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Asian Parenting

Asian Parenting

The first time I’d seen myself represented in media was the first time I’d learned cynicism. Living in a bubble like the Bay Area is strange in the way you learn to block out the white noise from the rest of the world: I never questioned why Junie B. Jones had a set bedtime, or called her mom “mother” in English, or why the teenagers in those movies dealt with so many issues about popularity, or parental disagreements, or drugs and alcohol. Since so many around me lived the same “different” lives and held the same “different” ideals I did, I had unquestioningly accepted that my life would never match what was represented in media. In short, I fit the mold for Asian-American teenager: I valued studying and grades, worried about my admission to top colleges, and never once considered the possibilities of underage drinking, dating, or other wild social activities. I was lucky: to have never been compared to a white standard; to have never felt a difference between myself and the rest of the world; except in the slight disconnect between me and media. So to see my community discussed in any sort of public forum was at first a shock: I had never considered the possibility that we could ever be noticed at all, much less regarded in such a dark manner. The news article claimed to have exposed Silicon Valley teen suicides, an issue that I had both acknowledged and wanted to solve, and still do. After all, it takes far less than a genius student to recognize unhealthy stress levels on her high school campus, but it took even less than that to realize the talent of teenagers in the region. The environments, I’d thought, had pushed many teens to challenge themselves to radically surpass the nation’s average, but had also caused too many to strain themselves. The monumental burdens these bright and ambitious students put on themselves were inspirational, but, like other ambitions, destroyed just as much as created.  The article, however, seemed to see my world in absolutes.

Before I start the article, however, it is necessary to address a few issues. In no way do I mean to overwrite the Asian experience or generalize about Asian-Americans and Asian parentings: in many cases, severe and harsh parenting that deviates from the norm can be devastatingly damaging for its victims, and there are many Asian parents that may not practice the type of parenting that I address at all. However, I do feel that there is a group, however large or small, that mainstream media and cultural-political outlets overlook and misrepresent when it comes to Asian parenting, and that the stereotypes taken from these misunderstandings can, and do, drastically affect my community. In my writing, I speak for no one but myself and draw only from my own personal experiences.

The writer of the article, Hanna Rosin, seemed to want us to fit a certain narrative: one that mirrors those of elite royalty who hides dark secrets behind closed doors. She writes that, “But in adolescence, the dangers posed by the culture of affluence can be “quite potent.” But in her attempt to condense our lives into a neat story, she’d neglected to identify the real culprit behind this issue. In fact, wealth is mentioned so many times it seems to imply that it is one of the main reasons behind Silicon Valley’s high-stress culture, a claim that is never supported with research. The article’s headline also claims to cover all of Silicon Valley, although Rosin focuses only on the smallest sample size possible: a single high school, Gunn High, and cites surveys from an even smaller sample size of students. Rosin not only fails to realize that the pressure cooker culture surrounds all regions of the Silicon Valley, but, in pushing her rich-with-secrets narrative, ignores that the problem spans all incomes and ethnicities, neglecting to even mention the Indian-American community, which makes up a large portion of the Bay Area immigrant population. Her bias redirects her from the real root of the problem to a common misconception: that poor parenting, namely, Asian parenting is the cause of the issue. Of this, Rosin writes, “I’d heard how new East Asian immigrant parents mistakenly transposed the reality of education in, say, China or Korea, which is that how you do on a single test can determine your entire future. Gunn is more than 40 percent Asian, and some non-Asian parents, particularly ones who’d grown up in town when the Asian population was smaller, felt the shift was poisoning the culture of the entire school.” Part of the article went on to state that many students felt pressured by their parents’ extreme expectations, and insinuated that students were exhausted robots with no other option but suicide. And while many parents likely did demand too much of their children, Rosin appears to be writing from a preconceived notion of strict Asian parenting without doing researching East Asian culture or even interviewing many Asian parents. In another article, Rosin states that, “there's a high Asian population at Gunn and Palo Alto high school, maybe it's these, you know, tiger moms who are driving their kids into the ground… Yeah, if you, you know - if you don't get all As in chemistry and calculus, than we're going to kick you out of the house. Like, you want it to be those kind of parents so you can distance yourself, whereas it's, like, every kind of parent.” A casual statement; one easily taken in the interview, but one that simultaneously points many fingers and touches on many common misconceptions. For starters, Asian is once again tied with the concept of incredibly strict parenting, or “tiger parenting,” but the misconstruction lies in the second part of statement. “It’s every kind of parent,” an offhand statement, completely negates the possibility of normalcy existing within the Silicon Valley Asian community, leaves no room for the range of parenting that exists. In fact, articles on Asian parenting appear to seldom address the possibility or even benefits of discipline in moderation. And although apologists for Rosin may attempt to downplay the significance of the statement, and fault the analysis for being too meticulous, they fail to realize how this is the exact problem with reporting: how too little thought is put into accurately depicting the Asian community, how phrases and buzzwords about “tiger moms” and suicide are inserted everywhere to make for more interesting articles.

This article isn’t the first article to write about us this way.

