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The pressures of 'good' cultural stereotypes

Asian-Americans are better educated than whites, African-Americans, or Latinos. Asian-American women earn more than their white and black counterparts. And, anecdotally, in regions like Boston and Silicon Valley, Asian-Americans are prominent among the high-tech community's successful entrepreneurs and scientific innovators.

Facts such as these only feed stereotypes the white world holds of Asian-Americans as industrious, smart, assimilated. According to Jane Hyun in ''Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians," pressure to be the ''model" minority is where the difficulties often begin for Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans trying to advance in today's more diverse, yet still-evolving, workplaces.

Hyun reminds us Asian-Americans are of myriad origins and cultures: Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Filipino, to name a few. According to US Census figures, about 13.5 million people of Asian descent live in the United States, and they make up 5 percent of the US population.

They ''have often experienced being the only Asian in the room, and too often feel as if they represent every Asian in America," she writes. Colleagues may lump all Asian Americans ''into one big group."

If only Hyun, a career consultant and diversity coach, had delved more into cultural differences among Asians in her book, which sometimes fails to get beyond the generic stereotypes. Also, given the accomplishments of the Asian community, she should have spent more time establishing, for example, their scarcity at the top echelons of corporate America, despite a lack of data. Or, to combat views that stem from higher pay rates for Asian-American women, Hyun might have pointed out they also have a higher poverty rate than white women.

The writer is at her best when conveying stories about workers' experiences, the pressures put on some Asian-Americans by their parents, or their hesitance to tap into networks or ask for assistance. They do, indeed, suffer from ''good" stereotypes laid on them. One man was hired, for example, as an analyst because it was ''assumed he was good at math." He did not succeed in the job, and his hiring was harmful to employee and employer.

There is much the non-Asian world wouldn't understand. ''Mark Ly is a dot-com entrepreneur who is still trying to convince his parents that he is in a serious profession," said one case study. His parents view business as a profession filled with people who ''can't hack it in medicine, law, or engineering."

Asian-Americans often make the same mistake women make in the corporate world. ''It's not enough to buckle down to work. You need to map out a plan for promoting yourself," Hyun writes. This advice comes in a chapter called On-The-Job Mobility Strategies, which opens with a juxtaposition of boxer Muhammad Ali's famous quote, ''I am the greatest," with an Asian-American woman saying it had ''never occurred to me" to correct a teacher who had mispronounced her family name, Zia, for years.

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at

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