• May 20 2022

The Messages We Keep: Asian American Identity in Professional Spaces

By John Weng

“Put your head down and do good work”

“You will earn the recognition when you’ve earned it”

“Stop trying to be boastful, compare yourself to those who are better than you and try to be better”

These were some of the messages that spun around me as a kid. My parents, grandparents, relatives, and family friends shared messages around doing good work and being modest–values that are rooted in our cultural heritage. I am the first in my family to be born in the U.S. and those around me raised me in a world where doing good work would help me live my American Dream, but being boastful about it was never acceptable. And, in the month of May for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, I’m reminded of the teachings of those who raised me. 

I carried these perspectives with me into the workplace as I started my career. In my time as a leader within an organization, I found myself eager to do the job and take on more. I was addicted to the affirmation that I wasn’t used to getting. And then I became used to it. 

While this was happening (as it often goes), good work created more work. At first, this was new and exciting, but over the years, as I got so much work that it became unmanageable, I found myself growing overwhelmed and resentful. 

The messages I got no longer served me.

While I share these reflections on the messages that I received and how they influenced how I show up at work, there is no monolithic Asian American experience.

In fact, my lived experience, academic background, and work with clients have taught me that the “Asian American” experience is somewhat of a myth. Because at the end of the day, what does it even mean to be Asian anyways? Someone who is from China has completely different cultural practices and experiences compared to someone from the Philippines or Vietnam.

An article by NPR nicely illustrates disparities that are often wrongly aggregated. One discrepancy is the difference of median household income between Indian American households and Burmese American households (the difference is greater than $80k a year, by the way).

Although I don’t see a totally singular Asian American experience, the work that I do with leaders across a variety of industries has yielded a shared reality: that we all carry with us the messages we received. It has also yielded me with the powerful realization that we have an opportunity to make meaning from these messages as we will.

Over the last few years, I’ve been forced to examine the messages I’ve received as I grew up and then became professionalized into my career. I choose to acknowledge that the messages I received have taught me to work hard and strive for more. These stories have served me well in my life, and today I value them more than ever. This awareness and realization has taught me that I need to put in extra effort to be more intentional when I say “yes”. At the same time, I am grateful for my natural propensity to want to do.

To complicate things even more, the mere concept of being Asian American has, at times, inherently felt like an ask that is in diametric opposition. For what my Asian upbringing has valued in modesty and hard work, my American identity asks me to be proud and be successful. And the way in which I honor and hold these both to be true is to take pride in the complexity that I hold, allow myself to feel successful, and develop my own level of comfort when it comes to how I share my success.

So, this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, take the opportunity to ask yourself, what stories you’ve been told and how you might still carry with you. Ask yourself if they still serve you and set a goal for living your life in a way that is congruent with what you value.


John Weng is a leadership coach at ExecOnline. He is excited about helping people understand themselves better, breakthrough roadblocks, and achieving their goals. John has worked with individuals across sectors and levels to navigate change and ambiguity, figure out how to unlearn previous narratives, and show up as their best self at work or everyday life. John’s experience spans across working in a 1:1 setting, intact teams, and medium sized groups to develop individual leadership capacity as well as collective leadership capacity. He does this by helping individuals and groups understand their own behaviors, what drives these behaviors, and then formulating a path forward that is driven by his clients. Outside of leadership coaching, he is also a leadership development facilitator and scholar in the field of leadership studies.

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