who needs Tiger Mom when you have stereotypes to fulfill?

February 10, 2011 |  Category:   family favorite posts parenting rambling remembering

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 how the article was titled: “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? (ok, maybe not.)

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! (I totally tripped, btw, as I was going up the stairs to make my speech, and that’s pretty much the only thing I remember about that day.)

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! I remember my class rank and it was #23. Seriously, what was the point of making that public only to humiliate the bottom 5% and make the top 5% feel smug? Appalling!)

5. Full scholarships to 2 NYC 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? But maybe they accepted that because my brother had more of a math oriented route in his adolescent academic career and they had hopes that HE would become the doctor in the family. He was the kid who got perfect scores on his Math SATs and who got into the most competitive academic high school in NYC where 60% of the student body is Asian. Me and math? Not so much.

So I tell you all this to show that my brother and I were your typical 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, just like every other Asian kid in the city. 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 occasion 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 following all 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, 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, and 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 on 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 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 one day in April, right before the end 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, 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 much 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 my kid seems to have a lackadaisical attitude about homework 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.

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.

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  • ChantaleP February 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    I must admit, I checked this post out after seeing 70’s photos.. lol. That is really the crux of it all isn’t it? Not parents beating us up on being the best.. only my uncle did that to me.. But the fear of not living up to those stereotypes. That last quote is so true, but only for the parents of their successful kids. I don’t know how many of my friends are wealthy yet so incredibly unhappy.. but they are.

  • Kris February 10, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    From all your posts about Claudine it sounds like she got the tiger gene. She’s pretty intense, and I mean that in a charmed and impressed way.

    Great quote at the end.

  • sally February 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    I love this post, Jenna! Now that my boys are school-age I reflect a lot about how I was raised and how I want to raise my boys. I never felt pushed by my parents academically, but I knew how important it was to do well in school. When it came to piano + violin lessons my mother definitely pushed me because I hated practicing and wanted to quit but looking back I’m grateful that she made me stick with it!

    And I can’t get enough of your family photographs. They are priceless!!

  • Jane February 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Your mother was such a beauty, my goodness!

    As a student in an all-girls Catholic university prep school, I heard all-too many sad stories of girls being pushed (literally and figuratively) into “respectable” and lucrative careers they had absolutely no talent or desire for. It doesn’t matter if a doctor makes a huge salary, if you can’t handle math or would rather be teaching kindergarten, you’re not going to make it into med school or be a successful doctor. My parents didn’t give a damn what I became – my dad always said as long as I could support myself in a manner that made me happy, he would be proud of me whether I was a doctor or a Wallmart greeter. For kids who were used to being called failures by their own parents, who were never told that they had ever done anything right in their lives, who had their lives micromanaged down to the minute, my parents were a revelation. They certainly weren’t hippies or neglectful, but they let me make my own choices, they trusted me to make decisions and supported me in my choices. And you know what? I still graduated top of the class and went to university on full scholarship. And some my high school “adopted sisters” still drop by to visit my parents :)

  • Justine February 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Another great post, Jenna. And the pictures are priceless. Your mom rocks a sixties hair-do, which IS saying something.

    Like all your posts, it got me thinking. I actually had the opposite upbringing of “Tiger-Mom.” (Yes, I’m already sick of that term too). I had hippy parents. And like your’s they weren’t the stereotype: all sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. They were just a little more casual and care-free, than say, I am now. I actually wish they had pushed me harder and made me take more lessons! I am definitely more strict and active with my children than my folks were, making the kids take infant music lessons and practice the alphabet as 2-yr-olds. Again I’m not the crazy stereotype of helicopter mom, I’m just more involved. It seems to me that with this generation of parents, Asians and Westerners might be becoming more similar. And that might be good for both parties. Although I’m sure we all still have our issues… And I’m equally sure that whatever those issue are, we and our children will write long essays about it ;).

  • tamera jane February 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Hm! I did all the things except piano (clarinet instead, including band trips, good god) in your 1-5 and my parents are 1. mostly white, though my dad is part Mongolian but I don’t think that counts. 2. completely disinterested in my education to the point of not caring if I went to school or not, and actually encouraging me to skip often. We didn’t have an attendance policy. I was still head of my class and picked by Dartmouth to attend – they selected 2 kids from local schools every year, I didn’t go because I wanted to leave the area.

    So, the other thing that works, moms, is putting your kids in a situation they want to get the hell out of.

    Anyway. Your parents are TOTALLY GLAM, and I keep getting distracted by how cute they are!

  • Em February 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    What a wonderful post. Really interesting and like you, I feel somewhat liberal, somewhat tough. But hopefully not too neurotic!

    The photos are gorgeous and I have to say that I would wear the entire outfit your mum is wearing (red coat, camel pants and red clutch)!

