Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran a story about “work twins,” people in a workplace who were often mistaken for colleagues of similar ethnicity.
Despite the fun moniker, the work twins reported mostly negative experiences, where they were seen less as individuals and more as types. Furthermore, when their concerns were raised to their non-ethnic co-workers — in ways ranging from humorous to straightforward — they were largely shut down or ignored.
No one, the respondents said, seemed willing to confront an inability to differentiate their ethnic colleagues beyond a few visual cues, like skin and hair color or the shape of their eyes.
There was a lot of discomfort in the story, not just for the workers but for me, as well. I knew after I read it that it was going to take some time to process what it meant to me.
After all, as a person who’s spent most of his professional life as the only Asian in the office, I never went through what these folks in big metropolitan areas did.
While I’m sure that my ethnicity made me easier to identify when scanning the newsroom, I never felt like I was only regarded as Philip, the Asian Guy.
I was Design Guy. I was Headline Guy. Now I’m Calendar Guy. (Long story.)
The subjects in the article perceived themselves as interchangeable in the eyes of their non-ethnic colleagues. They felt they were not recognized as persons on a team the same way the rest of their co-workers were.
One of the respondents, Nicholas, a Filipino, couldn’t go two weeks without being mistaken for his cubicle-mate, Jonathan, a public relations staffer of Vietnamese and Chinese descent. He even got internal P.R.-related emails meant for Jonathan, despite his working for a different department.
“It kind of makes you feel invisible, because they don’t know who you are even though you are putting in this hard work,” he said.
While not everyone wants to be the center of attention, people, at the very least, probably want to be valued for who they are. While I have no desire to be the only thing that matters, I’m pretty sure that I want to at least matter.
Funny thing is, I remember when I was younger and wanted to melt into the crowd in a coastal city with a large Asian population. I wished to be in a place where I wouldn’t stand out and where I could be anonymous.
I felt a kind of burden of expectation out here in urban Appalachia, where people just assumed that I was a physician — or was going to be one.
(Many of us first-generation kids can relate to varying degrees of pressure from our immigrant parents who made homes and livings here providing health care in our underserved state. I’m pretty sure my father hoped I’d follow in his footsteps in a profession that was not only noble but which he believed promised full employment regardless of the economy or social climate. It was a practical and safe choice.)
But to me, being in a big city, where no one would know if I was an accountant or in advertising or worked for the postal service, would mean I’d be on even footing with the rest of the populace — a young professional in a sea of young professionals looking to make my mark.
The lives of the workers in The Post story revealed what could have awaited me instead. I’d be in a sea, but a man-made one, pooled only with the swimmers who looked something like me.
Sure, over here, in my home among the hills, I am unique. But I’d like to think it’s my own personality, skill set and experience that set me apart, not just my ethnicity.
In their desire to be seen not as outsiders but as individuals working toward the common goals of their companies, those work twins are just looking for the same chance.