Discovering Meaning as an Asian American Tech Worker

Lucas Ou-Yang

September 10th, 2020

It was around December in 2016 and I had left my job at Instagram. After quitting, I relocated from Silicon Valley to LA for a new opportunity at Snapchat, now Snap Inc. Being 23 at the time, getting up and uprooting my life in Silicon Valley was simple. I said goodbye to a few friends, packed my furniture and luggage into a 2016 red Miata convertible, tore the car roof down, turned on some John Mayer, and drove south towards a horizon of opportunities. Snap was a small and pre-ipo firm at the time and it was catching up to Instagram/Facebook in usage and I wanted more autonomy and visibility at a smaller firm. The drive south to LA was windy and cold, and my future job was precarious, but I had feelings of eager intensity and optimism that brought me peace. Kinda like a sailor, on a bright windy morning voyage West across the unmapped Atlantic. Work at the time was great, but I wanted to be a pioneer. To have more autonomy over my work and to receive more individual recognition for the ground that I broke.

I never felt at home in Silicon Valley, where I spent my first two years after college. The Valley encompasses most of America’s most elite tech companies, VCs, engineering colleges, and as expected, it developed into a competitive environment filled with a transient population of techworkers. It seems as if every person I’ve ever met there has just relocated in or is planning on leaving, usually for a job opportunity, I’d never meet locals. The region seems to me to be mostly devoid of a culture, you don’t see music, movies, cuisines, literature, or vibrant scenes of young people. On weekends I’d see focused techies sitting alone with laptops in family tables in many of South Bay’s restaurants, often wearing their logoed company distributed backpacks and hoodies. I lived in a shoddy apartment, thanks to a combination of demand and local housing regulations. Many Silicon Valley residents are consumed by optimizing their careers or wealth, scheming ways of getting promoted or brooding over real-estate. Others earnestly talk about tech whitepapers and new advancements because they really love technology. For the latter, living in the area is kind of like a budding painter moving to Florence during the Renaissance to distinguish themselves. But sometimes I wonder how much of what we read today about Florence during the Renaissance was a facade?

I’ve always had trouble reconciling living in Silicon Valley as an Asian guy. None of the diversity and inclusion initiatives so loudly broadcasted throughout the companies there ever include people who look like me. We are a social underclass despite providing the backbone of the valley’s technical labor force.

I’d routinely see Asian peers, friends, and coworkers get passed up for promotions, spoken over in meetings, and generally dismissed for being devoid of creativity, nuance, or leadership qualities. This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed Asians in America penalized for our poor personalities, recently taking the form of Harvard claiming lower admissions rates for Asian applicants due to scoring lower on the ‘personality’ axis compared to our white and black counterparts.

Being part of a social underclass sometimes has physical consequences. Tech execs scrambled to build a narrative of workplace burnout after a Chinese engineer committed suicide. Since COVID-19, anti-asian violence is at an astronomical all time high, where three out of ten Asians have reported violent racism directed at them. Since the end of February, NextShark, one of America’s largest magazines focused on Asian issues, has received a record number of news tips involving incidents of alleged anti-asian hate crimes. We are being spit-on, yelled at, and attacked.

And what happens when Asian led companies like TikTok and Zoom begin thriving in Silicon Valley? We get accused of being foreign spies and traitors, lobbied to be booted out of the country by the existing establishment. But we just hired another “VP of Diversity”, fuck Trump! We are trying our best, we promise! I feel close to power but not actually powerful.

Living in Silicon Valley as an Asian American male feels like sitting in a flower-filled suburban house with spotless white walls. One of those McMansions in a gated neighborhood, where the edges of the backyard trees look sharp from the constant landscaping. But with one exception, you aren’t allowed to touch anything in the house. You are only allowed to sit there politely without protest, like a prop or an artifact of the house itself.

After arriving in LA for the first time, I felt a change in the atmosphere. The balmy, hyper-real, overexposed beach cities where a disproportionate number of YouTubers, creative people, and content creators hail from; the proud Asian enclaves with k-hiphop blasting on radios, menus exclusively in Chinese, nightclubs and entertainment events created by and catered to younger Asians like myself; the long sunbathed commutes along palm tree lined orange tinged strips of road where I can chill to music and reflect on life.

I met S, at the time my girlfriend, in an Uber on the way to my first day of work. Given that we both lived near the beach in Western LA, we saw each other daily. She’d just moved to LA from Korea for an English studies program so we both bonded over exploring a new city as a team. She and I both had hipster tendencies and we loved Blue Bottle Coffee. During those months, we went to Blue Bottle so often that we ended up meeting the entire staff and manager, I even started baristaing our own drinks there. We had slight language barriers since I’m a 2nd generation Chinese-American but that was quickly overcome. I recall one argument where I had trouble getting through to her the concept of a 2nd generation Asian, how could I be ethnically Chinese but also be a citizen of America? Anyways, who needs a big vocabulary when things are going well?

