About Saving Face

by Angie Y. Chung

Interview with the Author on Asian Americans “Saving Face”

Check out my “Interview with the Author” on fellow blogger C.N. Le’s website Asian Nation:

In it, I answer the following questions:

  1. How much did you personally struggle with balancing a close relationship to your parents and assimilating into mainstream U.S. society when you were growing up?
  1. Many Americans who are not of Asian descent still see Asian Americans as the model minority and as almost universally successful. How would you respond to their reaction that Asian Americans have nothing to complain about?
  1. Can you elaborate more on your concept of “saving face” and how it relates to how second generation Asian Americans navigating between their Asian and American identities?
  1. As your book highlights, there seems to be a very thin line between the model minority image and the “yellow peril” image of Asian Americans. How much did your respondents feel this tension in their everyday lives and interactions with other Americans?
  1. What are some pieces of advise that you can give young Asian Americans as they try to find the balance between retaining their ethnic identity and solidarity to their family and community, while also integrating themselves into mainstream U.S. society as much as possible?
  1. As the political, economic, and cultural interconnections between the U.S. and Asia become more important (and presumably the rivalries along the same lines), how do you think Asian Americans will be seen by the rest of U.S. society going forward?

Translating Emotions

I’ve been asked by many frustrated but concerned immigrant parents on how they can understand and communicate with their American-born children and vice versa. Although people may acknowledge that there is a “generation gap” that creates this conflict, many of us try to enforce our own cultural framing and emotional language in trying to resolve conflicts with the other party, without really accepting the fact that immigrant parents and American children come with different personal histories and use their own cultural strategies and emotional vocabulary to make sense of their struggles.

I discuss the topic of translating emotions between immigrant parents and their children in the following presentation, sponsored by the Asian/ Asian American Research Institute (AAARI) and the CUNY Graduate Center.


On Being a Role Model (9/1/2016)

Although it has its many challenges, one of the greatest privileges of working at a public university is the opportunity to help those who have the talent and intelligence but lack the resources and opportunity to go to a private, highly-ranked college or who may have made one small but major mistake and are working their hardest to make up for that mistake. Yes, professors and teachers are increasingly underpaid and overworked given our many years of education but the less jaded of us must find a way to focus on the little morsels of achievement and appreciation we occasionally get from our students, our colleagues, and administrators in order to make it through the day. From time to time, professors run into a former student or receive an unexpected email from one, thanking them for inspiring them or nurturing their passion for the said subject. (As a sidenote, let me emphasize to all who have had the fortune of learning from a teacher like that, almost everyone I know who teaches cherishes these brief yet meaningful compliments so be sure to give them generously when deserved.) Although I love each and every one of them, here are my three favorite compliments I have received throughout my 14 years as a professor, two that were intended to be compliments and one that was not but I took as a compliment:

  1. Recently, a student whom I taught ten years ago wrote me an email thanking me for inspiring her and teaching her how to write better. Then she shared the wonderful news that she was now officially a social studies teacher (even more meaningful given that it is related to my discipline).
  2. Many years ago, a student, who had received a D in my first course and still decided to take another course with me, said to me that she realizes that she was not holding up her end but that she wanted to let me know that she really enjoyed my courses even if it wasn’t reflected in her grades.
  3. Lastly the “non-compliment-translated-as-compliment” from a student who decided not to show up to one third of the classes for no apparent reason and then threatened to report me to the Dean for not being willing to negotiate his grades.

The first email was meaningful because it reminded me that I may not have the skills to become that charismatic public leader or activist who can hit the streets and inspire a movement or become that genius scientist who comes up with the cure for cancer or AIDS, but that I can play a role in influencing a generation of leaders who can pay it forward. The second comment was important because it showed me that no matter his/ her grades, a student can develop a passion for learning and a sense of accountability that maybe one day can lead to a different type of a “successful” future even if it is not based on GPA. As for the third “non-compliment,” sure I could have simply scoffed and dismissed the sense of entitlement I have come across time and time again from this and many other students (and increasingly so) and yes, I initially did. But what his message conveyed to me was that the student believed I was not willing to lower the bar and hold a student’s hand to compensate for his lack of responsibility. If he learned at all from this experience, then it is that he can not bargain and threaten his way out of his irresponsibility.

These small acts of appreciation are even more important for women of color faculty, who deal with the daily stresses of being disrespected and invisibilized, and yet often taking more responsibilities by virtue of their postionality. I still remember one incident during my early teaching years when a belligerent white male student started screaming at me in front of a class of 100+ students for not letting him take a quiz because he showed up late and several times when students tried to challenge my authority, even forcing me to call the campus police at one point to escort him out because he refused to leave. Although I’m sure other non-Asian American, male colleagues occasionally face these challenges, I am very keenly aware that being Asian American, female and at one point, young-looking has only exposed me to daily racial and gendered micro-aggressions that I must learn to strategically manage. And my research has shown me that I’m not alone–joined by lawyers to actors to business owners, even if Asian Americans do not have the racial vocabulary to express it.

