On “Modesty” and “Mediocrity”

February, 2023
W. Song, Blog Correspondent
W. Song is a student of literature with a love for both 19th century English novels and classical Chinese poetry. In writing about Chinese ideas from the Western perspective and vice versa, she wishes to be a voice for the East in today’s predominantly Eurocentric literary and social discussions and promote cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.

The model minority myth, or, “Asian stereotypes”—they are usually something along the lines of strict parents and “good at x,” where x may be any possible subject you can think of. As someone with an Asian background, I can attest that we sure do get a good laugh out of them—the former stereotype because it is pretty accurate, the latter because it is most certainly not, at least according to the aforementioned parents, 

…and consequently, ourselves.

The stereotypical Asian parent is infamous for setting high expectations, be it for their child or for themselves. While this concept, being a stereotype, is not strictly true for everyone, it is a reality for myself and many of my Asian friends. In our case, whenever our parents’ expectations are reached, they set them higher. They always want to strive for more. With such a fanatic love for absolute excellence—if that even exists—you may be surprised by how reluctant they are when it comes to sharing their achievements with others.

I grew up in a Chinese family, and in this respect, had a pretty standard “Asian upbringing.” I was always taught modesty and humility, and how it’s almost etiquette for me to say something self-deprecating whenever I hear any form of praise. If I didn’t deflect the praise, my mother would do it for me.

“Your English is pretty good!”
“Thank y-”
“Well, that’s only expected for someone growing up here. She’d better not forget Chinese and end up only speaking broken English.”

“You play piano so well!”
“I just really enjoy it…”
“Enjoy it? No no no, it’s so difficult to get her to practice. She can only fool you because you don’t play. She’s not even playing repertoire, so there’s no difficulty in that at all.”

“I love your art!”

I catch my mother’s glance.

“Oh it’s only because I was using it to procrastinate, and I spent an outrageous amount of time doing it when I really should have been doing schoolwork…”

And from the corner of my eye, I see her brief expression of approval. 

Naturally, as children, we want to share our successes and our most prized possessions, but our parents have always restrained us from doing so. There is a famous proverb, that says:

木秀于林,风必摧之。(mù xiù yú lín, fēng bì cuī zhī.)
“If a tree is much taller than the rest of the forest, the wind will blow it down.”

This is a quotation from a text written in the Three Kingdoms period (circa 220-280 CE) of the Han Dynasty by Li Kang, a literati of the time, in his book Of Fate (运命论, yùn mìng lùn). The original was:

“Therefore, if a tree is much taller than the rest of the forest, the wind will blow it down. If a mound protrudes from the shore, the water will corrode it. If you act superior to others, you will become the next target.”

This seems to be a case not only for conformity, but for a sort of mediocrity. Asian parents such as my own, however, will never accept mediocrity, so, in an attempt to achieve both excellence and modesty, they settle for their own definition of “mediocrity.” That is, constant self-deprecation in the name of modesty or humility—an attempt to feign mediocrity. “It’s good manners to deflect praise,” they said, “and modesty is a virtue.” 

“Besides, those who commend you are only doing it out of good manners, too.”

And thus, Asian children have been introduced to the coquetries of the adult world from such a young age. This social norm—if I may call it one—is so absurd, so unnatural that it sounds like a satire in itself, and learning it came with many difficulties. Many of us have been hurt by our parents’ deprecation of our accomplishments in front of our entire families during at least one Chinese New Year dinner. After the unhappy meal, when we express our feelings in private, they always tell us that while we should be happy to have these accomplishments, they are nothing to flaunt. It’s the “you-should-strive-for-more” mentality and the pursuit of “mediocrity” combined. On paper, this ever-pursued concept of modesty (or perhaps “modesty”) serves to remind ourselves not to become cocky and to make others feel better about themselves. When executed, however, it proves quite problematic. 

One of the more technical issues is our ongoing inability to give ourselves credit. While modesty can be a type of good manners in daily conversation, it certainly does not help when we are called on to prove our skill and accomplishments. After eighteen years of being almost conditioned into self-deprecation, resumes, personal statements, and interviews became my greatest fear. They say that “If you’ve done it, it ain’t bragging,” but to us, any revelation about our true accomplishments became utterly unbearable. It’s a part of us that we have always covered up for the sake of modesty, and revealing it felt almost as humiliating as if we were asked to undress ourselves in front of our interviewer. We reply to these questions with great difficulty, torn between “mediocrity” and excellence, with an unassailable tendency for one and an equally strong desire for the other.

Over time, these ideas of feigned mediocrity and forced humility also create the archetype of the toxic Asian fraud. Interestingly, we usually associate “fraud” with someone who pretends to be better than they are. The Asian fraud does the opposite: they pretend to be lazy, to give up, to be mediocre, but secretly work as hard as they possibly can. Upon being asked about their successes, however, they would say, “I don’t know, I was so worried about it too, but I guess I got lucky” or “I’m not sure how it happened; I didn’t prepare at all, I was expecting to fail!” Their ultimate goal is to coax everyone else to believe that effort does not contribute to success, to prevent having to share their resources with others. Even if their secret is discovered, they cannot be condemned. 

They were just being “modest,” after all. 

Isn’t modesty a virtue?

The good news is that this issue is slowly becoming recognised. Our generation is learning to become more confident, to take credit where credit is due, and a Chinese internet term has even been coined for those Asian frauds: “fán ěr sài.” The term, in Chinese, means “Versailles,” alluding to the French aristocracy and relating it to the act of showing off. To be sure, it has very negative connotations, unlike “modesty.”

It is time for a new era. Asians parents don’t have to deprecate their children. We don’t have to learn to hide our strengths as if they were our greatest weaknesses. The Asian fraud, hiding greed and malice underneath an illusion of modesty, should be condemned. Why is modesty a virtue and lying a vice, when both serve to conceal the truth? In ancient times, the Chinese learned that modesty is a form of kindness. In modern times, we learn that it can also be a form of toxicity. 

“If a tree is much taller than the rest of the forest, the wind will blow it down” is a quote from the first century. The Chinese greatly value tradition, but maybe it is time to abandon the approximately 1700-year-old concepts of “modesty” and “mediocrity” for something new.

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