A Student on Finding "Currency" In Your Field As An Asian American

It’s Thursday morning in Harvard Square. Not a cloud is in the sky, but it’s sunny with a chance of finals. University students are rushing to grab tables around the square to secure makeshift desks – and I’m in the midst of it all, at Starbucks, waiting for my interviewee, Harvard Kennedy School, Master in Public Administration candidate – Ivan Rahman.

I chuckle knowingly from the bar stool at the counter, and sip my shake I snuck in from the smoothie joint around the corner. It doesn’t take long for Ivan to find me, as I’m the only one with a calm demeanor, typing casually on my computer and humming softly to the Hamilton soundtrack blasting through my earbuds.  

I wave at him amid panicking students, and we mutually agree to find a quieter space. Our feet land us at the Harvard Kennedy School. The mood in the space is quiet, unlike the bustle of the square. Yet, the intensity is the same – the weight of crunch time is thick in the air.

We eventually find a space on the third floor, and I immediately turn to him and say, “It’ll be quick; I know you’re hustling.” He laughs and says, “I got time.”

I promise 20 mins, but the conversation teases the hour mark. In that time, we broach the discourse on the model minority myth, the lie of meritocracy, growing up as a second generation Bangladeshi American, identity development--clearly, my promise of 20 minutes was audacious.

From our conversation, here is a glimpse of exactly what makes Ivan Rahman #UnapologeticallyAsian.

1. AAPI and other minorities have to find the right currency to thrive in their field. 

“The circumstances we are born into are completely outside of our control. The lucky among us are born into loving families with ample social, cultural, and economic capital. Others are not so lucky. For instance, they may be born into families with little money and that can’t afford to live in good neighborhoods with great schools. These kids are disadvantaged from the get-go. If life were a baseball game, these kids start far behind home plate, while the more privileged youth begin on third base.

That’s why I’m more impressed by and have more respect for someone like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor than a U.S. Supreme Court Justice who was born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth. Sotomayor was born and raised in the projects in the South Bronx, which, at the time, was infested with drugs and gang activity. Moreover, her father was an alcoholic who died when she was nine. I’m sure she also dealt with relatively low expectations at the schools she attended in the Bronx, despite her stellar academic performance at those schools. Overall, she truly had to work twice as hard to get half as far.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that Sotomayor figured out, from an early age, that there are specific currencies in the U.S. that can help you become highly influential. Academic pedigree is one them. Time and again, I have seen how attending selective institutions can help you quickly ascend to positions of influence whereby you can easily drive macro-level change.”

2. No one teaches you how to market yourself. But it’s a skill you have to learn.

“If you grow up in a low-income household and attended struggling schools for most of your life, chances are that no one has ever taught you how to market yourself. Often, I hear school leaders and teachers in high-poverty schools make a clarion call for hard work. Many of them tell their students that hard work is the key to success. I don’t think it is. I think hard work coupled with the right connections and strong self-marketing skills is the key to success. Unfortunately, most low-income kids learn too late in the game that actively building the right connections and developing the ability to sell oneself are crucial for opening doors.

Ivan with his older brother, casually hanging out in oversized suits. 

Ivan with his older brother, casually hanging out in oversized suits. 

Regarding marketing skills, most disadvantaged students never learn how to code-switch, how to effectively frame their life stories in college applications, or how to write an impact-oriented resume. Fortunately, I am seeing more and more programs arise that teach black and Hispanic youth how to market themselves. That makes me happy. However, I would also like to see more programs arise that also teach underrepresented Asians how to sell themselves. Due to the perennial practice of aggregating all Asian groups into one data point, people often forget that youth of Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, or Bangladeshi descent, for example, are severely marginalized and underrepresented in elite institutions. So, I would like to see more programs emerge that support underrepresented Asians strengthen their professional skills and presentation.”

3. Question whether most Asians and Asian Americans believe that the model minority theory is actually a myth.

“I know that many Asians and Asian Americans hear that the model minority theory is a myth, but I’m not sure if most of them wholeheartedly believe it’s a myth. Sometimes I feel that many of them silently think that ‘if black people only worked as hard as us, they wouldn’t be so powerless.’ They’ll never say that out loud, but I sense that they think that or some variation of that.

Many Asian Americans forget that black, Hispanic, and Native American people in the U.S. have and will continue to face deeply ingrained structural barriers that are different in nature and extent from the hurdles that Asian Americans in the U.S. experience. For example, blacks in this nation encounter far more police brutality, redlining, and discriminatory incarceration than Asian Americans do. This is not to say that we, Asian Americans, are not disadvantaged. We certainly are. But we cannot assume that the same rules we play by in this game of ‘meritocracy’ are the same rules that the social and economic systems of this country impose on blacks and Hispanics.”

4. Everyday piece of advice: It’s never too late to get back on the right track, even if you have severely steered off course.

“When I was a sophomore in high school, my art teacher gave me the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. I devoured it. The ending of the book, in particular, has stuck with me. There, the author mentions that most planes go off course about 90 percent of the time but that they always get back on track. So, whenever I’m having a bad day or I feel like I haven’t used my day well, I remember that I can get back on track at that very moment. And I usually do. I also don’t commiserate over the time I didn’t spend wisely. Instead, I focus on meaningfully spending the time ahead of me.”

