Growing up as a fourth generation Japanese-American I was raised in a cultural home, but didn’t see through a lens of color. My family celebrated holidays with some Asian flair, but it wasn’t at the center of the household.
As a child being compliant in the classroom was encouraged, but I wasn’t taught being quiet was expected. I was self-motivated as a student. I completed my work and got good grades with minimal effort. As a minority in the classroom I was probably labeled a quiet Asian boy, but it wasn’t a stereotype that bothered me.
Culturally Asians are raised in strict households filled with obligations to abide by. Fortunately that wasn’t my upbringing.
I might have been labeled one of those shy Asians, but spoke up when needed. For example I participated in the annual Spelling Bee and speech contest. I didn’t always win, but my nerves didn’t get the best of me.
Throughout elementary and middle school private schools sheltered me to a degree. But also bred a strong self-confidence from playing sports and achieving academically.
Searching For Identity
The concept of an introvert didn’t really hit me until high school. It’s where I experienced some failure both in class and on the court. Since most things came easy when I was younger I didn’t know how to cope when things didn’t go my way.
Compared to my peers I was quieter in the classroom. It had less to do with being an introvert or quiet Asian and more to do with not wanting to learn.
It was my first experience forming camaraderie with people who looked like me. From the outside my friends and I looked like shy Asians. To this day most of my close friendships were formed in high school.
It’s funny because looking through a cultural lens Asian shyness is a pretty accurate label. But like most blank classifications ignorance is easier than understanding.
Teenage years are full of identity crisis and I had my fair share of those. Dating, conflict and drama permeated my teen life. Part of figuring out who you are is trying new things. For the first time I chose to rebel versus conform.
The sad part is most friendships in high school are out of convenience. Once you graduate it’s the last time you’ll see the majority of your peers. But the friendships you decide to cherish can be lifelong ones. You have the potential to spend up to 4 years on a daily basis with them.
Looking back, being defined by the group of people you surround yourself with: I was an introvert or quiet Asian.
College was my earliest test of independence. Attending commuter colleges challenged my commitment to education and most of the time I failed. Without having a college counselor to help me choose classes the incentive to attend class wasn’t there.
Being a college student is similar to having your own business. With much choice comes less pre-structured time. If you’re not self-motivated no one is there to hold you accountable. That was a wake up call for me.
It wasn’t until I enrolled at Loyola Marymount University as a Liberal Studies major that I started to take college more seriously (mostly because of tuition). As a student in a predominantly female major field I chose to be the quiet Asian guy mostly out of comfort. It was easier to defer to being quiet.
Ironically the most gut-wrenching course I experienced was Asian American Studies. It was full of shy Asians which should have put me at ease. But after hearing each student complain about generational discrimination I couldn’t relate. My grandparents did spend time in internment camps back in World War II. Yet I was able to have conversations with them and although painful they didn’t dwell on the past.
Call it insensitive, but since my natural inclination is to move forward in life I took an incomplete in that class and moved into Chicano Studies (where I was the sole quiet Asian in the room).
The smartest choice I made in my Bachelors Program was to work as a teacher’s assistant. It gave me a preview of what it takes to be a teacher. Let’s just say 18 months later I changed my major to Psychology because I didn’t envision myself in the classroom setting weekly.
My first meaningful job out of college was a Youth Pastor at the church I grew up in. It was an Asian-American community, but the first time I was able to make strides in breaking the stereotype of being a quiet Asian.
This leadership role forced me to communicate consistently with students, parents and volunteer staff. The majority of the families involved were shy Asians so the target audience was defined. From the outside Asian cultures are perceived to be strong (which most are). In order to break free from the crowd you have to do things differently.
A pivotal moment in my life was choosing to go back to school for a Masters in Organizational Leadership while working full-time. Leadership had always been a hobby before it became my job. Being employed by a mid-sized organization (church) I was sheltered from thriving professionals in various industries.
As much as a leader I was at work, I deferred back to being quiet as a student in grad school to learn from my cohort. In fact during a weekend retreat, we were paired up in twos to lead our group in an activity. Sure enough the talkative Caucasian and quiet Asian ended up being voted the most effective team.
My strategy? Let my partner lead and fill in where necessary.
At that moment I realized being quiet can be effective as a leader.
Currently as a business owner my goal is to be a TEDx speaker. Part of the reason is I’ve had many people ask me how I got comfortable speaking in front of people. I tell them it’s been learned over time.
You tend to attract people who are similar to you. So a large chunk of my audience is shy Asians. Yet my hope is to break that stereotype of being labeled a quiet Asian.
My motivation for public speaking has less to do with culture and more to do with personal growth. I aspire to push people to change the narratives in their own lives by trying new things instead of dying with regret.