OPINION: Asians Need to Think Bigger Than Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang

I finished an op-ed for a large news publication to the general public about the Andrew Yang situation and essentially scrapped it last night. This is for our community. No one wins if I or fellow peers write another critique of his statements — even if we know him and his campaign better than most.

This is about building and taking houses. I’ve thought a lot about this over the last year. In business, politics, and even entertainment, there’s a lot of talk about social and cultural construction — fun fodder for someone who builds physical spaces for a living.

But let’s get the definitions straight first. A House Taker is who we generally are calling Yang or anyone that operates from within the system or establishment. Some would label them as less militant and a pacifist like Professor Xavier in “X-Men.” A House Builder is someone that builds his or her own house or ecosystem like Oprah; Magneto also comes to mind.

The issue is that House Takers and House Builders rarely coordinate. It’s been adversarial in almost every context where one marginalized group is punching up for power. I’m not even going to start on how we misuse the term, Uncle Tom.

It’s a vicious cycle that has no end in sight unless enough of us think in a higher order. That is why I am writing to the community today. This isn’t about press, as I would have put this on a friend’s site or something. This is simply me talking to other AAPI leaders.

House Builders say about the House Takers, “What a sell out. Uncle Chan. You had the house platform and fumbled it.” Yang is one of the biggest voices in the community… and yes, he messed up.

House Takers say about the House Builders, “They don’t know what it’s like on the inside. They can’t compromise and take their ball and go home.”

Having bridged cultures across various sectors, I see this all too often. I myself identify as a House Builder. I’m an entrepreneur — we build our own worlds and ecosystems. And sometimes, yes, I wish I were part of someone’s house that can take care of me, especially in a crisis like this. Does any VC out there want to give me $10 million in Series A funding?!

But the rhetoric I see in the world and used in my original op-ed is fundamentally divisive, which is why I scrapped it. It all comes from a good place. Yang’s intentions are about being part of the solution, not the problem. We all want that. And I — like many others — want him to be better at dealing with AAPI issues. But it’s divisive because it’s looking back and not looking forward.

It’s why clickbait critiques and tear down tweets don’t work. This requires more nuance. I find it ironic because it’s tactically sound — call out and cancel Yang like we cancel racists. But in the context of Yang’s empathy-driven approach, the vitriol only proves his point on how racists won’t change simply by calling out racism, just like tearing someone down isn’t going change their MO.

I do think we need to check people, especially when they are off-base, but we need to also build a bridge. We back people in a corner and they will punch their way out. It’s human nature. The unresolved beef in the AAPI world is like an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and the world is grabbing their popcorn. If you are in the leadership circles of other marginalized groups, I suspect the same happens in your community.

But back to looking forward. How do the House Builders and House Takers work together? They understand each other’s goals and motives. House Builders, continue to mobilize and build new coalitions with resolve and intense passion. Building houses is tough, so the fervor required to sustain such intensity should be protected at all costs. I see this with campaigns like #HateIsAVirus and #RacismIsAVirus which my friends started and I 100% support. Build those houses! But if a House Taker like Yang makes a misstep, judge someone on the body of work, not a single deed. He’s still a net positive House Taker.

For House Takers, you are “The Man in the Arena,” à la Teddy Roosevelt. This is no shade to my own Boba Guys team or other House Builders, but House Takers are typically more in enemy territory than we are. The plight is different — not better, not worse. There’s constant code-switching and horse-trading between constituencies, so a lot of skill is required in juggling everyone’s special interest. I’ve been a part of large houses before — it’s a tough battle and no one truly understands the competing forces at play. And no, the world will always have these houses. They are never going to disappear. Too much is at stake to ensure their survival.

But in order to build a more sustainable future, we need both Builders and Takers to serve their individual purpose for the greater good. Without the House Taker, the ruling members of the House will focus their efforts on slowing down the House Builder. It’s Power & Politics 101 — I’ve been on the receiving end of this many times. No majority ever wants to relinquish power and status. Like in the “Hunger Games,” are President Snow and Coin any different?

Without the House Builder, the House Taker cannot do his or her job. The House Builder gives meaning, identity, and clout for the House Taker. When I was in Corporate America (a massive house), I found purpose from those building their own houses. Whether it be watching Asian YouTubers, following Eddie Huang or reading Lucky Peach, I was learning how to navigate as a POC leader with third culture tendencies in a Euro-centric value system. It helped me grit and code switch through tough situations and pick up strategies and tactics from inside the house. And one day, if I ever left to build my own house, I have the blueprints for something bigger and better, simply because I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And that’s what I did.

In the end, we are just trying to build an amazing neighborhood comprised of old and new houses: some we built from scratch and some newly-renovated houses that needed a complete overhaul. But we need each other because, one day, the new houses that current House Builders erect will age and become old. New House Takers will come in and try to make their presence felt in the existing house. The only long-term solution is to embrace this dynamic and look for ways to continue to have a dialogue between House Takers and House Builders.

Practically speaking, this means each house foreman/forewoman and key stakeholders need to talk more… A LOT more. As a community, we rarely vision cast. There is no unifying voice of reason or leadership presence to keep us in check when we lose sight of the real goal: being seen as whole and judged by the content of our character. We don’t have a community Mr. Miyagi (a House Taker, by the way) to swat our hands when we get out of line. It’s why we fight amongst ourselves so much (Note: I know this is also due to a falsely-constructed identity of the term “Asian American”). But even when we are now facing a common enemy, it’s evident that most of the internal rancor is due to the dearth of leadership and mentorship within our community.

We all want the same thing despite the apparent diametrically-opposed approaches. But just as in building actual houses, we need to coordinate construction hours, road closures, and possibly even share materials. Only then can we build an amazing f*cking Arcology next to a cool ass skyscraper, like in “SimCity 2000.” (You’ll find me down the street in the light residential zone next to the bus depot.)

See you in the future! Onwards.

P.S. Houses are not monoliths… it’s a crude analogy that breaks when we talk about intersectionality, but the framework should still hold in most contexts.

P.P.S. Allyship is key but that’s a whole separate topic. That’s when you got a good city going and begin working with bordering cities.

About the author: Andrew Chau is co-founder and CEO of Boba Guys and Tea People USA, a Inc. Magazine 500 award recipient. He has been featured as a top emerging business leader on CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and NPR. His first book with Penguin Random House comes out April 2020.

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