Monday, September 26, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I've just finished reading Amy Chua's hugely controversial memoir "the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". The book by the Chinese-American Yale professor (photo above) on how she raised her two daughters has already generated much discussion, and some of it has even reached China.

In her book, Amy Chua tells us about how she set out to raise her two daughters in a strict Chinese style (or what she considers to be the Chinese style), even though she lives in Connecticut and her husband is not even Chinese. The daughter of Chinese immigrants who came to the States from Fujian through the Philippines, she was raised in a very strict fashion by her parents, always being expected to excel in school and in anything else she did and never being allowed to mess around. After becoming a Yale professor, Chua decided that she was not going to give in to the soft and liberal approach to parenting which "Westerners" favour, but she would stick to the model which she believed had worked so well for her. Her husband, another Yale professor raised in a liberal Jewish household, rather surprisingly agreed to let her have her way ( although "in exchange" the girls were brought up as Jews with Bat Mitzvahs and the like).

In the book, Chua's methods come across as quite extreme. The girls are never (and I mean never) allowed to attend sleepovers, watch TV or play computer games, get any grade less than an A, act in school plays and a host of other things. Their mother chooses an instrument for the two of them (the piano for the older daughter and the violin for the younger one) and forces them to practice hours a day, pushing them to excel as much as is humanely possible. As a result, both of them become prodigious musicians as well as star students. But while the oldest daughter Sophie responds quite well to this upbringing, her younger sister Lulu has a rebellious personality and is much less willing to go along with her mother. By the age of thirteen she has her way and breaks free from her mum's control, refusing to play the violin any longer.

Part of the book's controversy originated from this piece in the Wall Street Journal which contains excerpts from the book designed to shock and a title ("why Chinese mothers are superior") which the author later said she didn't choose and disagrees with. Much of the fuss probably originates with the unease in the US at the idea that there might be one billion Chinese tiger mothers producing super kids, waiting in the wings to take away Americans' jobs and turn China into the new superpower. In any case, I found the book to be extremely readable and sometimes quite amusing, and I finished it in the space of a weekend. Amy Chua's parenting methods certainly come over as ridicolously over the top, especially the way she obsesses over her children's musical progress, which seems to border on insanity (for god's sake, playing the violin or the piano don't even lead to a good job, except if you are going to be a musician, but I suspect she would not consider that a decent occupation for her kids, since you don't need a Yale degree for it.) She later stated that she exaggerated it all in the book for literary effect, which I certainly hope.

Others have already written lots about the obvious downsides to her way of being parent: you are depriving your kids of valuable social skills by preventing them from socializing, you are preventing them from discovering their own interests and developing their own personalities (although she claims that these are Western preoccupations which the Chinese don't share, because they believe children need guidance) etc....

What I am struck by is Chua's attitude towards China and Chinese culture. This woman was born and raised in the States and went to an American school. She has never lived in China and her ideas about Chinese culture seem to be based entirely on her parents, who must have left China something like sixty years ago. And yet she feels completely Chinese, and often speaks about the "Westerners" who surround her in opposition to her Chinese self. It doesn't seem to strike her that Chinese culture and the Chinese immigrant culture in the States which she grew up in might not be quite the same. It reminds me of an article I once read about Chinese Americans who move to China and are surprised to find that they don't fit in at all.

And while she is going on about the advantages of forcing children to engage in rote learning for hours, choosing their hobbies for them and never being happy with anything but As, here in China there is increasing interest in more liberal Western approaches to child rearing (although the Chinese schooling system doesn't make it easier to allow children to take time off from schoolwork).
It also strikes me that Chua's methods might make sense in the context of China, a country of a billion people where most children have to work extremely hard to even have a hope of getting into university, and there is huge competition for everything. However, they don't make sense in the context of a privileged American family whose children will have loads of opportunities whatever happens.

Amy Chua's book has been translated into Chinese, with the title 我在美国做妈妈(being a mother in the US) . With characteristic lack of political correctness, it was added on the bottom of the Chinese cover that: "this book proves it: in the field of educating children, Eastern parents are more successful than Western parents." Some Chinese commentators have pointed out how the book is actually very un-Chinese, because even though many Chinese mothers could identify with the author's obsessive desire for her children to excel, none of them would ever publicly expose embarrassing facts about their family life with such honesty and candor.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sounds which the Chinese mix up.