  • R February 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Dear Jenna – I’ve been a quiet stalker of your blog for quite some time, and now I come out :) Thanks for shedding an unexpected light on the oh-so-thrilling tiger mom phenomenon. I’ve never thought about the peer/cultural pressure side of the Asian stereotype, and you’re right. My Jewish mother-in-law is obsessed, and as a Korean who was raised in S. Korea, I am thoroughly amused and annoyed. If good half or 2/3 of my classmates (in Korea) had tiger moms, why would their test score distribution show a beautiful bell curve, instead of top heavy skew? I hope the followers of tiger mom theory realize that the kid matters, as much as the mom does. (I suppose the immigrants are a self-selecting group of people, which could have a different results than the general population…)

  • Emma February 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Can I just say I love those photos and your mum’s style!

  • mrs.B February 10, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Is it me or would it seem that kids raised in this regard (“tiger mom”) would be the ultimate people pleaser? Which; somewhere down the road will come to bite you in the health and mental department.
    I’m also curious that if university is expected and scholarships are not received does the average Asian family pay for their child to attend or is the young adult expected to acquire student loans incurring debt only to please their parents?
    Growing up in the heart of the midwest our town never had many Asian families (I was 20 when I ate at my first chinese restaurant!) and where I live now is also a very “white bread” sort of community. It’s eye opening to peek “behind closed doors” of a different culture and see how things are done and what is expected.
    *I was one of those under a rock that had not read the article so please not that most of this comment is aimed at the WSJ writer.

  • kaci February 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    I think everyone should read this: http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/newsfeatures/momstuff/article/922264–tiger-mom-says-her-tale-misunderstood

    Isn’t it stupid how WSJ chose that title for the article? I’m guessing so it can catch more readers.

    And honestly, everyone admires financial success; doesn’t matter what ethnic background you come from. How we showcase our desire for financial success is another matter, but, again, it is not due to our ethnic background. Maybe our SES…

  • Kitty February 10, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    It is so true how a lot of Asian kids are told to keep any creative/artistic talents as a hobby + pick something else as a career. I’m so glad I didn’t listen.

    I love your mum’s clothes!!

  • Jasmine February 10, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    Fascinating post. My parents, I suppose, are atypical Asian parents for letting their daughter attend fashion school after wasting a year as an Econ major at a top public university, but what you’re saying here rings true— they set high expectations but allowed me to do what I enjoy, while still maintaining a steady hand of parental guidance and love. As a result, I’ve found that I have never felt forced in any particular direction, and I have always made my parents an active participant in all my major life decisions.

  • cocopuff1212 February 11, 2011 at 4:20 am

    Thank you for writing this post. Someone brought up the tiger-mom topic the other day, and although I had promised myself (after reading the original WSJ article) not to discuss this topic with anyone, I couldn’t stop talking once I started.

    I think the biggest issue I have is not how strict she has been to their children, but the fact that what mattered to her was the end result and the end result only. Be a tiger mom and raise your kids, you will have academically (translated: eventually financially) successful young adults at age 21 who will have had no childhood.

    By the way, I love the photos. Your mom is a beautiful lady, and your dad is quite handsome!

  • clara February 11, 2011 at 8:37 am

    i really enjoyed reading your post. i read the article before and felt disgusted.
    i wrote about you on my blog maybe have a look :)

  • Jenna February 11, 2011 at 8:46 am

    @MrsB regarding the university thing, my parents paid for my me and my brother’s college education. This is how it usually works with Asian families. I know that we are extremely lucky and to be honest, I sensed a bit of resentment about this from a few of my college friends who paid their way through college (and many of my asian friends have said the same thing), but the only thing I can say about that, is that this is culturally the way it’s done. College is paid for by the parents – there’s never any discussion about it. Of course, grad school is a different story and both my brother and I ended up with huge debts anyway, haha! But we paid it off, painfully, yay!

  • Jenna February 11, 2011 at 8:46 am

    @clara – thanks for the mention! One correction, I am Korean American, not Chinese American.

  • Lakshmi February 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I think Indian parents fall into a similar category. I am not a parent yet but I think I can say just this – if you can raise your child to be a truly happy individual, then you have done a fabulous job as a parent.

    Lovely pictures, by the way! Thanks for sharing, Jenna.

  • Ines February 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I grew up in the 70’s too. I so relate to the pictures. There are beautiful.

    I have also thought lots about the so called tiger mom issue. My mom reacted by agreeing with every single demand of Amy Chua (not surprisingly, although I am Mexican).

    Then, I read Karen’s post

    I think you will like it too.

  • Christie February 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    WORD, Betty Liu. She’s absolutely right.

    Thank you for sharing these delightful pictures of you and your family with us, Jenna.

    As always, this blog entry is very thought provoking. I’m Chinese American and even though my mom was not the Tiger mom that Amy Chua describes, like you, the one thing that drove me to be a good student was NOT disappointing her. She only reprimanded me once in third grade for failing math and that was all I needed to stay on track. She was a single mom and I did not want to add to her stress, so I did the best I could in school (besides I was smart enough to know that if I brought home good grades, I could have almost anything that I wanted. Why wouldn’t I get As and Bs?)

    As an adult, she tried steering me towards the corporate world for security and safety reasons, but when that didn’t work and she knew that I was unhappy, she supported my decision to go back to school. I will always be grateful for this – that she didn’t reprimand me for being an artist for doing something that I loved as opposed to what I “should” be doing with my life.

