Careers

Is the 'art of passing' necessary for a Chinese American to survive in corporate law?


Chinese-American lawyer Helen Wan says she learned early on that “it was incredibly important to perfect the art of passing” while practicing corporate law.

Passing, Wan explains in the Daily Beast, means downplaying or ridding oneself of “minority group” traits to fit in with mainstream corporate culture.

Wan says a law school incident provided a preview of how others may view her. At a law school orientation, she told another student that she had been born in California and raised in Virginia. The student asked Wan if she planned to practice law in her “home country” after graduation. “Yes,” Wan replied. “I plan to practice in New York.”

Wan tells of other incidents. There was the time at a recruiting lunch when a summer associate, a minority woman, asked for a bottle of A.1. steak sauce rather than the restaurant’s famous béarnaise sauce. “I observed the quick but meaningful glance exchanged between two hiring partners,” Wan says.

Another time, Wan was taking the subway to an event with colleagues. At one stop, a middle-aged Chinese woman pushed her way onto the train and sat next to a lawyer from Wan’s Manhattan law firm. The woman was carrying a bag from Chinatown and it had an unusual odor. “I noticed the lawyer from my firm scoot a few inches away from this woman,” Chan recalls, “and briefly smirk at two of our colleagues, who smiled back. My stomach tensed.”

When the woman asked Wan for directions in Chinese, Wan replied that she didn’t speak the language. It wasn’t true. “At the time, I was a very young attorney,” Wan writes. “I didn’t yet feel that my position at the firm was so secure that I could afford to be associated with this woman any more than I already was. I was passing, and she was not.

“Which makes me wonder whether, in order to advance my career, my 25-year-old self might have made the same decision that a young Julie Chen did,” Wan writes. Chen is the CBS anchor who recently revealed that she got plastic surgery to look less “Asian.”

Wan is currently associate general counsel at Time Inc. and author of a novel called The Partner Track, set for release on Tuesday.

“I do not mean to say that life as a young woman of color at a large corporate law firm felt like just one Big Marathon of Blatant Racist and Sexist Slights,” Wan says. “The experience is, of course, far more nuanced and subtle than that, and often more insidious and harder to battle, for its very sublety.” She also tells of changes since she began law practice.

“Now,” Wan says, “whenever HR directors and Chief Diversity Officers are lucky enough to find an attractive, articulate minority woman in their midst, who’s neither too strident nor too soft-spoken, who speaks English without accent or attitude, who makes friends easily and photographs well—they actually want to flag this, instead of hide it. … Being singled out for looking different is bad enough, but now there’s the added burden of unsolicited responsibility, of having constituents when you haven’t run for office.”

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