Ben Efsanem - Asian parenting: Is it wicked?
…Is It Wicked?
In the wake of Mother’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to write in praise of Asian parents since most of the time Asian parents are written about as though they are monsters (just like asians in general). It should come as little surprise that even on the subject of Asian parents, mainstream America has its own set of ideas and beliefs that seem to emerge from the peristalsis fed by a diet of ignorance, misinformation, and sometimes even, bad will.
There’s little doubt that ideas about Asian parents are a subset of stereotypes about Asian people in general. Of course, it doesn’t help that some Asians themselves bottom-feed opportunistically off of the phenomenon, scoring brownie points, perhaps, amongst the mainstream intelligentsia for throwing off the illusory shackles of oppressive Asian cultures. The mainstream, in turn, is grateful that its widely held racial stereotypes are seemingly justifiably absolved of charges of racism because how can a stereotype be racist when it is true?!
Ideas about Asian parents seem to be based on the notion that they are emotionally distant, cold, and extremely harsh. An unhelpful tendency amongst some Asian-Americans (cynical and deliberate or not) to racialize personal choices must contribute to normalizing such stereotypes. For example, Amy Chua’s uneducated guesstimation that asserted her personal preference of harsh dragon-lady type mothering as typical of Asian cultures has subsequently been shown to be a puff of magical dragon smoke in light of actual studies showing that claims that her methods are representative of Asian mothers to be false. According to that study, Asian parents are generally more loving and sensitive to the specific needs of their children than any stereotype of an emotionally remote Sheol of Asian humanity would want us to believe.
The ramifications are disturbing for those who thrive off of propagating stereotypes about pervasive Asian emotional handicaps. If Asian parents as a group, generally turn out to be as supportive and emotionally warm with their kids as the white-parenting Gold Standard, then where does that leave all of those commentators who assert that harsh Asian parenting is responsible for the dearth of Asians in positions of authority in industry, or the lack of iconic Asian-American cultural figures, or any other dearth of Asians where it might be expected? As the study suggested, harsh parenting does produce emotionally and socially stunted offspring, but Asian parents apparently aren’t particularly harsh as a general rule, so, of course, that puts the ball right back into the court of mainstream attitudes as, perhaps, a significant factor for this state of affairs.
On the subject of cultural “icons”, it is probably not entirely accurate to say that we don’t have any of Asian descent, but who are the Asians that we can say are iconic in the sense that they are greatly admired or emulated, the appreciation of whom transcends racial and cultural boundaries? Several come to mind off the top of my head; PSY, Manny Pacquiao, and Bruce Lee, to name but three, but few (if any) Americans of Asian descent meet the criteria to be labeled “culturally iconic”. It could be persuasively argued that the fact that there are (albeit limited) cultural icons of Asian descent strongly indicates that mainstream prejudices are insignificant.
But my sense is that since Asians growing up in the US, are likely be exposed to racially inflected negative and hostile attitudes and behaviours starting the moment they step foot into the first-grade classroom (or turn on the television) - behaviours that are culturally normalized in politics and the media - there may be pressures not accounted for in this narrative that discourages outspokenness and social confidence. It could be that mainstream America simply doesn’t want American icons with Asian faces because they cannot accept that Americans can or should have Asian faces. In any case, it seems to be becoming increasingly unreasonable to blame Asian parenting for Asians not making to the “top” in the numbers one would expect for such a highly educated group.
I think that amongst Asian-Americans there is something of a “grass is greener” syndrome at work when comparing their upbringings with that of their white peers - it is not uncommon to hear Asians assert that white kids are more “well-rounded” and "happier. This may be especially acute for those who may find social integration or interaction to be a challenge - for example, those Asian men who fault the way that their parents raised them as the cause of their lack of success with women. The narrative goes like this; Asian parents are harsh and don’t let their kids socialize (the way that white parents do) and so Asians don’t get the opportunities to learn how to socialize appropriately, or in the case of Asian men don’t learn how to “get good with the chicks”. Well, this doesn’t appear to be true. As the study shows, Asian parents are usually quite happy to let their kids socialize, so if Asian men are experiencing social awkwardness it has to be a more holistic issue and not just the result of Asian parents teaching awkwardness. It should be said, that Asian kids might also be “happier” and “well-rounded” if they didn’t have to deal with pervasive and culturally normalized anti-Asian racism in the school environment.
