Stranger in My Native Land: Asian American Money

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Today, Revanche of A Gai Shan Life  joins us for our weekly Friday series on women’s money issues in honor of Women’s Money Week, which will take place January 1-7, 2017. Revanche covers the xenophobia and racism she has encountered in her lifetime as it pertains to her finances as an Asian-American woman.

Please use the hashtag #WMWeek17 when sharing this story.

I never would have thought of the ways that prejudice can make Asian-American women feel like strangers in their native country--especially financially.

Stranger in a Strange Land: My Native Country

As a first generation American, I see my home country through different eyes than most. Not because I don’t consider myself American. Of course I am, as much as anyone who isn’t a First Nation native can be – I was born here, a natural citizen.

But I have dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin and no nose bridge to speak of, so the correct answer to “where are you from?” can be Japan, The Philippines, China, Cambodia–anywhere but here. California, or Los Angeles, are unacceptable answers. I can’t be from here. I’m not white.

Why does this matter? In some cases, it makes no difference. What harm do I suffer if the cabbie wonders if I’m from that one country he visited, or the other country whose cuisine he likes?


In most other cases, however, it matters a great deal, indeed.

The Financial Costs of Being a Target

It matters when you’re a target to profit from, based on your race. I saw this play out most immediately with Mom and had to get involved at a very early age. Her accent meant that vendors would dismiss her, disregard their own policies, overcharge, and fail to deliver. She had an accent and that made her stupid and unimportant, they decided.

Angry and frustrated sitting beside her listening in to one such conversation, I got on the phone, all of 9 years old but speaking in English unaccented, demanding that they honor the agreed-upon terms. Magically their inability to do so melted away. From then on, I made the phone calls, whether to renegotiate contracts, dispute billing errors or just to get simple information.

Being an Asian-American Woman in the Workplace

It matters when you hear and understand anti-immigrant rhetoric–when you realize that white or European immigrants are now acceptable, but the people who look like me or my friends are “immigrants taking the good jobs.” No matter that I’ve been a star in the workplace since I was 17; to those people, my race and my skin color define me, not my professionalism, work ethic or performance.

As Taylor pointed out, it’s tough enough to make it in the workplace as a woman with the wage gap. As a woman of color, racial stereotypes further impacts your ability to earn a living. So it matters a great deal when employers and colleagues consider you a “minority quota hire” on sight.

It matters when your first manager has a (well-known, internally) obsession with Asian women so his hires were dismissed as objects of his obsession. Work performance made no difference; they couldn’t earn raises or promotions because they were hired based on their appearance–nothing more–so far as the management was concerned.

A Long Way to Go to Eradicate Racism, Xenophobia and Prejudice

Twenty years later, the racism we face is still astonishing. Not more than a year ago, we were calling a mechanic’s shop regarding services and the shop owner declared he wouldn’t help people with accents. We don’t have accents, but he was suspicious and wanted to be sure, you see, that he wouldn’t have to deal with a lesser form of American. “Those people”, he calls them.

My white friends rallied to the cause, of course, offering to call him with their Canadian, British, Australian, and Scottish accents.

My perceived youth, completely normal for an Asian, still comes up when my performance is evaluated, more than my results. I still have to jump through more hoops than any other manager to ensure that I’m being taken seriously as a professional because my years aren’t worn on my face.

I am always mindful of the active racism that lingers in many fellow citizens when I look out for our money. I always get a second and third quote for services.

I’m not bitter about my particular journey, but I am frustrated that this is all old hat. I’m frustrated that my child will also be held up to a standard that takes into consideration zir racial appearance first, zir skills and results second–or last.

It’s not just Asian Americans

Despite all the barriers I’ve faced, the level of racism that I encounter on a daily basis is mild. Asians are the “model minority” so we don’t come in for the same degree of hate that other non-white minorities experience. We’re dismissed, demeaned, underestimated. But we’re considered harmless in the end. If you’re Hispanic or black, you always have to appear calm and collected, otherwise you’re a harridan or an angry Black woman.

