When I first came to this country in 1955 as a young boy, one of my first impressions was that many parents would give their children a small weekly allowance, e.g., 50 cents or a dollar. Usually this was given on Friday evening after the parents received their paychecks. I observed that most of the time, the children would spend their allowances very quickly, usually by Saturday afternoon or evening the allowances would have been completely spent.
Even though they were not from rich families, but from middle class or lower-middle class working families, there were very little thoughts about saving some of that money for “rainy” days. For example, they would go see a movie on Saturday afternoon paying about 25 cents for the movie theatre ticket, and spend the rest of their allowances on refreshments in the theatre. By the time the movie was over, they had no money left to spend for the rest of the week until the next allowance pay day. Furthermore, I observed that the children were in a sense reflecting the habits of their parents, although the parents did think more about saving for “rainy” days. It seemed that they were less concerned about where their next meal would come from, because, relatively speaking, they did not experience their country being occupied and their homes and lives being completely uprooted by wars (both wars against external enemies and internal civil wars).
In the November 2009 issue of this website, I wrote an article “Tale of Two Cultures and Two Countries – Part I” (http://www.dontow.com/2009/11/tale-of-two-cultures-and-two-countries-part-i/). This current article is a continuation of the previous article describing some of the experiences that occurred to my family and me while living in two cultures and two countries.
Another experience occurred during graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. I was taking a “Quantum Field Theory” course. The professor teaching that physics course was notorious for giving long and difficult homework problems. The weekly assignment was due on Wednesday morning at the time of our class which was at 8:00 AM. So almost every Tuesday night, a classmate and I would stay up all night in our graduate student office working on those weekly assignments. After doing this for a whole year, we became close and good friends. It turned out that during the next academic year, that professor was going on a sabbatical to a university in Europe. By that time, that professor also became the Ph.D thesis advisor of my good friend, who would follow his professor to Europe to do research on his Ph.D. thesis. That summer just before he left for Europe, I casually said to him that I would expect that I would be receiving post cards (this was many years before email) from him from all over Europe during the next academic year. To my surprise, he said that he doesn’t write, and I didn’t receive a single post card from him during his whole year in Europe. This was also a culture shock to me because when I came to this country from Hong Kong after 7th grade, for many years I was still corresponding via letters with several of my classmates in grammar school and 7th grade. This was also the case with my two older brothers when many of their high school friends became lifetime friends although for many years they were living in different continents. I learned that although it was very easy to make friends with Americans, it was much more difficult to establish friendships with Americans that can last a long time. Of course, there are exceptions, and the friendship between my father and his former Brown University dormitory roommate was such a counter-example.
During the 10 years (1961-1971) at UC Berkeley (I did both my undergraduate and graduate study there), I also learned several other valuable lessons. One lesson learned is that a student with good grades does not necessarily mean that he will be successful in producing creative and original research, and extremely high intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean superb performance in research or other professional careers. Good grades only mean that the student can answer the questions prepared by the professor that are usually based on the material taught in the course, whereas creative and original research requires seeing something that is not obvious from previous knowledge. Extremely smart people without focus, discipline, or drive may not produce much in their careers. On several occasions, I have heard remarks such as “at places like Princeton, we have a lot of brilliant undergraduates, but many of them will not live up to their potentials.”
Berkeley in the decade I was there was a hotbed of student activism. I admire the idealism, the courage to challenge the status quo, and the willingness to sacrifice their own career and future for the cause the young people were fighting for. But on the other hand, I also see their impracticality, their not walking the talk, and their unwillingness to compromise, behaviors that often kept others from following or joining their movement. Therefore, I believe a successful sustained movement requires a combination of idealism, courage, and willingness to sacrifice, characteristics often found among the young, and the practicality, walk-the-talk behavior, and ability to compromise, characteristics relatively speaking often found among the progressive-thinking element of the older generations. These observations were gleamed and substantiated from some of the student movements that I was personally involved in.
Because of the academic success of so many Chinese or Chinese American students, it is often overlooked that many of them also face psychological and social problems. It is precisely the success of so many that puts tremendous pressure on others to achieve the same level of success. The pressure becomes even greater if their parents had to sacrifice a lot to send them to the U.S. to become foreign students. When for one reason or another, they did not achieve the success expected of them or expected from themselves, the students could experience serious psychological and social problems. Because of the stereotype that Chinese students are model students who do not experience psychological and social problems and the stigma associated with such problems in the traditional Chinese culture, they are even more reluctant to seek treatment.
After I finished at Berkeley, for the next nine years I worked in academia, mostly doing research in theoretical physics. But I also did some teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses in physics. There was one incident during the first time I taught (beyond being a teaching assistant while at UC Berkeley) that I will never forget. In the spring semester of 1977 (could have been the fall semester of 1978) I was teaching a lower division physics course for engineering majors (at UT Austin, physics majors took separate physics courses); this was part of a set of required physics courses that all engineering majors had to take. For the first midterm exam, I prepared an exam which I thought was similar in difficulty to the midterm exams I took about 15 years earlier when I was taking similar physics courses at UC Berkeley. At Berkeley, for these large classes, the professors designed the exams so that the average score was about 50 (out of 100), because they wanted to get a Bell-shaped distribution with the highest scores around the 80s or 90s, and the lowest scores around 20s or 30s, and grades were based on a curve.
