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The Bloom Effect, Part 1: Context, Context, and More Context

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Bloom Effect

This post is the promised follow-up to my earlier post titled “Two Disconcerting Trends: Korean Kids, School Systems, And Parental Appraisal.” I have split the follow-up into two parts, as 10,000 words seems too long for a single blog post.

This is a sprawling essay discussing:

  1. The idea of the Tiger Mom, and some thoughts on Amy Chua’s book
  2. The importance of social context in determining the outcome of a given parenting style
  3. Hyperschooling and why it is a rasdically new thing in South Korea, and why nobody seems willing to admit it to their kids or themselves
  4. “The Bloom Effect” observed by my wife and myself in our tutoring practice
  5. The notion of 중2병 (Middle 2 Syndrome), and the toxic norms the meme reflects
  6. The role and importance of resistance in context to those toxic norms, and a brief look at some of the emergent resistance in South Korea today

If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. But I hope this essay will be illuminating and inspiring, if you see it through to the end. 

1. Amy Chua, Defective Packaging, and the Value System of the Tiger Parent

Well, the fact that Amy Chua and her husband are releasing a new book about the success of specific minorities in America makes it sensible to bring up the discussion of Tiger Parenting a few years ago, triggered by the Wall Street Journal’s pick-and-choose piecemeal excerpt from Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

That discussion was, on the whole, rather useless: it was more of a spontaneous bout of mudslinging overall, particularly by white Americans eager to decry the barbarity and cruelness of Asian parenting (as presented by Chua, or, well, not even: mostly, as imagined by white Americans, since most people didn’t even read the book). There was also a little bit of interesting commentary by Asian-Americans on their experience (some upholding what the imagined Chua was saying, while others like Wesley Yang bashing her claims). Particularly interesting was the reaction by some Asian-American moms against Chua perpetuating a racist stereotype that didn’t reflect their own experience at all. Of course, most commentators of all races and opinions hadn’t actually read the book.

To be fair, probably at least part of the reaction has to do with Chua’s public persona. She’s wordy, academic, and her smile often has just a slight hint of sneer to it. (Seriously: photographers seem rarely to capture a flattering smile from her:

That picture up above certainly has at least a hint of what looks like a triumphantly judgmental sneer to me.

In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that the choice of photo alone probably damned Chua in the eyes of may: it just has this smug, looking-down-on-you sort of vibe to it… like, ha, you inferior, lax “American-styled” moms don’t have well-behaved, obedient daughters who dress like little concert musicians and play piano and violin in your living room, now, do you? A quick search of Google shows a lot more of those kinds of shots of Chua: always with the vague hint of a sneer that makes her seem, well: snotty, patronizing, and judgmental of those she deems “too American.”

But now look at this shot:

In this second picture, Chua looks more relaxed, personable, engaging. The impression is that she’s not trying so hard, in the second picture, and ultimately, that problem–the distortions that come from trying-too-hard–that ultimately plague The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothers. It’s also why why I can’t blame all those commentators on the earlier book for not reading it.

After all, the truth is that the book was really kind of a mess.

It’s full of self-contradictions, mixed-signals (is she mocking herself? betraying myopia? actually being a strident abuser?), and what looks like attempts at humor that constantly fall flat. Not only that: it’s a memoir that seems, overall, to work through Chau’s self-realization that she was pretty over-the-top extreme, and details her moving away from some of those extremes.

The failed humor, well: she’s an academic, and moreover, an academic specializing in law. Comedy is hard to get right even for people who specialize in it, as pretty much every hit-and-miss comedy show on TV (30 Rock? SNL? Community?) seems to demonstrate with depressing regularity. But there’s more to it than that: it’s a convolution of impulses, I think, that ruin the book: Chua wants to lampoon herself, but not so aggressively that she might actually look ridiculous. Gentle self-mockery, well… if you’re too gentle–too concerned about not losing face, one might say–then you’re not really mocking yourself anymore, and it’s hard for your audience to figure out what you’re doing.

The most notorious example from the WSJ excerpt is pretty exemplary of the problems in her book, actually. I’m talking about Chua’s story regarding the reaction she got when she told a story at a dinner party about calling her own daughter “garbage.” Chua holds up the shock and horror, the objections and emotional reactions of the people at the party, as if they’re astonishing, shocking, something she could never have anticipated, as if they’re stunning. 

Which makes you wonder just how seriously you can take Chua.  I found myself wondering: is this some kind of self-ribbing, too? It certainly felt like Chua was holding up her own (eggheaded? traumatized?) obliviousness in public, in some ways.

I mean, it’s one thing to believe that calling your kid “garbage” isn’t scarring because you believe in the innate strength of your children and their knowledge that you love them. (Though it’s not hard to extrapolate justifications for beating children, or other forms of abuse, along the same grounds. For the record, I think the justification is bullshit, and I think her claim that her mom did it, and she turned out just fine, rather sounds like every justification of child abuse I’ve ever heard in my life.)

