Phoebe Eng: full-blooded warrior

Phoebe Eng’s book Warrior Lessons: An Asian American Woman’s Journey Into Power is required reading for anyone interested in Asian-American identity and the empowerment of Asian-American women. In this book, Eng urges readers to break the stereotypes that are traditionally placed on Asian women and perpetuated by popular culture. She does this by sharing her own life experiences as an example, along with those of many other Asian American women.Before writing Warrior Lessons, Eng interviewed hundreds of women from numerous backgrounds. Despite their diverse backgrounds, all shared a common interest in the relationship between family, honor, and respect.

Eng’s own rise to power and self-awareness is quite remarkable in itself. She was born in Brooklyn during the Chinese year of the Tiger, a year which is said to “yield girls who grow up to be trouble.” As a teenager on Long Island, her family was dubbed the “Engsteins” by her Jewish girlfriends, which she thought was a great honor and proof that her family had fully assimilated and was accepted as American. Looking back on this, she calls the “power of fitting in” a myth and argues that it is merely a coping mechanism that strips our Asian heritage away.

While a college student at Berkeley, she wanted to major in English literature, but her mother forced her “to study business or engineering or something useful.” She took the smallest number of courses necessary to fulfill the business major while loading up on English classes, which forced her to work twice as hard as everyone else.

Attending a school with a large Asian-American population, Eng made it a point to avoid other Asians, since she felt a sense of importance by being the “only Asian face in a crowd.” In retrospect, she realizes that the power she felt from this was also a myth and that “purposefully avoiding one another seems unnatural.”

The most captivating chapter in her book deals with assertiveness, as Eng describes an incident at a prestigious international law firm that proved to be the turning point of her life. Her boss was screaming at her for not three-hole punching a one-page document and not signing it in blue ink. Sick of being used as “a very highly paid secretary” and abandoning her mother’s “save the job” mentality, she snapped back at him and quit her job.

Eng went on to pursue her own interests and became the first publisher of A. Magazine, the first national magazine for Asian-Americans. Although her parents initially balked at the notion of her leaving a successful career to work for a startup magazine that provided little pay or job security, they gave her their full support. Eng is now an award-winning activist, attorney and director of The Different Mirror Project, a strategy group that has advised the United States Department of Justice and the Ford Foundation, among others.

As a young man, I felt awkward reading Warrior Lessons at first because I thought its advice would be irrelevant to me. However, it has provided me with much insight on how to deal with my parents’ expectations and how to become less passive and complacent. The lessons presented in Phoebe Eng’s book are largely universal, so nearly everyone can gain something from reading it.