Asian American kids in the 1970s and 1980s the WEIRDest in the world?

Reading Joe Henrich’s newest book I realized some things about my own life, which led me to a weird hypothesis: the WEIRDest people in the USA could very well be the children of Asian immigrant professionals in the 1970s and 1980s.

As I was growing up there was always a large cultural chasm between my parents and myself. I always attributed this to my personality, a natural individualist and liberal orientation in the broad sense. There were other children of these immigrants who were more traditionalist, after all. So there were natural dispositions that varied. At least that was my thought.

Without getting into personal details though, recently I found out that many of the young women I grew up within our family’s small Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani, social circle are not married. Most are successful professionals. In many ways far more successful than me! (e.g., I’m thinking of a girl who graduated from Yale Law, for example). There were way too many professional unmarried women to think of this cohort as “traditionalist.”

Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous observes that the vast majority of societies are much more familialist than those in the West. Westerners rely on impersonal institutions and rules and tend not to favor their families. They’re not as embedded in extended family networks and tend to focus on guilt rather than shame.

My parents have plenty of non-Western values and preferences. But when they arrived in the United States in the early 1980s they were the only members of their whole families who lived in North America. I did not grow up with a rich and nourishing extended family network, because I had no one in my family outside of the nuclear family. To be frank I grew up a bit jealous of my friends who would visit their cousins since my cousins were simply vague names and faint memories. Growing up in a small town in eastern Oregon there was no one of my notional religion and hardly anyone of my race. There were families who were well known around town, and with hindsight, I assume that they would help their nieces and nephews with summer jobs and other such things. I could not, and never did, rely on such informal networks. I lacked such networks. All I could rely on were explicit and formally objective institutions and systems.

Finally, this individuality did not just apply to me. My parents moved themselves to a foreign country without any social or familial network. In various ways, over time they rebuilt something of a non-kin community, but it took literally decades. They didn’t just have shallow roots, they had no roots. Like me, they relied on explicit formal institutions and systems. That was all they had.

Obviously it is somewhat different for later generations. The immigrants of the 1970s and 1980s sponsored their relatives. And in the 1990s a massive wave of Asians into places like Silicon Valley allowed for the emergence of genuine enclaves in a fashion that wouldn’t be imaginable in previous generations. In many ways, the  Indian American Zoomers are probably more Indian than the Indian American Gen-Xers.

In any case, it’s a hypothesis to test.

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6 thoughts on “Asian American kids in the 1970s and 1980s the WEIRDest in the world?

  1. When I saw this post on the reader somehow I assumed it would be on the other blog. So let me make the comment I thought I would make, which is what I would make for a post of this sort on the other blog. Regarding:

    There were way too many professional unmarried women to think of this cohort as “traditionalist”.

    A lot of traditional families, at least among Hindus, that didn’t believe in sending women to work nevertheless believed in educating them, and there was often awe for female scholarship. Women from traditional families becoming professionally aspirational started (though very slowly) in the 19th century, and picked up steam through the twentieth century; think Anandi Gopal and D K Pattammal.

    In the 80-s, when middle-class incomes meant that people would carefully choose their toothpaste and soap not to strain their budget too much, and put in herculean efforts into using up the last bits of toothpaste remaining in the tube, men typically started wanting working wives because that extra income would make a lot of difference. I think the set of preferences created by those circumstances did also contribute its bit to encouraging many women from traditional families to do a PhD, but little did they know as they started pursuing their dreams what sort of a killer it would be to their marriage prospects. Of course I don’t know if this is what happened to the women you were talking about. I would even say that feminism played some part in preventing a realistic discussion on this topic that could have spelt the trade-offs out more clearly.

  2. Well, this is weird! The attributes you identify among your WEIRD cohort apply to me too (to the extent I’m capable of self-evaluation). But my life trajectory’s been very different. I was born and raised in the extended family setup (in a multi-generational “joint family”, no less).

    And then I spent all of my 20s (I’m not over 40) in the US, where I headed to for graduate school. That definitely played a big part in shaping me, but somehow I don’t think it transformed me in a deep way; the seeds for my personal weirdness were always there. I’m not exactly sure why. It could be because I observed (or knew of) members in my extended family who were more individualistic and chafed under traditional restrictions. (FYI, I’m male but I could see and sympathize with womens’ predicaments in that setup.) Or it could be because I was a fat nerd who preferred the company of books (much of it literature from the Anglo-Saxon world) to other kids who could be, shall we say, unkind.

    I don’t know if my example is emblematic of anything, or if I’m just weird, but I thought I’d share it.

  3. Perhaps it depends where in the USA you grew up. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s in the Northeast, my East Asian classmates all went to Taiwanese or Korean churches, where they met a huge number of other Taiwanese or Korean-Americans. My Indian-American classmates went to weekend picnics and stuff like that where they similarly met a ton of Indian-American kids. They were hardly isolated, in fact their friendship networks became increasingly of the same ethnicity through high school, and in college almost exclusively so. I went to an Ivy, and there, among the people I knew, South Asians socialized almost exclusively with other South Asians, East Asians with other East Asians. There was quite a lot of networking for jobs, but ultimately it mostly came down to face-to-face interviews with banks, consulting companies, and IT companies that came to campus. Almost everyone would end up with a pretty good job if they wanted to go the corporate route.

    I think there was an assumption of America being meritocratic, and success (at that stage meaning getting into a good university and then landing a good job) not being based on family connections. But that assumption was also held by the white young people I knew.

    Of course we all knew about legacies at college and then connections to land good jobs. But I think there was a sense of those connections being a glide path to downward mobility. A dumb kid might get into the Ivy League, and might get a good job based on family connections, but the overall arc of those families was decline. Now looking at the news headlines, I see people getting to the top purely through family connections. But that’s billionaire level stuff.

