- Two Disconcerting Trends: Korean Kids, School Systems, and Parental Appraisal
- The Bloom Effect, Part 1: Context, Context, and More Context
- The Bloom Effect, Part 2: Tiger Mom Retcon, The Bloom Effect, “Middle 2 Syndrome”, and Resistance in Context
This post is part of a series. I suggest you start at the beginning, to get the most out of it.
Part 3: Hyperschooling and the Tiger Mom Retcon
Last time, I talked about the idea of “Tiger Parenting” and how it’s primarily been discussed in the context of American education and upbringing. I talked about the importance of considering education and upbringing within a social context–how parenting is contextualized by society and education, how education is contextualized by parenting and society, and so on. The implications are enormous, of course: a mainstream Korean-styled upbringing in Korea is different from the same upbringing as carried out in America, or in Vietnam, and choices about the type of schooling a child receives are yet another layer of context which can amplify or modify the approach or approaches that are considered normal by the society, or adopted by the parent.
But I think, before I proceed, that it’s important to talk about the history of education in Korea. I think this is important because some people seem to believe that the extremes undertaken by a lot of Korean parents today aren’t really anything new: they date back to time immemorial, such people argue. This claim ignores quantitative and qualitative changes in Korean kids’ education, however. The kinds of things Korean parents we’re dealing with–like worrying about whether their kids should start studying TOEFL in the third grade, or assuming that English lessons will be offered on Seollal (yes, on the actual day of Seollal)–represent a pretty radical break with how kids were raised in the past.
(While Korean kids in primary school aren’t all that particularly sleep-deprived, once they hit secondary school they’re among those who get the least sleep for their age group. While some of that is cell phone use and gaming, I can assure you: even the elementary schoolers I know are more than occasionally deprived of sleep in the service of getting homework done, a pressure that only mounts in middle and high school.)
Yet many people are really eager to promote a story that historically contextualizes all of this within Koreans’ massive emphasis on education. Koreans have always made a big deal out of education: well, yes. That’s abundantly clear and well demonstrated, and this book is a good place to start if you have questions. But whenever we hear someone appealing to tradition, it should make us anxious. More often than not, what we understand as traditions are actually invented in the present, and mapped retroactively onto the past, as Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger beautifully demonstrated years ago.
Ask most adult Koreans about their childhoods, and they will tell you stories that immediately signal just how different things are now. They talk about playing outdoors with friends, snacking on cheap junk food on the way home, and reading books and comics for pleasure sometimes: each of these things, practices targeted by moms who feel study is more important. Those same adults–the moms included–don’t talk about studying TOEIC or TOEFL at the age of ten. They talk about wanting Robo-Taekwon V toys, and playing board games on Seollal. (Once a common family pastime during the holidays, which has generally disappeared, I’ve just learned: my wife was reminiscing and I was stunned to discover that board games were once the thing to do on Lunar New Year: yet another good thing jettisoned in the last decade or two.) Korean kids in the 70s, 80s, and 90s were pressured to study, but it was not normal–at least not until toward the end of high school–to pressure them to put in twelve to sixteen hours a day or more, or to give up sleep to get more studying in, the way many of the kids we know regularly are.
Of course Korean kids were expected to do well in school, and pressured to study. But what we seen now is qualitatively different, because of the warping effects of quantitative overdrive, and because what we have now depends on social conditions that did not exist in the 1960s, 70s, and even to some degree in the 1980s. Very importantly, kids were not hakwonized as extremely as they once were, because the amount of money available for that expenditure was simply much less. (Some adults I’ve taught down in Jeolla-do talk about how, after the Olympics, their school lunches–brought from home–went from having just rice and kimchi, to having rice, kimchi, and a sausage. These were not families spending thousands of dollars a month on supplementary schooling, although to be fair, Jeolla has been historically very poor.) Private educational expenditures did occur in the 1970s and 1980s, but they cannot have been made to the excesses they are now. In fact, from talking to people in their 30s about their own experience and that of their siblings, I get the sense that a shift toward strongly increased hakwonization occurred in the 1990s (at a moment of wealth) and gained critical speed toward the excessive rates we see today following the recovery from the 1997-98 Asian Financial crisis. I don’t have numbers (though I’d love to see some), just plenty of anecdotes from people I’ve talked to, but the story is pretty consistent.
Also consistent is the unspoken (but often hinted-at) tie between the horror that so many families experienced during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, and the drive to excess. Korea’s historical emphasis on education channels the reaction, not doubt: but the excess is tied to the trauma of the 1997 crisis, not to any 20th-century-historical precedent.
