Family physician, author, blogger, speaker, physician leader.

Andrew Yang – Impact on Asian American Leadership Among Asian American Men

Shortly after Andrew Yang suspended his campaign and before the launch of Humanity Forward and the COVID-19 coronavirus, journalist Karen Yuan reached out to me on February 14, 2020, asking me the following questions via DM on Twitter.

  • What does Andrew Yang’s popularity and success mean for the role of Asian men in leadership?
  • While he ended his campaign, it also went further than anyone expected and achieved a whole lot issues in leadership are different between Asian men and women, who battle related but separate stereotypes. what specific challenges would you say Asian men face in leadership?
  • What traits do you think made Yang as successful as he was while running for president?
  • Has Yang inspired you in any way as an Asian man and leader in your own field?
  • Critics have pointed out that Andrew’s language regarding his Asian American experience reinforced stereotypes that singularly define an entire identity, such as an affinity for math and other STEM subjects. “I know a lot of doctors” plays into this too. what do you make of that?

Though the final article did not include my thoughts, these questions are important as Andrew Yang left an indelible mark and impression on all Asian Americans on what’s possible.

Andrew Yang is still the most visible Asian American in politics right now.

What does Andrew Yang’s popularity and success mean for the role of Asian men in leadership?

Andrew demonstrated clearly at the highest level what is possible for Asian men in leadership. We have an important history and perspective to share as Asian Americans. It’s time and it’s overdue. Growing up like Andrew, son of Taiwanese immigrants (I too went to a New England prep school and Ivy League college), I ended up becoming a doctor. What was talked about was having a good stable job. Don’t rock the boat. Very common cultural norms. Nothing ever was discussed about leadership.

While he ended his campaign, it also went further than anyone expected and achieved a whole lot issues in leadership are different between Asian men and women, who battle related but separate stereotypes. What specific challenges would you say Asian men face in leadership?

The challenge for Asian men in leadership is 1) we / parents / families don’t talk about the possibility, 2) we don’t have a lot of mentors to look up to, 3) we also often falsely assume that introverts can’t make great leaders, 4) we / others don’t see leadership as a hard science or discipline like medicine, law, or engineering and perhaps the former is not considered as seriously as the latter.

What traits do you think made Yang as successful as he was while running for president?

The traits that Andrew had that made him successful are the traits that make all great leaders – perpetual optimism, indefatigable energy, emotional intelligence, empathy, willingness to learn and listen, and ability to collaborate.

Has Yang inspired you in any way as an Asian man and leader in your own field?

I’m a board certified family doctor and was practicing at Kaiser Permanente for 15 years. During that time I was a board member for the Permanente Medical Group (TPMG) for 9 years. TPMG has 10,000 doctors! I ran for the elected position, not because I necessarily wanted to. I felt compelled to as there is a lot of more health care must do to be better for patients as I had many times where I intervened on behalf of my family.

I ran for the elected position, not because I necessarily wanted to. I felt compelled to as there is a lot of more health care must do to be better for patients as I had many times where I intervened on behalf of my family.

If I wasn’t a doctor, I wouldn’t have been aware of the gaps between mediocre care and exceptional care. I felt driven to speak up and give public speeches regularly. Not a normal thing to do. Prior to this, I had never done anything in leadership in any capacity. I recognized instantly the barriers Andrew must have also overcome to move to running for President (see prior points).

What made Andrew uniquely special is he leaned into his Asian American experience, his candor, and his humanity. He did so in the following ways:

  • When he talked returned to his prep school and told the class he hadn’t returned in over 20 years because he didn’t have a good time there, the current study body cheered (much to his surprise and faculty as well).
  • He talked about being Asian and liking math and knowing a lot of doctors.
  • He’s be the first POTUS to use Powerpoint during the State of the Union and led a Powerpoint chant at a rally.
  • When he called out in the 2nd debate close on how the candidates are on state for a reality TV show with makeup on their faces and delivering rehearsed attack lines.
Manny’s San Francisco July 2019

Andrew was showing you can lead and still be who you are and he wasn’t going to let whoever decide what it would take to be an “ideal” presidential candidate. As a result, people found that quite refreshing and moved to follow him and his campaign.

