Parenting  •  May 15, 2011

How to Raise Asian-American Children

The short answer is: I don’t really know. I don’t think anyone knows. So we need to make our best guesses, and that is what I would like to do below. Let me divide us Asian-American parents into two schools of thought. One school believes that we should teach our children whatever we know about our Asian heritage, which includes language, culture, values, customs, etc.. The other school believes that we should do our best to raise our children as Americans. Naturally, there are a lot of people who fall somewhere between the two extremes. Let’s call the first school, “bi-cultural school” and the latter “assimilation school”.

Statistically I’m not sure which school is more popular, but my own anecdotal evidence suggests that bi-cultural school is significantly more popular, at least among the first generation (immigrant) Japanese parents. My daughter attends a public school here in New York City and there are many Japanese parents. I’m one of the few parents who does not send their kids to Japanese schools on weekends, and I may be the only parent who does not teach Japanese to his child. Even my own parents are baffled by the fact that I do not. If my family was living in Japan, I would certainly teach my child English. The reason why I don’t teach my child Japanese has to do with the specific time in history and the context that my child will grow up in. Needless to say, I’m in the assimilation school.

Last week, New York Magazine published a thought-provoking article entitled “Paper Tigers – What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?” The article meticulously analyzes what Asian-Americans experience in this country. The author, Wesley Yang, is a second generation Asian-American, and I do not believe he has a child. He writes from a point of view of a child and a victim. If he were a parent, he could not be so one-sided, since he would be partly responsible for what his children experience in the world. Although he covers a wide range of issues, parenting is left out.

Towards the end of the article, Yang reveals his own opinions of how Asian-Americans should behave in this country. He suggests that we behave more like the Americans. We shouldn’t be shy about getting (or demanding) what we want, but at the same time he suggests we should not do so by assimilating into the white-dominant culture, i.e., what white people find pleasant, comfortable, desirable, or appropriate.

For instance, he suggests we become more entrepreneurial and start our own businesses instead of working for white-dominant businesses. This makes sense. We could manage our own businesses any way we see fit. We wouldn’t have to smile if we don’t feel like smiling. We could even tell our white employees to act more like we do, and reward those who do. (One of my white American friends working in Japan told me that, this is essentially what is happening there.) If we work for a white-dominant business, naturally their rules, values, and appropriateness would dominate, and if we were to insist on being ourselves, and refuse to master their culture and values, we are not going to succeed.

Until quite recently, the world was racially segregated. We can’t expect the white people to undo over night their cultures, customs, and values which developed in the racially segregated world for centuries and over many generations. It would be silly if a white American went to work for a Japanese corporation in Japan and complained that their corporate culture favored Japanese customs and values. If he wants to do it his way, he should start his own business in Japan.

We cannot so easily change our cultures. Whether we like it or not, this is the reality. The question we should be asking as Asian-American parents is: How could we prepare our children for this reality?

The way I see it, culture is very much like language (and language is very much like culture); it is something you can learn and master, and you can master multiple cultures. We can master both Asian and white cultures. We do not have to give up one to master the other. Yang says in his article “Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.” He goes as far as to say, “I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.” In my view, the problem is his pride and ego. As an Asian-American parent, this is where my biggest concern lies.

Suppose the British colonized your country; you could refuse to learn English to maintain pride and respect for your own country, but there is nothing wrong with learning another language either. The same goes for learning the white culture. Mastering it does not mean your soul has to assimilate into it. There are plenty of Americans who move to Asian countries because they are interested in learning more about Eastern cultures. This does not mean that they hate their own cultures, or that they need to lose their American soul. I suspect it is Yang’s insecurity or inferiority-complex that drives him to take on such a hardened attitude. It’s a defense-mechanism. I have met many second generation Asian-Americans who struggled with their own identities in their 20s and 30s. At least among the people I know, first generation Asian Americans do not suffer from this. Why? I have my own theories.

