Author, N. Va. native Helen Wan on the ‘bamboo ceiling’
Ingrid Yung is a made-up character, but her story seems to resonate with the real-life Asian American lawyers gathered for a book reading in the Washington offices of the corporate law firm Wiley Rein. Ingrid, a minority and a woman, is a “two-fer” in the parlance of her fictional firm, where her impatience with its clumsy approach to diversity threatens her promising career.
“We didn’t need [expletive] Dumpling Day in the firm cafeteria,” Ingrid fumes in the new novel “The Partner Track,” published by St. Martin’s Press. “We needed decoder rings for all of the unwritten rules of survival here.”
Ingrid’s creator is lawyer and novelist Helen Wan, who grew up in the Northern Virginia suburb of Burke. Her debut book, a witty yet pointed exploration of the difficulties Asian Americans have advancing in corporate culture, has clearly exposed a nerve. The eager response from readers sent it back for a second printing after an initial run of 50,000 in September, a rare achievement for a first-time author. A Wall Street Journal reviewer called the book engaging and suspenseful and praised Wan’s realistic depiction of law firm culture. Law firms and law schools across the country have invited Wan to speak to groups such as the one at Wiley Rein, organized by the D.C. chapter of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
Like her character, Wan, 40, is a lawyer navigating the top echelons of the profession (in Wan’s case, as an associate general counsel at Time Inc.) and she’s also an “ABC”: American-born Chinese. She was raised by parents who sent her to Chinese school on Sundays and to a science and technology-focused high school, and who often offered counsel in what her family now calls the “old Asian” way: Don’t rock the boat. The nail that pokes out is hammered down. Work harder and you will get ahead.
Wan interned with lawyers and judges who often saw an American-born law student as Asian first. “I’ve always thought your people were very bright,” one judge said. And she spent time at a large New York litigation firm that felt like “another planet,” where squeaky wheels, not those that rolled along quietly, were the ones that got promoted.
Those experiences helped Wan infuse Ingrid’s story with the authentic sense of cultural dissonance that her readers are responding to.
On the night Wan reads at Wiley Rein, many of the gathered Asian American lawyers are still wearing their power suits. There are men and women, most between 25 and 45. A handful are first-generation immigrants. A few black lawyers and one of the firm’s white male partners are on hand.
All listen raptly to Chapter Five, where Ingrid compares herself to a young, white woman at the firm:
“I was jealous of her confidence and her utter unself-consciousness. What would it be like, I marveled, to go through life so utterly unwary? So wholly certain of your belonging to a place that it was never necessary to consider how your next move would be perceived? Making partner at Parsons Valentine felt like a big final exam to which a select few held the answer key. While the rest of us schmucks had to study.”
A few heads nod, and after Wan’s reading the conversation turns to stalled ambition and the presumption that Asian Americans are happy worker bees.
“What do you do when you know you’ve been picked to be on the team because they want you to be this quiet, hardworking Asian?” one young woman asks.
In the annals of American employment discrimination, “quiet” and “hardworking” may not seem like the worst way to be characterized, Wan acknowledges. But such seemingly benign stereotypes, much like the term “model minority,” mask a less benign truth backed by reams of research: Members of the country’s most highly educated racial group are among the least likely to make it to the top in corporate America.
Lei Lai, an assistant professor at Tulane University, wrapped up the findings in a report last year: In both public and private sectors, Asian Americans have the lowest probability to be promoted to managerial positions among all racial minorities; they have a lower ratio of managers to professionals, compared with whites; they deal with perceptions that they lack social skills; and some face discrimination because of accents.
The studies and Wan pointed to stereotypes of Asian Americans as passive, poor communicators, techies or not “real” Americans.
“I do not think it is in any way intentional or systematic, but still it is happening,” Wan says. “Subconsciously, there is still a perception that the Asian American in the room is really smart, is a really hard worker and sometimes even is a good people person but — this is a big ‘but’ — is probably a better sort of technical or behind-the-scenes thinker and not a leader.”
That pile of career-compromising assumptions has a name: the bamboo ceiling.
Wan’s novel is among the latest works exploring the tensions Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Jane Hyun, an executive coach based in New York, is the author of “Flex,” a book about managing across differences, following up on her 2005 release, “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians,” in which she helped coin the term.