Andrew running just reinforced my belief of what is possible for Asian Americans. In health care, although there is a disproportionate number of Asians providing care as doctors, nurses, etc., very few are leaders at the highest level. That need to change that as representation matters. I’ve helped and mentor many physician colleagues to these leadership roles as they would not done so otherwise… the inertia and passive default of doing nothing is easier than the active role of stepping up, being very visible, and leading.

the inertia and passive default of doing nothing is easier than the active role of stepping up, being very visible, and leading.

The former (inertia, don’t stick out, do a good job) is very much consistent with the Asian culture that values the group and familial relationships. The latter (stepping up, getting out there, getting attention) is very much consistent with the American culture of individualism.

It’s time that Asian Americans embrace both aspects and lead.

For me individually, Andrew showed how much more I need to grow as a leader, and continue to lift up and support those who would like to lead but do not know how.

The challenges we face as a country and as a world are too complex NOT to include men and women from all different backgrounds and discipline in all roles, particularly in leadership.

Andrew will have a tremendous impact on inspiring Asian Americans to take on leadership roles in all domains. I felt a special kindred spirit watching his campaign. I look forward to seeing what he does next. Not only does he inspire me, but also my teenager children, when I can point to the Democratic debates and they see someone who looks just like them.

DNC meeting, San Francisco, August 2019

Critics have pointed out that Andrew’s language regarding his Asian American experience reinforced stereotypes that singularly define an entire identity, such as an affinity for math and other STEM subjects. “I know a lot of doctors” plays into this too. what do you make of that?

Great question! When I heard Andrew say that, I laughed.

Andrew says that he does know a lot of doctors and that is his experience. He grew up in NY state. I grew up on the prairies of Saskatchewan (Canada) and Connecticut. There are NOT a lot of Asians. I certainly had no friends that looked like me or had my shared experience and culture. Those who grew up in major cities in California or NYC have a very different experience which are also valid. My children both were born in California have a lot of Asian friends, etc. which is awesome.

So those who criticize Andrew believe that he is reinforcing stereotypes because clearly not all Asian Americans are doctors! My brother Dennis Liu is a film director, and I’m so proud of him and think it’s great!

I believe what those critics also fail to realize is that the collective Asian American experience and impact on the American consciousness is too small at this time to worry about this.

However I believe what those critics also fail to realize is that the collective Asian American experience and impact on the American consciousness is too small at this time to worry about this. Look at how underrepresented we are in media. Crazy Rich Asians was the first film green-lit by a major movie studio where all major roles were Asian Americans, Brits, Malaysian, etc.. AND the recent series wrap of Fresh of the Boat (after 6 years on ABC), the first Asian American TV show in 25 years demonstrates the gap of both how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go. The vast majority of Americans outside the cosmopolitan areas listed earlier (think New Hampshire or Iowa) interact with very few Asian Americans, and if they do, I’ll bet they are doctors.

I’ll close with this one anecdote. When my wife, who is Taiwanese and from California, took a connecting flight from New Jersey to Connecticut to meet my parents for the first time (this is in 1999), for the first time in her life, she felt unnerved. Everyone on the flight was Caucasian. There were no people of color and certainly no Asian Americans.

Outside of the coasts and major US cities, the reality on the ground is just that. Having lived in a similar environment like Andrew, I understand exactly where he is coming from.

Critics need to understand how their own experiences and background not only shape their own biases and perspective (equally as valid) do not and should not invalidate Andrew’s perspective or experience.

Until the gap is closed where we literally see Asian Americans every where in media, politics, leadership, humanities, (sports!), etc., then we can talk about stereotypes… of STEM and knowing a lot of doctors….of course, you know what happens then, right?

By the time Asian American are everywhere… the need to have criticism about stereotypes will no longer be needed.

Because the public will naturally come to the conclusion – I see a lot of people who are Asian American – filmmakers, writers, artists… they will conclude, it’s great that Andrew is Asian who knows a lot of doctors, but from what I see, I understand the Asian American experience is richer than that…

We don’t have to talk about it. It will be quite obvious to all Americans that Asian Americans can be anything we want to be.

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