Bullish: What I Learned About Success in a Korean Cram School

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.

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    • porkchop

      People like to dump on memorization like it’s empty. I’ve been thinking lately about how, if you read a poem in a class, you get to interpret it within the context of that time and place, and who you were at that time, but that’s it. Also, you start to forget right away. If you memorize a poem, then you’ll be reminded of it periodically, you’ll relate it to new things, and you’ll enrich your understanding of it over the entire rest of your life.

      The modern, open-ended, interpretive approach to humanities has real merit, but it often degrades into an exercise in pandering to the teacher/professor and scoring points. You remember less and get less long-term value. I know that you’re writing from a more purely practical viewpoint, but what you’ve said applies to intellectual pursuits as well, I think.

      • Jen Dziura

        An excellent comment. Yes, I didn’t want to write even more in a career column about education, but I am very interested in this topic. The AP US History exam is currently being reworked to involve more “analysis” and less memorization. Of course, the exam already had three pretty hardcore essay assignments — it wasn’t all multiple-choice, and the multiple choice questions have always been good. For instance, they never just ask what year something happened, but they often ask questions where you need to know, for instance, whether the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act happened before or after WWI, which you could do by memorizing dates or more contextually, by having internalized the “story” of US History. It’s a good test as-is, and I’ve seen a lot of standardized tests. And actually, everything I know about US History, I pretty much learned in 11th grade AP — you really just have to memorize 250 years’ worth of facts to be able to put events in context and do analysis in the first place.

        The idea that no one should memorize anything anymore because they can “just look it up” is severely limited. Tell me about an event in, say, Jamaican history (something I know basically nothing about). I would have no context or ability to analyze, and I wouldn’t even know what to look up — the problem of not knowing what you don’t know. To make intelligent connections, your head needs to already contain all the things you might want to connect.

        I’m glad you brought this up! I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on this matter, and here in the comments is as good a place as any.

      • Eileen

        Why would anyone want to change the APUSH test? I mean, yeah, ideally you would have to write a term paper instead of just answering the DBQ, but it’s about as good a test as can be designed to make sure you’ve gotten out of a high school history class what you should have gotten out of a college history class.

        (And yes, I got a 5, and I’m now two classes away from a degree in history, so my opinion on the topic is worth slightly more than total bullshit)

        I think my main problem with Chua is that she made her kids study only violin and piano. There are other instruments that are just as good! At least let them play the cello or something if they want.

      • Lilit Marcus

        Ditto what Eileen said about letting her kids pick different instruments. I knew a girl in high school who played the oboe. She was the only person in our high school’s band who played the oboe, so she was always first chair, made it to state band, and eventually got a scholarship to college. Whereas the violin kids had to work way harder to stand out in a crowded field.

      • Jen Dziura

        The laws of supply and demand at work in the high school orchestra! (I did that with viola). Nerd party!

      • Eileen

        Oooh, viola: I am impressed. My friend Carolyn insists the only reason she’s any good at viola is that she can dislocate her finger joints on demand.

        And being good at the oboe, English horn, bassoon (double reeds are hard) = you will always have the solo. Being good at violin = maybe you’ll make second chair.

    • Lindsay Cross

      First, as in inflammatory as this might be, I could never be happy with John Galt. That just seems like way too much work for me.

      But on topic, I think you bring up a reall good point that a lot of the Chua criticism has missed. Education needs to be pushed! The fact is that schools alone can’t prepare kids for college and the world beyond that all on their own. Parents need to be active and even forceful, when necessary, in their children’s education. I just don’t think that should come in place of affection. And there has to be room for the child to be an individual person as well.

      I don’t agree with Chua, and when I first read the article, I was horrified. But I do think there needs to be a balance between building up all that confidence and building up something to substantiate it.

      Sorry, I know you didn’t want to get into kids too much. Obviously, we should challenge ourselves as well!

