There’s a sea change coming for Asian America—a course correction that is past overdue.
For years, we believed that working hard would be enough to succeed in this country. We were an immigrant working-class, sold on the concept of a meritocracy: Keep your head down, don’t cause waves, work hard, and reap the rewards.
It worked, but only to a point. We got the job but were rarely promoted. We became the leader’s assistant, but never the leader. Cultural analysts refer to this phenomenon–of being underrepresented in boardrooms and at the levers of representative government–as the “bamboo ceiling.” Despite composing 12 percent of America’s workforce and more than 30 percent of America’s tech jobs, only 4.4 percent of Fortune 1000 company directors are Asian American.
There are intersecting reasons for this disparity, but leadership’s hesitation to promote us can develop subliminally, via our media depictions. It is more common to cast us as the computer analyst than the romantic lead, and over time, perception becomes the truth. It is akin to a gilded cage. The implication is we should be grateful for what we get. And we’d better act and fly right, lest we lose that too.
When Asians do break out of these media roles, often at the behest of Asian creators behind the camera, the results can be transformative. The recent film Everything Everywhere All At Once is the latest in a long line of Asian American films that expand people’s perception of who we are and who we could be. Examining this film, and what makes it great, has a lot to tell us about how far we’ve come as a people and what part of the journey remains.