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Asian American tech worker says in lawsuit that former execs banned Mandarin and made jokes about rice

The former employee, who’s suing the multinational tech company Lumentum for $20 million, also said its executives ridiculed his pronunciation.
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A former Asian American employee is suing the Silicon Valley tech company Lumentum, alleging that a yearslong pattern of racism ended with his termination when he tried to speak out. 

Andre Wong, 52, filed the complaint in the Santa Clara Superior Court on June 30, seeking $20 million in damages. His suit comes amid others by tech workers who say they’re pushing against the “bamboo ceiling,” barriers that have kept Asians from advancing to high-level leadership positions. 

During his two decades at Lumentum, Wong alleges, he saw management ban Mandarin from being spoken informally at the office, and that he was ridiculed for the way he pronounced his R's, and was told speaking up about racism “made white people feel bad.” In an NBC News interview and in his official complaint, he also says that he was passed up for an executive-level position overseeing a technology he created. 

His lawsuit says his termination was a direct result of his speaking out about workplace discrimination against Asian Americans that he had experienced and observed.

“My primary goal is to drive change in the industry,” Wong said. “There are a lot of stories out there that just aren’t being told. There’s a fear of retaliation.” 

Lumentum, a multinational telecommunications equipment company, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Wong, a Canadian-born Asian American, had been working at Lumentum for 22 years before he was fired in December. While he was there, he says, he developed a 3D sensing technology that the lawsuit claims brought $1 billion to the company. 

But Wong says that despite the fact that he pioneered the program, he was denied an executive role overseeing it and was instead subject to a revolving door of white managers.

“These white managers, I had to train and introduce to my industry contacts, and that itself made me feel so frustrated,” he said. “I felt like I was banging my head against the door  thinking, ‘What do I need to do?’”

A 2021 bio on the Lumentum website described Wong as “instrumental in achieving Lumentum’s leadership in 3D Sensing.” But he feels he was never seriously considered for a promotion. Instead, when it came time to hire for the executive role in 2020, two external candidates — a South Asian man and a white woman — were considered for the job.

Andre Wong said laser tech giant Lumentum in San Jose has a bias that hurt him personally and professionally.
Andre Wong said laser tech giant Lumentum in San Jose has a bias that hurt him personally and professionally.NBC Bay Area

“After the interview process concluded, the management told the team that the white female was preferred because she was ‘not like us,’” the complaint said. 

But Wong says this wasn’t the first or most overt incident of discrimination he experienced at the company. 

When he was once preparing for a board meeting at which he had to make a presentation, a white executive ridiculed him about how he pronounced his R's, telling him to enunciate, according to the complaint. Wong said this seriously affected him. 

“He got fixated on my pronunciation of ‘program,’” he said. “That was all he cared about, he didn’t care about the content of my presentation. It completely shook me, I lost my confidence. When I had to give the board meeting shortly thereafter, I couldn’t even think about what I needed to present.”

Management banned Chinese engineers from speaking Mandarin at work around 2015, Wong said. When employees expressed their concerns, they were ignored, he said.  

“At that time, I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “That was just one of many instances.” 

At a general meeting, he said, white managers also joked about whether employees were “steaming rice” at one of the company’s factories in China. 

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the spa shootings in Atlanta, companywide conversations about race led him to connect with Asian American co-workers, he said. He found they all had similar experiences, he said, and he started an Asian employee resource group.

He organized events open to everyone in the company, including one presentation in which he and others shared their personal stories of discrimination, he said. One of the slides also pushed management to hire a proportional number of Asian employees to higher-level positions, according to a copy of the presentation obtained by NBC News. He was later told by upper management the presentation “made white people feel bad,” he said. 

Over the next year, he continued to speak out, the complaint said, and in May 2022 was forced out of his job on the 3D sensing team and reassigned. After seven months in the new role, during which he continued to advocate against what he perceived as a culture of discrimination, he was terminated, the lawsuit said. 

While Wong is front and center in the suit against Lumentum, he says these stories are reflected across the tech industry, cropping up more and more in lawsuits against Silicon Valley companies. If he wins, he said, he plans to donate a significant portion of his winnings to fighting anti-Asian discrimination. 

His attorney, Charles Jung, says he hopes this is the beginning of a movement. 

“Our goal is not just to achieve change in one case, but to achieve change in the industry,” Jung said. “I think what this series of cases reflects is that Asian Americans have had enough with being treated as second class citizens, often seen as technical or competent and suited for the factory floor, but rarely suited for the leadership in any organization.”