I think this quote summarizes my opinion well of Asian Parenting, although I could never be quite this articulate :
I spent time in Korea. The common thread, from Japan to Vietnam is Confucianism. Confucius was a scholar-bureaucrat (mandarin) who lost his job due to political reasons, so he opened a school to train scholar-bureaucrats. An outsider looking in, he could only manifest his philosophy as learning, instead of practice. There’s a lot of good and bad things to be said about his system, and it all depends upon your point of view: but it was designed to create a civilized society in a pre-modern context. In other words, during the agricultural age.
In addition, Confucianism emphasizes conformity: to keep society stable, to ensure that the lessors due as their betters prescribe. The Japanese are credited with the saying “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” But the now famous director, Taiwanese born Ang Lang’s movies, including the Amazing Hulk, Broke Back Moutain, Lust, Caution and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon all involve themes that include a subject who’s inner self is different than the outer life he leads.
As a scholar and a philosopher, not only did Confucious compose a pragmatic system for agricultural (especially rice based) societies, but like another philosopher, Plato, he felt that society should be run by scholars/philosophers based upon merit. Even modern East Asian societies today are thus driven by an exam system. In Korea, on the day that exams are given, businesses alter their work schedules, planes don’t fly over head, all to make sure that students don’t have any problem getting to their exams and aren’t distracted while taking them.
Another aspect about East Asians is that guilt plays a much lower profile, if any, in their make up. Shame however is paramount. The difference between the two? If I do something bad and no one knows about it, I feel guilt, if someone else knows, I feel shame. So if either no one knows I do something wrong, or it is socially acceptable, then no guilt. Additionally, Asians think almost dynastically about family life. When two people come together, its also two families coming together. Often there isn’t much choice. As a result, though it’s often unsaid, there’s a lot of prostitution and infidelity going on but never apparent in many East Asian families. There’s no shame if you don’t get caught, and because of the dynastic concept of the family, a little trist might seem like a trifle in the scheme of things – though many spouses suffer as a result of coldness from their spouse.
In essence, then, for East Asians, your self worth and your family worth, is strictly a function of academic attainment as seen by others and that attainment is mostly exam driven. Academic attainment and conformity have strange affects. I know several Korean doctors who actually would have preferred to have been engineers, but they did too well on their exams and their families wouldn’t let them pursue what was considered a lessor path.
The emphasis on conformity makes it hard to think outside the box. Meaning if you are from inside the system, it’s hard to think outside of it.
This out look is all Amy Chua knows. She doesn’t know how to be another kind of parent. Technically, her parents weren’t Chinese immigrants, they came from the Philippines. But ethnic Chinese in South East Asia have been a market dominant group – and they’ve done so largely by maintaining their distinctive Chinese identification and culture in a foreign land (their market dominance may have something to do with the fact that Chinese came from a land that has a winter [barren growing season] while most of South East Asia has four growing seasons [and in some cases, harvesting is nothing more than stepping out of the house and eating the fruit falling from the trees]- so the concept of stored capital and the virtues of hard work and delayed gratification resonates less with Malays, Indonesians and Filipinos than it did with the thrifty Chinese who settled amongst them). Market dominance by a distinct minority gives that minority great incentive to maintain their cultural distinctiveness – so the idea of pounding a distinct culture into ones offspring, to maintain their market dominance and distinctive edge, is reinforced and enhanced over the generations as a survival strategy. Indeed, the Chinese in these areas exercise cultural chauvinism over their surrounding culture: one can imagine how this chauvinism manifest itself in their child rearing in so many ways that reflect in Chua’s techniques. All of this suggest that most Chinese that immigrate to America are more likely to assimilate or blend with America’s culture than Chua’s family coming from the Philippines with the idea of being distinctly Chinese in a non-Chinese environment. So as a Filipino-Chinese-American, she’s claiming Chinese cultural heritage, while many Chinese Americans look at her methods and think otherwise.