By the way, the kids themselves are generally aware of this disconnect, too: when they complain, I ask them whether they believe their parents went through this as kids, and they pretty consistently say, “Of course not.” When they hear stories from their parents’ childhoods, they’re not about studying TOEFL… except when mom or dad is justifying TOEFL study, that is. Kids aren’t stupid: they do pick up on parental self-contradictions.
(So, all you Korean moms and dads out there: your kids understand that you were pressured to study hard, but they also are wise to the fact that you were not hakwonized, deprived of play time, or harangued to the excessive degree they are today. And lots of them are angry at you, and see you as dishonest, for not admitting it.)
In pop culture, this editing of historical memory is called “retconning,” and we’re most familiar with it in terms of superhero comics and SF franchise films. The most famous retcon involves an edit made when Star Wars was rereleased in theaters a little over a decade ago: Han Solo roguishly shot an enemy named Greedo first in the originals, but Lucas changed this in the released version, leaving fans irate. They resisted the “retcon,” proclaiming that Han Shot First.
Well, retcons in SF films and comic series are one thing, but when it comes to history, it’s a serious form of intellectual dishonesty, and usually people who do it are up to no good at all. But the question is, why retcon? Lucas wanted Han not to shoot first so he could claim some sense of moral unimpeachability for the character, and fans complained because they liked Han’s moral greyness, and didn’t appreciate it being sanitized out. But why has the shift in education been retconned?
- The financial impossibility of the expenditures in the past is seen as shameful: nobody wants to be reminded of the poverty of the past, and people can easily imagine that their parents would have hyper-hakwonized them if they could.
- The behavioral shift was exacerbated by the anxiety over competition in the post-1997 Asian Financial Crisis (post-“IMF Crisis”) era. That is: it’s tied up with anxieties and with a major, nationwide social trauma. Such traumas, and the desire to edit them out of history, are often a part of this kind of historical retconning.
- The false historical claim is useful in justifying measures that many parents realize, deep down, are excessive, hurtful, or even abusive to their kids, but are taken to be necessary to maintain their kids’ options for the future.
In other words, I don’t think it’s primarily Korea’s historical brush with poverty that drives the hypereducation of kids today: it’s Korea’s more recent historical brush with unchecked, artifically inflated rapacious bubble-wealth (and its sudden collapse under the weight of its own unsustainability and corruption in 1997) that drives the hypereducation and extreme parenting inflicted on Korean kids today… and it’s the anxieties tied up with 1997 that also force parents to ignore the angels of their better judgement and press on in the way that so many do.
Fear of poverty was real in history, of course, and Koreans have long placed a strong emphasis on schooling and credentialing at the most well-regarded institution possible; but that preoccupation wasn’t powerful enough to distort all the relationships and institutions of Korea in the past. Not until a taste of wealth was gotten, and then the rug was pulled out from under the whole country at once.
4. The Bloom Effect
So then, what is to be done? That is the question faced by educators. How can victory be snatched from the jaws of… this failed situation?
For me, I decided that teaching them English (or some other subject using English) was not the whole of my job, and could not be the whole of my job.
I decided that part of my job was to be relate to these kids as human beings. To be honest with them about all of this stuff, albeit in a way that kids can understand, and most importantly, to offer them a different perspective. Not because my perspective is “right” but because it’s different, it’s something outside of what most of them experience… because while kids everywhere often live in a sheltered world that’s short on alternative views, the Korean kids I meet often experience alternative views even less than most kids where I come from. I decided, I should note, that my job is not to preach to them, since I have no claim on objective truth, but it is to listen and respond to their questions and comments about these struggles they deal with, as one person to another. I decided that, respectfully, my job included trying to to see if I could help them figure out how to navigate it all, because nobody else seemed to be leveling with them about it: the extremes that the kids in the Korean-styled kids experience in schools, the excesses inflicted on them by (often well-meaning, if anxious and misguided) parents, and the difficulties of trying to figure out who they are and what they want in life. Their peers think it’s normal; their teachers reinforce it; their parents, if there’s any awareness there is a problem, don’t seem really sure what to do about it.
(This, I’d also argue, is the tragedy of the nuclear family everywhere–including where I come from–but it’s exacerbated by so much in Korean society, and the kids seem to be bear the brunt of it.)