    • georgeelliot

      Gladwell’s assertion that mastery in a given field requires ten-thousand hours of practice is similar to a bit of advice given to writers. i don’t remember who said it, but the counsel was that a writer finds her voice only after she has written a million words. I think it’s telling that artistic pursuits are seldom referred to as “disciplines” anymore. That is exactly what they are and what they require. That notwithstanding, Chua does sound like a total bitch.

    • Sarah

      “The idea that no one should memorize anything anymore because they can “just look it up” is severely limited.”

      THIS. I’m a graduate student in library and information science, and in my reference class, which is basically “advanced looking things up on the internet,” we memorize sources and what kinds of things they cover. Because of that, I can find out authoritative information about all kinds of things I know nothing about, MUCH more quickly than anyone else.

    • André M. Smith

      Professor Chua is a woefully ill-informed parent, one ignorant of just what is happening in some parts of education in America. Fully confident in her presumed success as a writer with an editorial staff at Penguin shadow boxing for her and unapologetically wearing her signature plastic smile for public appearances, the Lawyer Chua is trying to persuade and convince; on both counts controversially, but with enough negative reactions to cause her subsequently to attempt a dilution of the intensity in her initial self-congratulatory tirade by latterly asserting that her writing is merely one person’s experiences of some trying times in motherhood. To gain working points among the Old-Boy network, the prime lubricant of Yale, Professor Chua initially claimed that she is a Tiger Mom as Chinese maternal type; Fierce! When that showpiece veneer didn’t sit well with mothers who are the real thing, i.e., mothers from China, this faux cat altered the validity of her claim to violence by stating that she is a Tiger Mom because she was born in 1962, a Year of the Tiger. That a tenured Professor of Yale can – must? – openly justify her self-classification with superstitious underpinning should provide anyone what is needed to draw a conclusion about the level of intellect afoot in Yale Law School. Professor? Indeed!

      Any of Chua’s public statements of the purposes of her work evolve to fit the tenor of the evolving criticisms directed at it. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/amy-chua-tiger-mom-book-one-year-later_n_1197066.html It has passed, in her own words, from (1) practical handbook for parenting to (2) tongue-in-cheek (whatever that’s supposed to mean), to (3) memoir, (4) satire, (5) parody, (6) “a coming of age book for parents” (7) “the book is about a journey”; and who knows what else as she makes the rounds of the book circuit trying to snare yet more unsuspecting purchasers into her net. That she can, without blushing, class a single work with such a range causes me to wonder what kind of grade she got at Harvard for her command of the English language. She’s Trollope (the author), Pope (the author), The Wicked Witch in Hansel und Gretel and Gullible’s Travels all penned together into one oversized Pamper. Anyone who can’t read the monetary cynicism driving the kaleidoscope of this whole Tiger Mom scam and its spurious, unproven claimed insights into parenting, with variant latter-day reflections by the author herself, deserves to have paid full retail price for this book.

      “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” http://bettymingliu.com/2011/01/parents-like-amy-chua-are-the-reason-why-asian-americans-like-me-are-in-therapy/
      Stamp collecting, fishing, lazing about on a summer day, science club, Brownie Scouting, baseball, birthday parties, church annual picnic, kite flying, visiting relatives, kissing, jumping rope, student council, insect classification . . . Away with this woman! “Fun” must be one of the more overused, misunderstood words in the American lexicon. Chinese parent = The Model Minority? In China?

      “I’m happy to be the one hated.” http://bettymingliu.com/2011/01/parents-like-amy-chua-are-the-reason-why-asian-americans-like-me-are-in-therapy/

      “If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d choose happiness in a second. http://amychua.com/

      That’s it perfectly stated in Tigerese: Either / Or; not both. Amy Chua is a chameleonic con artist. PT. Barnum certainly was right, one “. . . born every minute!”

      André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
      Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
      Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
      Formerly Bass Trombonist
      The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
      Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
      The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.