Tag Archives: youth

Are you treated like a child at work? 6 ways to respond.

Hi everyone! It’s my third week as a new Executive Director and I’m starting to feel settled into the role. All of the nightmares I had about team meetings have gone way. The staff are also starting to show me the respect I deserve. I’ve asked them to address me with the title bác, which is a Vietnamese word used when speaking to elders. “Hello Bác James. Let me help you up the stairs.” “Bác James, tell us what it was like to use a flip phone.”  “Bác James, my tummy is hurting again.” Go see a doctor then! You have health insurance benefits! “Bác, why didn’t you become a pharmacist?” Ugh, youth these days…so disrespectful.

I’ve previously written about how race and ethnicity can impact people’s perception of leadership. Similarly, age and the perceptions of experience can also be challenging–especially for Asian Americans where cultural norms around these issues are very powerful. Many of the challenges I have experienced in my career are because people viewed me as too young (other challenges include not knowing how to Tweet and Snapchat). It’s like I am a Vietnamese, non-profit, social justice version of Justin Beiber.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about similar challenges she was having. We wondered how young leaders can make a meaningful impact in our careers when our age and perceived lack of experience become barriers to success. It becomes very tiring because it makes us second-guess everything we do. For example, it took me a very long time to see myself as an Executive Director. Fortunately, I had the support from mentors, friends and colleagues who pushed me in that direction. While I am grateful for this opportunity, I recognize there are so many other young professionals who are ready to step up too.

Here are some comments that I’ve received and how I have responded to each of them. For anyone looking for an extra bit of help, you can also read my article “7 Ways for young Asians professionals to get respect.”

“You look so young. Are you a volunteer?”

Just because some of the students we serve are taller than me, doesn’t make me a volunteer. What’s up with always associating youthfulness with volunteerism? They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. When I was in the Peace Corps, I had the honor of serving with volunteers who were already retired; one was a dean of a graduate school; and some volunteers were in their 40s and 50s. Assuming that just because all young people are volunteers is rude, and doesn’t acknowledge the skills and perspectives we bring into the work. It is also a disservice to actual volunteers–the ones who give up their time and energy to support their community.

How you can respond: “I’ll make you a deal. If you donate to my organization, I’ll tell you what type of moisturizer I use. Spoiler alert: It has coconut extract! But no, I’m not a volunteer, though I really appreciate all of the passion and support they bring to our work. My role as a staff member is to make sure that we’re enabling our volunteers, students and community members to succeed.”

“Is this your job? Do you get paid?”

What is this? Do people assume millennials just sit around drinking craft beer and organic coffee all day? We only do that after 5:30pm or when we’re singing karaoke. Of course I have a job! How else do you expect me to survive? It sure as hell ain’t from blogging. All of those stereotypes that millennials can’t find employment and have to live at home with their parents are crap. AHHHHHH!!!! BLARGHH!!!!!! UGH!!!!!!

How you can respond: Listen Mom, you’re crushing my individuality! Yes, this is my job. And I already told you, I’m never going to be the doctor you wanted me to be. I’m not like every other Asian kid. I want to help our community.

Side note: If you actually did become a doctor, then simply replace “doctor” with “lawyer” and “help our community” with “make money and live debt free.”

“I’m not sure if you have the experience quite yet.”

This comment annoys me the most. It’s condescending, like people think they’re doing young professionals a favor by “protecting” them from failure. We can only get the experience if we are given the opportunities to learn, grow, make mistakes, and succeed. Society said that everyone needs a higher education to be successful. Many of us did exactly that. How much more experience do you want?

How you can respond: Although your gut reaction might be to face palm whoever made the comment, it is critical that you resist this impulse. As Asians, there’s a cultural norm not to question authority or challenge the status quo. Humbleness and humility are important, but don’t be a push over. Advocate for yourself! Try this:

I realize there’s still a lot I can learn in this field/position/role/etc. I would really appreciate any feedback or suggestions you have. I want to respectfully push back though. I’m willing to work hard and give this role my all, but that will also require your support to enable that success. I’d love to work with you to figure out ways I can get the coaching and training you think I’ll need. Thanks a bunch, you’re totes awesome.

“Look kid, I love the enthusiasm, but you’re out of your league. I’m 62, which makes me twice as smart and good looking.”

So…no one has actually ever said this to me before. I don’t give them a chance to. I walk around with my head up; ready to stiff arm anyone as if I were Marshawn Lynch. We millennials are bad asses! Organic buying, gluten-free, ride-sharing, socially conscious, bad asses.

