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What It’s Like to Be an Asian American in Advertising

July 30, 2021

How Can We Improve the Careers of Asian Americans in Advertising?

I’m tired of being told I’m wrong: the raise of an eyebrow, the pursing of the lips, the occasional jarring flat-out “no.” I am over it.

I’m tired of being told that my observations are wrong, that I should have (or shouldn’t have) done XYZ things, that this isn’t what the clients want. What I am most tired of, however, is the persistent voice in my head that tells me to bend to the will of others. I am smart and competent and oh-so-charming (and not at all using this platform to affirm that …), but the endless self-doubt is exhausting.

I’m tired, on a more existential level, of the systems of pressure and control that many first- and second-generation Asian Americans are subjected to, which have led to my (and countless others’) acceptance of the dissenting voices — both in our lives and in our heads.

On this topic, the Rev. Laura Mariko Cheifetz, a theologist and social justice advocate, brings up an old Japanese saying: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” From very early on, Asian Americans learn to keep quiet with heads down and instead focus on working hard to go to a good school, get a good job, and enjoy success.

It’s a playbook that’s been drawn up for us by our parents. It’s a playbook that was sold to them when they arrived here on boats and planes years ago.

Despite all that emphasis on and dedication to success early in our lives, Asian Americans statistically end up languishing in middle management more often than not. While AAPI people make up 13% of the U.S. professional workforce, we comprise only 7% of the leadership in Fortune 100 companies — and only 3% of CEOs in the Fortune 500.

We are faced with an interesting tension, as our playbook tells us to push so hard in every facet of our lives … only for us to still seemingly wind up in the middle. In Margaret Chin’s "Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder," the aforementioned playbook "doesn’t talk about how you can be authentic. You’re not nuanced, you don’t get to be who you need to be. It’s really telling you to be the model minority, which people expect you to be anyway.”

This! Is! A! Terrifying! Thought! — that we have to exist as our repressed selves in corporate America. That we are expected to fit into hard-working tropes, those imposed by our families, society, and the Western gaze of America, chasing the endless dream of success — only to eventually hit a wall we can’t get around with just hard work and book smarts. This secret, hidden repression foments self-doubt over the years and is the first thing to remind you that you’re crashing.

Very bluntly, Asian Americans aren’t good at sticking up for ourselves. We aren’t taught to do so. I know this far too well. We decline self-promotion and eschew networking. We’re your hardworking, miraculous shrinking violets. I would imagine that even the fiercest of Asian Americans, those who have risen to the top, are still faced with the moments of wanting to be small thanks to these tiny voices and the constant references back to the playbook. In an industry like ours — where smarts meet egos meet passion — having to be a gladiator is a lot to ask of folks who aren’t prepared to thirst for blood.

This notion is internalized over and over again, from our young lives to school and especially at work. Without test scores and grades, we have no immediate barometers to affirm our success. Instead, we become our own evaluators. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received the feedback to “go easier” on myself. But how do you go easier on yourself when you’ve been going ever harder all your life? If perfection is the stated goal, everything else is a failure.

This really unpleasant past year-plus has afforded me a lot of perspective and helped me realize just how heavily this dynamic weighs on me. On us. Your soul bleeds, your heart cries, and you don’t even realize it. You’re just chugging along, doing your best, and being put in difficult situations that years of studying and hard work didn’t prepare you for — delivering tough feedback to your team, having challenging client conversations, and most of all receiving criticism and reactions that you have to remember not to internalize as criticism of you as a person. You need to choose to see outside of this system. Tear the pages out of your playbook. Be nice to yourself. Take it easy.

I think about what we can do for the future generation as corporations bring more BIPOC people into their ranks: Consider the gravity a “no” can have on their outlook. We need to create a safe, equitable, and empathetic workspace for them. Understand where people come from and how it informs their individual work styles.

And perhaps most importantly for us Asian Americans in the industry — we need to remember to go easy on ourselves, emotionally and physically (the work will still be there tomorrow; go to bed already!). We need to find and create space and provide others with the platform to be nuanced, to feel real. We must find the nails that are sticking out and encourage them to stick out even further.

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