explain–I have to advertise that I am half Japanese-American, or yonsei.  (Read between the lines, I don’t look like a stereotypical Japanese or half Japanese person.)  As The Rafu Shimpo puts it “younger Japanese Americans are more culturally American than Japanese.”  A fact that I can confirm with a simple vetting process:

What kind of television are you watching?  Keeping up with the Kardashians
Do you speak Japanese. No.
What is your Japanese name? I don’t have one.

So do I really have any business holding a conversation on the identity of Asian-Americans in the Tech Industry?

Yes.  Because there are a lot of Asian-Americans and half Asian-Americans who experience a lot of the same cross cultural upbringing in an immigrant nation type stuff that I do.  For example, revealing that I’m half-Japanese always reveals more about the person I’m speaking to:

That’s why you’re so smart!
But you look so white!
I could tell you weren’t 100% white.

Which is why I usually keep my ethnic background to myself unless confronted, or put in a situation where I really need to share.  So, as someone who is Japanese I’m starting a conversation about what it means to identify as Asian-American and the issues that we face moving forward.

The fact is, is that Asians in the tech industry is a complex subject.  While the raw numbers appears to have Asians “kicking it,” the higher the leadership position, the less great the numbers look.

Timothy Hwang outlines the phenomenon of the “bamboo ceiling:”

“The general stereotype that Silicon Valley holds is that Asian Americans are great technologists but lack the people skills to make good managers and leaders. In other words, “keep your head down and code”. It’s a subtle message that manifests itself in getting rebuffed at mixers over drinks, getting pushed down potential partner’s calendars, and generally dealing with condescension and doubt at every level. And the difference in expectations is stark.”

Undeniably, Asian-Americans are held to a different standard in the tech industry even though we are culturally American.

The Lunchtime Table Talk:

I was really worried that no one would show up and so I asked two of my Asian co-workers to accompany me.  One co-worker was Chinese-Canadian, the other recently from China.  Not too long after we were eating a Chinese-Vietnamese-American joined us at the table followed by a Caucasian woman married to a Korean-American man, and a Chinese-Australian woman.  We were set.

We talked about a lot of things–why people were drawn to the table and what Asian-American meant to them.  What was fascinating to me was that we had three major immigrant nations represented at the table: the US, Canada and Australia.  We each shared our stories of failing to nicely fit into a stereotype and how that has influenced our lives.

Many of us agreed that were are both positive and negative stereotypes associated with Asians in general.  We bounced around whether the stereotype that Asians are “hardworking” works in our favor or against us–the conclusion was probably both.

For me, I find myself beating a lot of people’s expectations as a “white girl” but when they find out that I’m half Japanese, I’m merely performing up to expectations.  It makes more sense to people that I’m a half Japanese woman in the tech industry than a 100% Caucasian woman.  As Sheryl Sandberg mentioned last night, people like stereotypes because it is more comfortable for people to process.

There were many other tangents that we went on, from cultural expectations to differences in American culture.  Depending on our upbringing, some of us were raised more or less “American” which either helped or hurt us in industry.  My Chinese co-worker expressed her frustration with American’s dislike to do what you’re told, a completely backwards concept from the Chinese culture she was more familiar with.

Also, depending on the demographics we were raised of the cities we were raised in, our friend groups and experiences varied greatly.  For some it was growing up in large Asian communities and only realizing you were a minority when you moved away, and for others there was the opposite experience of being the only Asian kid growing up and finding that they were one of many in the tech industry.

Something that didn’t hit me (as I’m American born) was how many women at the table were inspired by Wednesday night’s speaker Clara Shih,  The Asian-Americans around me expressed how touched they were by her story of being the only Asian girl in an American elementary school not knowing a word of English.  For many Asian-Americans, this mimics their experience and it was an amazing moment to hear an Asian-American woman speak of her success in such a relatable way.

Thoughts of Asian-Americans too be continued–it’s a thick and complex topic.

This post was syndicated from Tech Girl Solutions: Finding the Female Engineer.