Friday, July 15, 2011

cultural assimilation: learning, adapting, or mimicking??

The May 16th copy of New York magazine contained an article, "Paper Tigers" by Wesley Yang, which dealt with 1) the stereotyping of Asians as quiet, placating, and self-effacing, 2) the cultural background for these qualities, 3) the reality and non-reality of this stereotype, and 4) whether or not Asians should adapt to an American culture of assertiveness and confidence or ascend in that culture through rote memorization and mastery of math, science, technology, business practices, or anything else that can be systematized and learned and re-taught.

In short, has Asian-American over-achieving become their Achilles heel? The author speaks to a young writer, a recent college grad who feels he has shorted himself by his devotion to good grades and perfect school records. Or, as he explains, if he were to do it all over again, he would have "[w]orked half as hard and been twenty times more successful." What then, is the difference between learning and success? Is there a correlation between doing well in school, in becoming the best possible learner, and doing well in life?

Yang implies that there is not, especially in the case of Asian-Americans who so diligently dedicate themselves to intellectual achievement that they may sacrifice social (or perhaps even emotional) aptitude. Asian-Americans, Yang points out, are at the top of every high school and college graduating class. Yet, as leaders in the white-collar workplace, they are conspicuously absent. What is going on? How could they be mastering all knowledge and yet failing to reach the pinnacle of success? Yang speculates:
Maybe it is simply the case that a traditional Asian upbringing is the problem. As Allyn points out, in order to be a leader, you must have followers. Associates at PricewaterhouseCoopers are initially judged on how well they do the work they are assigned. "You have to be a doer," as she puts it. They are expected to distinguish themselves with their diligence, at which point they become "super-doers." But being a leader requires different skill sets. "The traits that got you to where you are won't necessarily take you to the next level," says the diversity consultant Jane Hyun, who wrote a book called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It's racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It's simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and "pumping the iron of math" is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things. (Yang, 26)
And so Yang goes on to tell stories of Asians who have to learn how to smile, how to woo a woman, how to fight and alter the perception of Asians that they have, in fact, helped to create. Ultimately, Yang himself refuses to yield to what he (perhaps stubbornly) perceives as cultural conformity, as just another submissive acquiescence to others' values in the name of "success"... and thereby as an ignoble and monumental disgrace. And Yang remains defiantly himself...
Instead, I set about contriving to live beyond both poles. I wanted what James Baldwin sough as a writer -- "a power which outlasts kingdoms." Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world's business. Who does not seek after material gain. Who is his own law.

This, of course, was madness. A child of Asian immigrants born into the suburbs of New Jersey and educated at Rutgers cannot be a law unto himself. The only way to approximate this is to refuse employment, because you will not be bossed around by people beneath you, and shave your expenses to the bone, because you cannot afford more, and move into a decaying Victorian mansion in Jersey City, so that you sense of eccentric distinction can be preserved in the midst of poverty, and cut yourself free of every form of bourgeois discipline, because these are precisely the habits that will keep you chained to the mediocre fate you consider worse than death. (Yang, 94-95)
Yang relates an anecdote which was eye-opening for him. At a party, a woman approached him and told him she had read one of his articles and, in seeing his depth and insight, realized she had misjudged him. Then, she confronted him with a question with which she had long ago dealt in a parallel fashion. Being a less than attractive female, she had learned she would need to "love the world twice as hard." And Yang wonders, "why hadn't I done that?"
I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others' expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.

Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it's the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.

The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I'm fine. It's the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y'all. (Yang, 95)
And so I wondered... what is learning? When is learning a step towards an admirable goal and when is it just a piece of a broader process of cultural assimilation or societal mimicry? And do we always know the difference? Or do we only recognize the distinction in hindsight?

In this case, the concept of assimilation in the biological sense turns out to be an interesting parallel. In the realm of evolutionary biology, there is a old and yet revived debate over something called genetic assimilation. Genetic assimilation is, to the best of my understanding, similar to the Lamarkian notion of evolution -- that organisms can 'force' their own evolution. More scientifically, genetic assimilation is a process whereby some environmental condition (usually an environmental stressor) causes an alteration in an organism's phenotype which that organism is then able to express in successive generations without the existence of the environmental stimuli. A simple example involves flies. Conrad Waddington, the proposer of this notion, exposed fly pupae to excessive heat. Some of the adults in this laboratory population then displayed an unusual gap in the crossveins of their wings.

