I had ten train rides on my recent trip to Finland, and while I certainly enjoy looking at the Finnish countryside, one six-hour train trip and then another ten-hour train trip sure meant a lot of trees and lakes to look at. I felt I should bring some books along on my vacation. I brought two and read them both. The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids by Quanyu Huang was started on my train trip back to Helsinki from Tampere. The author examined the reasons behind the stereotype that so many Asian children surpass the grades of all others in their classes. First of all, I do not like the term “Asian” when referring to those from China/PR China/Japan/Korea. Asia, in my opinion, stretches as far west as Israel, and I am to a fault a very literal person. When you ask me to come over at 2 p.m., I will ring your doorbell at 2 p.m. When you ask me to meet you somewhere in fifteen minutes, I will be there in exactly fifteen minutes. Thus the use of “Asian” here is synecdoche, and I acknowledge that I fight a losing battle in requesting another term specifically for Chinese/mainland Chinese/Japanese/Korean people, because when I hear the term “Asian”, I also think of those who inhabit the Arabian peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and the landlocked former Soviet republics.
Huang was born in mainland China and moved to the United States to teach at a university. Thus he had the opportunity to see the American educational system in action. Hybrid Tiger examined the pros and cons of both educational systems and also provided the history behind the importance of early education in China. Huang’s son Yan was born in the States, and he used his son as an example where Yan experienced both educational philosophies.
Right away, Huang refuted Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, stating that no Chinese parents would ever act as cruelly as Chua in her abusive disciplinary helicoptering over her own daughters. Chua’s parenting style was mentally abusive, and Huang found no supporters of the Chua method among any of the Chinese he had asked about it. In Huang’s opinion, Chua did a disservice to the Chinese community by painting such a constraining–even a choking–view of the way parents raise their own children. Chua’s method was entirely her own warped sense of what “Chinese parenting” should be. Thank goodness no one in China raises children that way. Huang even seemed to enjoy taking Chua down a few notches. For example, Chua is obsessed with providing her children a thorough “Chinese” education, yet forced them to choose between piano or violin lessons, neither of which is a Chinese instrument.
One point that Huang raised throughout Hybrid Tiger is that Chinese students seem to perform spectacularly well during their primary and secondary school years, yet plateau thereafter. Grades for Chinese students in American universities aren’t higher than those of their fellow students:
“First, if analysis is confined to students at the primary and secondary levels, there is no question that the delegates were correct. Chinese education is undoubtedly ‘better’ during these early phases. In fact, excellence is peerless in these initial stages of education–rising almost to the level of bizarre.
“In the later stages of education, however, there is a surprising, countervailing pattern. At the highest levels of academic and scientific achievement, the very same Chinese-educated students who excelled in the early stages struggle to have any impact at all. In fact, in terms of important postgraduate scientific research, researchers at Chinese universities and institutions have almost entirely failed to contribute anything of note.”
I found Huang’s last remark to be extremely controversial. A non-Chinese making that point would be called a racist. But Huang stated again and again–and one fault of Hybrid Tiger is its repetition, as well as its overuse of italics–that no Chinese educated at a mainland Chinese university has ever won a Nobel Prize or Fields Medal. The only prizewinners of Chinese descent to have won Nobel Prizes were educated at American universities. Why can’t Chinese universities produce international award winners? Huang raised the point that the American style of education surpasses the Chinese way of doing things in producing these winners. Huang was left speechless when he sat in on a primary class and watched as the eight-year-olds questioned their teacher. These children were encouraged to speak their minds and to develop their spirit of independent thought. Such a spirit is suppressed in Chinese education, where children are encouraged to memorize by rote and produce results upon demand. Huang felt that this style of education inhibits the students as adults from developing a sense of innovation:
“Chinese education creates excellent exam takers while American education cultivates learning explorers. This is an essential difference between Chinese and American education.
“The purpose of the Academic Olympiad, PISA, and every other standardized test is to evaluate students’ ability to recapitulate already-established knowledge. The Nobel Prizes in scientific disciplines encourage scientists to explore and discover new knowledge.”
“In short, American educational strategies tend to benefit the best and brightest while fostering mediocrity among average students; Chinese educational strategies cultivate widespread competence and even excellence for the majority of students while constraining the creativity of the brightest students by focusing their efforts too narrowly on exam success.”
Huang spent a great portion of the book on the historical basis for a Chinese family’s sense of unity:
“Many immigrant families, particularly the first generation, started from poverty and built their achievements step by step. More importantly, the children experienced this firsthand; the parents’ difficulties and struggles live on in the memories of the kids. When parents silently sacrifice themselves, contributing whatever they can toward their children’s wants and needs, they simultaneously build authority in their kids’ minds.”
Yet when it comes to education, no degree of attention is too much. Obsession is not too strong a word, as Huang relates:
“When it comes to a child’s education, the traditional Chinese family is set up in such a way as to reduce agency costs. The family does this by making the child’s education one of the highest priorities (if not the single highest priority) of the entire family. The child’s education is the central goal for the family. As such, Chinese parents are eager to do things for their children that many Western parents simply would not be willing to do.”
“Substantial and direct involvement in a child’s education is the norm in China. It is one of the central characteristics of Chinese parenting. Within a Chinese family, a child’s studies are rarely left up to him or her alone.
“Chinese parents feel a deep and personal responsibility for their child’s success in school. For many parents, the centerpiece of their parental responsibility is ensuring that their child succeeds in education. Few Chinese parents would hesitate to sacrifice any amount of time, money, or effort to ensure that their child stays ahead of the curve. While parental involvement can take all shapes and sizes–from harsh and strict to warm and accommodating–the result is that Chinese parents become inextricably bound up in their children’s education.
“Since many Chinese families have only one child, a child’s performance in school often becomes the sole focus of the entire family. This is why it is not uncommon for one parent to completely give up his or her career to stay home to instruct, tutor, and guide the child in his or her studies.”
With such a sense of concentrated devotion:
“The feeling that one must ‘win’ at education is much more pervasive in Chinese education than anywhere else in the world.”
I admired both Huang and his son Yan for putting themselves so out there as an experiment. Yan certainly didn’t seem to be bothered by his father writing about his early American school days. Yan contributed his experiences and offered his own testimony as a product of both education systems. He grew up to be a successful lawyer and author, and still had plenty of time for recreation and friends, both of which were banned under the Amy Chua method.
Huang wrote about the importance of shared experiences among Chinese families. He encouraged American families to make more of an effort to do things together, as this leads to a tighter family unit and enhanced communication. It also establishes authority, a key ingredient in developing discipline as well as trust. I enjoyed reading about the Huang family’s efforts to produce a Chinese dictionary for nonnative speakers. I look at these dictionaries curiously, as I am genuinely interested in acquiring one yet have no idea how I would use it. Surely there must be a way for people without knowledge of the Chinese language to use them. I recall the Chinese students in my Finnish classes flipping through their dictionaries from the Chinese-Finnish side in order to find words to formulate questions. Easy for native speakers to use, but how to teach those indexing skills to nonnatives? Huang shared the family unity he experienced compiling the dictionary with his wife and son. I was naturally intrigued by his family’s efforts to produce the quintessential Chinese dictionary that I researched it and subsequently ordered McGraw-Hill’s Chinese Dictionary and Guide to 20,000 Essential Words: A New Method for Non-Native Speakers to Look Up the 2,000 Most Commonly Used Characters in Chinese.