But while someone growing up in America could grow up thinking that way, one struggles to understand how someone who grew up in America could fail to understand that this is not how the majority of Americans think about it. The way Chua tells it, she just went on and told a dinner-party full of people about how she shouted “You’re garbage!” at her kid, and then was shocked when they reacted badly to it. Perhaps if she’d just arrived from someplace where calling your kids “garbage” is normal, that would be understandable. (If such a place even exists outside of Chua’s imagination.)

But Chua grew up in America, and lives and works surrounded by people for whom is very clearly is not a social norm… among people for whom, in fact, calling your kid garbage is a clear and obvious form of abuse. (The same people among whom her kids have grown up, it’s worth noting.) For her to be surprised by the reaction makes no sense whatsoever. She’s either posturing, or taking a poorly-executed dig at herself for being socially inept, or a traumatized survivor of tiger-parenting herself, or an “egghead academic” who sincerely was so out of touch with her own society that didn’t expect her American neighbours would find the anecdote shocking, or that no degree of explanation as to how she’d been through it herself would change their minds.

My suspicion is that, simply put, Chua is just that she’s too poor a writer (outside of her specialized academic domain) to get her deeper comedic or critical  intent across. Too poor a writer, or too reluctant a self-critic, or perhaps just too eager to not shame herself in the public eye… or maybe too oblivious. And that’s a problem that is visible throughout the text: it’s a very poor apologia for Tiger Parenting, in fact: it almost screams aloud the problems with the approach… assuming Tiger Parented youth end up as confused, ineffective, and clueless as Chua seems on the page, anyway.

One suspects that Chua’s book could have been more interesting and more fruitful in terms of generating discussion about different modes of parenting, if it’d been written (or co-written) by someone with more experience writing for non-academics, as well as if the author had been willing to be a little more self-effacing and self-critical, rather than engaging in self-critique or self-mockery, without necessarily doing what Chua always seems to do: immediately pulling back into the realm of justifications. Chua seems eager to present a family that had no really serious issues, despite her extreme behaviour and her constantly hinted-at sense that maybe she did cross the line a fair number of times. 

Likewise, Chua’s weak attempt to deracialize “Tiger” parenting, when she’s already chosen an overtly “Asian” label for it. Tiger economies and Tiger Parents: the link is obvious in her mind, but bullshit in practice, as she briefly acknowledges. For the record, my parents, though they looked approximately like other white majority Canadian parents, exhibited a lot of the kinds of traits Chua mentions, at lesser extremes, at least with me: I was an eldest child, and I got asked things like why an A on my report card wasn’t an A+; I got pushed to work hard, to study, and so on. Not the way Chua talks about, but in a way qualitatively more like that than the way most of my peers seemed to be raised. I only recently realized that this was probably why the kids I got along with best, to a one, were kids of “immigrant” parents too, from the Phillippines, the West Indies, and China, for example. Of course, without the sensationalization inherent in racializing so-called “Tiger Parenting” people probably would never have read Chua’s book in the first place.

But now, Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, are speculating on the success of specific (ethnic) minorities in America, and this, I have to say, is pertinent to my promised follow-up. Chua and Rubenfeld argue that the most successful groups in America possess, as ethnocultural groups, the following traits:

And just like with “Tiger Parenting”–it’s not racial, no, totally not, but let’s use an Asian metaphor anyway–the definition of “success” in their new book is something that deserves some serious criticism. People who devote themselves, to, say, teaching elementary school are not “successful” by the definition they’re using, as they make plain in this interview:

I ask them about someone who moves to Vermont, teaches second grade, has lots of children and dogs and is happy. They are quiet for a moment.

“That’s a non-triple package person,” Chua says.

[The crassness is pretty hard to miss, even when her husband gives a more reasonable response:]

“There are a host of good, decent people who are not ambitious, who are not climbing, who may have the best lives of all,” says Rubenfeld, who is gentler. “We are just not writing about those people.”

Which raises the question: why not?

The answer, of course, is that Chua and Rubenfeld value not, perhaps, the best life, but rather the social climbing, the ambition, and the economic wealth. That is: their value system is centered on money and status, and everything rather straightforwardly proceeds from there: immigrant populations who come to the United States are often focused on achieving wealth and status in the environment of unprecedented (for them) socioeconomic upward mobility. (Else why migrate to the USA?)

