Posted on September 13, 2013
Photo credit: Tribune Content Agency / Mark Weber | At 5.1 percent, the Asian-American unemployment rate is way below the national average. Why would that be? Why are more of them working than members of other groups?
I had the chance to visit Vietnam 11 years ago with my sister Priscilla. When we landed at Noi Bai International in Hanoi, she was thinking about the future; I couldn’t help thinking about the past.
The next day Priscilla would be meeting the first of her two wondrous daughters. I was there to assist in any small ways I could, but I was also very much the tourist in a land I had spent my boyhood gawking at on the evening war news.
The first thing that struck me as I peered out the Vietnam Airlines window, were men and women in traditional straw hats pounding out a new dirt runway alongside the one on which we had just landed. There was no machinery, just people with tamping bars packing, packing, packing dry dusty soil. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my very first thought was, “How did we lose to these guys?”
A week later, as we lifted off the tarmac for Hong Kong and then New York, I could think of only two things: I had a beautiful niece and goddaughter and how could anyone ever defeat the Vietnamese. These were the hardest-working people I had ever seen.
Everywhere we went, from morning to night, people worked. I still remember the ring of hammers and sound of sawing giving beat and rhythm to a city in constant motion. The best way I could describe the spirit of industry I had seen to friends back home was that it was like 6 million people preparing for some grand event — on a super tight deadline. There was urgency to the work. In discussions with the Vietnamese about their relationship with Americans, to a person they said the same thing — “The past is past. We look to the future.” (The propaganda speakers on corner light poles may have had something to do with that.)
America used to be famous for its “Protestant work ethic,” or “Puritan work ethic” as it’s also called — the age-old emphasis on hard work, frugality and delayed gratification as the keys to building stable, successful futures. You don’t hear much about that anymore, probably because we spend so much time grousing about how unfairly we’re all being treated.
With the exception of those pernicious few holding the strings, of course, everybody is a victim in America today. We’re told that by our president on down. Fast-food employees are victimized by greedy franchise owners; minorities are victimized by non minorities; women are victimized by old white men in Congress; the middle class is victimized by corporate America; old people are victimized by broken promises; and young people are victimized by the unrealistic promises made to old people. We are instructed to feel resentful. We are taught to look at America and see unfairness rather than opportunity … as the hammers ring in Hanoi.
American stasis was summed up in last month’s unemployment rate. At 7.3 percent, it’s just a half point better than when President Barack Obama took office in 2009 amid a severe economic crisis. The more disturbing news is that the U.S. labor force participation rate has now fallen to the lowest level since 1978. Millions of Americans have quit looking for work.
Missing in all that news, though, is an interesting statistic. At 5.1 percent, the Asian-American unemployment rate is way below the national average. Why would that be? Asian-Americans don’t constitute much of the “1 percent.” Why are more of them working than members of other groups?
It’s a rhetorical question. And I’m stereotyping of course — I’m sure there are lazy Asian-Americans around here somewhere — but the statistics stand for themselves. Asian-Americans are doing a lot of things right.
A recent CNN story reported that 50 percent of Asian-Americans age 25 and older hold bachelor’s degrees, compared to 28 percent of all Americans. The number of Asian-American businesses grew 40 percent between 2002 and 2007. And Asian-Americans tend not to see menial jobs as insulting, but as a means to an end. They don’t give up looking for work.
Rather than focusing on what Asian-Americans as a whole are doing right, though, we can’t help talking about everything going wrong for other U.S. ethnic groups. We seem to accept as a given that Asian-Americans will work and study harder than the rest of America, but we don’t learn any lessons from their success.
It’s easier, I guess, to blame our misfortunes on somebody else. Adopting the Asian-American work ethic takes way too much effort.