Why Aren’t You Turning Japanese?


When I was a freshman in college, way back in 1980, there was a one-hit wonder from the Vapors called Turning Japanese. Here’s a YouTube clip of the song.

Now for the life of me, I have no idea what this song is about. But I included it here because it makes a nice segue for the point of this post. And what is the point of this post? Asian-Americans are kicking ass. And although it may not be politically correct to say so, white, Hispanic, and black Americans would be better served if they renounced a lot of their respective cultures and started turning Japanese—er, I mean, turning Asian.

Some Very Enviable Statistics

A short while back, I came across a book called The Chinese Secrets for Success. It looked at Asians worldwide, but largely focused on Asian Americans. And according to the author, Yukong Zhao, Confucian values are good things to have in a highly competitive world that rewards discipline, vigor, and brains but is chock-full of temptations.

Is Mr. Zhao right? I don’t know. But judging from the following statistics, which I culled from his book, I’d say Mr. Zhao is on to something.

  • In 2009, the median household income for Chinese Americans was $69,502. For Japanese Americans, it was $64,231. For non-Hispanic Whites it was $54,671.
  • As of 2010, the percentage of adults 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the US was 28.2. For Chinese Americans, however, it was 51.1. For Japanese Americans it was 46.1. And for Korean Americans it was 52.6.
  • Ninety-two percent of Asian American high school graduates go to college versus 70% of all high school graduates.
  • Eighteen percent of Chinese American college students major in science or engineering. Nationally, only 5% of college students major in science or engineering.
  • As of 2008, Asian Americans made up 5.6% of the US population but accounted for only 1.1% of those arrested for a violent crime.
  • In a 2007 study done by the Department of Education, Asian American high school students used alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs less often than their white, black, and Hispanic peers. They also had fewer teen pregnancies.

Are those stats freakin’ groovy or what? Very impressive. And to drive home the point of how well Asian Americans are doing, I did a quick google search of student demographics in some of our elite colleges. Here are those numbers.

CollegePercentage of Asian Students
California Institute of Technology45.0
Massachusetts Institute of Technology24.7
University of Pennsylvania19.8

Remember, Asian Americans are 5.6% of the US population. In every one of these elite schools, Asian Americans are over-represented by at least a factor of three. At Caltech, they’re over-represented by a factor of eight. Again, very freakin’ impressive.

The Keys to Financial Success

Back in my public service days, I would frequent a particular Chinese take-out joint for lunch. I loved their sweet and sour soup. And whenever I happened to be in there during the summer, I noticed something very interesting. Behind the counter there were always a handful of adults working their asses off. In front of the counter, over in the first booth on the right, there were always two Asian American children poring over their math workbooks.

What a sight to behold. Because their parents had to contend with the lunch-hour crush, these two kids, a boy and girl both under the age of 12, were basically unsupervised. And what did they do with this respite from parental control? Did they jump around like fools? Pester one another? Make fart noises by expertly cupping a hand under an armpit and then utilizing an abrupt arm movement? No. They sat quietly and did math problems. Let me repeat that. They sat quietly and did math problems. AND IT WAS DURING THEIR FREAKIN’ SUMMER VACATION!

Was what I witnessed in that Chinese take-out joint the personification of Confucian values? Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is that the “Asian way” seems pretty damn honorable. And pretty damn conducive to building wealth. In fact, let’s look at the behaviors exhibited in that Chinese take-out joint, and the behaviors exalted in Mr. Zhao’s book, and see how they give you a leg up financially.

Avoid crime. Being a thug isn’t cool. Not only is it immoral, it’s highly detrimental to building wealth. Lawyers cost money. Convictions reduce the amount of time you’re in the workforce. And felonies limit your employment opportunities.

Avoid partying. There are only so many hours in the day. The more hours you spend getting stoned or recovering from excess, the fewer hours you have for studying, honing a skill, or working.

Avoid out-of-wedlock births. Raising children is the ultimate team activity. Children are expensive and time consuming. You can try to do it alone, but very few single parents can nurture their children and build an emergency fund. And save for a home. And save for college. And save for retirement. Heck, two-parent households have a tough time doing all of these things. But two-parent households have a better shot at pulling it off. So it’s best to have children with a committed partner.

Take education seriously. Not everyone has an aptitude for calculus. But just because you’re math-challenged, you don’t get a pass on taking education seriously. The world needs plumbers and electricians too. And learning a trade isn’t a snap. If you want to master a trade, you’ve got to apply yourself.

Study hard subjects. But if you do have an aptitude for calculus, or any other mentally grueling subject, you’d be foolish not to take advantage of it. Doctors, engineers, and programmers make a lot more than bus drivers, cashiers, and day laborers.