  • Lani February 11, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Interesting Jenna…good to hear another perspective.

  • Esther February 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Agree, Agree and Agree.
    My parents are Korean and I am Korean / Aus…
    My mom is the ‘Tiger Mum’ AKA the ultimate Azuma.
    I grew up half of my life in Korea and half in Australia.
    And both countries are very different with education.
    When I was in Korea, school is not important. More important thing is after school tutoring. Tutor after tutor. I did every tutoring except Art. Visual Art tutoring was NO. Big NO. It’s either Math, Science, Language and Korean. When I immigrated to Australia, no more tutor after school which made me so happy.
    But somehow mum found Math and English tutor. I did until I had enough. I studied Art and went opposite way. We fought EVERYDAY for 2 years(Yr.11 and 12).
    My Art teacher actually convinced her, about Art as career. Well I’m not sure about other Asian mothers but my mum gets very soft with teachers. They are like.. god to her. In the end, I got into high recognised design school and she took it in very slowly. HOWEVER, mum still gets very on top of education.
    My dad is very understanding. He just told me to do something that you like to do but don’t blame others of what you’ve choose to be. No bad stuff and no suicide.
    It’s so true about quote from Betty Liu.
    I read it as Success = Money…
    To me its bit sad.. Education is must but forcing and pushing to the edge, not asking what child want is wrong. They think too. For now, I think…Parents are guides. But not sure when I get marry and have a children, I would understand mum. I think all the parents have same thoughts. They want their children to be successful and have happy life.

  • Cadie February 11, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    I was reading your post and it made me think of my own upbringing. I was adopted from South Korea at 5 months old and I grew up with “American” parents. My parents, though they encouraged my brother and I to do our best in school always gave us a lot of freedom. However, I too was one of those type A kids who obsessed over grades and not making mistakes. I was an overachiever playing two varsity sports and joining all sorts of clubs. It’s funny to compare myself to the asian stereotypes because I fit into a lot them despite not being raised by asian parents.

  • DL February 12, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Thanks for sharing that part about the visit to your dad’s store right before you left for the unknown. I went through a similar experience when i dropped out.

    So I go to the library last week and they were all out of Tiger Mom. I picked up ‘The Idle Parent’ by Tom Hodgkinson instead.

  • Linnea February 12, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Well, you have to learn, everything from flossing ot math, and your parents are the ones teaching a lot of the time. After working in the arts for years, an interesting job with financial stability never looked so good.

  • Dee February 12, 2011 at 11:23 am

    greetings from Singapore!

    i disagree with tiger moms. well, at least my mom’s not like that. on the contrary, i was allowed to do those things that amy chua didn’t allow her daughters to do. however, even though my parents do not put pressure on me to perform in school, i knew that i have to do well. everyone always emphasize on the importance of excelling in school. if you are academically inclined, you have already carved your future cause good academic results can get you anywhere (well, kinda). and other than doing well in our academics, we have to excel in other areas to prove that we are not ‘all work and no play’. i guess that’s why Chinese kids are also musically inclined. if everyone is doing so well in their academics, we have to have an edge on the ‘competition’ in other areas. it’s like writing a resume. you would want to impress the interviewer. your fellow interviewees have the same qualifications so the only other way to impress is through your other achievements. i guess it’s the culture, this is how it works.

    anyway, i love reading your posts jenna! your photographs are awesome too! < :

    – Dee, 17

  • EmmaC February 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing your story! For what it’s worth, I grew up white, middle-class, and Midwestern, and I also put LOADS of pressure on myself to do perfectly at everything and succeed at all costs. My parents weren’t disciplinarians or even particularly strict with us, but I can also definitely see how their parenting styles (and individual personalities) shaped this in me. Then again, I’m pretty happy with where I am and who I am now, so maybe it’s all for the best?

  • Chickything February 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    I can totally relate to all things that has been said here. And that is the reason that I was not allowed to take Fine Arts in College bec. I was told that there is no real career in arts!

    p.s. Your coats (and your mom’s) are to die for!

  • Visty February 16, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Cute as buttons. All of you.

  • Shari February 18, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I never heard the expression, “Tiger Mom” before. After reading this post and the comments, I assume it has to do with a style of parenting that is education-oriented and tough love. In which case, this is not limited to Pan Asian parents. My sisters and I are Persian American and we were definitely raised by parents who pushed education (summer math camps anyone?) and didn’t encourage us to have a social life (we had a three minute phone limit and were rarely allowed to go over to friend’s houses). My parents never told us they were proud of us because in their culture, you don’t want to spoil your children. Yet, looking back on my childhood, my parents weren’t as tough on all scores. I went to a state college for undergrad and grad school, I have a decent paying job but I’m not a doctor an engineer or a lawyer (which almost all Persian kids are expected to be). And now that I’m older, my father calls me “my pride and joy” as a nickname. I guess that means that he just wanted to push so hard so that I became a decent, happy, individual which indeed I did.
    Wow, this is like therapy! :)