American success stories

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, UCI Department of Art faculty member Sandra Tsing Loh discusses two recent books on immigration and identity in contemporary America. Loh’s cover-story review, entitled “Secrets of Success,” is  excerpted briefly below:

“Quanyu Huang’s new book, “The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-­American Kids,” may sound like yet another flogging for hapless Western parents, but it’s not.

“You can’t blame American mothers for still smarting from Amy Chua’s best-selling 2011 book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” In breathtaking and bold calligraphic strokes, she laid out her argument: American parents overindulge their children, allowing them sleepovers, video games and laughable ­extracurricular activities like playing Villager Number Six in the school play, as they collect trophies for being themselves in a self-esteem-centered culture. By contrast, Chinese parents strictly limit television, video games and socializing, accept no grades but A’s and insist on several hours a day of violin and piano practice, regardless of their children’s complaints. As a result, ­Chinese-parented kids play Carnegie Hall at 14, get perfect scores in science and math, and gain early admission to Harvard while their floundering American counterparts wonder what on earth hit them.

“Chua did some hasty backpedaling shortly thereafter, but Tiger Mom was forever out of the box. Now Quanyu Huang, a Chinese-born professor at Miami University of Ohio, proposes a kinder, gentler blending of East and West in what he calls the Hybrid Tiger. Because apparently the Chinese have their own educational woes.

“As early as the late 1970s, post-Cultural Revolution officials were already comparing American classrooms with their own. In contrast to tightly run Chinese schools (where students had nearly double the class time and much more homework), America’s chaotic classrooms were “carnivals” of rude children counting on their fingers and administrators “prattling on about meaningless subjects such as personal growth, self-esteem, individuality and creativity.” Triumphantly, the Chinese predicted that in 20 years China would lead the world in science and technology, and America would sink like Atlantis, a conclusion horrified American delegates agreed with. But no. Even today, while Chinese students still excel in test-taking, China has yet to produce a single Nobel Prize winner in the sciences or a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates (although, of course, American computer parts are made in China).

“From this stunning throw-down, Huang continues his intriguing contrarian analysis, offering a perplexed yet loving native son’s humanizing perspective on Chinese culture. Yes, he says, the Chinese invented paper, gunpowder, the compass and printing press — but for what ends? They used gunpowder for fireworks and compasses for feng shui, never thinking to mass-produce books or dreaming that Westerners would eventually attack them with their own inventions. The Chinese’s fifth invention, though, was the standardized test. Dating back to the seventh century (Sui Dynasty), it was less punishment than a marvelously democratizing tool through which lowborn citizens were able to advance their position. This is the DNA beneath a centuries-old reverence for education; it’s why Chinese children attend school from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with such fervent dedication.

“And it’s those sheer hours, Huang argues, with his own parental examples, that make the difference. Chinese kids are not allowed to quit studying when it’s not “fun.” By contrast, “American children are scared of math, not because they lack the ability to think logically in abstract terms, but because of their attitude toward studying.” Is Tiger Mother right, then? Surprisingly, Huang says no, arguing that she is not even very Chinese: “Her harsh, anachronistic methods are out of date and far outside of what is acceptable and encouraged in mainstream society in China today” (not to mention that real Chinese parents would insist on their child playing not just piano and violin but Chinese instruments). When he presented mainland Chinese parents with the Tiger Mother’s harsh child rearing methods (which readers will recall included threatening to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals), they were stunned. “The Tiger Mother is a creature of confusion,” Huang writes. “She is a mix of Amy Chua’s interpretation of what Chinese mothers do, Western egocentrism and plain, simple sensationalism.”

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