I do have to say at this point that I laugh at the suggestion that white parents somehow “teach” their kids how to socialize with others their age (or that white kids are “well-rounded”), simply because if you are a thirty-five-plus parent and you know how to interact with early-pubescent kids, then you are probably extremely creepy. It’s called the generation gap, and it is a very real phenomenon; once past a certain age, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand how younger generations interact, and you find that you have less and less in common, and less and less to talk about with younger people. This means that almost all parents have little to offer when it comes to the all-important details of socialization amongst their offspring, because that is the nature of human socialization; older generations find it increasingly difficult to relate to younger generations. Certainly, there are core values that parents should teach, and basic manners, but parents have absolutely no way to know how successive generations are interacting with each other, and there is no reason to believe that Asian parents don’t teach these core values to their kıds.When it comes to teaching how to “interact with girls” I find it hard to believe that white parents take their sons out and show them how pick up chicks!
No, people learn socialization skills (including interaction with the opposite sex) basically on their own amongst a group of similarly aged and minded people. And this is where the problems arise because in truth, it is not the Asians who are awkward but America that is awkward with us. Look at it this way; American culture normalizes behaviour towards Asians that is demeaning and dehumanizing. Some of the ways this manifests are through mockery of our racial characteristics (e.g. the “chink-eye”), mockery of “Asian” languages (e.g. “ching-chong”), propagation of stereotypes that promote harassment of Asians, and a culture of normalization of images of sadistic violence towards Asians. So think about how difficult it is to learn culturally appropriate socialization when the culture that you belong to promotes casual racist behaviour towards you.
We know that this is pervasive and normalized because it happens in every strata of American society and across generations - from children in the playground targeting Asian kids with racial slurs and racial mockery, to beloved mainstream celebs doing the same thing on television or in the media, and from common movie images of justified violence against some Asian foe, to justifications of violence against Asian shopkeepers in America’s ghettos. Wherever one looks, one can see that mainstream American culture models behaviour that makes it normal to target Asians with demeaning behaviour at best or harassment and violence at worst.
But Asians want to believe that it is we who have the problem of social awkwardness when, in fact, America has a problem of malign social awkwardness with us (just think back to how awkward America was with Jeremy Lin last year and how second-nature and normal it was to post comment about him in racialized stereotyped ways). So, if Asians are somehow finding it difficult to integrate socially, yes, perhaps some of our parents could do with some updates on how to better socialize their kids, but the elephant in the room here is that American culture itself is a major culprit in normalizing behaviour towards Asians that would be considered unsociable and appalling if enacted with any other non-Asian individual or group.
Given that so much of the life experiences of Asian-Americans are determined by skewed mainstream cultural norms, it seems unfair to expect Asian parents to know how deal with this. It would be nice to think that we could turn to our mothers and fathers and they would have a solution to this problem, but that is unrealistic - after all, how would they know how to fix that problem. The truth is that no matter how well-rounded Asian parents raise their children to be, they will always come up against this normalization of racial awkwardness towards them fostered by American culture.
In no way does this discount the experiences of those who have indeed suffered from extremely harsh or abusive parenting - Asians are as prone to this as any group, no more, no less - but even for these people my sense is that it is better to clarify that it is likely that they would come up against mainstream attitudes and behaviours that promote social difficulties for Asians, even if their parents had not been harsh. Having supportive parents doesn’t make these problems go away, and there is little reason to believe that having a well-rounded upbringing will make you better able to deal with the casual prejudices that Asians are almost certain to encounter.