What’s It Like to be One Asian-American Philosopher

When I was a graduate student and went to a campus job interview at a major philosophy department in the U.S. I was introduced to international students from China.  One of the first things they said to me was, “Oh, you’re an ABC.”  “American Born Chinese.”  It was not exactly a friendly comment.

Being the recipient of the attitude, “You’re not really one of us” was nothing new.  It came implicitly or explicitly from fellow white students of European descent from elementary school onward. I was subjected to garden-variety acts of racism, and heard from my elders about much worse, including lynching.  The experience of my family in California is why I was not born there but in a Midwestern state where for elder members of my family I imagine it was something of a relief to be treated as an exotic oddity (to this day, I remember the constant stares of passers-by) rather than as an inscrutable threat.

I feel fortunate though.  I’ve had friends and teachers and family who were supportive and encouraging and helped me to produce work that I’m proud of.  I’ve achieved a reasonable status in the profession, a status I hadn’t dreamt of achieving when I first thought about an academic career.

Perhaps the most difficult part of being an Asian American philosopher comes from a feeling of lack of fit with my Chinese cultural heritage and the culture of academic philosophy.  When I began as a philosophy student, it was very difficult to speak up in class.  I felt that I did not know enough to make worthwhile contributions.  My Chinese respect for authority made me want to defer to those who must know more than me.  The sense of myself that my parents instilled in me—that I was nothing special and had to work hard to make something of myself—is something I came to greatly value, but when I was learning to do philosophy it had in me an inhibiting effect.  During the flow of class discussion, I was always second-guessing what I was thinking of saying and often ended up saying nothing.  Yet so many students around me apparently found it easy to comment and criticize or support the arguments we were studying.  I envied their self-assurance.  I see many of my Asian American and Asian students with the same internal struggle: not really getting why others are so eager to talk, and how they do it so easily; not approving of it but also envying their ability to do it.

When I was my students’ age, I wanted to catch up.  I would stoke myself up, and drawing from the American side of my heritage, could get aggressive and critical.  I learned to be pretty good at that, but I didn’t like myself that way: tearing down other people’s work and wondering what the point of it all was. In recent years, I’ve reached a place where I feel more comfortable, able to use my critical and analytic abilities but in a more constructive manner.  I try to make my classes a more inviting and comfortable place for discussion in that spirit.

Though I began as a more or less conventionally trained analytic philosopher in ethical theory who also did some Chinese philosophy on the side, these two fields have increasingly merged for me.  What I am drawn to in Chinese philosophy is its closeness to lived experience.  When I do it, I feel that I can connect much more directly to what laypeople outside philosophy are concerned with.  The very values I find in that philosophy, very much focused on connection and relationship, have helped me to find a way to do philosophy in general that feels right for me.  At the same time, I have not left the analytic perspective behind but applied it to thinking about what Chinese philosophy has to say about central subjects of ethical theory.

I regret that our discipline is one of the most conservative of any of the academic disciplines.  It still shows depressing narrowness and incuriosity about other philosophical traditions or even other philosophical fields within the same tradition.  Going to the APA meetings is like going to islands of interest where there is virtually no traveling between the islands.  By contrast, I now look back at that early feeling of being marginal to every group around me and see it not only as a source of pain but of creative hybridity and the desire to include and to reconcile.  That’s what being an Asian American philosopher has meant to me.