As Ilan Eshel and Carlo Matessi explain in their article, "Canalization, Genetic Assimilation and Preadaptation: A Quantitative Genetic Model," in Genetics:
After some generations of selection, when only these abnormal individuals were allowed to breed, the proportion of adults with broken crossveins induced by heat shock at the pupal stage was raised above 90% and, morever, a small proportion of individuals were crossveinless even among flies that had not been exposed to temperative treatment. If artificial selection was then continued by breeding the adults that had developed the abnormality without heat shock, the frequency of crossveinless individuals among untreated flies became very high, reaching 100% in some lines...

Hence, selection in favor of the preadapted phenotype enables a fast process of assimilation, comparable to that observed by Waddington and others in an artificial laboratory setting. Note, however, that this fast process of phenotypic adaptation to a new environment is likely to be followed by an equally important, slow hidden process of build-up of a new canalizing system, adjusted to the new environment, with a subsequent accumulation of phenotypically suppressed genetic variance... It is only this hidden process that may provide the population with potential preadaptation to a variety of possible new environmental changes. (Eshel & Matessi, Genetics, Vol. 149, 2119-2133, August 1998)
Changes or adaptations made under stressful conditions become the new foundation for a population's reaction to all conditions. The debate for biologists is whether the phenotype change can precede the genetic change... as traditional evolutionary theory would argue the opposite. What is interesting as a parallel is this question of whether forced adaptation (or learned adaptation in the case of cultural assimilation) can then be passed on to successive generations as a sort of ingrained coding. Is that what Yang was describing with Asian-Americans? Have they 'learned' so well that their adaptation is now equally a part of their cultural endowment as are the stereotypical qualities of humility and reticence?

Indeed, it seems that Yang has to fight quite hard to be what he wants to be in the face of his culture and ethnicity. He is angry and confrontational when asserting his right to express his "obdurate singularity at any cost." Is the learning to participate in a culture different from all sorts of other learning? Is it a healthy process of learning or merely a game of expert mimicry?

Though I am not Asian nor any other minority, I too have 'raged against the machine' of conformity that Yang implies. I, too, have spent time self-righteously believing in the importance of holding tight to the 'hard and unyielding' part of myself in the face of all other 'rewards.' I spent many years fighting hard to take alternate paths. Yes, there was a healthy process of self-learning that took place during my explorations... but I also wonder if there wasn't an unhealthy avoidance of traditional paths merely because they were so well-trodden. In avoiding these paths, did I not cost myself another kind of learning? And what really were the rewards of my 'hard' self? After years of being who I was with utmost independence I found I had reached a decidedly lonely pinnacle. It seems that Yang suggests one must either rub one's nose in the butt of corporate culture or restrict one's path to be so solitary, so unyielding that the path leads only to the top of a cliff from which you must jump... because there is nowhere else to go... and no one to watch you fall.

I let go. I let go of that 'hard unyielding' part of myself and re-learned a sort of societal assimilation. Not to the point of compromising my individuality or personhood or creativity... but towards the goal of becoming more like the other flies... of being able to adapt as they adapted to changing conditions... of sharing those conditions... and ultimately of sharing a life filled with love rather than solitary headstrong defiance.

And again, what of learning? I turn again to Bhabha because of his continual recognition of hybridity. For in the learning, in the adaptation, in the reproduction of what is and what is known evolves something beyond the boundaries... something in the thirdspace... something new... best exemplified in the articulation of old and reborn culture amidst colonial and post-colonial national ideologies and desires:
If India is a reproduction of the common Aryan origin, in Maine's discourse, it is also a perpetual repetition of that origin as a remnant of the past; if that remnant of India is the symbol of an archaic past, it is also the signifier of the production of a discursive past-in-the-present; if India is the imminent object of classical, theoretical knowledge, India is also the sign of its dispersal in the exercise of power; if India is the metaphoric equivalence, authorizing the appropriation and naturalization of other cultures, then India is also the repetitive process of metonymy recognized only in its remnants that are, at once, the signs of disturbance and the supports of colonial authority. If India is the originary symbol of colonial authority, it is the sign of a dispersal in the articulation of authoritative knowledge; if India is a runic reality, India is also the ruin of time; if India is the seed of life, India is a monument to death. India is the perpetual generation of a past-present which is the disturbing, uncertain time of the colonial intervention and the ambivalent truth of its enunciation.(Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994), 130)
... the 'ambivalent truth' of the force, inflection, intonation, fluency, emphasis, utterance... the 'ambivalent truth' of a voice -- of a people's voice, of a singular voice. The voice that repeats what is learned never says it quite the same way if you listen carefully enough. That is the slippage. That is the adaptation of adaptation. That is where learning is re-learned over and over again.

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