So I decided, in the beginning, to be honest with kids about my opinion regarding all of this, and Mrs. Jiwaku (who also does a lot of tutoring here) decided to do the same as well. Not badmouthing or disrespecting their parents, of course, but not really pretending that what seems normal to them seems normal to me; and definitely not pretending that what I think what they’re going through is sensible, healthy, or productive, either. I decided not to just avoid the subject, or change the subject, or shrug and say, “What can you do?” when they brought up things like beatings over one question wrong on an exam, or being shuttled to a ridiculous number of supplementary lessons and classes. To be honest when they ask whether English is really the key to success (it obviously isn’t, given how many successful South Koreans–by any measurement of success–have no better than mediocre English).
And trust me, the kids want (and need) to talk about it. They come out with this stuff pretty constantly: “My mom is crazy! She screamed at me for closing my bedroom door!” or “This is so ridiculous, I’m not allowed to download even one computer game onto my phone, and when I do, my mom screams ‘How dare you!” at me,” or, “I’m not even allowed to watch Korean TV shows, only English ones; mom says it’s for my English…” Or, “My teacher told us that, since we have the highest grades of all the sixth-grade classes, we’d better work hard to maintain it. If we lose the number 1 position, we won’t be allowed to leave the classroom during lunch breaks. We will have to stay inside and study. That’s so evil!”
I often agree, though not simplistically. I don’t say, “Your mom is crazy,” but I try get them to think about why their mom does these things, without justifying them, and definitely without pretending it’s normal. Without demonizing mom (because that’s unfair) I try give them perspective on why mom might act that way… while agreeing, yeah, the behaviour doesn’t make sense to me, either, and it sounds unfair. you have to remember, you’re hearing what’s filtered through the kid’s feelings, frustrations, and resentments, and parent-child relationships always have some tension at times. But I tell them honestly that occasional games aren’t bad for them, and that I play some too, and that in lots of families kids aren’t seen as being immoral just for wanting to play a game. I tell them human beings have been playing games since the dawn of time. I tell them that teachers who are that ridiculous and unfair would get in trouble in Canada, because kids are given a break at school for a reason. (Just like adult students in university, and adults working at jobs: because we’re not machines.)
You might think, “You can’t contradict their parents!” or, “Well, if you contradict their parents or teachers, sooner or later that’s going to come back and bite you in the ass.”
I thought that would happen, too. I worried that in a month, we’d have no students at all. It was on ethical grounds that I chose to be honest with these kids. It was because I felt their parents were being dishonest with them, when spinning yarns about their childhoods spent in hagwons, that I chose to tell them, quite bluntly, “I agree with you. I think that’s a ridiculous thing to do or say. You should tell your mother that playing outside is important for your health.” Or, “No, kids don’t normally get pressured to study that much, and no Canadian teacher could get away with doing that today.”
Or, “You should tell your mother that she’s right, too much TV isn’t good for you, but watching a little Korean TV will help you stay in touch with your culture.” Or, “Even I play games sometimes. There’s nothing wrong or irresponsible about taking a break and having a little fun.” Or, indeed, “Go and watch this TV show for homework. Pay attention and read the subtitles, and prepare answers for these questions… but also, enjoy the story. Try have fun with it.” Or, “When parents do that to their children in Canada, it’s illegal. The parents can get into big trouble for that. If we were in Canada, as your teacher I’d sort of have to call the police after you showed me that bruise and told me what you did…”
I explain to them the idea of the Law of Diminishing Returns, and how it applies to study, to working long hours, to exercise, to memorizing English vocabulary. I tell them not to waste their time on a minor increase in benefit (studying an extra ten hours for an exam so they can turn a 94% to a 95%) when they could be doing something else more fruitful. I tell them, also, that maybe they shouldn’t accept the definition of success that everyone around them seems to promote–the very same definition that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld hold up in their book, and which rules supreme in South Korea, to the extreme detriment of that society.
I talk about what Joseph Campbell said about success:
I talk about that line near the end of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt, that Campbell quotes in the video above, “I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life!” Babbitt was written as a satire of contemporary America in 1922, and the line is about self-destructive conformity in that context, but Korea has elevated that self-destructive conformity to a social norm, indeed practically a requirement of adulthood in Korean society, and the misery that results is quite apparent. So, bluntly, I tell the kids, “It doesn’t need to be this way. It will be a fight, and it will involve risks, but you don’t have to live your whole life never doing something you want to do.”