How you can respond: I’m sorry you feel that way but I beg to differ. I grew up in the generation that invented Facebook and transformed social media. Our vote helped put the first African-American President in the White House. We embrace marriage equality and women’s rights. And yes, despite what you might think, we do care very much about money and the economy. Even though we didn’t have anything to do with The Great Recession, you’re welcome for the bailout. So if you’re done with your anti-millennial tirade…do you have a usb charger I can borrow? My phone died and I super need to check my Farmville score.

Wow! You’re such an exception.

Though this may seem like flattery, don’t fall for the trap. Singling you out as an exception (even though we’re all exceptional individuals) is a disservice to all of the other smart and talented young professionals out there. It pits us against one another, but we must stay strong and united. That’s one of the main reasons I started Asian Happy Hour, to find and support other young leaders in our community…and because going to happy hour alone is really sad.

How you can respond: Thanks…I think. What exactly do you mean by that, if I may ask? From my experience, there are a lot of talented young professionals out there. I’m happy to introduce you to them if you’d like.

“Can I ask you how old you are? For anyone who works in a management or director level position–or position where you have power and authority over other employees–never ask an employee their age! The HR in me says it opens the door to age discrimination–real or perceived. You don’t want to go down that road. But on a peer-to-peer level, it’s just rude. It’s like asking someone their weight. The only difference is people can lose weight, but you can’t lose age. No sir…can’t lose it at all…your age just gets bigger and bigger every year…for the rest of your life…until you die… Then you’ll be reincarnated and the cycle begins anew. Why is life so hard!!!?

How you can respond: So are you asking me for my permission to ask me how old I am? Or are you directly asking me how old I am? If the former, then no, you may not. If the latter, why don’t you just say “How old are you?” to which I would respond “I’ll only tell you if you have sincere intentions to celebrate my birthday with ice cream and candles. Otherwise, none of your business!”


7 Ways for young Asians professionals to get respect (hint: look older)

Last week I became the next Executive Director for the Vietnamese Friendship Association. One of the things I’ve had to wrestle with–especially as a young and new Executive Director–is the age difference between me and a lot of veteran leaders in this field and community. I’ve previously written about a generational gap and what we can do to support emerging leaders in our community.

While I believe I have the skills and experience to guide the organization and be a strong advocate in the community, I’ve also found that looking older affords me instant street cred.

In the Asian culture, there’s a strong association between age, experience and respect. In some ways, this is reflected in American culture as well–like when we hang on to every sweet word Morgan Freeman says. Naturally, we assume that those who are older have more experience (knowledge or wisdom…) and thus deserve more respect.

Don’t get me wrong, people with experience and knowledge and wisdom deserve our respect. In fact, we owe our unqualified respect to every human being we meet. However, for a young Asian American professional, the perceptions of age and youth are still very challenging to overcome precisely because of cultural expectations. I can’t tell you the number of times people have mistaken me for a high school student. Do you know how hard it is to run an organization when everyone thinks you’re a volunteer? It’s defeating–like being down 16-0 at half time.

At times, I have found myself changing the way I look, the way I talk, even the way I walk, in order to project the appearance that I’m older. It is exhausting! To my fellow Asian Americans, if you’re finding it hard to get the respect and opportunities you need to succeed, try one of these tricks below to “enhance” your age and get you on the fast track for success.

Rule #1: Become a doctor. Just kidding. That’s a terrible idea.


Start smoking! There was a study that compared identical twins, “one of which had been smoking for at least five years longer than the other.” They found that “smokers’ upper eyelids drooped while the lower lids sagged, and they had more wrinkles around the mouth.” Basically, all I took out of this study was that smokers looked older and therefore got more respect!

One twin smoked, the other didn’t. They looks years apart!



Visit a tanning booth: Can’t afford a lifetime of smoking? Tanning beds are your next best option. They instantly add years to your age. You can take a quick nap inside one of these and wake up ten years older! Btw, for those who care about “science,” tanning beds emit an unsafe concentration of UVA rays which is damaging to your skin and can lead to skin cancer. Worth it?

asian tan
You’ll never believe how old these girls really are!


Wear hipster glasses: Whenever I walk into a meeting where I want to look older and wiser, I put on my favorite pair of thick rimmed hipster glasses. These glasses add between 2-4 years to my appearance. In Asian years, I’ll look equivalent to the age of an undergrad. Ok fine! Middle schooler…

The boy above is actually 9 years old. But thanks to hipster glasses, he looks 14!
The boy above is actually 9 years old, but thanks to hipster glasses, he looks 14!