I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be them, I hear their stories and, to this day, I can only shake my head when people declare that we’re post-racism. The recent election, and the surge in hate for Jews and minorities since, clearly points up the fact that many Americans are in favor of racism.

Racism isn’t limited to the white residents of this country, of course, I’ve witnessed racism between non-white races, towards one another, and that also contributes to the wider harms done to our fellow citizens.

Xenophobia and racism are complex issues in this country and it’s critical to know that they are both present in the structure of this country.

It’s critical to know that people who object to hiring for diversity, stating they shouldn’t have to “lower standards,” are telling us what they believe: only a heterosexual white male can meet standards because that is the standard. Not skills, not experience, but race and sex. Anyone else, therefore, is naturally lowering the standard.

It’s critical to know that minority, women, disabled, LGBTQIA, any otherwise not standard issue white male candidates do indeed have the necessary talents and skills necessary to do the job. It’s our job to remove artificial barriers to finding them when you recruit new hires.

It’s critical to know that we have to actively dismantle our biases that point to hiring the people who look the same or fit the same “culture”, that manages to consistently avoid admitting minorities beyond the token woman, or token Asian, or token Black man, that consistently builds and maintains racist structures in which managers can refer to their colleagues as racial slurs.

These are complex issues. I can hardly do them justice here, but they’re worthwhile to tackle.

This country was built on the bones of Natives, with the blood of immigrants, and we must grow beyond what and where we are.

We have to start somewhere. We can’t avoid it simply because we aren’t able to solve it overnight.

6 thoughts on “Stranger in My Native Land: Asian American Money

  1. Kathryn

    We definitely have a LONG way to go. It wasn’t until we moved abroad (China and Korea) that I realized just how bad our treatment is of immigrants in the U.S. We have no patience for those that don’t speak perfect English or don’t follow the cultural norms. For the most part, I was treated respectfully while being the foreigner, but there were definitely times where I felt my ignorance (I was basically illiterate, since I don’t read Chinese). I feel like I can only partly understand what it’s like to be an American minority from my experiences, and it was incredibly difficult at times.
    It reminds me of a quote I heard recently that we have succeeded when instead of treating others equally on the basis of color, we don’t see color at all. And we have a long, long way to go.

    1. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

      Yes, many people like to claim that they don’t see color now, but what they mean is they don’t see the structural inequalities currently baked into our system that primarily give them advantages. They DO see it when the inequalities are removed or minimized, like the strong opposition to affirmative action based on the specious argument that it gives “unqualified” minorities that white kids would normally have gotten.

  2. Mel @ brokeGIRLrich

    Ugh, I’m so sorry you have to deal with that. I’ve never thought of Asian Americans as the “model minority” but that’s a really interesting phrase that does seem to jive with what I’ve seen all my life.

    1. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

      There are some really great analyses of the myth of the model minority written in recent years. I hadn’t thought of it by those that phrase before but it is quite accurate in the ranking of minorities and types of racism that is experienced by each.

  3. Smart Money MD

    It’s unfortunate but true that the judgment begins the moment a potential employer reads a name or a vendor sees a face. I’d say that the discrimination is significantly better than it was even a decade ago, but I agree that it will probably take decades more for these issues to smooth out.

    Do you find these racial and gender barriers to be as prominent in the Bay Area compared to other parts of the country? I would imagine that the coasts would be most progressive and tolerant.

    1. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

      The coasts are supposed to be the most progressive and tolerant, but I think that mostly means there are larger pockets of people who don’t support it actively, and openly, than in other states. It doesn’t mean that the racism is less virulent or the gender bias is less – I’ve primarily lived on the coast, and only visited the Midwest. In my eyes, the racism is as prevalent in the Bay Area as another other place I’ve lived on the coast, it just may go unremarked because those who are discriminated against don’t have the power to make their voices heard. The records of racist texts sent by SFPD officers is an unhappy and stark example of this.


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