Tips on navigating work as an Asian person in a White-dominated environment.

Work is hard. Discrimination is harder.

There have been lots of talks recently about racism against minority communities in the West. This conversation has now started to come up in the workplace. So I'd like to share a few things I learned working as a queer Southeast Asian person in an environment dominated by White cishet male individuals.

When I first moved to Sydney, I lived at A$1000 per month (for comparison, min. living wage in Australia is ~A$3000 a month). I'm in a good place now (almost a decade later) because I spend most of my time working, along with some luck and lots of privileges. My "success" is an exception, not the norm. Most of my Viet peers went home after studying except for those who found their people here like myself.

As immigrants, it costs us money and time to move to another country, hoping for a better life. As People of Colour, we don't get the same access and opportunities as our White peers. As Asians, our struggles are less violent than Bla(c)k people. Our challenges are subtler, namely the so-called "bamboo ceiling", tokenism and the "model minority" stereotype. We don't like talking about these issues because it means more work we need to do (on top of everything else). We don't want to think about how people may be exploiting us.

I'm not gonna talk about these challenges in-depth today or their causes, but here are some tips that may help other POC ex-pats navigate work and career development in a White country.

  • Learn about the market you're in. And then learn how to sell yourself and your work to that market. People look for people who can do the work they need to be done for them. Find out what that work is and how you can be of help with the skills you have. If you don't have to skills, learn them.

  • Find your people: personally AND professionally. Recruiters, work allies, and work friends are important. This is not about networking, but having someone else (especially a White person) who believes in you and advocates for you and your work will give you access to opportunities you may not be accepted or introduced to otherwise.

  • Learn to advocate for yourself (without being a jerk). Call out injustice when you see it. Sometimes it's just a feeling that something is wrong, but thinking about it critically is, well, critical.

  • Improve your communication skills. Being influent in a different language that is not your mother tongue is hard, but it is what it is. If you can't communicate your ideas, you won't be able to move far.

  • Stop. Over. Explain. Yourself. Overexplaining is a trauma response due to the stigma and stereotype imposed on us as marginalised people. Learn to explain just enough and only when needed.

  • Learn how to set healthy working boundaries. White cishet folks loooove to ask for another favour, and another, and another, especially from a marginalised person. This leads to free labour. Learn to say no (especially if you're a freelancer).

  • Continue to educate yourself not just about your craft but also the place you live, its history, its politics and how all of those things affect your life personally, so you can fight against bigotry and/or avoid becoming oppressive to other less fortunate people.

  • If all fails, leave the job that makes you miserable (Maybe not during a pandemic without another job lined up, though. And yes, I did that).

In Vietnamese culture, we tell ourselves to be "an phận", which roughly means "be okay with your fate". I argue differently. Sometimes we're not getting what we want not because of fate, but because someone else is doing harm to us, however subtle. Some of the things I mentioned may go against what we were taught growing up as Asians, and we'll meet with push-backs from those who want to continue to exploit us. But is our silence worth it? And at what costs? It's high time we stopped hiding our brilliance, started leading, getting noticed and taking more space in the world.

In saying that, if you want to be "an phận", that's fine by me, as long as you're happy with the choices you make. I, on the other hand, will continue to chase my ridiculous dreams. 🕺