Sunday, February 3, 2013

A new perspective on Chinese child-rearing strategies

There were four of us in the car, driving back to Salt Lake City from Summerhays Music store in Murray, Utah. My husband, Justin, was driving, I was in the passenger seat, and in the back were my two-year-old daughter, Lydia, and one of Justin's friends, Sunny. That evening, we were helping Sunny with a little violin shopping.

Here's the socio-cultural backdrop for the scene: Justin and Sunny are both students in the physics graduate program at University of Utah. Justin and I (and Lydia) are white with mostly British heritage, our families have been American for many generations. Sunny and her parents are of Chinese heritage, although she was born and raised in Malaysia. She came to the states on her own last year when she started the graduate program at UU. Her first language is English, which she says is typical for those who grow up in "British-occupied" Malaysia.

We were chatting about Meyer's Brigg's personality types, when Lydia became the topic of conversion. Here's my best attempt at paraphrase:

"You can tell there's something different about her," said Sunny.

"You mean, because she's so extroverted?" I said.

"Well," Sunny continued, "she has a kind of victorian grace, but she let's you know that she's in charge. She reminds me of Queen Elizabeth." People often comment on Lydia's character. She's a friendly, bossy, charming, loud, wide-eyed, unbridled, curious busy-body who happens to say "thank you" when you hand something to her.

Sunny added more, "Lydia really fills up the room." I mentally reflected on how Lydia had just filled a large musical instrument store with all her Lydia-ness. She ran here and there, squealing like a little pig while I chased her, calling, "No, no, no, don't touch the harps!" "Pick up those reeds and put them back, Baby!" "Okay, fine, you can play that piano, but not with your feet, please!"

"Asian babies are much different" Sunny said a moment later. "They are very passive." I immediately tried to think of an exception, but I couldn't.

"I'm going through my head trying to picture the Asian babies I know," I said, "And all of them are like what you're saying, very reserved. Why is that, do you think? I mean, in your opinion, would you say that's genetics or upbringing?"

"It's because of the way they are raised," she replied.

"What do Asian parents do differently?" I asked.

"They purposely disconnect themselves from their children. They don't show affection. They don't interact much with them, even when they are babies. They don't even use baby-talk with them, they speak to them like they're adults." She went into more detail, but this was the essence. I had heard of Asian parents demanding great discipline and excellence from their children, and the strain this must inevitably put on the child-parent relationship, but I had never imagined these scenarios within the context of growing up sans affection, and with limited interaction.

I was overcome by how backward it sounded to me. How can an entire culture of people, generation after generation, live without familial closeness and emotional dependence? The idea was contrary to everything I believe and value about life. I wanted to know what Sunny thought about it.

"When you have children some day," I asked, "do you think you will raise them the same way you were brought up, or will you do it the way Americans do?"

She hesitated, thinking about it, then answered, "I think I will do it the Asian way . . . Yes, I will."

I was surprised, so of course I had to ask (trying to give up my bias), "And why do you want to do it that way? What would you say are the benefits?"

I loved Sunny's response. Without a hint of defensiveness, she replied, "The way my parents raised me taught me independence. Even as a child, I knew that I could take care of myself, that I didn't need them--this was a great gift that they gave me." She also explained that while her parents didn't put an emphasis on closeness, they were not neglectful. "To them, being a good parent was about being responsible, following through on your duty." She spoke of them with consistent admiration.

I asked her if she felt like her parents loved her. She said that the first time she really felt their love, was last year when she was new in the U.S. and was in a situation of desperation. "I just asked for their help, and they were so generous--I couldn't believe it."

I thought of an episode of Glee I had seen in which an student begs his father to accept his choice to become a professional dancer. The student expresses a longing for his father's approval and love. He suddenly becomes aware of his father's disconnectedness, and finds it tragic. Maybe this kind of conflict only makes sense because it's in a mixed Eastern/Western context, an Asian-American student and his first-generation immigrant father.