Work hard. Horatio Alger knew it. The Puritans knew it. And our Asian American brethren know it as well. There is nobility in hard work. Not only does it enhance your earning capacity and limit your exposure to temptation, it seems to be a well-spring of good fortune. In other words, good things come to those who work hard. As the legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn once quipped, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Save. I don’t think I have to elaborate on the connection between this trait and building wealth. All I’m going to do is leave you with two thoughts. Compound interest is perhaps the greatest financial invention of all time. Those who save take advantage of the power of compound interest.

Cultures Are Free

When I was a highway foreman, I used to return to the yard every weekday around a quarter to three in the afternoon. Just before the entrance to the yard, there was a nondescript brick building with a little sign on it that read, Long Island Academy. Waiting to go inside this building were about fifty Asian American kids. And they weren’t waiting to play video games or play dodge ball. They were waiting to study. Here, for example, are the current course offerings of Long Island Academy. I’m sure the curriculum back in the early 2000s was very similar.


Now here’s the groovy part of this little vignette. I don’t remember the circumstances, but about three years ago during a trip to New York I found myself driving by the Long Island Academy again. And those waiting outside were no longer exclusively Asian (in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean sense). There were a sizable number of Patels, Finkelsteins, and Smiths in the mix. And it brought a smile to my face. Why? Because cultures are free. You can observe what successful people are doing and you can copy them. It’s your choice. If you want to embrace the Asian way, have at it. There are no barriers to entry. It doesn’t cost a dime to respect your neighbors. It doesn’t cost a dime to be sexually chaste. And it doesn’t cost a dime to spend your free time in a library. It’s all on you, my friend. You can adopt the habits that bring fortune. Or you can adopt the habits that bring misery.

Freedom + Kick-Ass Culture = A Strong Likelihood of Success

Freedom + Lame-Ass Culture = A Strong Likelihood of Failure

Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. What say you? Are you turning Japanese? Or have you already turned Japanese?

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  1. Jaime

    Interesting points. First this entire post reminds of the book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” by Richard Hofstadter.

    Also another book “Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money” by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, does come to mind.

    It seems that in certain communities across America the conservative rich, the Asian-American, and Jewish-American communities among others that they are doing something right in the way they are leading and raising their families.

    Mainstream society may poo poo their values, but there’s a reason why these communities are so successful.

    There are people out there that are all about “free love” and do whatever you want, yea that all sounds fine and dandy in theory but not in the real world.

    It’s like they don’t even wanna acknowledge that there are consequences in the real world.

    Sure sometimes the parents go overboard, but a lot of them do let their kids have fun as well and let their kids have a balanced life. Most parents aren’t interested in being hateful tyrants.

    And what’s wrong with letting kids pore over math books? I dislike it when people attack math like it’s the mark of the beast.

    Math has touched all aspects of society from the arts, to the sciences, to architecture, etc.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Thanks, Jaime. I was aware of “Anti-Intellectualism” and “Thou Shall Prosper,” but haven’t made the time to read them. I’ll definitely having to attack them this year. And you’re right about the “Asian way” not being confined to Asian-Americans. Jewish-Americans, Mormons, Indian-Americans, Iranian-Americans–there are a number of groups who have adopted a prime culture and are doing well. And I love your line about “free love.” Yes, it does sound “fine and dandy.” But in the “real world,” it’s a recipe for disaster. And thank you for your defense of math. It surely isn’t the “mark of the beast.” Imagine what kids could accomplish if they just did ten math problems a day, every day, from the time they were six to the time they graduated college or turned twenty-one? That would amount to 58,400 math problems. And what would it take, maybe one less hour a day devoted to video games?

  2. Love that you tackle topics that may be somewhat controversial! As an Asian American, I’d like to think that those stats above are awesome. Although growing up, I sometimes wished we were more “American” than Asian American. I think the focus on education and hard-work is great…but as others have said…balance is good. All hard work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I wrote a post about a related topic: http://www.livingrichcheaply.com/2014/06/23/why-arent-nerds-popular/
    When I did well in Algebra class and got teased, my mom was perplexed. Aren’t smart kids the popular ones? she asked. Obviously she didn’t go to school in the US. It is not so here…it’s the athletes and kids with nice clothes, etc. who are the popular ones.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Andrew. I was hoping we would hear from our Asian American brethren. Go point about balance. Playing and exploring are just as important to a healthy childhood as honing one’s math skills. So perhaps in education, Asian Americans should be a little more “American.” But this cuts both ways. White, black, and Hispanic Americans need to be a little more “Asian” when it comes to education. And white, black, and Hispanic Americans need to be a lot more “Asian” when it comes to crime and out-of-wedlock births. On a lighter note, I had the good fortune of growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The athletes and fashionably dressed were certainly the most popular, but the smart kids weren’t teased or ostracized. Thanks for stopping by, Andrew. I really appreciate your contribution to this conversation.