In the face of a social norm where such ideas are generally unwelcome, I make a point of allowing myself to be profoundly counter-cultural when we talk about these things. I try to be compassionate, and to also note that their parents probably mean well, and are worried about them, but I don’t lie or justify things I think are false or unjustifiable.
In other words, I provide a different view, or, more pertinent to my point, a difference context for them to use to consider their experiences. We both do this, and we both wondered how long it would take before the irate phone calls started.
It took a few months before the phone calls did start coming… but the funny thing was,when they did start… they weren’t irate.
They were phone calls from our students’ parents’ friends, who were inquiring whether we were able to take on any more students. To the point where we’ve had to put people on waiting lists, or turn them away. We’ve actually become able to be picky and choosy about which students we choose to work with, even. Because a funny thing happens when an adult tells a kid, “No, you’re not crazy. The system you’re trapped in is crazy. But you’re not.”
They were also phones from parents, amazed that their kid, who had hated studying, was now eager to go to lessons, to get a book to read. Our bizarre insistence that the child choose the subject of his or her reading material, instead of having it forced on him, was finally okay, because the kids got so enthused about reading. (Within limits. Not every student is a little scholar, but every kid is at least less resentful and resistant of homework, study, and learning. And we only spend a few hours a week with them.)
It takes some adjustment, of course. The process looks like this: the kid briefly goes into shock, and tests the limits a bit. Then the kid relaxes, and something magical happens: they stop being so damned apathetic, resistant, detached, and resentful. Sometimes you need to jigger your system of teaching, such as by gamifying the learning process. (As I discussed earlier in this series. Sometimes you just give the kid some choice in the selection of materials and subject of study (using English as a language of instruction.) Ultimately, most of the kids, even those in Korean-International-school system, sort of “awaken” or, well: they sort of bloom.
As a result, their moms are blown away by the progress they make, are pleased that they’re starting to actually be interested in some aspect of their studies. And of course, they also become less resistant to learning English, since, basically, it’s the language we use to explore all kinds of other things–science, storytelling, history, or whatever else they’re interested in.
As I reflect on this, what strikes me is that Mrs. Jiwaku and I are also a part of that social context the kids are operating in, the social context in which they and their parents are working out the effects of their home situation, their parents’ parenting methods, and so on. While some tutors–the more apathetic kind–will shrug and ignore the story told by the kid who wrote a poem in a foreign langauge, but happened to do it in the “wrong” meter (per a homework assignment’s guidelines, forgotten at home during that lesson, but which the teacher likely didn’t care much about anyway) and got beaten for it, Mrs. Jiwaku and I say bluntly how unfair and ridiculous we think that is… not to the parent, who anyway won’t listen, but to the kid. We provide some fraction of social context that opposes and resists the excesses of the more extreme versions of the “Tiger Parenting” method.
(But… bear in mind, what we regard as “the extremes” are actually pretty widespread in Korean society.)
We cannot take credit for all this, of course: The “Bloom Effect” isn’t simply down to our input. Like with the acquisition of a language, the acquisition of a worldview requres many, many inputs. It’s a product of many forces: our influence in presenting an alternative view; the influence of non-Korean school teachers; the influence of kids who deviate from the norms; the influence of kids from other schools, encountered outside school, and relatives as well; the influence of media (especially American media, which many kids are restricted to, in order to improve their English); and so on. But the parents themselves pretty consistently seem to be seeing positive results that they trace, timeline-wise, to the kids commencing study with us, to go around recommending us to their friends. We’re so busy that we’ve had to turn away (or put onto a waiting list) probably just as many students as we teach. So I feel pretty secure in saying: context matters, and even a tutor can make a significant difference.
So here’s what I think: I think all those wonderful successes that The Korean attributes to Korean parenting methods, that Amy Chua wants to credit to Tiger Mothering, is actually a result of the interaction between strict parenting and the moderating influence of either a school system or dominant culture, or even just elements in the social environment, that counteract the absolutism of the parental strictness. Those outside forces at work in the child’s life are important… I’d argue, in fact, that they’re crucial. Indeed, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothers fails to come out and say it–because the text fails to achieve such self-consciousness–but Chua’s backpedaling away from her parenting extremes aren’t solely a rational reaction to her younger daughter’s rebelliousness. They’re also due to the influence of the social context in which she was raising her kids.
Nowhere is this as apparent as in the concept of 중2병, within South Korean society–a society that lacks that kind of counter-pressure against parenting extremism.