The last time I blogged on Asian child-rearing was when I described a book club response to Adeline Yeh Mah's, Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter. The book is the story of a Chinese woman who suffers life-long disconnection and rejection from her step-mother. Just as in the television example above, the author sees her conflict from a Western perspective, as a woman who was raised in China, but received her higher education in England, and chooses to adopt Western ways of thinking.

I remember reading a translation of an old Chinese play in a college world literature class, The Peach Blossom Fan written in the 1600s. It's about a couple in love who were married, and then tragically separated from each other for several years. Day after day they pine for each other. Then, finally, fate sees fit to bring them near each other, and just as they are about to be reunited, a Daoist teacher encourages them to give up their passion, forgo the union, and go their separate ways, to live lives of meditation and moderation. Surprisingly, they do exactly as he advises. In class, my professor laughed at our response, explaining that Americans usually find the story appalling or confusing, while to the intended audience, the ending is very satisfying, because to them it would be clear from the beginning that the conflict that needed to be resolved was not the lovers' separation, but their childish response to the separation, their reckless emotional state. (This reminds me of the contrast between how I used to read Romeo and Juliet, and how I read it now. When I was young, it was a poignant story about love so true that without the one you love, life is not worth living. But now I see it as a cautionary tale about what happens when teens get too carried away with infatuation.)

The point is, your own culture's values are not as universal as you think. Most Americans and other Westerners are in constant search of deep emotional connectivity, affection, and individuality. People of other cultures live life with completely different objectives.

Next time I see Sunny, I think I will ask, "What, for you, is the purpose of life?"  I can't wait to hear her perspective.


  1. I couldn't help but wonder what the "average" American family does to their children by comparison. I would hardly think that MY background is normal, but based on my experiences (which is a GREAT way to say I don't have a clue about reality) I would say that parents are disconnected emotionally with their children while not pushing them towards any particular goal at the same time.

    Babies get lots of love. No question. Everybody normal and sane loves a baby. They're cute, cuddly, and fun to play with. But as soon as they can run around and make a mess, they transform into little terrors. Not all bad, of course, but stay with me.

    Our digital society has found fantastic ways to entertain children with i-devices, videos, and video games. Many of these things claim they will make a child smarter by teaching them numbers, colors, or reading. But we're seeing these things slowly take a more prominent role in raising the child.

    Mommy needs a break. Hoo boy, and does she deserve one! Pop in a video and watch Elmo draw in the children into a fantasy land of bad songs an people without legs.

    Kids grow up in front of screens, stop interacting, then end up in school at the proper age, unmotivated and unstimulated. A parent will do their duty to help with homework and cry bloody murder at the teacher who DARES to make their child feel like a failure.

    But college? You don't have to go to college! No pressure. Just get your homework done, go to school, and things will work out fine.

    That wasn't me, but that's what I see.

  2. I only have a few minutes to respond to this, but I wanted to share a few thoughts. Hopefully I can articulate what I am thinking:

    1. Spencer and I were discussing your post and thought this was interesting because of our interactions with (mind you, somewhat limited--maybe a handful of) Asian's that did not grow up in the US but were here for work/school with parents still living in their homeland. The few individuals we have known have been completely financially dependent on their parents. Even if they were working, they got large sums of money from their parents. Although it could be that those that have the money to send their children to school in the US have money to give, but Spencer has said he has discussed this with a few of those individuals and they said that parents giving financial support to their adult children was common in the Asian culture they came from. I also seem to remember that the financial support came with the price of the parents having some say in the choices their adult children were making? Not sure on that one. In contrast, though I personally have not been financially supported by my parents since I was a teenager I feel very emotionally dependent on my parents still. I wonder if both cultures are teaching independence, but just value different types of independence? Again, I know that my perspective is limited and that there is a spectrum of experiences within a culture, but I wonder if there is any validity to my limited experience.

    2. My mom grew up back east and has mentioned to me multiple times that people back east expect their children to behave like miniature adults and treat them as such. In contrast, she feels like here in Utah children are allowed to behave more like children and are treated differently than adults. So it could also be somewhat of a regional difference within our own culture.