‘Tiger mothers’ turn out to have deep pockets that fuel kids’ success

By James Palmer Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-28 22:23:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published in 2011, it caused a media storm in both the US and China. The Chinese American Chua argued that the aggressive, uber-critical parenting style she'd been raised under, and practiced herself, was a more effective one than laid-back American parenting. She attributed the success of Asian Americans in the US to this parenting style.

But Chua's argument was based on little but personal experience and anecdotes, combined with a desire to be as provocative as possible for the sake of sales.

In that last quest, it certainly succeeded. Chua pointed to her own children's Ivy League success as evidence that her methods worked.

Yet, as many critics pointed out, with both parents wealthy Yale professors, the chances of her kids not getting into top colleges were statistically very low, whatever their background. Her follow-up book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, co-written with her husband Jed Rubenfeld, was equally short on evidence and long on stereotypes.

A new, rigorous analysis by Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at UCI, and Min Zhou, a professor of sociology and Asian American studies at UCLA, demonstrates the spurious nature of Chua's cultural claims.

Their book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, uses a combination of numerous in-depth interviews and wide-spanning survey data. 

Their conclusion? Asian Americans' success is down to the highly educated nature of Asian immigrants, not any nebulous cultural factors or harsh parenting.

At the time of greatest immigration, 51 percent of Chinese immigrants had a college degree, compared to just 4 percent of the Chinese population - and only 28 percent of the US population. Equally, 70 percent of Indian immigrants were college-educated. And parental education, far more than any other factor, determines children's own chances of going to college and future success.

Chinese immigration to the US has come in waves, but in the 1950s to 1980s it was predominantly members of the elite, either fleeing the Communist takeover or coming from Chinese regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan later. The US Immigration and Nationalities Act of 1965, which focused on immigrants' skills and education, produced another group of highly-educated, highly-competitive immigrants.

But for individuals, whose parents weren't lucky enough to be educated, the burdens placed on them by stereotypes of Asian success can be hard to carry.

Lee and Zhou's findings are important not only as a rebuttal to abusive child-raising practices, but also in contextualizing the success of some immigrant groups, and the relative "failure" of other minorities.

Conservative US groups, including some Asian Americans, have long bashed African Americans for supposed "cultural" failings that keep them down.

This conveniently ignores the intense, centuries-long discrimination against black Americans that still continues, as tragically highlighted in the last couple of years by cases like the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland.

Yet even if the US was magically cured of racism tomorrow, the lack of education and wealth among most African American families would perpetuate generational poverty, just as the superior education (and in some cases, wealth) of Asian American immigrants produced generational success.

But stereotypes about success have also been hard on those Asian American groups that arrived in the US from backgrounds of poverty and illiteracy, rather than coming from the continent's elite. The Hmong are a prominent example.

A Southeast Asian minority group that crosses borders, thousands of them were flown to the US in belated recognition of their fight, on behalf of Washington, against the then North Vietnamese Army in Laos.

Today there are over 250,000 Hmong in the US. But because they come from a background of rural poverty and communal disaster, they're still severely disadvantaged. About 30 percent of them live under the poverty line, and just 7 percent have a college degree. There're many examples of individual success, but as a community, they remain hamstrung by poverty and lack of education. 

Acknowledging the relative good fortune and elite nature of most of the community doesn't take away from the hard work and determination of Chinese immigrants. But it puts it in a context that lets us avoid blaming those who fail.

The author is an editor with the Global Times. jamespalmer@globaltimes.com.cn

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