5. 중2병: “Middle School 2nd Year Syndrome”
In Korea, of late, 중2병 (jung e byeong), or Middle 2 Syndrome (what in North America we’d call “Eighth Grader Syndrome”: Wikipedia suggestively has entries in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, but not in English), has become a major buzzword. It means the state of rebellious resistance that kids suddenly start to present to their parents when they reach the second year of middle school (in North American terms, 8th grade).
Adults sneeringly quip about how their kids have come down with 중2병, because they are resistant to spending 16 hours a day studying. Comedians on television dramatize and mock 중2병. College students joke that they have come down with a late case (or second case) of 중2병 when they feel lazy and don’t want to study for a test. Some even parents send their more dissenting kids to boot camps, like the one at which five high schoolers died last summer.
Mrs. Jiwaku and I, on the other hand, think 중2병 is a minsnomer. For us, the conditions that kids resistant when they’re presenting Middle 2 Syndrome are pretty rational and reasonable: they’re the kinds of conditions that Western adults long ago rejected from their employers (and which far too many Korean employees still labor under). They’re the kind of health-destroying, ridiculous conditions that anyone who writes about South Korea’s educational excesses, writes about. As far as we’re concerned, 중2병 is not some silly stage, not some passing moment of foolish resistance on the part of children, but the last flourishing of resistance to a system that breaks people down and destroys them–strategically, for the benefit of the powers than be in Korea–namely, the major institutions in that society–chaebol corporations, churches, universities, and a government invested all very much invested in the status quo.
For us, 중3병 (Middle 3 Syndrome, or what we’d call “Ninth Grader Syndrome” in Canada and the US) is the real “Syndrome”: that worn-down, hopeless state that kids enter when, adrift in a social environment where resistance is not encouraged, instead are mocked and dismissed–where nobody says to them, “No, you’re not crazy.” 중3병 is the harbinger of the life that Campbell warns against in the video above, the fate that Sinclair Lewis refers to at the end of in Babbitt.
And 중3병 is the dominant outcome of Tiger Parenting in a social realm where there is no outside force to pressure the parent to consider a child’s resistance as anything but a silly stage. Chua was lucky: she was forced to reconsider her parenting in the face of not only her daughter’s resistance, but also the values and norms of American society, of the American schools her daughter attended, the social values of her daughter’s friends, and so on. But in a society where it’s within the range of normal to send kids to boot camp just for being kids, one all too often sees 중3병 settle in and become a life lifelong affliction for too many people.
(And that’s to say nothing of the effects of the mandatory military training the male children will face when they are young adults.)
The video is cute, and funny, and full of stereotypes… but this barely touches the kind of misery I’ve heard about from men who’ve completed their mandatory military training, and the effects on many young men’s personalities and intellectual lives, the tragic effects of which I’ve seen far too many times as a university instructor… not to mention the stultifying effects of its braking force on wider social change in Korea.
6. Resistance in Context
This would explain why Korean-Americans raised in America are doing so well by American standards, while the same parenting methods aren’t producing the same results in Korea, for example: in Korea, there’s virtually nothing to moderate the extreme parenting, and so the extremes just continue, unmitigated, and become the mainstream norm. And, frankly, the mainstream norm is extreme in Korea today.
Interestingly, for one longitudinal study of Asian-Americans conducted in the Bay Area by Su Yeong Kim, this seems to be upheld:
Compared with the supportive parenting profile, a tiger parenting profile was associated with lower GPA and educational attainment, as well as less of a sense of family obligation; it was also associated with more academic pressure, more depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of alienation. The current study suggests that, contrary to the common perception, tiger parenting is not the most typical parenting profile in Chinese American families, nor does it lead to optimal adjustment among Chinese American adolescents.
Jeff Yang notes of this study several points, including the importance of parental socioeconomic status and education, but this comment seems very crucial to me:
It is a study that focuses on Chinese Americans of a certain background (mostly Hong Kong and Cantonese immigrants) in a particular region, the Bay Area, where Chinese Americans are a plurality and very nearly a majority.
Kids in American schools don’t usually define their cultural norms by their parents’ sense of what’s normal: that’s why Amy Chua’s kids thought she was “weird,” just as I thought mine were “strict” and just like many of my friends with immigrant parents described their parents as “extreme” or “crazy” or “too strict” or whatever. We were talking about the mainstream norm, the way our classmates seemed to be parented. But in Korea, extreme parenting is basically mainstream: there’s no counterbalance to it… and perhaps, in a place where “Chinese-Americans are a plurality and very nearly a majority,” there’s less counterbalance to the pressure of Tiger Parenting too–which would explain the significant lack of benefits for tiger parenting in that setting?
