There are stereotypes borne of reality and one of these is of the chinese mother, as popularly memorialized by Amy Chua in her 2011 bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It’s one thing to read it but another thing entirely to get a first-hand insight into the thinking of the Tiger Mother; it was something that I received the other week when I gave a lift to the Tiger Mother’s daughter and she, my daughter and I had an illuminating conversation.
In Chua’s book, she decides to raise her two Chinese-American/Jewish daughters in the Chinese manner. The child is given real opportunities but the quid pro quo is that the child is expected to perform and do so in exemplary fashion. Practicing for violin lessons during vacation? Check. Repeated drilling of lessons? Check. While I consider my wife and I to be fairly hardnosed about expectations of children, I couldn’t conceive of demanding such from my own kids. My own general guidelines of the kids are to do your best, respect your teachers and coaches, and don’t ever waste my time. Don’t want to practice for the music lessons that you requested? Fine, learn to play the damned thing on your own. In an earlier article, my thought was that this general attitude arose from living in an unstable society where there few opportunities and those only went to those who were the absolute best. China has had longer periods of economic and political instability longer than this country has been a republic and if parents want the best for their children, they’ll provide it by pushing the kids to be able to survive in that society.
In this particular conversation, Tiger Mother’s Daughter – hereafter referred to as TMD – was asking about health insurance and pension plans; bear in mind that this is a 17 year-old. When she mentioned pension plans, my mental response was akin to bwahahahahahahahahahaha*snort* but I answered her in a matter-of-fact way. Honestly, very few companies still offer pension plans anymore. If people want to retire, then they’ll have to save it for themselves in some plan such as an IRA or 401k and I wouldn’t hold your breath trying to find that kind of company anymore. Ironically, I thought, those few who do still have pension plans can probably offer them to the administrative staff since they’ve outsourced all of the labor to China. Her plans involved some form of engineering, perhaps for the military, since her SAT math scores were higher than I can count and I confirmed that yes, the military did offer a pension for years of service. The flip side is that our spending is so out of whack that the military is probably going to take some real budget hits, so you have to be aware of that. To her credit, her own thinking was that she could go the business school route and there’s where I responded with a Ding*Ding*Ding inflection in my voice. With your abilities, grades and language skills, yeah, you’d be snapped up.
It was in this conversation that I could hear the mother’s fears and motivations come through. They were immigrants and while that’s tough for everyone, she was shielding her daughter from the true unpleasantries that come with parenting and adulthood in such a situation. I could discern her thinking please, I don’t want her to hate the surroundings in which she might have to raise her own child; I don’t want her to wonder about where the food’s going to come from; I want my grandchild to have better than I could give you, my love.
In terms of family structure and child-rearing, the Chinese are almost in a completely different dimension from the typical American family. We view them as comical absurdities in their demands of their kids and the responses when the kids do stupid things – and boy, kids will do stupid things. But getting even a tiny glimpse into that world is eye-opening and that’s even for someone who’s already considered by the kids to be pretty hardnosed. Given what this country has already been through economically and I expect will go through in the near future, I’m appreciating the demands placed a bit more than I did before.