This post originally appeared on Caixin.
Tiger parenting is by now a well-documented phenomenon that has given pundits everywhere an extra column or two, and, for a certain original tiger mother, a New York Times best-seller.
I have something of a strange tie to tiger parenting. I grew up in Silicon Valley, home of Apple, Google, and the new American dream, a place where almost all my friends had Asian immigrant parents. I also go to Harvard, which is coincidentally the same school that Amy Chua’s children attend or attended. I recall Lulu, the younger daughter, walking into a dorm room and introducing herself to me while I struggled mightily to pretend that I had not already pored over her life story as told by her mother.
In my hometown, tiger parenting could be seen as a sort of litmus test to see which culture you were most familiar with. For a long time, Saratoga, my hometown of 20,000, was almost entirely white. And then the tech revolution brought new-money immigrants like my Chinese-born parents into the tech sector. After a stock market boom or two, they could afford a house in Saratoga, in all its suburban glory, with pristine lawns and an allegedly pristine school system.
To say that whites resented Asians or Asians resented whites would be a gross exaggeration of a largely utopian merger. Youth soccer leagues were run by parents of multiple ethnicities: Indian, white, Chinese, Korean. Often, they were co-workers in their fields. Parental involvement was unified in activities spanning from musicals to the Parent-Teacher Association.
But it was in academics where one could smell the distinct coded scent of a split. There’s a nearby high school called Lynbrook, which by now is probably upwards of 90 percent Asian. I had a friend there who used to joke that they called the white people “the few five.” Everyone knew the one black student by name.
The Wall Street Journal came out with an article in 2005 documenting “The New White Flight,” a twist on the term used to describe the phenomena of white people moving out of poor neighborhoods, taking their tax dollars with them, and often leaving largely black schools derelict and underfunded. At Lynbrook and nearby schools, the Journal writes, whites weren’t quitting schools because the schools were bad. And they weren’t harming them academically when they left; more Asians just moved in.
“Quite the contrary,” the article read. “Many white parents say they’re leaving because the schools are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurricular activities like sports and other personal interests. The two schools, put another way that parents rarely articulate so bluntly, are too Asian.”
Reading that article was a bit like accessing a cipher. It swiped away the coded rhetorical veneer that I had so often heard preached at my school. The administrators at my school, largely white, had spoken for years about limiting competition, decreasing stress, preventing students from skipping math levels. Around me, I noticed that almost all the parents or students complaining about the policies were Asian.
It wasn’t until I read the article that I was able to recognize the code words that the administrators used were, intentionally or unintentionally, aimed at countering an “Asian” school. I don’t mean to suggest any covert or overt racism on the part of my school administrators. They are not racist. But what their words and policies did show was a lack of understanding of Asian academic drive. At my school, we were inoculated against the evils of doing things for college applications, counseled to lessen our workload, reminded that true meaning in life was found not in academic success but in “personal worth.” I heard the phrase “self-esteem” so much that I wanted to throw up every time an inspirational speaker waltzed into our school.
This was all well and good, but at the same time the faculty advocated taking easier classes, avoiding tutors, and participating in fewer extracurricular activities. And not only was there a parent at home to scorn those ideas, our competitive drive immediately found them repulsive, also.
My cousin, who’s from China but studies in the American school system, wanted to skip a level of science. He’s kind of a lazy guy, typical middle school student who wants only to play video games. Getting that kind of self-motivation out of him was unprecedented. But when he met one-on-one with my high school’s vice principal, the administrator strongly advised him not to do so, and warned that he would fall terribly behind, as my cousin speaks English as a second language.
This doesn’t reflect poorly on the school administrator—ironically, it shows how much he cares, deigning to meet a lowly middle school student who isn’t even in high school yet. And he was probably right, too. But judging from the reactions of my parents, and from the cousin himself, the administrator’s advice reveals at the very least a cultural gap between Asian parents and school administrators, both of whom obviously want the best for the student but have vastly differing ideas on what “best” means. “Why would you discourage a child from taking harder classes if he believes he can do it?” my mother asked.
Which leads me back to tiger parenting. Because the cultural gap wasn’t just between Asian parents and school administrators. It was also between Asian students and white students; Asian parents and white parents. And tiger parenting was predictably viewed with either amusement (this is new?) or horror. It was as if on solely the issue of tiger parenting one could tease out from a randomly selected student or parent a vast array of demographic details, as specific as what level math are you in.
And you could see it at the school. Walk into an Advanced Placement Calculus BC math course and you’d have a hard time finding a white person, besides the (wonderful) teacher. Walk among the Asian students at lunch, and you’d hear some pretty racist things said about white people. There was a somewhat famous SAT tutor in the region who told a white student, a student known for being extremely intelligent, that he was pretty much Asian.
This didn’t reflect so much on the tutor as on the culture, because people agreed with him—the white student didn’t play football, he didn’t party, and his friends were almost all Asian as well. Especially in the higher grades, as classes began to diversify between difficult and easier, the racial self-segregation based on academic lines began to emerge in even greater clarity. White kids played football, smoked weed, and hooked up on the weekends. Asians studied and took Instagram photos at McDonald’s. (Interestingly, though, the Indians at my school were said to have a pretty raucous party scene. Cannot confirm, as I was never invited.)
By the end of my junior year, the only white friends I had were two girls in my high school newspaper and a girlfriend who was half-Asian, half-white but who was by most accounts even more “Asian” than I was. This was to some extent a form of relief. Being white was no longer cool, as the two cultures had largely split. I no longer worried about appearing “too Asian” to the jocks in my middle school English class. The meanest kids, by and large athletes, were relegated to lower, less difficult classes. The culture had split soundlessly into two separate circles, each involved in its own activities and contemptuous of the other.
I think this was largely why high school was so incredibly boring. Self-segregation made the group of friends I hung out with largely mirror images of myself—high-achieving Asian Americans who weren’t 100 percent socially inept (more like 40 percent). It seemed there was no point in getting to know anyone, because they had the same cultural experiences, which was good for mutual understanding, I suppose, but utterly terrible for any sort of exchange of ideas or backgrounds.
It wasn’t until after high school that I befriended a white girl, who shared my interest in literature. I wish I had met her earlier, but it seemed that while we went the same high school, there had been no way for our paths to cross, socially or academically. We swam in different circles, and it wasn’t until the circles had disintegrated post-graduation that I realized that the other circle existed.
My high school, academically top-of-the-line, illustrates one of the many absurdities of a country populated by different cultures and yet seemingly still possessed by that primordial urge to seek those whose skin color is the same—which goes to show once again that what is natural is not always good. In the end, we self-segregated because it made us feel more comfortable. And we lost out on all sorts of chaotic cultural interactions that might have happened in between.