It turned out that the average score of my first midterm exam at UT Austin was 19! Since grading was based on a curve, it didn’t necessarily mean that they would receive poor grades. Nevertheless, I could sense that there was a tremendous drop in their enthusiasm and interest for the course immediately after they learned of their scores. In retrospect, I think I did not properly take into account two factors. One was that the average engineering student at UT Austin in 1977 was not the same as the average science/engineering student at UC Berkeley in 1961 or 1962. The other was that there was a lot of grade-point inflation across the country during those 15 years so that the demand and expectations on the students had been reduced. Although in my next midterm exam I made adjustments and got the class average score close to 50, the damage was already done, and I don’t think I ever recovered the enthusiasm and interest of the students in that class. Sometimes one just has to learn things the hard way.
In 1980, I changed career and left physics and became a systems engineer at Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, NJ. When we came to NJ to look for a house, we experienced something which was probably more widespread than people realized at that time. For one of the houses we were looking at, the realtor told us that the asking price of the house was actually lower than the house’s listing price, because that was one of the ways they kept certain racial group from moving into the neighborhood. Actually experiencing this was very much different from just being aware of this possibility.
Early in my career at Bell Labs, I also had an unforgettable experience. One day I had a telephone conversation with another person in another department at Bell Labs on a topic directly related to my work. During the conversation, we had some difficulty in reaching a common understanding of a certain issue. It was clear to me that he was not familiar with this particular subject matter, and that was the cause of not being able to reach a common understanding. However, he immediately said that he had communication problem with me, and that he wanted to speak with my supervisor. Keep in mind that I started learning English in second grade in Hong Kong and I came to this country when I was 13, and my command of English (speaking, writing, and reading), aside from perhaps an accent, was as good as the average native-born American college graduate. Yet, he automatically concluded that the cause of the communication problem was due to my inability to communicate in English, and not due to his own lack of understanding of the subject matter.
It seems that discrimination, subtle or non-subtle, was also prevalent at a great working place like Bell Labs. In the early part of the 1980 decade, politically active Asian Americans in Bell Labs pointed out that there was a large discrepancy in the probability of promotion for Asian Americans as compared to white males. As a matter of fact, consider the ratio of the number of Member of Technical Staff (MTS) over the number of managers (supervisor and above). This ratio was about eight for Asian Americans and about two for while males, a discrepancy of a factor of four! A common justification used was that Asians are good in solving technical problems, but they are not good in managing people or projects. This was in spite of so many Asians managing all kinds of successful companies all over the world, including many in the U.S. Another justification used was that Asians had problems communicating in English. Although there is some truth to that statement, however, even if we restrict to Asians  whose command of English is as good as white males, there was still a large disparity.
To give a more concrete illustration of this problem, let’s mention a specific example from Bellcore, the Bell Labs-like company created to support the Baby Bells with the divestiture of AT&T. For two years in a roll during the annual performance review process of a center (with about 150 MTSs and about 25-30 directors), a particular Asian director (equivalent to supervisor at Bell Labs) was ranked in the “outstanding” category (highest of five performance categories) and also rated as promotable (only about 2-3 directors in the center were given this rating). However, during those years, only once he was interviewed for an executive director position (the next level above director, and equivalent to the department head position at Bell Labs), even though during those years, the company was in an expanding phase with quite a few promotions. When you have case after case similar to this and with overwhelming statistics over many years, it is hard not to acknowledge that discrimination, or at least cultural affinity and preferences, was a significant contributor to the discrepancy. This kind of discrepancy also existed for females. Fortunately, the discrepancy for females, at least at Bellcore, reduced significantly over the years.
Such discrepancy in the promotion probability for Asians was not limited to Bell Labs and Bellcore. As a matter of fact, it was and still is a general problem in corporations, universities, and government agencies in the U.S. See, e.g., the article “Executive Order 11246: Implications for Asian Americans.” 
There was another unforgettable experience I had at Bell Labs. A colleague and I wrote a technical paper based on our work that was scheduled to be published in the “Bell Labs Record,” a Bell Labs technical journal. That was the time when to the divestiture of AT&T, I was scheduled to be transferred to Bellcore and my colleague was scheduled to be transferred to AT&T Long Lines, another company under AT&T. Another colleague in our department asked us to add his name as a co-author to the paper, even though he had not worked on the project described in the paper and he was not involved in the writing of the paper. His rationale was that it was necessary for the paper to have an author who was still at Bell Labs when the paper was published. This was completely contrary to the standard operating procedure in journal publications, because authors change jobs all the time. Even though his behavior was more an exception, and not the norm, it was still a cultural shock to me to experience such raw aggressiveness.
I also had another experience involving office politics that can keep a company from being more efficient, more creative, and more competitive. This is related to self-centric motive in the office. In my 35 years of professional life, I have experienced this in an obvious way on several occasions, and probably many more times in more subtle and non-obvious ways. On the one hand, a colleague would ask me for information on subjects that I either know more or have been working on, and I provided the information every time they asked. On the other hand, when I asked them for information on subjects that they either know more or have been working on, they took no action and basically ignored my request(s). My asking for that information was not purely for my own benefit, but it was because there could be synergy between what they were working on and what I was working on or what I had worked on. Such lack of cooperation could result in lost opportunities for the company. My guess is that many of us probably have also experienced this phenomenon.
I want to end this article by noting that there were a lot of positive experiences in my days as a student, in academia, and in corporate life. The reason that this article has focused on some of the problems is because only if we are willing to acknowledge and face the problems, would we be able to make progress.
1 See http://www.dontow.com/2009/11/tale-of-two-cultures-and-two-countries-part-i/.
2 E.g., restrict to those Asians born in the U.S. or immigrated to the U.S. at a young age, or to Asians whose native language included English, such as people from India.