Lack of a shared language resulted in less friction between S and I. It was an unspoken meeting of the minds, we took advantage of the lack of shared vocabulary to be childish and lighthearted together. We communicated to each other mostly with wildly contrived facial and hand gestures and broken phrases, almost like talking with emojis in real life, more fun. I’d drive to her oceanside condo every night after work in my Miata. She lived with a protective older sister who was an exec at a Korean food company. She didn’t approve of me at first but eventually came around. I recall our hours laughing and screaming on Santa Monica Pier’s ferris wheel at night, with the white stars in tandem with the shimmering orange and yellow lights from 3rd street promenade and Santa Monica Mall. The colors, lights, and sounds all seemed to be laid out perfectly that night. S’s smile always expressed more to me than “I am happy”. While many interracial or cross-border relationships are premised off of dominance or rediscovering one’s origins, S and I had something more innocent.

Snap at the time was pre-IPO and there was a lot of buzz and optimism for potential to make life changing amounts of money. Was the social media landscape on the brink? Many of my co-workers on orientation day were more of the ambitious fast-moving startup types, and if they weren’t, the focused pace of the firm acted as a forcing function on them. Snapchat’s ‘engineering offices’ at the time consisted of a fleet of four-bedroom apartment units right on the beach in Venice. After work on weekdays I’d run up to the third floor balcony and sit cliffside on the ledge, observing the tourists, sunsets, and surfers. There was an unmistakable excitement in the office during the months leading up to the IPO, fueled by the company's equally unmistakable growth. The engineering culture at Snapchat was less than stellar, but nobody really cared. The zenith of Snapchat in my mind was our first (and last?) company all hands where Evan rented out an airplane hangar in Santa Monica and various executives proclaimed how our company was on the verge of redefining most of online communications. I also recall a two month ‘war-room’, where the entire company mobilized to launch a critical set of features under a ruthless timetable to recover a faltering product after relentless attack by Instagram. Evan would drive his red ferrari to our war-rooms to inspire confidence. The company fell into a state of wild-west chaos when growth flatlined and we were put into a war-room state. Disarrayed report chains where entry level engineers would bypass five levels of middle management to directly report to VPs, camaraderie in the form of 9PM dinners and late night drinking in the office, remote offices gaining authority to entirely swallow or lay off rival orgs within the company. Some opportunists rose, others were laid off. Any sense of hierarchy and organization was gone, but there was a strange feeling of invigoration and hope. We often stayed up till midnight in the office: sharing past stories and ambitions for the future.

I’m not interested in writing about the rigor or accuracy of Snap's tech/business strategies or how things turned out for my career or the company, rather I want to focus on my feelings in those days. When looking back, and even knowing how things turned out, I learned something about myself, that I’m attracted to idealistic and hopeful environments where there is a lot to look forward to.

I met Paget Kagy, another 2nd gen Asian American like me, actress and the founder of her own independent TV Series “Kat Loves LA”. I discovered her work on Twitter and was engrossed by her essay detailing the importance of Asian representation in the media. My success with the new city, job, and girlfriend in 2017 emboldened me to extend myself further by getting involved with local creative projects, such as Paget’s. I felt my Silicon Valley quantitative thinking skills and familiarity with building online ecosystems could help the Asian movements I’ve become involved with at the time. Paget and I met one afternoon at a local cafe in mid-2017 in K-town, she was attractive, slightly timid at first, and also somewhat apprehensive about her work and the idea of running an aggressive fundraising campaign for herself. She struggled to find acting roles as an Asian woman, similar to the very character she played in her show. Although I sensed Paget’s genuine support for the Asian online movements, part of me also felt that she was fueling these needy online movements of mostly frustrated younger Asian guys to grow her career. Regardless, I thought she did a great job with season 1 and wanted us to join forces. I suggested aggressive goals/budgets to push marketing media with pro-asian messaging to be more mainstream, and she wanted a high budget to focus on the content quality and more episodes. We aligned and crowdfunded for her show’s season 2 and received over $50,000 in donations. Throughout my relationship with Paget I struggled to get over whether or not she genuinely supported the movement or whether this was just a resume booster for her. Regardless, she has a tremendous talent for jumping into online movements and pushing them forward — as I recently found out one year later she became one of Andrew Yang’s biggest campaign promoters. She and I remain friends and she has great work coming up in her pipeline.

I was able to experience Los Angeles a different wavelength of human interactions that I didn’t get to experience in Silicon Valley. The feeling of hope, love, excitement, and passion from pursuing ideals makes me happier than being complacently comfortable. Wander in hope now rather than risk wandering in despair.

“Have you heard of the illness hysteria siberiana? Try to imagine this: You're a farmer, living all alone on the Siberian tundra. Day after day you plow your fields. As far as the eye can see, nothing. To the north, the horizon, to the east, the horizon, to the south, to the west, more of the same. Every morning, when the sun rises in the east, you go out to work in your fields. When it's directly overhead, you take a break for lunch. When it sinks in the west, you go home to sleep. And then one day, something inside you dies. Day after day you watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something breaks inside you and dies. You toss your plow aside and, your head completely empty of thought, begin walking toward the west. Heading toward a land that lies west of the sun. Like someone, possessed, you walk on, day after day, not eating or drinking, until you collapse on the ground and die. That's hysteria siberiana.”

— Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun

— Lucas Ou-Yang