Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Case for Western and "Chinese" Upbringing

Contributed by Ian Chan

In a recent controversial column by Amy Chua in the Wall Street Journal, the author laid out the case for a particular brand of parenting she terms the "Chinese" way. The term Chinese here refers not to the particular geographic location of modern day China, nor the ethnicity of the Chinese people, but of a mindset of parenthood that contains a long laundry list of "don't"s and a continuous measure of success in very narrow terms. For example, she listed her ability to restrain her children from sleepovers, participating in plays, and never taking anything but an A as an acceptable grade as evidence of the success of her children.

While I was brought up and still live in a household that probably resembles that of Ms. Chua, I nevertheless was affected equally by four years of high school education in a New England Prep School that emphasized liberal education philosophies and advanced individualism. And now I am at Stanford, the process of educating me in the "Western" way has continued and my development has been, is, and always will be a constant struggle between these two schools of parenting.

I personally think that, without bias of course, that my blend of education has given me the best opportunities and achievements that not only I am proud of, but my family is proud of and society recognizes. It is not merely by chance that I have landed myself multiple awards following my matriculating at Choate Rosemary Hall and graduating with honors, and it is definitely not by chance that I have been elected, selected, and chosen to lead many activities here at Stanford.

Before one criticizes me for my self-laudatory remarks, consider the reasons I believe I succeeded and the points I agree and disagree with Ms. Chua. First, I definitely agree that a strict regiment of work and discipline is vitally important for a child's development. As a student going through the rigorous rote memorization educational system in Hong Kong, every day was planned out for me in accordance to the classes I needed to face (a good dozen at any one time) and excel in them. If I was showing weakness in a particular area, I was not given a choice to drop but to dig deeper and master what I did not know. Failure was an option, yes, but only after all resources have been utilized and I have tried my absolute hardest. This resilient attitude has brought me many wonders and have led me through more than one trough in my life where I probably would have given up. Looking around at my classmates who have been brought up in the most permissive households, too often I see a self-defeatist attitude that adversity is merely evidence of inadequacy and therefore forfeit is the only option. Although I believe we are all born with different talents and expertise, I also believe that without trying the hardest and utilizing all resources at my disposal, I will merely be beating down myself instead of bravely confronting tasks and knowledge that many before me have easily mastered.

Where I do disagree with Ms. Chua is the way she imposed her own likes and dislikes in the activities and lives of her children. My parents were strict, but they always asked my opinion and preference in determining my priorities. Once I chose my priorities, the same regiment that Ms. Chua applied affected me, but these were priorities that either I enjoyed or deemed necessary for success. A combination of input from the children and external pressure from the parents seem to be the best mode of success in this case. Moreover, I question the motive of the likes of Ms. Chua, who often pride themselves in their rearing of children and claim "bragging rights" in social gatherings. At the end of the day, who's education are we looking after? Who's life is being altered forever?

To answer the above two questions my "Western" education has definitely influenced my thought. Although I believe I have a responsibility to respect my parents and take care of them in their old age (note even this point differs from the majority of Americans who believe that once children leave a household they have little to do with the parents), my parents and I also agree that it is my life that they are investing in and that I should be ultimately responsible for the decisions and successes. Being more than 8,000 miles away from my parents, their reach into my academic, extracurricular, and personal life was limited. Their recognition of this fact led to their belief that their best shot at producing a successful son was to instill in him a sense of responsibility and thirst for success that was intrinsic and beyond eternal pressures. Yes I would be rewarded with the occasional gadget that I always wanted if I did exceptionally well, but no my priorities were never questioned so long as I tried my hardest (often streaming, kicking, bleeding, and coughing along the way), or I did well in them. The liberal education of the New England Prep school culture emphasized individual action and decision. Choose your own curriculum, develop your own senior thesis, start your own community service project, all of these were imperatives that were encouraged and facilitated.

In the new age of of the individual when a person armed with a computer and Internet access can start a company, wreck a country, or date someone online, the traditional perimeters of success and measurable achievement are breaking down. One who is not responsible for his own actions and success is surely not going to succeed anymore. The old elite that prized family privileges and small-circle gatherings is falling apart as a new generation of modern citizens with a suave knowledge of new technology demand greater autonomy.

If China, and the "Chinese" mothers that inevitably populate the country and drive its youth not recognize that the 21st century is the century of the individual where the public sector and private sector fall away to a new wave of entrepreneurs and original thought, then China's rise will be limited and temporary. But it seems that many Chinese parents do recognize this fact, as the halls of top-tier high schools, universities in the U.S. and the U.K. are increasingly filled by eager, ambitious students from the mainland ready to embrace an alternative worldview. One hope is that more forums such as FACES can continue to facilitate discussion and breed a new generation of leaders that emphasize individualism and interdependence to create a better world for all.

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