By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Are we crazy if we celebrate failures? Most Asian Americans don’t tell you what’s wrong with their family or themselves. The last thing they want to share is their failures in school, marriage, job, or business for fear of losing face. What if we say to ourselves, “So I failed, but I am now stronger,” “I can rebound,” or “Failure doesn’t define me…”
How many of us are willing to face failures with honesty, and unafraid to share with others? If you are ready to do so, would your family be comfortable speaking truthfully about your misfortunes?
I have known people, including my family, who kept their divorce a secret. Funny, my American friends would disclose if they are single or divorced during their first meeting with strangers. A friend of mine, a Chinese immigrant, pretended she was married even though she was divorced years before we met. For more than a decade, she always told me her husband was busy at work. I found out the truth through her daughter, but I never confronted her. Was it her fault that her ex-husband was a die-hard gambler and she needed to hide her shame? Absolutely not.
It’s just comical when my late mom had to confess about her second marriage at my step father’s funeral. “What, you have another son?” Her mahjong friends expressed disbelief when my brother (whom my dad raised) showed up. Then, I witnessed her liberation. Before, she was embarrassed to admit she married twice.
But at the moment of grief for my step father’s death, she smiled, and the wall of pretense had finally shattered—the truth had set her free.
Entrepreneur Tien Ha approached the Northwest Asian Weekly to offer how Asian American business owners deal with failures. This inspired us to organize the API Entrepreneurs Roundtable lunch on Oct. 25, at China Harbor Restaurant, so we can share about their challenges.
“Not everyone can be Bill Gates. That’s okay,” said Janice Zahn, Bellevue City Councilmember.
“We (Asians) are hard on themselves,” said Bayley Le, owner of Anchor Assets Management and GoPoke. “We don’t see failures as potential and positive. We see it as disappointments. We try to avoid failures at all cost. We mind our business, and be content. We don’t take the risks we need to grow our business.”
Failure does have its positive aspects though. We can learn from our mistakes, and become more resilient in overcoming future adversities.
Two Bills’ views: Shame or courage
My mother bragged about how well I performed in school when my report card showed all As. However, when I flunked, her mouth was zipped in front of relatives and her mood sank. It’s typical of many Asian parents. Even when I failed, I wasn’t ashamed of myself. Yet, she was so ashamed of me that I had to fake my shame.
Fortunately, those childhood experiences didn’t affect me when I started the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post 37 years ago. The late Bill Chew, an immigrant Chinatown community leader, once pulled me aside to give me some fatherly advice.
“You keep on announcing that you are going to start a Chinese newspaper. What if, in the end, you have nothing to show for it? Wouldn’t it be embarrassing?” I couldn’t believe what he said. I was even more astonished when I learned later that he was only one of many detractors. None of his words hurt my feelings or changed my mind. Instead of being angry, I was silent. My silence didn’t mean that I agreed with him. Later, he and many naysayers became my supporters.
Years later, I met another Bill (William Wong) at the Asian American Journalist Association conference, who said I “showed a lot of courage” in starting the first Chinese newspaper in the Pacific Northwest since 1927, despite the odds. Huh, “courage”! No one had ever said that to me! I never thought that what I did was courageous. I just did what I had to do. But American-born Wong, a journalist and author in San Francisco, shed a positive light on my journey when I needed it most. You may cast failures and successes in a restrictive lens through the wealth and fame you receive. You can redefine success. By now, your perspective towards failure should have evolved. What you have done is an experiment—a test of courage, desire for adventures— a guide for fostering confidence and perhaps a map for building relationships. If you can look at what you gain, rather than what you lose, you win in the long run. You are running a marathon, not just one short race.
The culture of shame on Asians has impacted my parents’ generation, my generation, and our children’s generation. We cannot be happy if we constantly worry about losing face or what others think.
We couldn’t maximize our potential if we don’t have the freedom to express our desires, hopes, and dreams. We couldn’t become who we really want to be if we constantly live in fear. S. B. Woo, former lieutenant governor of Delaware, once said, “If you share your dreams with the people, family around you, they can help you to achieve your goal.” But if they don’t know what you want, they can’t help you or contribute to your success. His point is, make others part of your team to pursue your goal.
What if you are discouraged?
If you have failed many times, emulate Thomas Edison, the inventor of electricity and who has 2,332 patents worldwide.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up,” Edison said. “The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
He urged us to work and work. “There is no substitute for hard work.” He never admitted failure, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Most of the time, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we have done.
Like many Asians, I have trouble in accepting praise, according to my editor. We often work hard and forget to celebrate our milestones. It doesn’t matter if it is personal or professional. Last year, I celebrated my son’s wedding. But it is also satisfying to celebrate that my husband and I had finally changed the soiled carpet in our living room and the beat-up flooring in our kitchen, after years of putting it off. It gives us so much joy to see our floors clean. It doesn’t matter how small the feat is, we need to stop and celebrate. Often, revelations and reflections are part of the process for celebration. When we remind ourselves what we are doing is important and special, it energizes us and lift us up mentally and spiritually.
How do you define successes and failures? Don’t just focus on financial aspects or your paycheck. Search for the number of things you have done to give back—the number of contributions you’ve made to make your community a better place—the number of yeses you said to people who need help. Those are real successes.
Write them down. When you are disenchanted, take a glance at those accomplishments. They will cheer you up. That’s how I get my inspiration.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.