Modesty is Not the Best Policy

I’ve lived in America for more than 20 years now and I still have trouble answering questions like “Are you a good cook?” “Are you a good tennis player?” “Are you a good pianist?” etc etc, etc.

Every time someone asks me if I’m good at something, I still have this sort of culturally ingrained aversion to acknowledging that I’m “good.”

Why? Well…I was raised in a modern Hong Kong with traditional Chinese values. Chinese culture values many virtues – one of them – especially for women – is modesty. We shouldn’t brag about ourselves.

So every time I hear those kinds of questions “Are you good at this or that? I would answer in natural reflex something like – “I won’t say I’m good, I just love it!”

But that’s my personal self. Once I’m in a workplace, my approach is completely different – it’s totally American. I’d answer a direct question with a direct answer. I’d speak up, I’d cut in, I’d assert myself whenever the time is right. The American culture encourages and expects individual expression of confidence and competence, and I compete and work with some of the most driven and talented professionals in one of the toughest industries in one of the toughest cities on earth – TV media in New York. Especially in New York, a city that rewards assertiveness and an “attitude,” I decided long ago – that the classic Chinese value or virtue of modesty is not the best policy.

A recent case in point – this one is not about me, but about another Chinese woman named Xian from Harbin, China. She’s my new intern who just graduated from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York. She’d previously attended Boston College and Purdue University. She confided in me many difficult challenges she faced with the American style of self-assertiveness, and especially in New York.

“Yes, New York is tough. Everyone is really aggressive in projecting themselves.” Xian sighed.

Xian recalled an incident at the J-school at Columbia, where her story pitch was stolen by another student in class.  That American student had the guts to publicly sell Xian’s idea in the classroom and immediately won the professor’s approval to assign her as the chief reporter on it. Xian was shocked, but said she didn’t want to speak up at that time, decided to wait till after class to speak to the professor – “the authority.” Unfortunately, the professor told her it’s too late, saying “Why didn’t you speak up right then and there, Xian?” Xian was stumped and speechless.

When I heard that story, I said to Xian – “Xian, I get you.”

Xian replied in English “Right? Mable – you get this. I didn’t want to call attention to myself, to make that student “look bad.” And she also blurted out in Chinese (人怕出名,猪怕壮) – which means “People are afraid of becoming famous, Pigs are afraid of becoming fat.”

We both burst out laughing. We understand the meaning of this idiom which is embedded in the Chinese cultural psyche, and that comes out in our individual expression.

Do you get it?

Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is