First generation Asian-Americans consciously chose to learn and master the American culture when they immigrated to this country. By that point, they were already sitting on solid cultural foundations of their home country. As they lived in the US, they experienced different values, points of view, behaviors, customs, appropriateness, etc.. They consciously observed and understood the differences. This is the critical part: Being conscious of the differences enables them to use them appropriately in different contexts.

In contrast, second generation Asian-Americans grew up not knowing what is Asian and what is American. To them, whatever the cultural environments their parents put them into were their own singular cultural experience. They are unable to determine where their own influences came from. And, when they enter the real world, they begin to realize that their own behaviors, values, and ways of communication and expression are not the norm. They have to essentially go back in time to sort it all out, but this isn’t easy because both cultures are so inextricably fused by that point. This, I believe, is what leads to their identity crisis in their youth.

When children learn two languages simultaneously in their early childhood, their brain structure becomes physically different from that of monolingual children. This is touted as a benefit, but I am skeptical. What is beneficial is determined by the market, what the world will be like when they grow up. Many people misunderstand the theory of evolution to mean that there are fundamentally and universally superior qualities. (This misunderstanding gave birth to Social Darwinism.) Who is “fittest” is not determined by any universal qualities but by the changing environment. It is possible that the world our children will be living in would favor the bilingual brain structure but the opposite scenario is also possible. Therefore, I’m skeptical of any such “scientific” claims about “benefits”. I believe that this inextricable fusion is what leads to the confusion about their own identities. Because the fusion of two different cultures and languages is physical, it becomes impossible to determines the sources of their influences, so they can’t use them individually and effectively, and eventually give up by saying “Fuck all y’all”.

In my view, growing up in an Asian family in the US is similar to growing up in a Hasidic community in that it ill-prepares you for the real world, and sadly it’s worse than growing up in a Hasidic community because at least they are more aware of the differences between their own culture and that of the outside world, and they also have their own support system. This problem is made worse by sending Asian kids to schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York City where the majority is Asian. (However, just for the record, I do not support race-based school admission policies. Schools have no business using race for that. I’m suggesting the parents to think carefully about where they send their children.)

I believe it would be better for my child to master the American culture first. I would like to put her on a solid cultural foundation first. If she becomes interested in learning Japanese or more about the culture of Japan, she can consciously choose to do so on her own will. I believe this would enable her to use both cultures appropriately and more effectively. I also believe that having a solid cultural foundation would make it less likely for her to have an identity crisis in her 20s, although some degree of that would probably be unavoidable.

This practice of mastering one thing and using it as a foundation to explore others can be seen in many fields. Great chefs, for instance, usually master one cuisine and then explore other cuisines to create fusions of their own. Constantly moving your family does not make your children masters of different environments; it just makes them insecure and even neurotic. It’s better for children to have a solid foundation/home from which they can safely explore the world. At the beginning of your career, it’s better to stay put in one city and build a solid network of friends and colleagues before you start exploring different cities. For the same reason, it’s usually better to attend college in the city where you plan to work. If you graduate from a college in LA and move to New York for work, you would have a significant disadvantage compared to those who went to school in New York. Steve Jobs did not start out doing a bunch of different things. He used his success in his computer business as a foundation to explore other industries like entertainment and telecommunication. Children are not like computers; just installing a bunch of different things doesn’t necessarily make them more successful.

Now the obvious question is: How do we put our children on the solid foundation of American culture? Many parents of the assimilation school have tried this and failed. Many Chinese parents, for instance, didn’t bother teaching Chinese to their children. The writer of the New York Magazine article never learned how to speak Korean either, yet the invisible influence of the Korean culture became obvious as he entered the real world. Why? Again, this is only my theory but most parents of the assimilation school exposed their children only to the trappings of the American culture, and were lacking in where it really mattered.