The sense of superiority and the sense of uncertainty are easy: most successfully upwardly-mobile immigrant groups come from a background of belonging to a majority group, who’ve suddenly lost that privileged position. (Chinese and Koreans in America outperform, day, Laotian and Burmese ethnic minorities.) The impulse control, one suspects, its perhaps partly cultural, but also very much tied to the exigencies of living as an immigrant: after all, most immigrants do experience some kind of downward socioeconomic mobility at first. They do without lots of things they took for granted in the old country, and learn they can do without all kinds of things as a result. And that gets passed on to their kids, but not really to their grandkids, who never missed any of that stuff from the old country, and whose parents are raking in cash in the sorts of professional positions their parents insisted they pursue in the first place.

It’s a great value system… if you live in Stepford, and are willing to Stepfordize yourself, along with your spouse and the kids. Over at The Guardian, this review makes plain the problems with their position:

How does the book define success? Simply, bucks and position. Not accomplishments in science or the arts, not excellence in public or the caring services. Those do matter of course, say the authors condescendingly, but cannot be included in their neat spreadsheet. Which makes their main claims capricious and hopelessly unconvincing. These two have low emotional literacy, don’t seem to value creativity, dissent  or the good life.

Which is very, very pertinent to my whole discussion of the education of Korean kids, and the parenting that they seem to experience. After all, Chua/Rubenfeld’s value system–unapologetically measuring success in terms not of happiness, but of money and status–is one eerily familiar to anyone who’s lived in South Korea.

Eerily familiar, and unsettling. That way, we know, is a brutal, harrowing road. That way lies the vast grey tenements, and streets where the only music that can be heard, blasts from loudspeakers mounted to shopfronts–not to be enjoyed, but only to sell product.

2. Parenting and Social Context

This is directly pertinent to the observations I’ve been making in terms of parenting and education with Korean kids we’re working with here in Saigon, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I’ve come to a very simple, but very important, conclusion. That is this:

There’s something that’s been missing from the “Tiger Moms” discussion: social context.

Specifically, I mean that it’s tempting and easy for parents to fall into the trap of attributing all failure to the social context, and all success to their parenting methods. If kids fail, it’s because America (or American schools) are so lax; but if kids “succeed” then it must be because of their parents’ approach, specifically they “Tiger” Parent approach.

It’s an understandable mistake, of course: parents routinely overestimate their influence on their kids, believing that their values will rub off, that their way of speaking will, that they share a culture in common with their kids. Well, until their kids are teenagers, and listening to music they don’t understand, using slang they cannot fathom, and pondering life in a future some decades ahead of the ever-changing present that the parents themselves are struggling to keep up with.

Hell, the degree to which kids learn language from their parents’ corrections, as opposed to their parents’ behaviour, is in itself pretty revealing. Namely, it doesn’t really matter how often you stop and correct your kid on some grammar mistake. There’s piles of evidence that negative input–corrections and admonitions–don’t play much role in kids’ primary language acquisition: they just pick up the rules from all of the overwhelming positive inputs. (In other words, its not your corrections that cause your kids to stop saying “goed” or “mouses,” but simply the sheer number of times that they hear the correct usages “went” and “mice.” Wehn you correct them, you may well be wasting their time and yours. And yet, we all do it.)

Well, when we talk about “Tiger Parenting” one thing we need to consider is the social context in which is happens. Kids being Tiger Parented in one kind of society, and being Tiger Parented in another kind of society, are going to reach different outcomes.

To speak more specifically about our own students: the “Korean” schooling experience, and the “International” schooling experience, take place in–and also, simultaneously constitute–radically different social contexts, in which their parents’ approach to parenting play out.

This occurred to me most clearly when I read this post over on the (frankly, quite terrible) Ask a Korean blog. (Not that it’s a surprising omission, for reasons that Sonagi expresses well my problems with his blog: I have trouble taking seriously the claims and arguments and explanations of Korea offered as authoritative by someone who neither lives in Korea, nor has lived in Korea since his teenaged years (when his experiences and interactions were necessarily limited); and whose claims about Korea many Koreans I know find laughable, and risibly social-conservative, as well as  intellectually dishonest for reasons very well put in this comment on his blog:

[According to “The Korean”] Korea’s successes are unique and can be attributed to uniquely Korean traits, culture, and societal values. But Korea’s problems and failures are universal, exist elsewhere, and therefore not attributable to Korean traits, culture, and societal values.

This is particularly true in his claims about Tiger Moms: he focuses on the ostensible successes that Tiger Parenting his produced among Asian-Americans. It’s very curious, especially considering his general mandate to discuss Korea, that he says nothing about the parenting method or its results in Korea… after all, the school system and society in general are much more directly compatible with Tiger Parenting–teacher and parent expectations of teaching and learning line up more directly–so why isn’t Korea an intellectual and educational powerhouse? (Not just in test performance, but in all scholarly realms? Why aren’t Korea’s universities topping the world’s evaluations, instead of mostly performing rather middlingly?)

