Two weeks ago, when I was having lunch with Natalia in her pristine law office that she and her staff just moved in, she asked me about my future plans.

“Well, ultimately, I want to help people in some way. I believe the best way to achieve that goal is by getting a degree in psychology and becoming a psychologist. I think I’ll be a real good one.”

Natalia agreed. But she thought there were other ways to achieve the same goal. She gave me numerous examples of successful people who were utilizing the internet to market their cleverly- packaged knowledge, life lessons and inspirations without holding any degree or license.

“I can totally see you do something like that. You have the content. All you need is confidence.”
“But I am not confident. I am Asian …” I chuckled.
I was brought up not to be confident, but to know my limitations.

First-generation American Chinese woman presents a pretty consistent image. We generally wear our age well, are savvy shoppers and happy-looking to the outside world. At work place, we are mostly technical professionals dealing with data or IT systems. We work hard and are usually quieter and less confrontational than our peers. Because our communication skill lags our strong technical capabilities, we are viewed as the doers instead of leaders. If there is a glass ceiling for women in corporate America, that ceiling is even more pronounced for Asian Americans. However most of us aren’t into climbing the corporate ladder anyway because we have a higher calling: motherhood.

Not all Asian mothers are tiger moms. But we are devoted to help our children achieve academic excellence. Our aspiration reflects typical Chinese value: the pursuit of education and a promising career. In Mainland China due to the one-child policy introduced in 1978, this aspiration has become an obsession. Parents take their babies who aren’t even walking yet to expensive English classes. Once kids enter elementary school, they are loaded with homework and tutoring classes and barely have any time to play. Chinese parents in America have the freedom to have more than one child, but still some of us are more enthused with their grades and the after-school activities than our children do. For some reason, all Chinese moms want their kids to play piano. Maybe it has something to do with fact that when we were children, almost no families could afford a piano. We also want our children to be placed in Honor math and reading or PI Plus regardless of their interests and potential because once they are there, they’ll make it just like we did. We can get quite persistent and assertive when trying to convince the teachers of our children who failed to make the cut.

Although Asian women may appear agreeable and meek outwardly, at home we tend to be dominant in our relationships. Women in China were commanded by Chairman Mao to step outside the home and join the workforce since early 1950s. They’ve long viewed themselves as men’s equal and capable of jacking up half (or more) of the sky that is rightfully theirs.

When it comes to community involvement, Asian women are more likely to fall behind their American peers. The Chinese culture endorses an inward focus – “Just sweep the snow in front of your own house, never mind the frost on your neighbor’s roof.” The majority of the Chinese churches here in America are also narrowly focused on the people with the same ethnicity and background. Serving the needs of a diversified community isn’t a natural and comfortable thing to do.

I don’t know if it’s still true, when I was growing up in China, humility and modesty was considered one of the key virtues. Grandma modeled that to me throughout her life. She never sought the spotlight or viewed her contributions and sufferings as important or something to boast about. Her modesty wasn’t just a display, but rather a window into her being. Grandma taught me to be slow to speak because “You’ll make a fool of yourself if you open your mouth without thinking first.”

With all these deep-rooted beliefs and an apprehension towards authority, I was ill prepared when I arrived in the dream land of America almost 25 years ago. It didn’t take too long for me to find my first job with a budget and credit counseling non-profit organization. When the tall and slim African-American boss lady called me to her office to confirm my salary, I said ‘yes’ cautiously and hesitantly even though it was $3,000 less than what we agreed during the interview.

I have been learning and adapting over the years. Seven years ago, when my boss asked me to reduce my weekly work-from-home days, I looked at him in the eye and said “I want to spend more time with my newborn son. I am willing to work part-time if my flexible work schedule has become a problem.” He came back a few days later and announced, “Let’s keep it the way it is till your boy goes to college.”

It seems that I need to muster a new level of confidence at this point of my life. No matter how far I manage to go with my signature strengths, determination and passion, I hope to always live a life that Grandma would have been proud of.