Other articles are written from the perspectives of well-intentioned outsiders who consider themselves qualified enough to comment, but don’t quite understand the nuances of the community background. While Grace Hwang Lynch, a self-proclaimed “concerned neighbor,” who lives “a few miles down the freeway, where the schools aren't as prestigious,” addresses the fact that Asian parenting is not the source of the Silicon Valley suicides, she later demonstrates her inexperience by declaring that, “There's a fear among parents whose houses seem to increase in value every week that a recession or a round of layoffs will send us packing from our beloved hometowns. We don't have hopes of living in the relative comfort that our parents had, with the assumption that a professional job would provide for a family through retirement.” With this one line, it becomes clear to inhabitants that the writer lacks complete knowledge, as most parents of high-achieving students in the area have come from poor backgrounds in Asia, and continue to support struggling older generations with their own income. The narrative this author tries to write from seems more tailored to fit a white story than the immigrant story, as it is the American economy, not Chinese or Korean economies, that have been historically declining. (See: Forbes, Seattle Times, and the International Monetary Fund) She continues under this misconception, stating that, “kids are growing up under the shadows of their high-achieving parents,” when, in fact, parents rarely push their own lives in America onto their children. In fact, most of the teenagers I grew up with know very little of their parents’ personal lives. The cultural difference makes it practically impossible for children to even try to follow in their parents’ footsteps, meaning that most successful immigrant parents try to encourage their children to achieve based on their own resources and newer circumstances. This misunderstanding in itself is not dangerous. The article in question has limited reach, although the author has written similar content for prominent news stations including PBS.  However, it’s the fact of the matter that the article is symptomatic of the attitude that surrounds Silicon Valley parenting. It demonstrates the continuation of the message that parents are once again at fault, another incorrect assumption made by an outsider that may become truth for other outsiders. And it’s not an unexpected phenomenon: growing up in a bubble means that we are increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. But with the isolation should come another realization: if there’s anyone qualified to fix this culture, it is one of us.

It is an unfortunate truth that the current paradigm for life in the U.S. is based on the white default; that is, media often judges from the perspective of white culture. So it happens that many racial phenomenons are told to the general public by white reporters.. In difficult situations, America has a particular way of offloading the blame onto people of color instead of examining its own systemic issues. What’s interesting about this disapproval of Asian parenting is that the descriptions usually either come from white perspectives, or from younger Americanized generations who have been selectively chosen by agenda-driven reporters (See: Jeff Yang’s description of three cases in Asian-dominant schools and equating them with a blanket statement condemning Asian parenting.) Most Americans, when asked about Asian parenting, can likely only vaguely describe it as overly strict. This out-of-context description made by outsiders has unfortunately become the widely accepted stereotype about its parenting tactics. Asian parenting is much more than just about harshness and unrealistically high expectations: it’s about teaching offspring to survive in a tough world. It’s about teaching children to mature early, and to survive on their own. The difference between white parenting and strict Asian parenting might be that Asian children are exposed to the real world earlier. As a child, I never had the concept of death explicitly explained because it had never been sheltered from me. I learned of the injustice of the law and corruption of the rich from my children’s cartoons, which frequently showed me scenes that heavily implied both unfair executions and torture of the innocent. However, I was never traumatized by what I saw: it was a part of the world that had existed previously, and still exists now, and the history of suffering was so embedded in my culture that it seemed senseless to pretend that the world isn’t the way it is. In terms of the household, I learned early and fast to never expect anything from others, to never impose on others, and to clean up my own messes. My mother taught me to always admit my wrongdoings and would never tolerate my complaints about other people. Instead, every time I complained about a classmate’s behavior, her response invariably would reference my own faults, shifting the focus toward my own improvement. My mother’s parenting was never about the cultivation of a perfect, emotionless robot, but about helping children realize their full potential in both their careers and their characters.

Most Asian immigrants in the U.S. come from poorer backgrounds than their affluent counterparts. They know what it is to be hungry, and this hunger and fear pushes their perspectives very far from the idealistic ways Americanized parents may raise their children under. It is easy for parents who have never experienced the awful histories that Asian parents have lived through to condemn them for disciplining their children in their own ways of shielding children from the world. Because it is, in fact, a shielding, in the same way skin grows calloused from practice or wounds. And while I am not condemning the softer parenting tactics used by others, I will say that this harshness has taught us endurance and maturity, which come with their own benefits.

As a teenager and a product of the pressure cookers of Silicon Valley, here are some issues that I think should be addressed before the comfort blanket of parenthood-blame is ever even reached for.