Dress Professionally: A friend and mentor once told me that I need to come into meetings well-dressed. Not suit and tie per say, but respectable, which meant no jeans or t-shirts. “You never know who you’re going to run into at these meetings,” he said. “So you don’t want them to think you’re a student.” He had a good point.

This is a high school graduation photo. Dressing professional works!
This is a high school graduation photo, but look how old we all look! Dressing professional works.


Eat lots of junk food: Researchers have found that high levels of phosphates accelerate signs of aging. Where does one get phosphates? Sodas and processed foods! So this is an easy win. If you want to look older, simply park it on the couch, turn on the tv and grab a Coke and a smile.

The boy on the left is ahead of all his classmates!
The boy on the left is growing faster than all his classmates! Eat up!


Practice effective sleep deprivation: WebMC writes that “chronic sleep loss can lead to lackluster skin, fine lines, and dark circles under the eyes.” It’s true. Ask any stressed out millennial; they look like they’re already nearing retirement age. Toss in some hipster glasses, and you’re basically telling the world you’re ready for an early grave.

Lose sleep to gain years. It’s an easy formula.


Become an Executive Director: This is my first ED role and already the number of grey hairs on my head have increased by 30%; I’m waking up with back pain; and I’m pretty sure the hearing in my right ear is starting to go out. Bottom line: If you really want to fast track looking older, then become an Executive Director.

Director Hong–VFA’s second youngest ever Executive Director.


Wear a turtleneck: Turtlenecks are so effective at making you look older, even Justin Beiber does it. Check out the before and after photo below. He instantly goes from a baby to a solid 8 years old.

beiber baby
These photos were taken just minutes apart. See how a turtleneck can add years to your age?


Just to be clear, most of these are pretty terrible ideas if you want to look older–except maybe dressing professional and wearing hipster glasses. They are actually safe and effective.

The truth is, we shouldn’t need to change who we are in order to confirm to other people’s expectations. Young professionals have all the skills and talents needed to make meaningful contributions to their work and community. We just need opportunities! Next week I’ll share how I have personally navigated these complex social and professional situations.

In the mean time, I’d love to hear everyone’s experience with age and youthfulness. Has it impacted your work? Do other people perceive you differently? Are you getting the right opportunities? What’s your relationship been like with bosses or managers? Leave your comments below or on the Asian Slant facebook page.

We’re wasting our time “investing” in future generations

One of the big social issues facing this generation of Americans is retirement. CNN reports that “31% of U.S. adults said they had no savings or pension to help them afford retirement.” Although there are many ways to save for retirement, some ways are better than others. Having a pension is like receiving a golden ticket from Mr. Willie Wonka himself. Once you hit 65 you’ll be swept away in a chocolate river drinking bubble juice and floating high into the sky. The euphoria lasts approximately 20 years until you realize you’re about to hit the ceiling fan, then its lights out.

Social Security also provides retirement benefits and is intended to provide support to workers to make sure they don’t have to retire in poverty. At the same time a lot of people are worried social security won’t exists in the future. However you choose to do it, the general idea behind saving for retirement is that you put away a little time, money, or resources now and enjoy a bigger payoff later on.

Investing in the future isn’t just limited to retirement though, it intersects with many aspects of our lives like the environment or the upcoming apocalypse. In my line of work, what I hear most is “we need to invest in young people.” It sends a cringe down my spine. Investing in future generations is a lot like banking on social security; we’re not really sure how it’ll look fifty years down the road or if it will even exist. There! I said it. Now let me take a step back and unpack what I mean.

The other day I was meeting my friend Erin at the Eastern Café to talk about the importance of civic engagement in the Asian American community. Both Erin and I are fairly young community activists. I just hit 30 this year and it’s been awful. I now wake up with back pain, my knees hurt, and I’m spending more and more time watching CBS shows.

Put into context, there are some amazing Asian American leaders who have been in this field longer then I have been alive, and they still have more energy than me. On any given evening Uncle Bob Santos is probably singing karaoke at the Bush Garden while I’m at home figuring out why my socks don’t match.

