China Team Journal

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Their Lives Matter to Us"

“If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life 110%. And for that, Tiger Mom, I thank you.” Sophia Chua Rubenfeld, oldest daughter of Amy Chua


We have an unprecedented opportunity here as volunteers to gain a "ground-level" perspective of Chinese culture.  When my friend, Jane Tom, asked me for advice about what to say in a speech at her daughter’s wedding, I replied, “Tell everyone how proud you are  of her and why,” and she replied, “That’s not Chinese.” When Matt Fong, the son of our neighbor, was the republican running against Diane Feinstein he was asked whether he had really attended an EST seminar. He confessed and added rather sadly, “It’s the only time my father ever hugged me.”  

We think these Asian American parents don’t represent American ideas of good parenting. In fact Amy Chua, the tiger mother, appalled most Americans and Jane and Matt Fong’s father seem too stinting in their praise and affection. But even in China people are questioning what the "tiger mother" calls traditional parenting and asking questions like, “Why can’t we produce a Steve Jobs?” And they are personally aware of the system’s harsh consequences. One of our teachers left our class in tears after receiving a phone call from  her distraught  daughter who had not done as well as she hoped on an exam and therefore would not be able to attend the school she had chosen. Another stayed in class but her eyes filled as she told me the same thing had happened to her niece. And still another, to my surprise, asked me what I thought about "tiger moms" (I didn’t realize people in China knew the term), and unhappily confessed to being one and not being able to stop herself from calling her 7-year-old “stupid” and then hearing him cry in his room. These teachers are clearly unhappy with China’s educational system and sometimes with themselves.  And apparently people outside the school system agree. Global Volunteer Stella reported that in church Sunday the minister preached against the great importance the Chinese put on tests and the pressure they put on students.

At our afternoon meeting last time, we taught with Global Volunteers the director of Foreign Languages  Learning in Yunnan Agricultural University, who had just returned from observing teaching in America, contended with passion that “there is never enough praise while any criticism is too much.” I looked back at his audience expecting to see some resentment and saw only solemn faces and nods.

So what is our role as Global Volunteers here? We have brought games, songs, dances, new techniques and knowledge about child rearing. We believe in praise and have modeled it in our class rooms. We could be seen as the solution to China’s education problems.

But in the back of our minds, we know that Asian parents in America are on to something. My friend Jane Tom’s daughter is a Harvard graduate and so are Jane's four other children.  Matt Fong, our neighbor’s son, was secretary of State of the State of California.

 But we don’t need just my personal anecdotes to tell us that traditional Asian parenting can produce very successful children. My granddaughter’s Chinatown elementary school, where she is one of very few white students, is rated as one of the best in the city. Lowell High School, the top public high school in San Francisco, which admits students on the basis of test scores only, has a nick name: Chinese Girls’ School. And the University of California at Berkeley has more Asian students than white.

So what is the best way to educate for success? The Chinese who may think we know best I suspect are not aware of how often we Americans have changed our minds and our practices. Pick the baby up or let him cry  - teach students to read with phonics or lots of stories – teach by focusing on the book or the child - always teach with groups or emphasize individual effort  -practice zero tolerance of any infractions or create a Summerhill.

I think what we bring as Global volunteers is not just the techniques for getting teachers to teach their children to speak and enjoy learning English, but the example that we care. Wang Baoli spoke of this eloquently in our first meeting and our teachers seemed impressed. I think it helps explain the success of different kinds of teaching and parenting.

Asian parents in America may not hug and praise much, but their children can tell, perhaps especially by their hard work and sacrifices, that their children matter to them. The tiger mother Amy Chua apparently has a grateful daughter.

I used praise in my classroom and received it from my mother throughout my life, but I disagree with the speaker from the Agricultural college.  I think there sometimes can be too much praise and sometimes too little criticism. And I think even striving for a balance is hard.  But what there can’t be is too much caring.  We Global volunteers have shared techniques for making learning English more fun. But I hope the main impression we leave is the one that is more important. Strict or lenient we care. The lives of our Chinese teachers and their students matter to us.