Blah blah, Tiger Mom, blah blah. After reading the WSJ excerpts, every X/Y generation Asian-American comes forward with their own war stories! Westerners are appalled! It’s old news by now so why do I bring this up now? I admit that I didn’t read the original article till rather recently. I snorted and dismissed it when I saw the title “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”. But then, you know, a rap song came out…and parodies… and memes, so I finally followed a link and read the essay (here you go if you’ve been living under a rock). None of it was shocking, but not because I was raised by a Tiger mom (this phrase is seriously cringe-worthy, btw). My mom always used to tell me that she wasn’t strict, that she pretty much let us do whatever we wanted and that she didn’t pressure us to bring home good grades. When I was a kid I used to roll my eyes whenever she would say this, but in looking back, yeah…I think she was right.
So why did my brother and I seem like near perfect examples of your stereotypical overachiever, Asian kid if we weren’t raised with the same kind of overzealous, extreme parenting style that Amy Chua represents? Here, let’s go down the list:
1. Piano lessons – check! (ok, so neither my brother or I played Carnegie Hall when we were 15, but I did audition for the school band with a cover of Rush’s Subdivisons on keyboards. That has to count for something, right? (btw, that video is a FINE piece of visual social commentary on the mediocrity and conformity of suburban existence. You know, if you can get past Geddy Lee looking straight at you with that hair.)
2. School spelling bee champ – check! (ok, so I didn’t advance on the next round in the Queens Catholic school regionals. I lost to a girl who had a million new wave band buttons on her uniform vest. I’m telling you, I was distracted by all those faces of Martin Gore and John Taylor looking back at me).
3. Valedictorian in Junior High School – check!
4. Top 5% in my high school class – check! (our high school used to post our academic rankings for each grade in the hallway of our school, all the way from #750 in last place to #1. Great for self esteem! Seriously, what was the point of making that public only to humiliate the bottom 5% and make the top 5% feel smug?)
5. Full scholarships to art schools – check! (ooooh, wait. back up! Asian kids aren’t allowed to study art for reals as careers, only as hobbies…or are they?)
My brother had more of a math oriented route in his adolescent academic career. He was the kid who got near perfect scores on his Math SATs and who got into the most competitive high school in NYC where 50% of the student body is Asian (I’m not even making that statistic up).
So I tell you all this because we were pretty stereotypical Asian-American kids. Aside from the academic stuff, we never dated in high school, never rebelled or disobeyed our parents, but according to my mom, it’s not because my parents were super strict and hard core. Sure, they made us go to Saturday test preps courses for 3 years, both for high school entrance exams and the SATs – pretty much every Asian kid did, but from my honest recollection, I’d have to agree with her. And yet both my brother and I were really hard on ourselves. I can’t totally speak for him, but I don’t think either of us would have settled on less than being “the best”. I was a competitive, type A all the way student who would dwell for days on the rare event that I got an A minus or slipped a mistake on a piano recital.
So where does this come from if it doesn’t come directly from our parents? I don’t recall it being touched upon in any of the discussions I read that followed the Tiger Mom crap, but I think there is this whole other universally larger, culturally and genetically ingrained Tiger “gene”. I think it’s 1 part fear of being seen as a cultural failure – you know, that 1 aberrant Asian kid who gets bad grades in school, 1 part fear of disappointing our parents, and 1 part peer pressure from all these stereotypes. We’re Asian. We’re expected to get good grades and play the piano because everyone tells us so. The media tells us, our family tells us, every Asian kid getting into Harvard tells us. And so even if my parents didn’t adopt the Amy Chua style of extreme Asian parenting, the undercurrent of all that it represented was there. My brother and I just happened to be the ones to discipline ourselves into more practicing and more studying. I guess the key thing here is that we *didn’t* want to find out what would happen if we brought home bad grades. Even if my parents weren’t the ones to strictly enforce it, the pressure to excel was still there.
Even with all that internal pressure that my brother and I put upon ourselves, I commend my parents for recognizing certain signs and not pushing us in directions that would have otherwise been too much. My brother went to a state university, albeit a very good one, and it was a conscious decision on my parents’ part to not push him into going to an Ivy League college even though he had the grades to make it. I think we all recognized that the pressure might just be too much given how so intensely hard he was on himself and that he would fare better in a smaller, SUNY school. Later on, when he was more mature, he did apply to all the top Med and Vet schools and attend an Ivy league University, but he was ready.
On my side of the story, my parents were always very supportive of my choice to study art, but I did what most Asian parents would consider the cardinal sin of Asian-ness: drop out of school. It took me 3 years to do it and the only reason why I stuck around for so long was because I was afraid of my parents’ reaction. When I did tell them over the phone that day in April, right before the finish of my 3rd year at Cooper, they were relatively calm. They told me to come home in a few days to discuss it. (Oh, and I also told them I was leaving NY as well to go “traveling”. Shazaam! Double doozy!). My parents sat me down at the kitchen table and my dad, who remained calm after avoiding me for a day while I was home, just made me promise that I would go back to school and finish my degree. I’ll still remember the day my dad and I had that talk. I’ll also never forget the day that I left NY and into the unknown for the 8 months of traveling I did before I went back to school. I went to say goodbye to him at his wig store in Midtown. He had tears in his eyes. I hadn’t ever intended to go back to school prior to that point, but at that moment, I decided that I would, and I did, and even got a graduate degree later on. I honestly can’t say that my dad really contributed to our parenting, but he was definitely of the school that you disciplined your kids through fear. The fact that he didn’t beat my ass when I dropped out of school spoke volumes, and this is why I went back.
All of these experiences shape you as a parent. There are things you vow to do differently and there are things that you admire your parents for and want to adopt. I’m definitely not a Tiger mom, but my mom does seem to think that I’m a little more strict with the girls than she was with us. To be honest, I’m sort of surprised at how mellow I am on the parenting front – I’m not rushing to get my kids tested at age 5 to see if they qualify for the Gifted & Talented schools, for example. I barely batted an eye over that one, but it remains to be seen whether or not I’ll continue the Asian-American tradition of enrolling my kids into multiple years of SAT test preps (just kidding, girls. ok, maybe just 1 year). I’m not even stressing yet over the fact that Mia seems to have a lackadaisical attitude about homework (she hates it) and wants to throw in the towel too fast when something’s too hard. Tiger mom would have already dished her a verbal beat down. What I’m taking away from my own upbringing is that it’s okay to gently nudge, to set expectations high, but ultimately let the kids lead their own way, with guidance. I can even argue that Mark had a completely different upbringing and childhood than I did, but in the end, we kind of ended up in the same place as adults. Even if I did have a few years of “crazy” behavior after high school, which I’m sure my mom would rather prefer not to remember, I ended up ok. My kids will too.
I’ll end this super long post now, but I do want to leave you with one quote from Betty Liu, a Journalism Professor at NYU, who recommends reading the memoir of Zappos’ founder over Tiger Mom’s:
“…there’s a dirty little secret about these lunatic, prestige-whoring Chinese parents that Chua represents. For all their lusting after the elitism of Ivy League degrees, what they admire more than anything is financial success.”.
Oh lawd, I never laughed so hard…because truer words have never been spoken. Look, Tiger Mom isn’t stupid. Defensive back-pedaling or not, that article made news, BIG news and the book is selling like gangbusters. Tiger Mom is laughing all the way to the bank.