How to Be an (Asian) American Woman

On a recent business trip to China, I was automatically assumed to be an interpreter or assistant because I was helping with communication on both sides. I had to assert myself and remind my colleagues that I, too, had original thoughts to contribute. This small example shines light on the issue of how Asian women are often perceived. We are seen as competent and hard-working, partly due to stereotypes, but not necessarily powerful or influential. In fact, projecting an image of power can invoke some resentment and cause discomfort. A man I once supervised admitted to me that he was not used to having a woman as manager. At least he was honest, which made it easier to work out the problem.

This issue is not limited to Asian women. Congresswoman Donna Edwards, an African American from Prince George’s County, had to fight for respect, even though she is an independent legislator whose engineering background makes her an effective advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. California Senator Barbara Boxer had to request at a Capitol Hill hearing that she be addressed as “Senator” instead of “Ma’am” because, as she put it, she had earned the title. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote that she felt her suggestions were often ignored at meetings until they were repeated by a man, at which point they would be embraced as great ideas! A female senior executive of a company at first resented being asked by visitors to fetch coffee or hang coats. She eventually learned to say “Sure, I’d be happy to, and by the way, I am Sabrina, Senior VP.”

Over the years, I have learned to assert myself and hold my ground when being confronted by unpleasant or intimidating people or situations. Several times, I have had to speak up in order to seek greater responsibilities or promotions in my career. Because I knew my value, did my homework and was fortunate to have supportive managers, I succeeded. But I know that if I weren’t as confident in my English skills, the self-advocacy would have been daunting. It’s still not always easy for me to speak out when confronted with challenges, but as I grow older and my skin grows thicker, it does get easier.

As daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, we were groomed to be nurturing, helpful and collaborative. These desirable attributes may hold us back at the workplace, however. Finding our balance between being assertive and being collaborative, deciding when to lead and when to follow, which battles to fight, and even how to dress for the job, are all important evaluations. Like many middle-aged women, I like myself much better now than when I was just starting. This inner confidence projects outer strength.

Being an immigrant woman has added challenges as we balance cultural expectations on the home front. In most cultures we came from, women are still expected to be subordinate to men and take on the majority of domestic chores. Most Asian community organizations are run or dominated by men, and domestic violence is still too rampant in some communities. Becoming an American woman when you grew up elsewhere is as much about learning about yourself as it is about adapting to or breaking free from certain cultural constraints.

A few years ago, I was listening to my husband chat with a gentleman at a social function, and heard the person ask, “Does your wife speak English?” Couldn’t he have found out by simply talking to me? I am at a point in life where things like that amuse more than annoy me. March is Women’s History Month, a good time to remember that these personal battles, at home, at work or elsewhere, are just as important as national policy debates.