On being ABC (part 2/2): The past and future of Asian “Tiger Parenting”

ABC: American-born Chinese. A term widely used to refer to American citizens of Chinese descent, excluding first-generation immigrants. 

Thanks to Amy Chua, the Tiger Parent has become a cultural trope discussed to death, yet only more recently have I seen attention being paid to what the next generation is doing. Are the sons and daughters of tiger parents choosing to tiger parent their own children? And what happens when they don’t?

These thoughts crossed my mind as I read a recent NY Times opinion piece titled “The Last of the Tiger Parents,” written by Ryan Park (described as a lawyer and father of two).

… like many second-generation immigrant overachievers, I’ve spent decades struggling with the paradox of my upbringing. Were the same childhood experiences that long evoked my resentment also responsible for my academic and professional achievements? And if so, was the trade-off between happiness and success worth it?

In cultural discussion of what motivates tiger parenting, you’ll encounter the idea of academic achievement as a driver of “normative success,” and the idea of faith in a meritocratic society. Here, I think it’s worth defining what I mean by normative success. Often you’ll hear the joke that there are only two parent-approved professions for the children of tiger parents: doctor and lawyer (my parents definitely wanted me to be a doctor, – sorry mom). Both tick all the boxes: culturally respectable, high salaried, job stability, performs a service for humanity.  Other tenets of normative success include an appropriate and happy marriage, the material comforts of a middle class lifestyle (such as home ownership), and having a few smart, well-behaved kids.

It’s easy to understand why someone, tiger parent or otherwise, would value normative success, but I think specifically for people like my parents – Chinese immigrants of their generation –  there’s more to it.

I find my thoughts unavoidably circling back to a story from my father’s upbringing. My father was a teenager during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In mid 1960’s China, schools and universities were shuttered and tens of thousands of teachers and academics were persecuted in a massive purge of the educational system. Yet during those years of political and cultural turmoil and instability, my father taught himself an entire college curriculum and tested into the graduate program at Fudan University as soon as it reopened. “I only got one question wrong on my entrance exam,” he would tell me and my brother. I don’t know much about my paternal grandparents, but from how my father would tell this story, and what I observed of him, he was fiercely self-driven. And his self-made academic success was what allowed him to start his life as a postdoc at an Ivy League university in the US. My father never shared many stories about his life, so his occasional retelling of this one was very revealing about what he viewed as success and how he believed it could be achieved. And clearly, he was motivated to pass on these values to his children.

My mother’s story of growing up around the same time is perhaps even more brutal and even more telling. Both of her parents were not only teachers, but had supported the wrong political side before the Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s rise to power, my mother’s entire family was uprooted and deported from Shanghai to perform manual labor in the countryside. It was many years before she was able to rebuild her life, return to school, and eventually immigrate to the US to be with my father.

While these thoughts have long been swirling around in my head, until recently I lacked the word(s) to properly express them. In a conversation with a friend (also a child of Chinese immigrants) that was sparked by the above quoted NY Times piece, he described how he was struggling to help his parents understand why he didn’t prioritize the same normative success that they wanted for him, and why he was willing to take certain risks that he believed would enrich his life in ways that were more abstract, and therefore more difficult for them to accept.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand why his parents valued what they did. They lived their lives in the mindset of scarcity. Scarcity – that was the word I had been missing. Our parents were immigrants who had left their families and homes to seek greater opportunities for themselves and their children in the US. They did not always have job security or financial security, they had to work – and work hard – to earn these things. To them, no longer having to strive, the ability to live in comfort, was the ultimate success.

But I have never lived in such scarcity. So while I understand where my parents are coming from, my own (comparatively cushy and privileged) upbringing has led me to cultivate different values and different priorities in life. I will not downplay my own desire for some version of normative success  – certainly I’ve spoken about my own career ambitions –  but I have other goals by which I measure my success. I find rewarding my endeavors to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships with others. I harbor a desire to spread love, and tolerance, and progressive values. And I find purpose in using my talents to give back and make the world a better place in some way.

And I believe that many second-generation ABC’s feel similarly. We have seen and lived the payoff of discipline and enforced academic rigor, but have also observed the value of an environment of love and emotional support (often in jealous observation of the upbringing of our more American peers).

To return to Ryan Park’s column,

The childhood I devise for my two young daughters will look nothing like mine. They will feel valued and supported. They will know home as a place of joy and fun. They will never wonder whether their father’s love is conditioned on an unblemished report card.

I’ve assumed this means my daughters might someday bring home grades or make life choices that my father would have regarded as failures. If so, I embrace the decline.

I will resist conjecturing too much about how I may raise my very hypothetical, unborn/unconceived children, but I cannot imagine that it will be as my parents raised me. Perhaps this arises from a place of privilege – after all, my own upbringing has positioned me to achieve some degree of normative success. As my brother said, we (he and I) would have to fuck up pretty badly to ever find ourselves broke and homeless. We’ve cultivated good habits, have a strong educational foundation and practical training, and a family that is not only able but willing to support us through the ups and downs of life. But these things were achieved not entirely without cost. Growing up, I was less understanding of, and much less sympathetic to, the iron fist with which my parents ruled our household. As a result, I bear emotional scars from my adolescence and teenage years, and perhaps have missed valuable opportunities to explore and to fail and learn from my failures – opportunities that were taken away by the strong and directioned guiding hand of my parents. I now recognize that my parents acted out of love and the best of intentions, but I’d like to believe that each generation learns from the mistakes (and successes) of those that come before them. I hope that if I am ever to become a parent, I would have the courage to meld my own values with that of my  parents and follow Mr. Park in “embracing the decline.”

Read On Being ABC (part 1/2) here.

About evajge

A friend once told me that all I eat is chocolate and cheese. I was both disturbed and amused to realize that he was right.
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