Nineteen days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran Amy Chua’s Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. As of today, there are 7,590 comments. A few days ago, at 5,700 comments, the WSJ remarked that the piece had already generated more comments than any other in the history of the Wall Street Journal, which is quite astounding when you think about how much the cool kids these days enjoy typing “ha ha u suck” beneath articles about hedge fund derivatives.
Chua’s article, an excerpt from her now-bestselling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, detailed the manner in which, as a “Chinese mother” (a label she qualifies may be applied to hard-nosed non-Chinese mothers, and not to all Chinese women who are mothers), she deprived her children of sleepovers, play dates, and participation in school plays while forcing them to play piano or violin, rejecting their shoddily-handcrafted birthday cards to her, ordering them to get A’s, and once calling her daughter “garbage.” The 7,590 comments left have already exhaustively covered the deficits of this parenting style (trust me, they’ve objected in myriad important ways): creating kids who lack real intellectual curiosity and/or social skills, leading to high rates of suicide among high-achieving Asian-American kids, etc. No point rehashing that (and certainly not in Bullish).
But the debate over Chua’s article has spawned a whole network of articles pontificating on why we all care so much about Tiger Mothering — perhaps because, as Chua suggests:
Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
On that score, Hanna Rosin (author The Atlantic‘s The End of Men, previously cited in this column), replies in the WSJ, “With that, she really has our number. At the present moment in Western parenting, we believe that our children are special and entitled, but we do not have the guts or the tools to make that reality true for them. This explains, I think, a large part of the fascination with Ms. Chua’s book.”
And hence its presence in Bullish. (This column, despite initial appearances, is not ultimately about children or child-raising).
From 2006-2007, I was Director of English Curriculum at a Korean-American study academy (or hagwon) in Queens. I taught four hours of SAT English every Saturday (four!), did private tutoring during the week, and, during the summer, taught four hours of SAT English per day, which was followed by two hours of math taught by my employer, an imposing Korean-American math teacher. That is, these kids attended SAT class six hours per day (seven including lunch break), five days per week, all summer long — sometimes every summer of high school.
After awhile, I basically ran out of vocabulary words to teach. I moved on to teaching little snippets of Victorian culture and language (most of my students were non-native speakers who were totally screwed when Austen or Dickens popped up in a reading passage). I once explained that “Shiver me timbers” is recognizable by everyone as something pirates say, even though most people don’t know or care what it actually means. I then taught all my students to correctly use savoir faire and je ne sais quoi in conversation.
What I’m getting at is that a typical commercial SAT class is about 24 hours of instruction. A student in a hagwon might receive 30 hours of instruction in a week during the summer, or 1,080 hours of instruction over three summers. Malcolm Gladwell famously declared that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. There are more important things in life than becoming an “expert” on the SAT, but 1,080 hours, it turned out, was enough to bump a small but satisfying handful of kids from talking like their parents to talking like native speakers — the kind who go to good colleges. It wasn’t that their parents fed them organic baby food or got them into the right private schools or took them on enriching European vacations; it was the hours. Very, very many hours.
And the tests! Oh, the tests. When I first began working at the hagwon, my boss apprised me that we would have a practice test every day. I assumed that we were having a communication issue. The SAT is four hours long, I explained — if we have a four-hour test every day, we’ll never have a chance to teach anything. She replied that that was simply how they did it in Korea. I talked her down to a 25-minute practice section Monday through Thursday and a full-length exam on Fridays.
I met Chua-like parents, most of whom demanded that their children become pharmacists. One girl was forbidden from ever hip-hop dancing (and her mom did mean ever). Once, a young man confessed that he had a secret wish. Upon much prodding (I was expecting that he wanted to be a rock star or a drag queen), he whispered: “I wish I could be a marine biologist.” When one of my charges was, in fact, admitted to pharmacy school, his father bowed to me. It was nice, but weird.