A century ago, most Asian Americans were low-skilled, low-wage laborers who farmed, mined and built railroads. Today they are among America’s highest-earning and best-educated workers, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. Nearly half have a college degree, compared with 28 percent of all U.S. adults.
With a median income of $66,000, Asian Americans earn $16,200 more than the U.S. average, though Pew points out that that figure doesn’t acknowledge the diversity of experience within the demographic. (Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans and Chinese Americans have higher than average rates of poverty, while Indian Americans, Japanese Americans and Filipino Americans have lower rates.)
Despite higher educational attainment, however, Asian Americans fare as poorly as other minority groups when it comes to the top jobs at the nation’s 500 largest companies. Only eight of those companies are led by Asian Americans, and only 2.6 percent of the seats on the corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies are held by Asian Americans, according to research by DiversityInc and the think tank Catalyst. (Six African Americans are Fortune 500 CEOs, and 7.4 percent hold corporate board seats; eight Hispanics are Fortune 500 CEOs, and 3.3 percent hold corporate board seats. Nearly 87 percent of corporate board seats at the companies are held by white workers.)
Similarly, in the federal government Asian Americans make up 6 percent of the workforce but only 3 percent of the senior executive service.
Asian Americans have been called the “ ‘model minority,’ but this community seems to be the ‘forgotten minority,’ ” wrote a group reporting in 2008 to the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in assessing the difficulty of moving to senior ranks in the federal government.
“When I first moved to the public sector, I was shocked at the diversity. It was so refreshing and different from what I had come from and what I had seen. But I noticed at the top ... they were still primarily Caucasian and male,” Betty Chung, a deputy assistant general counsel at the U.S. Agency for International Development, says after Wan’s reading.
Even well-meaning colleagues commit faux pas, says Chung, who has been asked more than once whether she is related to the former newscaster Connie Chung — of course she is not. (Connie Chung is of Taiwanese descent. Betty’s heritage is Korean.)
“We have about six female Asian American attorneys, [and] we have all been called by each others’ names,” Betty Chung says. “We are various sizes and do not look alike.”
Chung says she and her colleagues usually laugh it off, but one in five Asian Americans surveyed by Pew said “they have personally been treated unfairly in the past year because they are Asian,” and one in 10 have been called an offensive name.
Between 2010 and 2012, the federal government brought 3,288 cases on behalf of workers of Asian descent who alleged they were discriminated against in the workplace, the EEOC reported. An acute-care hospital in California agreed to pay $975,000 to settle a lawsuit by Filipino American hospital workers, who alleged they were harassed when speaking Tagalog or Ilocano. A Houston-based concrete company agreed to pay $135,000 to settle a lawsuit by a Thai American employee who alleged he was called “Jap” and demoted from his sales position to a job driving trucks because he is Asian.
Julie Chen, the talk show host and former news anchor, confessed last year to dealing with workplace discrimination by having plastic surgery at age 25 to make her eyes look bigger. “You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese,” she had been told.
Once a client for whom Wan was negotiating a publishing deal asked her whose side she was on — his or the publisher’s. “What are you, the Manchurian Candidate?” he said. She has also encountered the offensive “ching chong” accent ploy, where those gibberish words are used to mock Asians.
More often in the workplace, Asian Americans “who don’t speak a syllable of Asian dialect report being mistaken as foreigners or expatriates in the workplace,” Jane Hyun says. This “perpetual foreigner” stereotype is reinforced by pop culture, where for decades Asians were relegated to kung fu caricatures and antisocial geeks.
A documentary about NBA player Jeremy Lin, who famously was not picked for the NBA draft, explores not just his enthusiastic welcome by Asian Americans happy to have “some kind of role model that wasn’t embarrassing,” as Hyun says, but also the prejudice he has faced.
“You Chink! Can you even open your eyes to see the scoreboard?” fans of opposing Ivy League teams once taunted.
Wan wrote her novel in part to expose stereotypes, but that was no protection from them during the publishing process. One agent asked Wan to rewrite the book to make Ingrid white. And an early mockup of the book jacket featured a stock photo of a blond woman.
“Ironically, our cover faced many of the same challenges that Helen’s protagonist did: how to be true to a certain identity without being bound by that identity,” says Wan’s editor at St. Martin’s, Brenda Copeland.
On the final cover, Ingrid’s ethnicity is ambiguous.