So Chua is distinctively East Asian and Chinese, but it’s with and asterix and it’s with an edge. Pounding the former culture into the offspring in a foreign context was the survival tactic of preceding generations in her back ground. She can’t be blamed for this, this Chinese culture, on steroids, and it is how she and her more immediate ancestors were raised. It is all she knows – she doesn’t know how to be another kind of parent. Furthermore, she’s succeeded to the pinnacle of the East Asian world: teaching at an Ivy League University. She’s enjoyed immense prestige (an also jealousy, no doubt) in East Asian communities that we cannot begin to fathom. But, there is the issue of her children. If she fails to get them to the same level she’ll be on the receiving end of shame: and there, like here, the higher you climb the farther you fall – and many of those very jealous of her success, she may have sensed, are just waiting for her to fail. No doubt she loves her children, but her own self worth is tied up in seeing that they succeed on a scale similar to her own. This mixture I think is what drives her to parenting by hammer and tongs.
While I taught at a University in Korea, I once asked my students to list their three biggest fears, and more than a few said it was their mothers.
I’m not totally displaced from what they were talking about. In high school my mother squeezed me to excel. I made it onto an advanced mathematics program at a private school which tried to get us to gain 6 hours of college credit calculus before graduation – but in trying to cram 5 or 6 years of math into four, things were skipped or not taught enough. The year before we were supposed to take calculus, 20 of us were put in a math class with seniors and an instructor who wasn’t down with the program and wouldn’t bend his curriculum to help us along. The first quarter, the 17 of the top people in my class were all flunking the math class. My mother figured she could just squeeze me into conforming and performing successfully. Try as I might, I couldn’t make the leap because I hadn’t had enough trigonometry and I had no idea what I was missing. Without the right foundation, I was disoriented and completely lost. The pressure grew, and when I couldn’t make the grade, and the squeezing continued, I started punching and kicking holes into the walls of our home and our furniture. At that point she shifted tactics and got me a tutor. But it was too late for me. As we were the best students in our class, the administration forced the teacher to give “gentlemen C’s” to us because, as the best students in a private school, their future was tied to ours. My own dreams of being an architect or an engineer were smashed. I could never take a math class again without freaking out. I was forced to take one semester of it in college and barely got a “c”. I can’t even balance a check book and I have to hire an accountant to do my taxes and wonder how he does it. So I understand some of this method – it doesn’t always work out. I also understand the massively high rate of suicide that exist in East Asia. Sometimes there’s no blood in the turnip.
No doubt – their system is an excellent one for a developing country. There are many many things we will eventually take from them and add to our own society to make ours better. A better understanding of communitarian values is one. But their system of conformity doesn’t produce many geniuses. Shakespeare might have ended up a doctor and Michelangelo an engineer, Jerry Seinfeld a plumber, John Lennon an electrician and Jack Lemmon a vinyl siding salesman under such a system. We are already a developed society. We know that we have to innovate to stay ahead. A system of conformity and rote memorization might get your kid into Harvard, but if he fails at Harvard, he’ll be buying rope at Home Depot to hang himself in his dorm room (seen this happen in Korea). Meanwhile he might have been the best stand up comic that never was.
In my own home town, two parents, who were teachers, had a daughter who got a perfect ACT score. They interviewed them and the mother said, “I just tell them to try lots and lots of different things… you never know what you are going to like.” Teaching students discipline is important. But play and laughter are necessary for creativity and well being and socializing. We don’t think dynastically about family life. In the end if you can do okay and feel okay about yourself, and raise decent children who do and feel the same, then that’s all anyone can ask. Hopefully everyone finds there purpose and enjoys their life. Despite an orientation of high attainment by many of the East Asians I know, including one girl I dated, and ultimately, I found her essence to be banal. All that work and intensity and it all seemed for nothing in a life that was way short of enjoyment. Because she came from inside that system, she couldn’t begin to fathom what I sensed and what ultimately repulsed me.
I understand Amy Chua. I think discipline and structure are important for children. I also think it’s a shame that she didn’t feel free enough to allow her own children to be more free to be whomever it is God had intended, and to be joyful about that. Instead they’ll be Julliard pianist or Ivy league professors or the like. I hope, either way that they will be happy and still manage to live creative lives. All this really says is that Chua, after 2500 years and 7000 miles is still trying to please Confucius, and that she is still stuck in her East Asian culture. I think she got lucky that things didn’t backfire on her children. Still, she deserves congratulations. She also has earned my pity.