Why do I bring this up in a story about children of Asian immigrant families? Because one of the most common themes that came up in my interviews from Korean and Chinese Americans was their lack of a role model or mentor in their day-to-day lives or in the “publicized” sphere to help guide or inspire them through the emotional journey of straddling two worlds in a society that regularly devalues their racial self-worth. No matter what you do for your profession or your skill set, every one of us has the ability to become that role model or mentor for at least one person or to demand that our beloved nation creates the opportunity for Asian Americans to become the visible leaders and respected role models for future generations and to castigate those racial stereotypes that tell us otherwise.

A Story without a Past (1/29/16)

freshofftheboatAs most faithful Asian American television viewers will proudly tell you, 2015 was the landmark year for Asian Americans who finally got the opportunity to take center stage in several primetime and internet TV series, such as the much heralded Fresh Off the Boat, comedian Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Show, John Cho’s Selfie, and Aziz Ansari’s Netflix TV series Master of None, along with several other shows that featured Asian American men and women in lead or key supporting actor roles (my personal favorite would be Steve Yuen in The Walking Dead). Although some were more successful than others, Asian Americans gave a collective sigh of relief after finding that the shows (to varying degrees) did not merely repeat the typical themes of Orientalism, model minority stereotypes, and racialized foreignness that have defined Asian American TV personas in the past and in some cases, attempted to take a stab at taboo topics such as racism and intergenerational conflict without letting it define them.

Of course, not all Asian Americans were happy with everything they saw and as with any TV sitcom that ventures unchartered racial territory while trying to appeal to the sensationalist, one-dimensional tastes of a diverse audience, there is always the tendency to slip back into cheap jokes and old stereotypes. However, many of the themes they touched on still resonated deeply with children of Asian immigrant families. I unfortunately haven’t been able to keep up with most of the shows with the exception of Fresh off the Boat, one of the more successful TV shows that generated an enthusiastic following among both Asian and non-Asian audiences alike. Based on the memoirs of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, the comedy series follows the struggles of 12-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang) when his Taiwanese immigrant parents (Randall Park and Constance Wu) move from Chinatown in Washington D.C. to a white suburb in Orlando. There has been a lot of commotion and discussion about Fresh off the Boat on the Asian American blog circuits (see Angry Asian Men, Kollaboration, Reappropriate, You Offend Me You Offend My Family). What impressed me most was the simple fact that it did not celebrate “the Asian family” as paragons of familial stability and order or demonize the immigrant parents as “cold,” “oppressive,” and “out-of-touch”, but rather, humanized Asian immigrant parents and their children by highlighting their cultural quirks, emotional anxieties, and racial struggles, while simultaneously making their values and experiences relatable to others (and not just “white others”). This to me is a major accomplishment given that unlike great works of art and literature, comedy is intended to keep the message simple and make audiences laugh. The fact that the show could touch on familiar sensitive themes related to assimilation, dual identity conflict, model minority, and cultural values, while complicating and questioning immigrant, second generation Asian American, and most importantly, American society’s treatment of these themes was an important stepping stone not only for the Asian American community but for the larger entertainment world.

For Asian Americans, TV shows, movies, and internet media are important mediums because they can reach a wider mass audience, but the arts, literature and the humanities provide a more sophisticated and creative space through which to build a sense of belonging and express the emotional complexities and hardships of immigrant family and minority life. Although I myself have not done much since I was a child that would be considered creative or artistic beyond reading the occasional novel (and writing this blog), the most interesting observation I picked up about immigrant families from my interviews with Korean and Chinese Americans is the way creative and artistic hobbies and professions provided a crucial emotional outlet for those who are not lucky to find that at home or within their immediate network of friends and kin. Breaking the model minority stereotype, some of my interviewees embraced their creative talents by choosing professions in literature, acting, film production, art, graphic design, and fashion, but even those who chose careers in law, business, and STEM professions told me how important it was for them to read books about Asian Americans or dabble in other hobbies to help them reconcile their conflicts with and sense of isolation from their families, ethnic communities, and/ or their American peers.

Where does this driving need come from? Part of this has to do with cultural differences–the fact that immigrant parents and their American-born children generally have difficulties communicating with one another so that they seek other modes of expression and belonging. However, in comparing the experiences of Korean and Chinese Americans with those of second generation white Americans, I also found that Asian Americans were particularly plagued by this profound feeling of “un-belonging”, because of the glaring absence of role models and mentors, inadequate multicultural education at home, school and mainstream media, and disconnect from American peers or ethnic communities/ institutions that could provide some of that support. In addition, I found that caught in a post-civil rights era where race and racism is largely viewed and articulated as a black and white thing, Asian Americans lack the proper vocabulary to articulate their struggles as an “in-between” racial minority–a situation that makes their artistic and humanistic endeavors an even more meaningful venue for personal and political expression. In this light, it is particularly troubling that the increasing presence of Asian Americans in the arts and humanities has coincided with decreased funding for these disciplines/ professions.

