On Bamboo Ceilings (Part 1)

On Bamboo Ceilings (Part 1)

July 9, 2022
An Overview:

Things I wish I’d known earlier in my career about being Asian in America.

I’ve had to teach myself a great deal about the culture of the United States since moving here over a decade and a half ago. Some of the culture shocks landed immediately, like the wearing of shoes indoors (!) while others took a few more awkward interactions to figure out, like the fact that when Americans ask you “How’re you doing?” you’re not actually being invited to give them a run down of how your day went. But by far the most consequential cultural challenges I’ve had to navigate have come from my professional life. At McKinsey, as at most professional services firms where reviews and promotions occur in rapid 6-month cycles, my odds of advancement rested on my ability to achieve an accelerated mastery of things you’re just supposed to know, i.e., corporate America’s hidden curriculum.

For those of us who didn’t grow up in corporate America’s dominant culture, the difficulties involved in achieving this mastery are manifold. Culture, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, consists of “things that go without saying.” Assuming you’ve realized that your challenges have a cultural component (no mean feat in itself), the fact that dominant cultural norms are just accepted by the majority as common sense means that you not only don’t know what you don’t know, but also that those who do know can’t explain it to you. Moreover, we don’t arrive in America tabula rasa, but with our own cultures that we’ve been steeped in from birth. Trying to unlearn or fight our own cultural conditioning head-on would take far too long, and often feels inauthentic. Instead, what’s required are ways of reframing our challenges in ways that enable us to work with, rather than against, our cultural scripts in a fashion that feels both productive and true. What I’ve written below are a series of five reframes that have been most helpful to me and those I’ve coached and mentored over the years.

Before I begin, an important caveat: Asians in America are not a monolith, and my use of the label “Asian” in these reflections isn’t intended to flatten an entire continent’s worth of linguistic and cultural diversity. At one extreme of specificity, my experience is one of being an ethnically East Asian (Chinese) recent immigrant to the United States from a Southeast Asian (Singaporean) country. But I offer up my story here on the wager that what I’ve learned can be helpful not only to people of my specific circumstances, but also to those who’ve grown up in cultures with similar features. I regret the limits of this necessary generalization —  but on the off chance that others will recognize themselves (or others they manage) in these words and find succor, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

"In a culture where an action can speak volumes, it is not only unnecessary to verbalize its meaning, but often seen as a cheapening of its sincerity."

#1: You're not shy, you just hold yourself to a different bar.

Six months into my first year at McKinsey, I was given the feedback that I needed to “speak up” more. When I asked how I could improve, the advice I got amounted to different versions of “just do it,” which is helpful when you’re selling sportswear, but less so when “doing it” is precisely the difficulty. It’s true that I didn’t speak as much as my colleagues did in meetings, but I couldn’t figure out what was holding me back — while I’m an introvert, I’m hardly shy, and most of my friends would probably prefer that I be less assertive, not more. As a first-year associate, the feedback sent me into a weeks-long tailspin where I kept searching myself for the personality defect that was preventing me from "speaking up,” which of course did little to improve how I was showing up in the team room since I was in my head so much.

The unlock didn’t come until I met up with some of my colleagues of Asian descent. None of us are what I’d consider shy or unopinionated, but we’d somehow all gotten the same feedback to “speak up” more. Our mutual commiseration helped me realize that the problem wasn’t shyness, a lack of confidence, or an absence of opinions, but rather a cultural default we shared that imposes a high bar on speaking up. For those of us who share this default, who gets to “speak up” in a given situation is not determined by being in possession of an opinion, but by having the right position — that is, a position of authority, seniority, and expertise. While my non-Asian colleagues simply had to traverse the straight line between having an opinion and voicing it, I was subjecting every opinion that popped into my head to a complex analysis of whether I was in a qualified position to offer it at all.

This reframing of “speaking up” as a question of position rather than personality was game-changing for me. In absolute terms, it may be a while before you stop being the youngest, most junior person on the team, and  unless you actually are shy, trying to be less shy won’t work, since it was never the problem to begin with. What helped me and others I’ve worked with unlock the ability to speak up in situations like these is leaning into the places of our relative expertise, authority, and seniority — the Excel model that you spent the week building and that only you know the ins and outs of, the nuances of the client conversation that only you were part of, the detailed research on the industry that only you performed. The next time you find yourself feeling unqualified to speak up, remember what you do know better than everyone else in the room, and create your own permission to speak up. These positions of relative power are always available to you, no matter how inexperienced or junior you are, because you’re the only one who’s done your job.

#2: Your actions will not speak for themselves.

For those of us who grew up in families that didn’t say “I love you,” how did you know that you were loved? If your parents were anything like mine, love was never spoken but instead found in the sliced fruit that appeared in your room at regular intervals, the constant reminders to wear a jacket and keep warm, the money spent on your extracurriculars instead of things they needed … and so forth. Consciously or unconsciously, the cultural script we internalize from such an upbringing necessarily attunes us to the emotional force of the unsaid  — we learn how to recognize it in the actions of others, and how to communicate it with our own. In a culture where an action can speak volumes, it is not only unnecessary to verbalize its meaning, but often seen as a cheapening of its sincerity.

The problem is that most of us in America will never work in an organization where this is the cultural default. When I first became a manager, I supported my team in the only way I knew how: by spending time with them, teaching them what I knew, and advocating fiercely for them in their performance reviews. Imagine my surprise when my 360 feedback indicated that my main area of improvement was that I needed to offer more verbal praise and acknowledgement. This feedback left me feeling angry, frustrated and under-appreciated. Wasn’t it obvious from the care I showed my teams that I appreciated them, and why on earth did I have to spell it out? If you can imagine how your Asian dad would react if you dared to complain about his lack of emotional effusiveness, that’s exactly how I reacted initially. The reframe that ultimately helped me was the realization that I worked with colleagues who didn’t share my cultural scripts, and so didn’t share the same sensitivity to the unsaid that I did. It wasn’t that my teams didn’t appreciate what I did for them, it was simply that they hadn’t been steeped in a culture that would’ve enabled them to register the unspoken care and regard I intended (this is analogous to Gary Chapman’s concept of the five love languages).

But it isn’t just our love for our teams that’s potentially getting lost in translation - it’s everything we keep doing for our employers that we imagine speaks volumes about how deserving we are of career advancement, even though it really doesn’t. The additional responsibilities we take on without complaint, the late nights and weekends we quietly work to help our teams get ahead, the second shift of “extracurriculars” we take on to be a good team player — all the ways we tell our jobs that we love them, while we wait for them to notice and love us back, and grow frustrated when they don’t. If this is the position you’re in, reframing the issue as one of cultural translation means that career advancement doesn’t require you to do any more than you already are (phew!), but it does require you to take the extra step of saying to your colleagues why and how it all matters — because your workplace isn’t an Asian family, and your actions will not speak for themselves.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, where I’ll address three more reframes:

  • Being “easy” to work with is not the asset you think it is
  • You can take control of how others tell your story
  • It’s not personal, but prove them wrong anyway

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