Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the January 2012 issue of NewsChina.
It’s amazing how many near-death experiences can be squeezed into a two-hour stint within the confines of an elementary school in China. The most mundane, some might say instinctive, actions can have drastic consequences if not carried out correctly. Going down stairs, washing hands, walking across the room— all scenarios require elders to enforce China’s unwritten safety regulations, whether for the child in their own care, or a classmate in the care of another, less attentive ayi. Every movement of the child must be watched, and commented on, in order to ensure their survival. The extent to which these ayi hover over the children entrusted to them makes me wonder, are they more concerned with the child’s safety, or with simply appearing concerned?
In the blissful summer before my junior year of high school, my parents forced me to take an SAT preparation course in the basement of a brown-brick building named The Lyceum. But despite the name, it was not a place of higher learning.
The teacher, a lumbering middle-aged woman, resembled Aristotle about as much as I resembled Alexander the Great. She stood in the front of a makeshift classroom that looked like it doubled for AA meetings and read from an open Princeton Review prep book. She taught us how to divine, through the process of elimination, the correct answer to reading problems even if we hadn’t understood the passage. She reminded us of things learned and forgotten, like scalene triangles and the transitive property. If you had told me, ten years ago in that depressing classroom, that one day I’d be in her shoes, I would have laughed and gone back to sleeping.
For many years I have griped at being patronized by Chinese colleagues, classmates and even friends with that age-old dismissal of my observations about their country or culture.
“You’re a foreigner. You don’t get it.”
Enter Let the Bullets Fly by the acclaimed filmmaker Jiang Wen, whose output I enjoyed while in college—particularly Devils on the Doorstep and In the Heat of the Sun, which I believe to be China’s most visually luscious film to date. Anyway, a colleague of mine arrived one morning at work raving about how subtly and ingeniously Bullets got its claws into the quagmire of Chinese politics, insisting it was Jiang Wen’s “masterpiece” and would “redefine Chinese cinema.”
Then the disclaimer: “I don’t think you’d be able to understand the political messages. After all, it’s about revolution, and pain, and suffering. It’s very Chinese.”
The Amy Chua parenting phenomenon goes international! The Wall Street Journal, originators of all this insanity, reports that a Chinese translation of Chua’s book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” has been released in China. The title in Chinese is “Being a Mom in America” and on the jacket flap below Chua’s picture are the words, “This story proves: when it comes to parenting, Eastern parents are more successful than Western parents.” For reasons why this is in violation of any and all logic, please refer to my previous post about Chua.
Amy Chua’s provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal has stirred up considerable debate, and rightly so. Her strict, even draconian, method of parenting is one that many parents will recognize, though perhaps in diluted form. She outlines the steps that she, a proud Chinese mother, took to ensure her children’s success. She doesn’t allow her children to attend sleepovers or playdates, to watch TV or play computer games. In a tautological flourish she says they are not allowed to “play any instrument other than the piano or violin” or “not play the piano or violin.” All the while she examines the difference between so-called “Chinese mothers” and “Western parents,” clearly favoring the former. But while she presents her regimen with confidence and pride, she neglects to examine the drawbacks of such austere parenting.
Sitting opposite yet another of the innumerable Chinese businessmen I interview on a weekly basis as he puffed on a pipe stuffed with what smelled like the most expensive organic Virginia available, I was gifted an insight into China’s new elite.
A recent Asia Times article had a rather interesting take on the Olympic Games. Besides ranking countries by gold medals per capita (with China and the United States ranking 33rd and 47th respectively, and Jamaica a stunning 1st), it points out that while China is now the new Olympic powerhouse, China has an extremely inactive population. I’d like to expand on that.
I had only been teaching in Beijing for a few months when I decided to ask my students about their future hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It seemed like a simple thing, guaranteed to spark some conversation and discussion and allow me to learn a little more about them. I was therefore surprised when the question engendered no comments at all. I thought it might have just been shyness so I quizzed students individually, but all I got were shrugs. I thought it might have been a vocabulary issue, so I switched to Chinese. The answer I received was simple: “I don’t know. Graduate and find a job, I guess.”