5. If you’re ready for a relationship, partner with someone who is significantly better than you.

“I have found that women, generally, are wiser and more mature than men. Yeah, I know: it’s a big generalization, but that’s what 28 years of living has taught me. I learned more about leading a positive life from my mom than from my dad. And my wife has played a far bigger role in putting me in my place and calling me out on my nonsense than anyone else has. I grow enormously from listening to her. She is my harshest critic and biggest supporter. She goes straight for the jugular. And I know she critiques my thinking and behavior out of wanting to protect me. 

So, I pat myself on the back every now and then for marrying someone who consistently thinks beyond herself--almost to a fault--and who is better than me in all respects--intellect, wisdom, physical looks, character, and so on. On the most personal interpersonal level, then, I have someone to look up to 24/7. However, for the purpose of my self-esteem, I like to think that I’m funnier than her. And she lets me think that, probably out of sympathy.”

6. Bring yourself into your work. 

“Many people prefer to divorce their professional life from their personal life. I strive to gracefully blend the two. My approach is not necessarily better than anyone else’s. It’s simply my style. And I’ve found that the more fully I’m able to integrate my whole self into my work, the more fulfilled I feel at work. The depth of my fulfillment is the measure I use to gauge how aligned I am to my life purpose.”

7. You will feel lonely.

Ivan with his brother, aunt, and uncle. 

Ivan with his brother, aunt, and uncle. 

“If your parents are like most traditional Asian parents, and you’ve devoted your life to social-impact work, then your parents are probably confused about what you’re doing with your career. That’s okay. In fact, you can’t blame them for being confused. They probably grew up in a setting where the sole purpose of education is securing financial stability. So, when you commit your life to social-impact work—to work that doesn’t guarantee financial prosperity—then you risk puzzling or even upsetting your parents. And so, the lonely journey of following the beat of your own drum begins. Regardless, I think it’s better to put up with such loneliness than to accept the emptiness that comes with not surrendering to your purpose.”

8. Plan.

“Once you have a strong idea of what you want to do with your life, look at the career path of those who are already doing something similar. Then, backwards-plan. In my case, I aspire to ultimately lead at the system level in education. So, I consider the career trajectories of people like Carmen Farina, the Chancellor of New York City Schools, and John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education. I, then, find the right balance between following in their footsteps versus creating my own. You have to be somewhat original.”

9. Acknowledge your privilege. 

“I used to think I was bothered by people from affluent backgrounds. But, after further reflection, I realize that that’s not what bothers me. After all, it doesn’t make sense to be upset with someone for something outside his control, like the socioeconomic conditions into which he was born. Rather, what troubles me is when privileged folks don’t consider all the ways their privilege factors into any success they may experience. Such lack of consideration troubles me because it indicates to me ignorance about and, therefore, an absence of compassion for the hardships experienced by those who don’t have the privilege in question.

I’m very much guilty of the very thing that bothers me. Specifically, I haven’t fully contemplated how my male privilege has positively affected where I am today. So, I don’t think I’m as aware of or sensitive towards issues faced by women as I could be. And that bothers me. That’s why, this summer, I plan to build my consciousness around my own male privilege.”

10. Explore what makes you cringe.

“People are a product of their environment. So, if an Asian-American kid is growing up in a white-majority suburb, it’s understandable why she would be detached from her parents’ culture. Perhaps she doesn’t speak her parents’ native language or she listens mostly to ‘white people music’--think esoteric hipster bands, like Fleet Foxes. The point is, it doesn’t make sense to judge her for not meeting certain ethnic norms or standards. 

While it’s understandable why an Asian American might be divorced from her heritage, I cringe whenever I observe Asian Americans habitually brown-nosing racially privileged folks. Why? Because I immediately think to myself: ‘have you forgotten all the atrocities that white people have committed against people of color throughout history? Have you forgotten all the benefits that they reap--and that we don’t--just because of the color of their skin? And now you’re catering to them? Your values seem misplaced.’

However, I check myself for several reasons whenever I have this visceral reaction. For example, perhaps the person grew up in a context where the media constantly portray white people in a positive, superior light and cast other racial groups in a negative light. So, it is only natural that she would care more about being validated and liked by white individuals than by black, Hispanic, or Asian individuals. Or, perhaps the person is ingratiating herself with a group of white people because they are super cool human beings who just happen to be white. There could be plenty of other reasons that escape me right now.

I also check my thoughts--not just my reactions. Sure, white people have historically oppressed communities of color. But it doesn’t seem fair or productive to hold a grudge against every white person for benefiting from systemic racism or a legacy of domination. Bitterness does not build bridges. Benevolence does. And part of being benevolent is treating each white person as his or her own person and not letting your anger towards specific social systems hijack the better part of you. 

At the end of the day, it’s easy to judge. It’s much harder to explore why you’re judging in the first place. I opt for the latter.”

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Ivan Rahman is an MPA Candidate and a Gleitsman Leadership Fellow at Harvard University and an MBA Candidate at Stanford University. He holds a B.A. from New York University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the Relay Graduate School of Education. In his free time, he enjoys listening to rap and Disney music, attempting to dance to bachata and reggae, and playing the guitar and djembe.