  1. Lack of educational support from counselors and advisers: In the same interview where Rosin once again ties tiger parenting to Asian culture and demonizes Asian parents, she mentions that “I mean, I think if there's any larger cultural explanation in that community, it's that a lot of the teachers said there wasn't a space to fail or be sad or get off the track for a minute.” It’s one of the few points she makes that is true, at least when the tie to culture is removed. The problem with the inability to fail has much less to do with the school system then it does with the actions taken by administrative staff in response to their own beliefs about Asian culture. Instead of accommodating students who want to learn and succeed, staff members often force students into complying with their own beliefs about relaxation. At my old high school, and at surrounding high schools, schools often dealt with high stress levels on campus by capping AP classes and limiting the amount of STEM classes students could double on, instead of helping students push themselves academically. These modifications were made on the assumption that parents, not students, were overloading students with work, and that these tactics would limit the pathways parents could take to push their children. However, many students I knew had planned their own courses with their college careers in mind, and had been looking forward to learning about their respective subjects. It is the equivalent of getting rid of something that they refuse to spend the time fixing.

  2. Poor teaching and Grading Issues: Instead of overloading students with work, staff should look to the improvement of the current coursework demanded of higher-level classes. While it logically follows that AP students are required to study more individually, the system leaves room for teachers to potentially take advantage of the curriculum and push more work on to students. In fact, it then becomes possible for teachers to demand too much of already overburdened students, assigning up to 50 pages of textbook reading and weekly, if not daily, tests, instead of taking it on themselves to teach students the material. And the system is partially at fault for allowing this: securing good recommendation letters for college has become so difficult that many high-achieving students would rather conform to a teacher’s irrationality than risk losing their chances at gaining a teacher’s favor. In fact, with the amount of students needed to convince a teacher to change, the chances of success are too low for any ambitious student to consider rallying against one. A restructuring of an educational system that allows cooperation in success would likely benefit students and teachers in the feedback process. Furthermore, because of the system setup, AP teachers generally do not meet to coordinate test dates and workloads to ease burdens for students in multiple high-level classes. Instead, students are encouraged to take fewer AP classes and then condemned for taking on too much work. But since when has it become common practice to restrain instead of nurture students when faced with their desires to learn? To me, it seems as though we have fallen into a cycle of vindication, where teachers warn young students to not take AP classes, and then feel validated when their prediction proves true.

  3. College Decisions: Perhaps the most controversial and ambitious reason on this short list is the argument that the structuring of college applications is a contributing factor to high stress levels. While there are a fair amount of students who do strive to attend prestigious schools for the label, there also exist a group of students who recognize the extraordinary resources provided by such schools, and harbor visions of success in relation to, rather than centered around, those colleges. But no matter the reason for applying, the fact remains that the unfair and nonsensical methods of the college application process make the high school experience far more stressful than it can be. Colleges expect students not only to practice enough mindless discipline to score absurdly high levels on standardized tests, which test nothing but the rigor of a student’s routine and the pouch in their parents’ wallets, but also to balance an enormous workload, while still developing interpersonal skills, and a personality. No matter the fact that Asian-American students aren’t socialized to develop the bubbly and enthusiastic personalities so valued in internship workplaces and leadership roles. In fact, stereotypes and cultural differences often hinder Asian-Americans in succeeding in cooperation-oriented environments. It goes deeper than this. The “Asian stereotype” applies to  Asians who have high grades, but either participate only in Asian-dominated activities such as badminton, ping-pong, robotics, pursue STEM-related fields, or both. With the college cutback on accepting students who fit the “Asian stereotype, stakes are raised for Asian students, who must either overperform to compensate for their stereotype, or must push themselves to consciously break the mold. Critics of high-achieving Asian students may argue that East Asians over-value higher education, and that all colleges can be equally beneficial. And while it is true that all colleges do deliver, to a point, a similar level of education, who could fault students for wanting the best resources available to them, in an economy and culture where education is so heavily weighted? And, besides that, who could condemn us for valuing what our culture values? For now, revolutionary changes will not be, and may not ever be, implemented in the college selection system. But in the meantime, it’s good to recognize that the fault may not always lie with East Asian students and parents themselves.

Media is a choosy telescope that can bring attention to all of the wrong issues, in the name of sensationalist journalism. In fact, many popular opinion pieces about my hometown are never thoroughly researched, but seem to never encounter pushback, except for from those my age on forms of social media with limited reach. What inhibits my community from speaking out is partially systemic and partially cultural: another value that we are taught is to keep out of politics, and keep away from conflict. It’s a value that’s controversially helped us thrive, but has always slowly eaten away our chances of overcoming racial oppression.

These are the positives that come with Asian parenting in the Silicon Valley. We have grown up learning tales older than bone and lessons passed on through bloodshed. My own grandmother once walked roads paved with starved bodies, trees stripped clean of the tree bark that fed lucky survivors. My great grandmother snuck her out from under the Japanese when she was a baby hidden in a rice basket. It seems impossible to modern eyes that such a product of what appears a relic of a primitive past can so easily walk amongst our shiny technological developments and soft, impractical lives. But is it possible, and it is true. It is true that our recent ancestors saw government corruption with their own eyes, were strangled by it under the weight of suffering. They know better than to trust systems that can be so easily broken. They know better than to so easily teach their children to surrender the old ways to what is new and looks so temporary. And it is with these lessons in mind I think that it seems like sometimes we are a grim new generation preparing for an apocalypse while everyone else pretends to not see disaster on the horizon.

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