Thoughts on being Asian American

And notes on diversity reports in media and tech

Language has always put me at odds with my Asian American identity. Where my friends would communicate to their parents in Chinese, I would only converse with my parents in English. The Cantonese dialect was reserved for my parents while watching TVB or for each other when they were tired of using their brains to translate sentences for me. It was an oddity that I seldom thought much of—my parents spoke fluent English, so why wouldn’t they just speak that with me? Even when I’d ask my mom about it as a child, she’d answer with a response that was so seemingly matter-of-fact: “We’re in Canada. You’re Canadian. I’m Canadian. English is the main language here, so why wouldn’t we speak it?”

Much of what we are taught in school hardly, if ever, addresses the effects of immigration policy in both Canada and the U.S. have had on Asian Americans. And to be honest, I knew very little of the experiences of Chinese and Japanese people in Canada and the U.S. (save for a paragraph or two about the Head Tax and Exclusion Act) until my mid-twenties. It was only when I began reading and learning, pouring over text after text, that I was able to better contextualize my parents’ decision, specifically my mom’s, to distance me from their mother tongue.

When I had finally become an adult, she’d explain to me why she could speak English without any trace of an accent; it wasn’t so much linked to a passport as it was to opportunity. For her, to be able to pass orally in colonial Hong Kong, at the very least, was a way to get her foot in the door and hopefully into the hallway of upward economic mobility.

But learning English, for her, as an adult was a challenging experience, which subsequently led her to believe that it would be equally confusing for a child (even though such has been disproven). Hence, she opted to raise me in a predominantly English-speaking household, believing that it would protect me potential run-ins from discrimination (unfortunately, it didn’t) and provide me the linguistic head start that she never had (fortunately, it did). But this decision is a commitment that has long lasting consequences; because even to this day, she is the one to do the heavy lifting, using her second language (or fourth, if you include Mandarin and Toisan dialects) on a daily basis, to communicate with me.

And so when I consider what it means to be Asian American today, I am inclined to define it with the word resilience. Despite the centuries of obstacles thrown our way through legislation, violence, and discrimination, Asian Americans have continued to persist and persevere in what at times has felt like an unwelcoming land. But we’re here, still standing, and ready to be heard.

On Diversity Initiatives in Tech and Media

For the larger companies, particularly media and tech, that release annual DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) reports, much of the details are obfuscated on the intersectional level. Instead, what becomes apparent is careful deliberation on what data cuts to share—what stories are best told, vs. the actual reality of intersectionality.

When I consider my own experiences, I am disturbed by the fact that I can count on one hand the number of Asian American women that I have met in media and tech’s largest companies with a VP+ title in a non-STEM capacity. It’s already discouraging to see a dearth of women in leadership positions, but it becomes doubly so when I rarely see anyone that looks remotely like me. The guiding lights are so few, either challenging me to press on or to turn away—the outlook depending on how you see the half-empty or half-full glass that day.

It should not be oddly refreshing to see when a large company admits their shortcomings. For instance, Snap’s fifty-page DEI report highlights not only their growth, but also their setbacks—because that is so much the reality in any of this work. An example of such a setback is the note on “Asian representation in leadership decreased from 16.5% to 14.3%.” (There is also a specific footnote acknowledging that the Asian community is not one monolithic group, so kudos to whomever made sure that that was something to point out.)

But perhaps most poignant was the swath of data available, beginning on Page 30 (including data corrections due to a change in methodology, even if it showed a diminishment in progress). By no means is it a data dump, but it is a lot of information for some to process—and that’s perfectly fine. Having the intersectional charts and tables available for optional reading is what actually makes the report more transparent than others.

The triumphant moment should not be when large companies hire a Person of Colour as a Chief Diversity Officer or when they see a single year-over-year increase without analyzing the intersectional data of job function, title, and gender. In one report that I’ve read, its tone felt victorious in having an increase in Asian and Black interns, although nothing was ever said of the rate of hiring for a permanent post-graduation position. In that same report, it almost seemed self-congratulatory in employing a significant percentage of Asians—however, they were all in Tech positions. I’m sure there are Asians that would like Non-Tech opportunities.

Not all the responsibility should fall onto these large companies—small ones, too, should look to do better. If, at the very least, educate those around you on what is happening and how the system set up these inequities. Knowledge is such a powerful tool, and it would be remiss to sit back and not try to understand at the very least.

To be accountable for progress is to admit both the wins and losses in a way that does not shield one from the other. This gloss-over highlight reel does not beget actual change—it instead creates dangerous illusions and false hopes. And while I am finally able to see some relatable stories on television, it does not mean that we should stop here and not try to address the ecosystem that powers the end product of what we see on our screens.

Further reading