One example is Asian preoccupation with production. In the world of business, production is a sphere of the young and inexperienced. When you start working, you start by offering your skills, labor, and knowledge in how to produce things, whether it’s food, T-shirt, or computer software. As you gain more experience, you move up and learn how to strategize. Because the current business world is dominated by the West, the Easterners in general are behind the curve on learning how to strategize. The Westerners, particularly white people, have more experience in being strategists. Growing up in a family of strategists would naturally make you better prepared to be a strategist yourself. This is the type of cultural foundation that Asian-American kids are lacking.

Think about it. What do typical Asian-American parents do? They make their kids study hard, get good grades at school, and score high on standardized tests. It’s all about discipline and hard work, and doing better at things that can be measured and compared. The most important quality that strategists must have is creativity. Hard work and discipline does not make you creative, and creativity cannot be standardized and measured. Hard work and discipline are great for production but not for strategy. Asian-American parents are still stuck in their production mode of thinking.

Japan did that for decades and look where they are now. They are stuck. Being able to produce efficient, functional, and reliable products is just a matter of time and training. The Koreans have already caught up with the Japanese, and surpassed them in many ways. The Chinese will catch up with the Japanese quite soon too. Given that hundreds of millions of Chinese children are being educated with this production mentality, there is no point in teaching your children the value of hard work and discipline. We should not aim for any type of work whose productivity can be predicted and measured by standardized tests. There is no future in that.

During my first year of art school, I was technically the best painter and drawer. I could paint with photographic precision. One of my teachers said to me one day: “Do you want to be another one of those Asian artists on the street drawing portraits for the tourists?” Good question. What’s the point? There are millions of technically competent artists in the world. Why bother competing in that market? So, for the remaining years of my school, I stopped using my technical competence to create art. In other words, I stopped working so hard, and started having more fun. By the time we were ready to graduate, most students in my class achieved the same level of technical competence I had anyway.

When you are in the production mentality, eventually, you yourself become a mere product. Take professional illustrators for instance. For each illustrator to develop his/her own unique style and technique takes years but the trend in illustration comes and goes. The art directors who work for advertising agencies or publishers might love hiring one illustrator with a particular style one year, but drop him entirely next year. As soon as his style is out of vogue, he is dropped like a fly. To the art directors, he is a disposable product. It’s better to be in the position of art directors (strategist) than be in the position of illustrator (producer/product).

When you are poor and starving, you choose the surest way to make money. You don’t want to aim too high and fail. So, you don’t study English literature; you study accounting, computer programming, or nursing. White people can afford (both financially and emotionally) to study literature, architecture, art history, or advertising. This is what prepares them to operate at the highest levels of their culture. This is the advantage the Americans have. While the Asian kids are studying hard, the American kids learn to have fun, and when you have fun doing what you do, you tend to be more creative and do better than others. This is the American culture that our children need to be exposed to. By pushing our kids to study hard and score high on tests, we are just preparing them to compete with the billions of Asian children many of whom are literally starving. Our Asian-American kids are not starving, so their drive to study hard wouldn’t be as great as those starving kids in Asia.

The reason why most Asian-American parents cannot do this for their children is because it’s scary. Most of our fears come from lack of knowledge or experience. Most Asian-American parents do not have experience operating at the highest levels of the American culture. Most of us only know how to produce, not how to strategize. We teach our children what we know, and ironically and unfortunately, this perpetuates the problem of Asians being stuck in the production mentality. To break this vicious circle would require us to take the risk and let our children have fun, an unfamiliar territory for most Asian-American parents.

A lot of immigrant parents are afraid of losing emotional connections with their children. They don’t want their children to become too American or too foreign for them. In fact, I believe this is the most significant reason why many immigrant parents insist on teaching their native language to their children, even though they use bilingual brain advantage as their reason. They want to retain control over their own children. Their biggest fear is that their children would become so independent and American that they run away from home with their American lovers. But I would argue that this type of fear and insecurity is precisely what keeps our children ill-prepared for the real world in America. We need to let go of them, and offer our Eastern wisdom only when they ask for it.

[This article was originally posted on alllooksame.com]