It’s also very, very much pertinent to my own discussion in this post, and the post that preceded it. Remember, I mentioned, in my last post, that among the kids I tutor these days, it’s very easy to tell apart the Korean-International-schooled kids from the International-International-schooled (and homeschooled) kids. To reiterate what I described:

The Homeschooled kids and the International Schooled kids seem… well, like how you’d expect a healthy teenager to be in most places. They’re inquisitive, and thoughtful, and have hobbies, and play sports, or do art or music, or have ideas about what they’d like to be when they grow up. (Concert violinist, astronaut, dentist, and film soundtrack editor are examples of answers we’ve heard.) They’re usually allowed a certain amount of play time, and they seem to be generally happy. This is true even though, as we later discover, physical or psychological abuse is no less widespread among their homes than it is the other kids’. Somehow, they deal with it better, though. They’re most definitely not constantly sullen, or resentful, or demotivated. They seem to have some kind of interest in learning something, at least when the thing is something they’re interested in.

Meanwhile, the Korean-schooled kids are… well, the best I can say is, most of them seem seriously (and I do mean, clinically) depressed. To a one, they’re less interested in books and learning, and more resentful of being asked to read or do homework, however minor… and when they do it, unlike their International-schooled and Homeschooled peers, they tend to do the absolute bare minimum. Almost none of them have interests or hobbies, and tend to be very excessively pressured to study, and to be allowed much less (and in some cases, that means little or no) time to play or have fun outside of school. They to be uptight, over-serious, almost universally socially awkard even with other Korean kids of the same age, and unable to sustain a conversation–even in Korean, with a native Korean speaker like my wife.

And when they do start talking, usually have nothing to say but complaints. Not that they have nothing to complain about: they tend to take violence both at home and at school for granted as normal to a degree the International Schooled kids don’t, and over tiny things. (Like the difference of between 94% and 95% on a mathematics exam, to take one example from earlier this week.)

All of that is one thing when you’re in Korea, and most kids live out their lives within that system, and the alternatives are very limited. It’s still a very serious thing there, of course: one look at the child suicide statistics in Korea suggests that it’s so serious as to deserve the status of an epidemic.

But what’s more terrifying is seeing the night-and-day difference between the kids in one system, and the kids in the other. It’s not that every kid would be a brilliant, happy genius if transferred to the International system, or that every kid would be completely destroyed by the Korean system. It’s just that, when you take a bunch of average kids, the effects of each system are very, very clear. One kid is inquisitive, tries to talk to chat with the other, and ends up looking funny at the other because that other kid is barely able to respond to his or her questions, and finally rebuffs the first kid.

What I’m finding, it seems like, is that social context matters. Children’s lives are, in fact, so stripped of natural, organic interaction with their communities that eve just a school setting can serve as a social environment, which means Korean kids living in a place like Saigon may find themselves in either a cosmopolitan social environment, or else in a social bubble inhabited almost completely by Koreans (except the odd English teacher), even while living in the same apartment complex.

David Vetter, the famous “boy in the bubble” from the 1970s. The “germ isolator” bubble treatment mentally traumatized him during his short life, as explained in this article about him.

What seems apparent to me is that the social context in which Tiger Moms operate is very very important to how their children deal with or handle their parents’ style of parenting. And yes, I’m going to say Tiger Moms, here, because for kids we tutor, who come from very much middle-class expatriate Korean families, the model is, essentially:

To be fair, I should also note that the families we’re dealing with are, more often than not, embroiled in a crisis that nobody seems willing to directly acknowledge, something that I think is probably universal in families that move abroad. Adjusting to living in another society, far from friends and family support networks, and marooned in a much smaller and more limited social circle, is difficult and stressful enough, but moms–whose behaviour I describe as extreme–are sometimes also struggling to accept the sacrifices they’ve ended up making as part of the move, like effectively giving up their jobs or careers and unwillingly becoming stay-at-home moms for the duration of their stay abroad… and often seem to end up compensating for their own self-perceived sacrifice and boredom by focusing on the kids… or end up taking out their stress and frustration on the kids. That’s not especially a Korean thing: I know because my family experienced it when I was young too…  So, it’s important to bear in mind that these crazed tiger moms I’m talking about are human beings in difficult circumstances, who deserve some compassion.

It doesn’t make the acting out, or the sometimes abusive behaviours, any less problematic or damaging to the kids: I mean, they’re so isolated and stressed about it that they bring it up and ask for advice from their English tutor. That certainly says something. But it is a context, at least.

Context is important. It’s really central to what I’m trying to say here, so maybe that’s a good place to stop for today. Tomorrow, I’ll be back with more context, and explain what the Bloom Effect actually is, and why I think it’s happening.

Series Navigation<< Two Disconcerting Trends: Korean Kids, School Systems, and Parental AppraisalThe Bloom Effect, Part 2: Tiger Mom Retcon, The Bloom Effect, “Middle 2 Syndrome”, and Resistance in Context >>
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