Erin and I eventually reached the topic of generational leadership in our community. There is a whole generation of non-profit Executive Directors and community leaders who are getting ready to retire. While this transition can be really exciting–like getting picked first in gym class–it can also create a huge leadership gap for our community if we’re not prepared. There is concern that the current 20 and 30-somethings aren’t ready to take over yet. Meanwhile, everyone preaches about the need to invest in the future generation. Well…screw these non-existent children of the future. They sound terrifying—silver haired children with glowing blue eyes walking out of a corn field. I’m just going to add them to Future James’ list of problems to deal with.

As a relatively young community activist, it’s frustrating to be in a room with older professionals who constantly talk about the need to get youth involved. As soon as one person says that phrase, the entire room breaks into chorus. “YEAH!” “Where are the young people?” “How come they’re not involved in leadership?” “Yeah!” “We need more youth in service!” “Yeah!” “They should quit programming apps and start voting!” “Yeah! Damn apps!” “YEAH!” My initial reaction is “Sigh…they don’t think I’m young anymore,” which makes my back hurt even more. Everyone eventually calms down and goes back to checking their smartphones.

These situations are annoying because there are many young people like myself who are ready and willing to step up in our community. What do people expect from us? Raise our hand and take roll call? “Young person, reporting for duty.” Do we need a leadership badge? Maybe a secret handshake? Millennials have been trained and conditioned to work hard and be optimistic, yet our existing contributions to society are often overlooked. Everyone else is waiting for some other “future generation” to save the day.

It’s unfortunate because young, energetic leaders who have a ton of experience are everywhere. Take my organization, VFA, for example. At the age of 30, I’m the oldest staff member. We have talented directors and coordinators much younger than me. Our previous Executive Director started as an Americorp volunteer. We’re doing some awesome work too, despite our youthfulness and delicate skin. We serve hundreds of refugee and immigrant youth and families, doubled our budget over the past three years, and are about to open a preschool. We don’t have all the answers figured out of course, and are constantly finding new ways to learn and grow from our experiences. But we’re not waiting for the next generation to tackle difficult social problems; we’re doing it right now.

I think most people who talk about the “next generation” or “future leaders” are thinking about some nebulous, abstract being that comes down from the sky. We tend to skip a couple of decades. We imagine adorable six year olds starting kindergarten or the slightly disheveled college bound teenager. But the risk of waiting for the next generation to arrive and solve our current problems is far too great; the margin of error too high. We don’t need to wait another 20 years for these children to grow up and become leaders; we shouldn’t put that burden on them. We shouldn’t use them as an excuse to kick the can down the road.

Instead, we should be asking ourselves how we can empower and encourage our current generation of the 20 and 30-something leaders. There are a group of young folks ready to go. However, we need veteran leaders–current Executive Directors and community activists–to welcome our new ideas and style of leadership. A strong, healthy leadership pipeline, one that is cross-generational, is critical to a vibrant community. This engagement can look a number of different ways.

  • Hiring emerging leaders in middle and senior management positions. We can do more than volunteer at benefit dinners and tutor in after school programs. We can be effective program coordinators, department directors, or board members too. Read “The Youth Engagement / Volunteering Conundrum.
  • Mentoring and coaching young professionals who demonstrate a passion for community work and social justice.
  • Creating a leadership pipeline within organizations that identifies emerging leaders and encourages them to stay in this field.
  • Funding and resourcing existing youth-led initiatives and associations, rather than co-opting their work and energy for our own purposes. Read “12 Winning Strategies for Non-Profits to Engage Young People.
  • Encourage risk taking among young leaders and supporting them all the way through, even if it fails. Read “Winning in life: Our success-driven culture is creating a fear of failure.”
  • Celebrating failure as a form of progress, rather than criticizing young professionals for being naive and inexperienced. Read “Being a Nguyener: Why Asians need to celebrate success.
  • Retiring! Open up new opportunities for young people to lead and innovate.

My point in all of this isn’t that society shouldn’t invest in the future of our children. It’s important we tackle difficult issues like education equity, neighborhood safety, racism and bullying. Our current social and world problems are complex and multifaceted, but we shouldn’t rely on the children of tomorrow to solve the problems of today.

A generation of bright young leaders already exists (you can usually find us meeting up for happy hour once a month). So instead of lamenting why more youth aren’t involved, we should start figuring out how to create opportunities for them to succeed. It won’t be easy—it means transitioning some of our responsibilities, powers, privileges and authority onto them, and entrusting them to lead us. But if we’re successful, then the future generation–our children and children’s children–won’t need to make the world a better place. They can simply kick back and enjoy it.