All along, Wan has faced what she calls “the bucket problem.” Her main character wasn’t some confused editorial assistant, so the book did not qualify as chick-lit. There was no trip to China, where the protagonist met relatives from her parents’ homeland, so it was not a traditionally ethnic story. The book’s law firm setting gave it elements of a legal novel, but the main character was a Chinese American woman. No one had seen that before, Wan says.
She likes to say that publishers know what to do with Amy Tan, the famed author of “The Joy Luck Club.” They know what to do with John Grisham, whose legal thrillers sell millions. They understand how to sell Lauren Weisberger’s books, which include “The Devil Wears Prada.”
“They don’t know what to do with Amy Tan Grisham Weisberger,” Wan says, describing her book as a merging of genres — kind of like her life.
While in Washington for her book tour, Wan stops at a Tysons Corner cafe for lunch with her parents, Peter and Catherine Wan, who met in Taiwan and immigrated in the 1960s.
Peter worked for the Defense Language Institute for 38 years. Catherine took time off to stay home with Helen and younger daughter Linda, then worked about 15 years for the government teaching computer skills.
Though both parents couldn’t be prouder of their children, the generational divides are evident. Helen often shares in book readings that one of the first pieces of advice her father gave her when she told him her book would finally be published was: “Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone about it, because no one likes a braggart.”
During lunch, her father says he found her novel instructive. “I didn’t realize until I read Helen’s book that they go through a lot, as well,” Peter says of his daughter’s generation. “Maybe not as much as our generation, but it’s there.” He was insulated from discrimination for much of his career, he says, because he often worked most closely with other Asian Americans who, like him, were teaching Asian languages to U.S. government employees. But his daughter’s novel brought to mind an awkward encounter when his agency’s legal office called him in to ask for a chat.
“How does an Asian person feel working for the U.S. government?” the gentleman asked Peter. He didn’t realize it then, but Peter now looks back on that conversation as a muddled attempt at inclusion.
Helen’s mother, who describes herself as having been a bit of a Tiger Mom — forcing piano lessons and Chinese school on her daughter — says she also liked Helen’s book because it showed that “we have to work hard. Do your best, and you can stand it.”
Helen, who is talking to someone else at the moment and doesn’t catch her mother’s summary, makes clear later that “you can stand it” is not the takeaway she had in mind. Helen sees her book as a novelistic primer on corporate America that could have benefited her younger self — well-educated but unprepared for the real world.
In some ways, the novel is an act of defiance that began more than two decades ago. She attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology because her parents wanted her to go to the best school in the county, not because she had a love of science and technology. Wan finally sat her parents down to tell them not to force her to be like all the Asian kids who were pressured to go to medical school or study engineering.
“I always loved to write,” she says.
Yet, after graduating from Amherst with a degree in English and political science she opted to attend the University of Virginia Law School as a respectable alternative to the writing life, describing herself as “a reluctant law student.”
“When part of your family’s origin story is, ‘I gave up everything for you to come here,’ you just don’t feel the freedom to say, ‘I’m going to major in art history so I can curate at Sotheby’s’ or go to New York to become a novelist,” she says.
It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Helen Wan’s character Ingrid finds her own way through the bamboo ceiling. But not before making telling choices to fit in with the old boys.
At one point, Ingrid pretends not to know Chinese. “I was passing,” the character says. Wan lived a similar moment as a young lawyer when, on the subway with a big group of colleagues, she acted as if she couldn’t understand a Chinese woman who was trying to speak to her in Mandarin. Wan has matured and would react differently now, she says.
When she was a young lawyer, Wan says, she would have spoken up more. She would have given the partners a better sense of her personality and creative interests.
After Wan’s book was published, she heard from lots of colleagues who were surprised to learn she was a novelist.
“I think a lot of people who looked at me saw ‘Oh, hardworking Chinese attorney,’ ” she says. “It’s true, but that’s not all.”
After months of agonizing, she told her bosses late last month that she would leave the company in mid-March to become a full-time author.
“They were very, very surprised,” she says.
For Wan, the decision involved reexamining the issue of the bamboo ceiling and concluding that she needed to shift her definition of success: from reaching the senior executive suites to following her childhood ambition.
After months of traveling the country and speaking to Asian Americans in corporate fields about “taking risks in order to achieve our dreams,” she had come to a realization, she says. “I was not taking my own advice!”
Krissah Thompson is a Style reporter for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@ washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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