    One thing that I think ended up as a rude surprise for some of my classmates (including for myself, to be honest) is that the skills required to succeed suddenly changed after graduation. From elementary until getting into college, it was about grades, SAT scores, and pesky but necessary extra-curricular activities. Then suddenly after college, at work, it became about social skills and bullshitting. At first the thought was, “meritocracy is a lie!”. But for me at least, there was a gradual realization that it was still meritocracy, just not based on academic intelligence anymore.

    A lot of my friends are considerably younger than me, so I like to think I still have a pulse on what’s going on in the USA. I get the sense that “elite overproduction” is very true, much more so than 20 years ago. The hot area is IT, and I know elite-level youngish people with good jobs at top companies in NY and Silicon Valley/SF. The sense I get is that there are not the same advancement opportunities at for example google, because you can’t grow with the company like before. After all google/Facebook etc are already huge! And those large companies have created what are almost “kill zones” in many many sub-areas of IT, which become just about off-limits to new challengers. What is left is chasing after the new hot thing, block-chain, AI, along with literally thousands of other startups, and hope that you can bullshit your way to getting bought out and getting rich. Most startups fail though, it’s kind of like buying a lottery ticket. And the chance to get funding and exposure depends a lot on existing connections. So the successful few (even among the elite) become more successful, while everyone else falls by the wayside. I mean they’re not poor by a long shot, but they end up not doing nearly as well as they hoped.

  4. Another thing I noticed over the past 15(?) or so years is the growth of “fraudy” behavior among large companies. They can afford to have legal teams on retainer that spell out exactly what they can and cannot get away with, so if they can get away with it, they do it shamelessly, no matter how dishonest and unacceptable the same corporate behavior would have been 25 years ago. Maybe this has something to do with the elite overproduction, as the increased competition wears away at social norms. It’s been my experience that only the largest most successful companies (I’m thinking of a few giant IT companies where I have personal connections) can afford to stay relatively honest and above board.

  5. Could be true (that specific subset WEIRDer than average; probably you could slice a different and WEIRDer subset of similar overall total population size, if you really wanted to). Any survey data to test it, or are all sample sizes on available data just too small and on not very informative questions?

  6. What you describe is in part also due to the social selection of middle to upper class level people migrating to the USA and the US capitalist-societal system which always exploited and at the same time gave opportunities to ambitious, rootless people. Its part of the USA that some groups did better than others, if they had religious and social institutions to easily connect when coming fresh from the boat, like best known Ashkenazi Jews in general or Italo-Americans in some criminal networks. If you don’t have to start completely anew, but can activate, at the time of your arrival, existing connections to related people.

    For many others it was always like being thrown into a shark tank. I have distant relatives which moved, over the centuries, to the USA, and all of them largely lost their connections and roots. Actually it was much worse in the past, before even telephones, yet alone the internet existed for keeping up the communication. Like I know from relatives of mine which visited another who went to the Northern USA more than once, as a family, by boat. They stayed for some weeks and moved back home again. Some even came back, because they couldn’t stay the brutality and isolation they experienced in the USA.

    The US Capitalist system always build on these people which had no roots, were mobile and flexible, ambitious and could not rely on naturally grown networks. Its this very context which makes people “weird”, more so than in Europe I’d say.

    This is particularly noticeable as I think some rural Americans are less individualist in the “WEIRD” sense than many modern Europeans these days. Yet you have in the US “peaks of weirdness” associated with very specific social contexts. The most extreme definition of this is not sustainable, because it burns itself like fuel for the economy and you mentioned yourself what’s decisise in this respect: Family and (biological) children of your own. Otherwise you are one-generational fuel, might feel special and individualist, but are gone in a historical second and evolutionary milisecond. Both genetically, as well as culturally, because you can’t transmit your “WEIRD” values to your kids. They got lost. While culture can spread by teaching, in very fundamental ways its still biological selection.
    No cultural phenomenon can survive and dominate on the very long run by just converting people, but it has to reproduce itself biologically, including genetically. What I see in many people, Europeans as well as others is, is this short term burn for the Capitalist economy, then they are gone.
    Like all people from a Muslim background I know which are “assimilated” and socially successful at the same time have either no kids or small families (like some I know which are doctors, lawyers, managers, but also small shop owners etc.). The ones with more offspring are those which are more traditionalist, obviously.
    That way with every new wave of immigration, the success story of the last generation from a Western-Capitalist perspective will be ruined again, because the overall numbers don’t fit. And the bigger the new waves, the less of the initial success remains. You can observe that in various Western countries and now you have a situation in which people in countries like France, if they are apostates, have to fear for their life and safety almost as much as if they are in a country like Tunisia, sometimes even more so.

    But the pattern of WEIRD people production in the USA, easily usable by the established elite as human material for the production, is very old and well known. There were always the same factors ruining that system:
    – Too close ties with the people at home or good networks from themselves, both now easier with the WWW.
    – Too large communities which establish their own parallel existence. They live in the USA, but they don’t follow the mainstream.
    – Too strong of an ideological-religious resistance to the mainstream, usually related to the first and second aspect.

    The problems appeared in the past too, with Irish, German, Jewish and Italian immigrants for example. It was solved by the regional elite or changed the US society itself in peculiar ways every time.
    Single families or even just individuals don’t do that. You can’t recreate a social system from the home country with one family. At least not successfully so. That way its the best model for successful social integration, always, just one individual or family from every new ethnic group.
    The best integrated immigrants here in German speaking lands too are usually those from the countryside, with no ethno-religious community of their own which lives in close proximity. The larger the ethno-religious community, the less successful is any kind of social integration into the existing societal framework statistically.

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