Feb 17th, 2018, 09:42 AM

De-Clawing the Tiger Mom

By Alina Hope Wong
Image Credit: Working Mother.com/  Sutheshna Mani
A closer look behind Asian parents through the persepctives and speculations of Asian-American college students.

The first news I heard about the 2018 Winter Olympics came from my Korean-American friend, "You have to go watch Chloe Kim." That was all her message said.

I obediently turned on the television and was instantly bombarded with news about Chloe Kim winning a gold medal in snowboarding. A little while later, I witnessed an ice-skater, Nagasu, land the first triple axel for team USA in history. Now, Asian Americans across the globe are ecstatic in celebration because these two girls are not just tearing apart the ice and snow, but are also a mere pinch of the record-high amount of 14 Asian-Americans competing for USA's figure skating, snowboarding and speed skating team this year.

Soon I found my curiosity growing past my desire to watch these Asian-Americans on television. How did so many people that shared my ethnicity end up on USA's team this year? Behind their performances and underneath their confident smiles, I was sure there lay a reason.

Some articles speculated that the high presence of Asian-Americans could be credited towards the athletes' parents. These parents sacrificed their time and money to put their children through rigorous training from an early age. Sleep and playtime were not always necessities; preparation for future success often took priority.

Although I am as far from the Olympic rings as East is from West, the framework for these parents rang true to my own heart- but off the ice and in a more bookish and academic setting.

It brought me back to my own Asian-American experience. Growing up, I was dipped in both cultures. My parents are both Chinese but spent their formative years in America. I myself passed my first five years in New Jersey before my family moved to Xiamen, China. My parents did not approve of the only English-speaking school that was available at the time so I spent ten years moving from local Chinese school, to personal Chinese English-speaking tutors, to an American internet curriculum before finally flying out to a private American international school in Taiwan to board for high school.

In the mix of students, this high school held a lot of Taiwanese kids whose parents desired for them to attend universities in the States after graduation; This cultivated a unique environment. My high school was like an American island in a sea of Taiwanese people; it pumped Western ideals and cultural nuances into the minds of these Asian students during the school day, who would then go home at night (if they were not boarding like me) and return to "reality."

A group of classmates celebrating a birthday. Three of the students I interviewed are present in the photo. Interviewee Roxanne is in the center second row in a striped blue dress. Jenny Sung is in the second row as well wearing a maroon romper and Jonathan is behind her on the right. Image Credit: Facebook/Ethan Chang 

While each family mixed American and Chinese cultures in their own ways, they all seemed like different versions of the Asian-American ideal: The parents invested heavily in education and extra curricular activities while the children strove towards academic excellence, vying for the highest ranking foreign universities they could get accepted to in the future. And ultimately, some of these students had, at varying degrees, what could seem to a completely Westernized society as "tiger moms" or "tiger parents".

In America, when this term is brought up, it usually is not in fondness. Many people with Western backgrounds wince at the thought of overly harsh, strict parents and children with narrow career choices laden with high expectations. Admittedly, the stereotype exists for a reason. But it is equally important to not simply view certain cases' extreme behaviors through an American lens, and instead go deeper behind the stereotype into different Asian cultures and histories. What is the story and perspective behind Asian parents and they reputation they tend to garner? A handful of peers from high school and one from a similar school in Taiwan addressed common stereotypes and shared their viewpoints on the tiger mom. They evaluated using either first-hand experience or in-depth speculations about their own country in comparison with the West.

"The term Tiger Mom only exists out of Asia"

"I think the harsh Asian parent stereotype is actually the result of looking at Asian parents with a Western mindset." Iris, a Taiwanese-American said. She grew up attending Taiwan American School and currently studies at Universite Paris Descartes.  

 "In Asia, the way many of these parents operate is the norm. And it's not by their choosing- it is how they know to survive in society. But when you start comparing Asian parents to American ones based solely on their behavior and without any cultural context, stereotypes are born."

"I think tiger moms also really come from Asian parents who desire to send their kids to the West." Jonathan, a Taiwanese-American from my high school who is now at The University of Toronto, added another perspective. 

 "These Asian parents are extra strict because they want their kids to study in American universities and competition is fierce. Although it is not easy for students who plan on staying in Asia, there is often a whole different level of pressure for those that want to leave the country or make it as immigrants there."