It is a universally held stereotype in the West that the Chinese and the Japanese cannot distinguish between the letters L and R. When it comes to the Japanese, this stereotype does hold true in my experience. When Douglas MacArthur was running as presidential candidate in the States, his Japanese supporters displayed a banner in the centre of Tokyo, reading "we play for MacArthur's erection".

When it comes to the Chinese on the other hand, it is little realized that it is only the Chinese from the South who can't distinguish between L and R, since Southern dialects don't distinguish between the two. Southerners get the two sounds mixed up even when speaking standard Mandarin Chinese, which does distinguish between the L and the R (although the Chinese R is a bit different from ours, and the ability to produce a long rolled R can make the Chinese fall around with laughter.)

The Chinese from the South have much greater trouble pronouncing the sounds of standard Mandarin Chinese than do Northerners in general. This is unsurprising, since the language is based on the Beijing dialect, which is closer to other Northern dialects than to the Southern ones.
Another mix up which is not at all well known in the West, but which I find far more baffling than the inability to tell an L from an R, is the lack of distinction between the L and N sounds which one finds in many dialects of Southern China (although not in all of them).

When I traveled through Guizhou province, understanding the locals' Mandarin was made harder by their constant and unconscious substitution of N for L. Although I had never thought about it before coming to China, I suppose the two letters are pronounced similarly. I know lots of people in Beijing who come from Sichuan, Guizhou or Hunan, and they are still unable to tell the two sounds apart. If they know English they will make the same mistake in English, referring to a lecture as "necture" or Mr.Li as "Mr. Ni". Although some of them do make an effort to learn the difference between the two letters (which is after all marked in the Pinyin they learn in school), it still seems to take a conscious effort for them to remember which one is which. A bit like me with the second and third tones of Chinese.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Life as an ant-person

Here in China the term "ant-people" ( 蚁族) has become popular in recent years to describe a certain demographic in Chinese society: the masses and masses of young people, often university graduates, living in cheap and overcrowded accommodation on the outskirts of big Chinese cities and shifting from one job to another.

Although I am certainly not part of that demographic (I have not heard of any "foreign ant-people" yet, although one day soon it may start happening), my current accommodation is making me feel like the definition fits me and my flatmates rather well. I am living in a flat on the 14th floor of a high-rise in Haidian district. The flat is one of the old-style Chinese ones, with no living room, but just a small kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms. It is facing a large junction, so that there is quite a racket from all the engines and hooting down below, especially when the windows are open. My flatmates are two young men, a Chinese and a Japanese, who work here. As is normal in this kind of place I didn't know my flatmates before moving in, and indeed I never even met them before signing the contract. There is also no suggestion that we should get to know each other.
There is an abundant number of flats of this kind around in Beijing: relatively cheap flats where young working people live, often for relatively brief periods of time (but it can be years). The atmosphere is almost like a hostel, so that although you share the same kitchen and bathroom with the others, you do not necessarily get to know them or ever feel that you are actually living together. There is normally no such thing as a living room, or if there is it goes unused, since people spend their free time surfing the internet in their own (often tiny) bedrooms, and do not feel that the rest of the flat is really their home. In fact, it is normal to lock your bedroom whenever you go out, since you are basically sharing a flat with strangers. Another feature of these flats is that while people keep their own bedrooms clean, there is no agreed rotation for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, so very often they are simply not cleaned, or cleaned only very rarely.

Last year I stayed in another flat of this kind for a few months, and there were two Chinese girls living there who never took the trouble to introduce themselves to me a single time while I was staying there. There were also three rather nice young boys from Guanxi province who were sharing a bedroom, and they invited me to chat and drink beer in their room a number of times.

Life for most of these young people (who are usually university graduates and work in offices) in a place like Beijing is often stressful and not much fun: they earn comparatively little money, they live in cramped and not very high-quality accommodation, they sometimes work overtime for no extra pay, and they have to commute for ages in unbelievably crowded buses and subway trains. Most of them come from other parts of China and make the long journey home only once a year, for the Spring Festival. Except if they go to some park in the weekend, the only scenery they ever see is a concrete jungle of high rises and more high rises, cars, people and polluted air above.
Most of them will also readily complain about how in Beijing 压力太大(the pressure is so great). Because of the stress and the pressure of living in Beijing, most of the city's locals have apparently migrated to the extreme suburbs outside the fifth ring road, where life is still comparatively less stressful. Within the fifth ring road, where the city proper is located, there are now only two million native Beijingers, and eight million waidiren, or outsiders.