Boast and Roast (1/25/16)


Many Asian Americans have either experienced this firsthand through their parents or relatives or if they’re lucky, only learned about it by watching Waverly’s suffering on the Joy Luck Club: the tendency for some Asian immigrant parents to boast about their children to random strangers willing to listen or roast their poor children by comparing them to their distant cousin, neighbor, or their friend’s roommate’s nephew long list of achievements. It always seems like someone’s kid went to Harvard, got a perfect score on their SATs, or married a rich lawyer/ doctor to make their parents proud, while the rest of us withered in our life of mediocrity and self-centered happiness.

Min Zhou, a famous Chinese sociologist formerly at UCLA and now at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, explains that this culture of gossip, bragging, and comparing is one of the ways in which Asian immigrant communities push its youngest members to achieve. She shows how this happens not only through parenting but also through peer pressure and community institutions like the ethnic media which regularly features stories on model students in their popular education section. This system is a form of “community parenting” that helps to compensate for lack of parental supervision as a result of immigrants’ long working hours. My own observations as a parent on various American parenting boards have taught me that Asians are not the only ones to want to brag about their children’s achievements, but it is apparent that there is another level of intensity and community involvement that makes this kind of culture insufferable for many of us in an insecure period of our lives when we are still trying to develop our own identity, make our parents proud, and fit in with our peers at the same time. Sure, this kind of pressure might have helped motivate some children of Asian immigrants to work harder and find ways to repay their parents’ for their sacrifices, but regardless of their individual “success,” many of the Asian Americans I interviewed also recognized the emotional costs of this burden to achieve.

As they transition into adulthood, Asian Americans find different ways of reconciling these pressures: some do become that “model” child but find other ways to pursue their individual passions (e.g. transitioning careers after making lots of money or pursuing a serious hobby in art), while others reject their parents’ expectations completely yet try to find different ways to make their parents happy (e.g. taking care of their parents in their old age). Whatever path we choose, I think we need to understand why immigrants are so fixated on money and prestige given the lifetime of hardships and struggles they’ve endured. Many of our parents lost everything in immigrating to the U.S. just so their children do not have to go through the same life of poverty, discrimination, and hardships they endured. As one interviewee observed, this is also why they do not talk about the difficult past and fixate so much on a better future. At the same time, we also need to recognize that the second generation has the privilege of focusing on other things such as family time, satisfying (even if not lucrative) careers, and community work because of these very same sacrifices. We have the power and luxury of showing them that because our parents have worked so hard to give us this comfortable life, we can follow our own paths towards happiness and find other ways of showing our gratitude to both family and community other than making money.

About Saving Face

This blog is my first public discussion devoted to the emotional struggles and contradictions of being Asian American. I decided to focus on the theme of “saving face”–or the cultural practice of maintaining one’s dignity and reputation by hiding and avoiding humiliating or embarrassing situations, because my many years of research have taught me that what Asian Americans say and how they behave is only the surface of what they believe and feel. Saving face demonstrates to me that our perspectives and experiences are more diverse than what American culture and media portrays, that we waver between family obligation and individual freedom, and that we lack the vocabulary to articulate all this because we live in between many worlds. Saving face is a way of thinking, living and communicating among many traditional Asian cultures, but I find that when used selectively, it can also be a useful tool for American-born children of Asian immigrants to navigate the emotional conflicts and contradictions of being a child of an Asian immigrant family.

I was inspired to start this blog while preparing my book on the family experiences of Korean and Chinese Americans (Saving Face: The Emotional Costs of the Asian Immigrant Family Myth, Rutgers University Press, expected release August 2016). The book is based on in-depth interviews with 61 Korean and Chinese Americans ages 25-38 in the NY-NJ metropolitan area. As I conducted those interviews, it surprised me to see how much people were willing to share very personal and sometimes traumatic stories about their childhood and present lives with a stranger. No matter how diverse our backgrounds and experiences, I’ve learned that we all share the common feeling of having so much to say but being unable to find the right person or the right words to communicate it with. It is for this reason that I created this blog.

I will not pretend to know or understand how all Asian Americans think and feel, but over the course of my own life, I’ve become a firm believer that it is this continuous debate and sense-making process that helps us to come to terms with difficult moments of our past and present. For this reason, I decided to use the “freestyle writing” approach I learned back in high school and throw out thoughts, insights, and experiences that come to mind without having to worry about grammar, syntax, and minor factual inaccuracies (my apologies ahead of time). It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think creatively and write to a nonacademic audience and I don’t know any of the rules of writing a blog, but I hope that some of my writing can serve as a stepping stone for all of us to relate to one another and help negotiate whatever individual challenges we are facing.

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