Things NEVER to Say to Asian Coworkers

Comments such as "Can't you Americanize your name?" to "You must be so good at math" made to Asian colleagues are insulting. What else is inappropriate?

Recently, Texas lawmaker Betty Brown suggested during a voter-identification hearing that it might be wise for Chinese Americans to “Americanize” their names for the sake of people who don’t speak Chinese. Brown’s comment, which landed her in the DiversityInc Hall of Shame, is just one of several rude phrases people say to Asian Americans.

Click here to read “The DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for Asian Americans List.”

“Can’t you ‘Americanize’ your name?”

Not only did Brown suggest to an Asian American that “your citizens” change their names, she said it would be unfair for “us” to have to learn Chinese to better understand surnames. Michael Yaki, a political consultant and attorney in San Francisco, wrote on that Brown’s comments were not only inappropriate, they were factually incorrect.

“Last I checked, one of the most common Chinese surnames was still Wong. And Chin. And Lee. One syllable. I guess I’m a bit confused as to how these names are ‘difficult’ for voter officials in Texas to figure out,” Yaki writes. “I’m not sure what century Rep. Brown is from, but the fact that she said ‘your citizens’–as if somehow the quality of being an American is distinguished by national origin, accent or skin color–is pretty scary.”

“If war broke out between your native country and America, which side would you support?”

The late Iris Chang wrote several books on the Asian-American experience, including “The Chinese in America,” an honest chronicle of how Chinese people have been treated as outsiders in this country. Chang was fueled to write her bestselling book because a junior high-school classmate asked this very question: “Her question, innocently put, captures the crux of the problem facing the ethnic Chinese in America. Even though many are U.S. citizens whose families have been here for generations, while others are more recent immigrants who have devoted the best years of their lives to this country with citizenship as their goal, none can truly get past the distinction of race or entirely shake the perception of being seen as foreigners in their own land.”

Dr. Jane Junn, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, who is Chinese American, says her students have asked her the same question.

“They’re interested in everything,” Junn says. “And they may not be asking with malicious intent. But they ask nonetheless. For Asian Americans who are not first generation, this can be extremely insulting.”

“You must be the IT person” or “You must be so good at math.”

Linda Akutagawa, who is Japanese American and president and CEO of the nonprofit Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), says that too often it is assumed that Asian-American executives are best as tech- or admin-support staff.

“Implicit in that statement is that you’re good at numbers and technology, so you’re good behind the scenes,” explains Allan Mark, who is Chinese American and the Americas director of diversity strategy and development, for Ernst & Young (No. 5).

Truth is, “not all Asian Americans are strong with numbers,” Junn says, though the stereotypical comment is almost “inevitably asked.”

“You’re not exactly leadership material.”

For Asian-American executives who recently immigrated to the United States, the stereotype is two-fold: Not only are they viewed as not being leaders but their cultural norms are interpreted by U.S.-born executives as passive.

“In America, the leadership skill is defined by how confrontational, direct and aggressive you are,” says Sameer Samudra, Six Sigma black belt at Cummins (No. 18).

Samudra, who was born in India and came to the United States as a student in 1998, remembers a boss once questioning his commitment to work because he was reserved during meetings.

“We respect authority and come from a hierarchical culture,” Samudra says. “Our leadership style considers how well the team members get along, so there’s an emphasis on team building and learning in the process.”


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  • Hi,

    I currently work with an Asian co-worker (from Malaysia)and sometimes find it very hard to get along with her. I am a very kind and down to earth person and was born and raised in America. I grew up in a farming community. My co-worker and I work at an investment firm. This woman is very materialistic and although at times she tries to be considerate of others, most of the time she is very self-centered and focused on herself. She often says she hates kids and wishes she never had hers. She talks about other people behind their back saying they are not pretty or that they are too fat, etc. She is constantly talking about her life, her boyfriends, kids and wants everyone to listen, but when you try to tell her something about your day or life, she ignores you or talks over you to tell her own story. I have never met anyone quite like her and don’t ever want to again. I plan on leaving this job next year and if this is what all Asians are like then I don’t want to work with any more of them.

    • Luke Visconti

      Imagine that—someone at an investment firm who is self-centered and focused on herself. Go figure—I thought everyone who worked on Wall Street was generous, kind and philanthropic. HAHAHAHAHA. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I’m an Asian-American and I have never heard any of these things. Maybe it’s because I’m a college students or because the people I live near are just nice or both, but even if I did hear any of these things, I wouldn’t exactly be offended by it.

    An also, the first one applies only to Chinese people. Chinese people aren’t the only Asians in the United states. “Asian-American” is a term referring to people from East, Southeast, and South Asia.

    And the other 3 things may be offensive but not racist. If you were to tell a Hispanic, White, Black, Arab, Cherokee, Sioux that they wouldn’t make a great leader, I’m pretty sure they would get their feelings hurt as well.

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