Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Unless, of course, you are Asian.
My family emigrated to Australia from China when I was nine years old. I remember very little of the lead-up to the Big Day, and even less of the months of acclimatisation that followed, much of it spent in tears of self-pity and self-denial that the once familiar way of life was no more. Suffice to say that I grew up in a constant state of confusion; exposed as I was at a tender age to a concoction of belief systems, values and ideals that were as polar opposites as they come. Growing up, one Confucian value was painstakingly instilled in me. Humility shadowed me everywhere and it would go on to define me, for better or worse.
I recall a time when I happily returned home waving a perfect report card, only to be chastened by the looks of consternation on my parents’ faces. I learnt quickly then that blowing our own trumpet was frowned upon, that it was up to figures of authority to define our own self-worth. We let our good deeds do the talking, they’d say, and it wasn’t up to me to question that.
My parents also taught me to say sorry almost before anything else. There might be no direct equivalent of how’s it going, but there is certainly no shortage of ways to express that you are sorry. I was led to believe that this magical word – along with thank you and please – underpins the winning trifecta of Asian social currency. Not only does it permeate the Asian lexicon it permeates every fibre of our value system.
I carried those ideals with me as I entered the Australian workplace. My signature emails would preface with sorry to bother you, or my apologies for having to inconvenience you, although why I was sorry for asking others to perform their jobs remained a mystery, even to me. It just seemed as innocuous and second nature as hope you are well.
My urge to be self-deprecating would take centre stage time and again, from client meetings to work functions, even to performance reviews where displays of chest-puffing and fist-thumping are as commonplace as death and taxes. Yet there I’d sit, downplaying my strategic involvement amidst fluent recitations of my inadequacies, silly mistakes and unfulfilled promises.
Little did I know that I’d just bagged myself a one-way ticket to corporate bondage.
Whilst isolated incidences of humility in overdrive can be rationalised and are often suppressed, its impact on future prospects can be frightening. Efforts to break down the lack of gender and cultural diversity (known as the glass ceiling and bamboo ceiling respectively) are progressing at glacial pace. In multicultural Australia, for instance, female representation on corporate boards of the ASX200 barely registers 25%, whilst Asian representation is a mere 4%. This is despite women representing ~60% of university graduates, and Asia being our closest neighbour and the number one source of migrant population.
Could it be that this one Asian virtue – as revered as it is in one part of the world – is the damning culprit behind workplace imbalance in another? As I paid closer attention to the environment around me, I realised that taking a perpetually apologetic stance is not only unnecessary, but is in fact doing a disservice. When we place the power in others to define our self-worth, we inevitably apologise our way into obscurity. True humility awaits not the subservient and ingratiating, but the quietly confident and assertive.
There were things I learnt which must now be slowly unlearnt. I could no longer allow a crisis of identity and belonging to be escalated into a crisis of self-worth. I could no longer allow a conversation about everything that I am to be overtaken by everything that I am not.
But before all that, I must recognise that I am unapologetically a minority; and that I am unapologetically myself.
Feature image courtesy of S. Chen