Asian Work Ethic - Fact or Fluff?


Asians, whether by design or circumstance, have occupied a glorified and respectable role in the growth and development of the USA going back before its founding as a nation, through the conquering of space in the 20th century, to developing the latest generation of microchip in this new millennium.

The motivation that drove Asians to the US can be traced to the good old American tales of impoverished immigrants searching for a new life dating back over 200 years. In the process they formed the atypical pioneers of the new land.

In the recent past, however, political turmoil in their respective countries drove people to different shores with the US acting as their most benevolent host. One only has to rifle through newspaper headlines in the 80's to find how the heaving waves of the Pacific brought hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing their homeland as it collapsed quite pitifully into the hands of the communists.

On another front, for almost a quarter of a century now, highly literate Filipinos are being graduated from well-meaning Philippine colleges and universities year after year but commerce and industry do not have the appropriate number of openings for graduates hitting the job market. It is common sight to find fresh graduands head toward the unemployment line right out of college. To exacerbate the situation, systemic graft and stultifying bureaucracy in government perpetuate the economic morass in which new graduates find themselves.

To both countries, the consequence was and is brain and brawn drain. Economic and political forces that wracked both the Philippines and Vietnam provide only a cursory look into the whys and wherefores that have brought Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Asian Indians, and others of the Mongoloid race to the shores of the Americas. As we all see today, Asian Diaspora continues. This time, however, the waves of immigrants are comprised of highly sought professionals and new generation moneybags, and the US is still the most fashionable destination. Regardless of the reasons that drove past and present settlers to set foot on this good old US of A, tales of their roles and contributions - both in the labor force and concomitant economic betterment of enclaves they inhabit - continue to be spun in legendary proportions.

Let the following scenarios set the tone:

A once nondescript eight block stretch between 2nd and 14th streets along 12th Avenue in the city of Oakland, California has been transformed into a bustling commercial district in a few years that Asian immigrants set up shop there.
Once suffering from urban decay, Fifth and Olny Avenues in North Philadelphia now display reemerging prosperity with the presence of Korean businesses.
A software company that caters to the top 500 Fortune companies is predominantly populated by Asian Indian, Chinese, and Japanese workers, some recruited locally, others hired from their respective countries.

Ample articles have been written about the various reasons underscoring these pockets of triumphs in business and the professions. However, through all these seemingly unfettered successes especially during the racially-based exclusionary laws (its corrosive effects notwithstanding) in early times, and in today's more tolerant and inclusionary culture, Asian ethic groups have survived, flourished, and built little Saigons, Japantowns, Chinatowns, and other enterprising enclaves. It is this display of the indomitable work-spirit that captures the fascination of and impresses the working West.

<strong>Historical Perspective</strong>
How did the Asian work ethic gain its impeccable reputation? Is it real at all? Is this ethnic stereotyping? Is it propelled by some doctrinal influence? Perhaps a journey back in time may shed some light into how the tales all began.

The presence of Chinese, Filipinos, and Asian Indians in the New World can be traced as far back as the 17th century. In 1635, long before the bell of freedom rang in Philadelphia, barbers in Mexico were vociferously clamoring that Chinese barbers were luring away their clients and as a consequence creating the makings of a monopoly. The last time I checked the desire for tonsorial work was as personal a decision then as it is now. Might it be that the Chinese barbers then were indeed rendered exemplary service and that clients were simply making intelligent buying decisions? Can mastering their craft and offering unsurpassed service have been a manifestation of work values underpinned by religious-educational influence? Furthermore, a quick glimpse at the Asian Indians and how they once reigned as an economic power in the medieval ages trading spices, gold, and tea, portrayed underlying traits that are quite visible among their descendants today. Is this among other forms the much-touted Asian work ethic?

<strong>The Confucian Influence</strong>
Fundamental to the admirable traits exhibited by working Asian workers and professionals are frugality, hard work, cohesive family units, value for education, trading skills, respect for authority and reverence for duty. These qualities are readily traced to the Asian world influenced by a Confucian model characterized by patriarchal concerns and a continuous quest for cooperative harmony-typical Asian traits. Lest one forget, Confucianism and its evolved Neo-Confucianist work dynamism advocated an inner transcendence that permeated the lives of its practitioners. The values inculcated among its followers resonated in both religious and educational halls for centuries. The movement over time ascended the ranks of the merchant class creating a corpus of élite-cultural Confucianism. This eventually played a vital role in the formation of the merchant ethic characterized by diligence, frugality and honesty. These centuries-old qualities permeating throughout the generations and jumping geographical boundaries still appeared confined to the eastern sphere of the globe - but not for long.

<strong>The Protestant Work Ethic</strong>
Max Weber, the eminent sociologist whose contribution to the world is depicted in his classic studies The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, both published during the turn of the century, glorified industriousness, diligence, and frugality. This notion supported by scholars and theorists for over thirty years, represents a strain of work-related values underpinned by religious dogmas which was and perhaps still is credited for the rise of modern capitalism. Although Weber did not categorically link Protestantism and capitalism he, however, underscored the uniqueness of the West and noted that capitalism and religion have ties that hark to earlier civilizations in the East. But while the West provided an atmosphere such as political expression and openness to modern thinking, the East, however, remained shackled by its religious beliefs thus stifling the growth of modern capitalism.

With the Asian Diaspora reaching American shores around the 17th century, the Confucian model easily took hold in US institutions and became the embodiment of the ideal worker in a present day society dominated by neo-liberalist work values. It awakened among Asians the long dormant freedoms that were historically deprived of them but enjoyed by the northern Europeans during the early branching of working civilizations. Hard work, respect for authority and a cooperative spirit appeared to be the branding characteristics that have, over time, positioned the Asian worker as a valued asset of an enterprise in America.

<strong>Today's Outlook</strong>
This brings us full circle to the question of whether the Asian work ethic is indeed a fact or a fallacy. American enterprises and organizations now employ Asians of various 'stripes' within their workforce. They occupy positions ranging from the unskilled, through the professional, to management.

Thus it is not difficult to deduce how the Asian work ethic finds expression in a society where capitalism thrives. It is as if the Asian worker has been freed from the self-imposed suppression influenced by generations of religious practices. It is as if at last the Asian worker has been liberated from the control of what one may describe as spiritual and magical beliefs. It is no wonder that a western employer easily identifies and finds an affinity with the Asian worker.

The latest US Department of Labor statistics indicates that Asians are the fastest growing working segment of the population. And in the midst of this ethnic labor growth, no one has dared to challenge or much less tarnish the rather irreproachable reputation that has seemed to enwrap the Asian worker. I guess it is safe to say that the legend continues.


It seems the freedom enjoyed by so many in the US has unleashed the potential of Asians to be valuable workers in any company they choose. It's no wonder then that corporations are hiring them in rising numbers and many companies have turned to outsourcing human resources from Asian countries.

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