"B for Bad, A for Alright, A+ for Awesome"

Cultures that churn out generations of local "tiger moms" developed these certain characteristics through the need for survival. Korea has the highest education level in the world; their secret is simply pressure, "In Korea, your entire future is dependent on one test." Jenny, a Korean-American from my high school as well, explained. She is currently attending The University of British Columbia 

"There's only one time you can take it your senior year of high school to get into university. Planes don't fly that day to decrease disturbance and reporters are even assigned to record the students marching to determine their fate. To showcase the results, students are numerically ranked within the entire country's round of students that year. It's a huge amount of pressure. That's why parents place their kids in cram classes as early as elementary school. Right after they are free from regular school, they attend more school until around 10 p.m. There's an entire district in Korea dedicated to cram schools.

"But you can't blame parents for putting this kind of pressure on their kids. If it weren't for this pressure, these students wouldn't be able to make it. And if South Korea was not this cutthroat, the small country would not have grown as fast as it did. The generations before did their best to survive and build the country up from the ground. Their incredible work ethic and way of life was then passed to their children. It's a vicious cycle that just continues."

Jonathon spoke for Taiwanese and Chinese culture. Although the system specifications may vary, the pressure is the same, "In Taiwan and China, students under 'tiger moms' have to go to cram school or specific extracurricular programs all day. It's their life up until university."

Roxanne is a Taiwanese-American at Boston University. She added, "Cram school isn't just reserved for the rich, either. No matter your social class, it's kind of taken for granted that your kid should attend cram school if you want them to have a chance at college."

"Asian culture is purely competitive." Roxanne continued, "I think my mom is more open-minded (partially because I attended Morrison Academy). I was put in flute lessons from an early age and was taught to play for my own enjoyment and enrichment. I think this is a more American ideal, where you learn to better yourself. It's not the same in Asia. I had a family friend who started learning the flute around the same time as I did. But her parents were more traditional.

"The difference was obvious. I learned the flute by being disciplined in my practice in time, but ultimately knew it was for my own gain. On the other hand, my friend's mom constantly put her in competitions to train her. I used to ask her to practice together but she was constantly stressing about preparing for the next competition. She later had to attend a music high school and is now studying music in college. When we were younger, she told me that she had other passions, but was never able to pursue them because she had to take this path. Her future was kind of decided for her. I think she truly loves the flute now... But it was with time."

The competition in Asian culture caused people to have increasingly high expectations for their children, specifically in academics and careers. All loving parents, regardless of culture, want to help their children thrive in life by passing on what they consider important for their development. For generations, high education that eventually leads to stable jobs (typically as a doctor, lawyer, businessman) was the main way Asian parents knew how to secure solid futures for their children. Combine this with Asian family culture, where the children are also expected to support their parents in the future as their parents did before, and a layer of pressure emerges.

"Asian parents don't say, 'I love you.'"

The "tiger mom", aside from being notoriously strict, is also known for her lack of expression when it comes to love- that is, by Western standards.

"I said, 'I love you' to my parents first." At my American school, during elementary school, I was always hearing people say this to each other. So, I said it to my parents when they were tucking me into bed one night. They started saying it to me a lot afterward," Jonathon said sharing his own story.

"I just don't think many Asian cultures are affectionate in general. There's not a lot of hugging, kissing or words of affirmation that go around. There were a lot of YouTube videos at one point where Asian people call their parents and tell them, 'I love you' for the first time." Iris said.

Roxanne further explained, "Asian parents do express their love, just in different ways." This Wongfu short captures some of them by going behind what Asian parents "really" mean in seemingly insignificant day to day interactions that are common in the culture.

"In Asia, the way authority is viewed is completely different from America. It stems from Confucianism. This may not have to do with expressions of love per say, but it does affect the way the children relate and speak with their parents, the authority figures." Iris said. She mentioned a series by graphic artist Yang Liu that depicts common differences in Western and Asian culture.

Jenny speculated that another possible reason interactions between Asian parents and children are not as affectionate is due to the culture's work structure, "In Korea, at least," she began, "Parents work from 8 in the morning to late at night. When the kids go to school, the parents are already at work. When the parents come home, the children are probably in cram school or already sleeping. They honestly don't have much day to day interaction at all. How can you expect them to be warm when in some respects, they barely know each other? Only a few extremely rich families get to escape this cycle; for the most part, the lack of affectionate expression just continues from generation to generation."

These are just a few of the many stereotypes and personal perceptions surrounding Asian 'tiger parents.' While the validity of each statement may vary throughout families and specific Asian cultures, one truth remains: No matter where they are from, people usually want to provide the best for their children in ways they know how. For some parents, as with Chloe Kim's, this means moving countries and even sacrificing careers to develop their child. Other times, love is shown by providing stability through a sure but traditional path. People learn to adapt to a society's structure and then try to pass down what they know to their children. Either way, it is important to not measure love or competence through behaviors and methods alone- especially when taken out of a cultural context.