  3. This post is perfectly timed for the current drama in our house. We’re struggling a bit with our six year old and the changes he’s undergone after completing a year of school. Society has made a mark on him, such that he asks why we don’t have an iPad when all of the other kids have one. We are trying to figure out ways to encourage him to work hard and help others, instead of just becoming fixated on random stuff.

    Everything in moderation is a decent approach, but you need a good foundation of values.

    • Mr. Groovy

      The broader culture is not making things easy for parents. It’s as if it wants nothing more than to turn our children into entitled spend-thrifts who view impulse control as a form of tyranny. Meh. I feel for you, Harmony. But at least you guys are aware of the problem and have good values. Your son therefore has a good shot of not being “normal.”

  4. I agree with Stockbeard. I’m sure that there are significant kids of other races and cultures who are also disciplined and live to study and work hard. It’s just that often the Asian ones stand out more as would anyone who is a ‘different’ race to ourselves.

    However, I wasn’t one of those that lived to work and study and I also wouldn’t swap my upbringing of fart noises, silly jokes, and mucking around for any cultural constraints.

    However, I do respect the fact that Asian people don’t often features in the crime, unemployment, or other social problem statistics. Im sure that the rest of us could learn something from that.

    And now that silly song will be going around in my head for the rest of the weekend. Thanks for that Mr Groovy!!

    • Yep – now that song is stuck in my head too. It was definitely an 80’s tune! One point to add – we have friends who adopted a daughter from China and she has some special needs. It has been tough on her because of the “model minority myth”. Her teachers thought she was lazy – it was ridiculous and caused her a lot of anxiety!

      • Mr. Groovy

        Hey, Vicki. That song is rapidly becoming a curse! And good point about “model minority myth.” This stereotype has no doubt caused a lot of anguish for Asian kids who are mediocre cognitively or have no interest in studying engineering or medicine. Here’s an aside for you. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish town, so most of my classmates were Jewish. I only had two Asian-American classmates and they were bad students. So up until junior high, I thought most of the world was Jewish. And it wasn’t until college that I found out that Asian-Americans weren’t dumb.

    • A lot could be said about this topic, but I absolutely agree with your basic point, there are a lot of cultural factors – not necessarily good – that get missed and we have to be careful in ascribing ‘good’ habits/traits to one group just as we have to careful in not prejudging other groups to suffer from bad habits/traits.

      • Mr. Groovy

        Excellent point, James. You are absolutely right. We do have to be careful in ascribing “good” or “bad” habits to any group. I tried to clarify this in my response to Martin’s comment. And I should have made this point more clear in my post. What I labeled the “Asian” way is better described as a prime culture–a belief system that requires one to be kind to others and to make a positive use of one’s god-given (or Darwinian-derived) talents. I cringe when I see references to “acting white” or “going ghetto.” I think we would all be better served if we could formulate the basic tenets of a prime culture and then say it was the duty of every American, regardless of race or ethnicity, to embrace those tenets. Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts on this topic, James. I definitely owe you a few beers.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Martin. Sorry about that silly song. It’s been in my head all weekend if that’s any consolation. And you’re absolutely right about discipline and hard work not being the monopoly of any race or ethnicity. That’s what I was trying to point out by saying “cultures are free.” I guess I should have been more explicit. What I labeled the “Asian” way is more aptly described as a prime culture. And people from every race and ethnicity have adopted that prime culture. It just seems to me that a greater percentage of Asian Americans have adopted a prime culture and other groups got to up their game. Not because other groups need to keep up with Asian Americans, but because adopting a prime culture is a proven way for individuals and groups to advance in our globalized economy.

  5. Having lived in Japan for 10 years I can say I was not always impressed with the work culture there. Many people work hard but inefficiently, or work hard but forgot why they’re working hard. I saw lots of people who live to work and forgot it’s supposed to be the other way around. And that includes kids at school, who study all the time and forget to be kids.

    There’s definitely value in ethics, hard work, etc… but I wouldn’t trade my childhood’s lazy summers, fart jokes, a weeks at the beach for a childhood trying to constantly please my parents and my social constraints by studying all summer. Lots of my Japanese and Chinese friends used to complain about the family pressure to always be the best in particular at school. The “Asian mom” meme didn’t appear out of thin air.

    And you mention it in the article: “Avoid partying.” Who wants a life with no party?

    I’m not saying everything’s wrong of course but people have to be careful to not blindly think everything in a given culture is awesome just because on aggregate they achieve better financial success.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Upon further review, I’m going to have to walk-back that no partying edict. You’re right, Stockbeard. I don’t want a life without partying, and I imagine most others feel the same. So rather than “avoid partying,” how about “party moderately”? A few beers now and then with family and friends? Awesome! A case of beer every day without leaving the house? Not so awesome! And begrudgingly, I’m going to have to walk-back the no fart joke edict as well. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I love a good fart joke too. Thanks for some needed push-back on this post, Stockbeard. I appreciate it.

      • I bet I can make better “under the arm fart noises” than you. There, wasn’t that fun! 🙂

        In seriousness, there’s value in balance. Too much of any one thing is not a good goal. A lot of the Asian cultures place too much emphasis on academic studies, and not enough on learning to holistically enjoy life. Like….fart noises. R–iii—iiii–pppppp

        • Mr. Groovy

          Hey, Fritz. I was so bad at underarm farts. I don’t think I mastered the technique until I was in my 20s. How lame is that? Anyway, you’re absolutely right about balance when it comes to academics. There is a place for rote learning and drills. There’s also a place for exploring, contemplation, and fun. Doing well in academics and enjoying life need not be mutually exclusive. So, yes, do your schoolwork, but also be silly and have fun. As you so eloquently put it, let’m r-iii-iiii-pppppp.

  6. It is always admirable to question our habits and assumptions and adopt better ones when we find them. International travel used to be one of the best ways to do this, and it still is, though thankfully now there is also more opportunity to learn from classmates, coworkers, neighbors, and of course, YouTube 🙂
    All we need are open minds.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Agreed. Even if you’re thriving, it never hurts to question your habits and assumptions. And if you’re not thriving, you should definitely question your habits and assumptions. And like you pointed out, there are plenty of classmates, coworkers, and neighbors to use as role models. I love the way your mind works, Julie. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Ooh !! Kid Jensen and Top of the Pops. Takes me to back to my youth back in the UK. Got that single on vinyl somewhere. That’s a reminder to get out the vinyl record player tonight, go retro and listen to some old tunes, crackles and scratches and all. You can tell I live a sheltered life if that’s my Friday evening fun…..

    Onto the post, it is interesting that much of the innovation fueling tech, biotech is from immigrants. Tim Ferris has written about this topic also.

    It is healthy that we try to adopt the best of what is out there as we raise our own children. With a Scottish father and English mother, our kids being raised as American boys provides some interesting conversations over dinner. Exposing them to a bit of our native culture, letting them see the world through more travel and letting them decide which elements resonante with them can only be a good thing. Turning “global”, I guess, is what we would like them to do.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Amen, brother! Turning globalese. What an apt description of the point I was trying to make. Be curious, explore, and adopt the best practices. Thanks for stopping by, Mr. PIE. Excellent contribution to this discussion.

  8. The Vapor’s song refers to a one-person biological recreation activity that tends to cause one’s eyes to squint in pleasure.

    Eh, I’m trying to follow less of a Tiger Mom philosophy than a well-rounded Scandinavian model, which tends to produce academic success and happy kids. Plenty of play, outdoor time and social interaction while letting my kid pursue her interests (which includes reading). We have expectations for academic success (she’s a bright kid) but worry about fostering a love of learning rather than pressuring for excellence.

      • Mr. Groovy

        Doesn’t Emily have a way with words! She definitely described a tawdry act in an eloquent manner. Thanks for keeping this a family blog, Emily. LOL.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Oh, gosh. I had no idea that song was about that! Not where I wanted to go with this post. But thanks for the info–I think. Anyway, I agree with your point. Poring over math problems has its place. And so does playing and exploring. It’s all about balance. If I had to decide, I think I’d go with the Viking-mom over the Tiger-mom, at least when it comes to education. Thanks for stopping by, Emily. You always help me see things in a different light.

    • I’m with Emily and the Scandinavian Model of life. Balance in all things does not negate the principles of hard work.

      For what it’s worth, that act is also a version of chaste that does not result in becoming a parent without a spouse. Said the lesbian, who adores the line “Mating with blatant disregard for evolution. Lesbians extraordinaire – even before they cut their hair.” (Holly Near’s “Hattie and Mattie”)

      • Mr. Groovy

        “Years before they cut their hair…got some brownies in the oven.” I’m grooving to Hattie and Mattie right now. Thanks for turning me on to Holly Near. And I’m with you and Emily and the Scandinavian Model. “Balance in all things does not negate the principles of hard work.” What an awesome creed to live by.