(Then again, Kim found that Tiger Parents were always a minority, along the lines of about 25% regardless of economic class or educational background.)
I would argue that this dynamic also operates in the United States, just inverted: the attraction to private schools and military schools with a more strict system, as a remedy to kids who are failing or behaving problematically, seems similarly to seek a counterbalance to the social climate that Chua decries. Failing to play the counterbalancing role to a more lax education system, some mainstream American parents seem to want things to run in the opposite way: lax home, strict school. (And this may be the rationale behind Obama’s praise for Korean schools: a simple wishing for schools to demand more of students, to make up for parents not demanding so very much.)
Either way, so-called “Tiger Moms” just run the formula in the opposite way: strict home to balance a lax school. Presumably, the results may work well for kids regardless of whether the counterbalance runs one way or the other, as long as neither side runs too extreme. While Chua’s perhaps right that a lax home and a lax school are a formula for disaster, that doesn’t justify the extremes she tended to earlier on, and later moved away from.
But what Chua also fails to say–directly, anyway, despite the moving story she tells about her father’s resistance to over-the-top parental oppression–is that a strict home and a strict social environment are also a formula for disaster. But it is, and the best example of that is visible in South Korea, where the strictness has added up to an arms race of ostensibly objective, all-important testing.
South Korea is, likewise, a society where the two values Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld reportedly use to determine success in their new book–academic and economic success–are often held up as the only metric of success. While Korea has maintained economic growth at a time when much of the world was reeling economically, it has also managed to maintain growth in several other areas, like the gap between haves and have-nots, and the growing epidemic of suicide (which doubled in the decade I lived in South Korea, and has in fact quadrupled since 1982). And as for academics, well: Korea’s universities don’t seem to be ranked all that highly, globally, at least not by the Times Higher Education website. (Postech makes it into the top 50, and Seoul National and KAIST into the top 100. Yonsei and Korea University are low in the top 200.) The rankings are even less impressive on other sites I’ve visited.
What Chua and Rubenfeld’s value system, like the value system of many of the parents of the kids we teach, fails to recognize is that economic and academic success don’t actually make the world go round: for actual sustainable social orders, what works best is a diverse set of counterbalancing value systems, in dialog and in conflict with one another. Laborers focused on profit may be goo for the economy, but they’re not all that good for laborers. There’s a social niche for the rebels and iconoclasts who fight for social reform and change–the kind who gave us weekends off work in the west, and who are fighting to get Saturdays off for workers in Korea. Those whose value system matches Chua’s and Rubenfelds still enjoy a quality life because of the work done by people whose contributions are unfairly undervalued or underrespected: parents, artists, artisans, teachers, and the people who make up the infrastructure of our world. They’re like people who complain that public taxes pay for road upkeep, without realizing that’s how the imported furniture and foodstuffs arrive in local stores: there’s an invisible (to them) diversity of values that make the world a habitable place, upon which they unknowingly depend.
Kids exposed to only one narrative about the world–either that economic success and high grades are the ticket, or that they should just do what they want–are stuck in one mode of seeing the world, and form a society where that one mode dominates conclusively. They cannot develop their own narrative by picking and choosing the parts of other narratives they like, which means they have trouble finding a way to value things that people around them might not. They cannot grind two value systems together and try to figure out a creative way to turn their love for games into profit, or their love of art into a viable career choice. They end up bound to produce simplistic, frustratingly unhelpful narratives about the world that ultimately trap and hurt them, because they simply don’t have enough contradictions to balance when they look at the world, or at themselves.
So it’s the non-monolithic, or rather the anti-monolithic, effect that kids experience when they study with us–when they discover that learning can be fun or that they can feel motivation to read and study from someplace inside themselves, or that not everyone thinks money and high grades are most important thing in the world–that seems to help them bloom into people who are just a little more excited about life, about the world, about learning, and about the future. I suspect that, in one way or another, its the counterbalancing effect of the American context that makes Korean-Americans more “successful” even along those narrow measurements that “The Korean,” and Rubenfeld/Chua, and many Korean parents, espouse… and that studying with us, Korean kids also experience some (smaller) measure of the same thing.
And of course, the wonderful thing is how many Asian-Americans, once they reach that “failure” generation that Amy Chua worried about regarding her own kids, branch out and do other things that pursuing just money and status–and serve their society (and access satisfaction and happiness) in that “invisible” network that transcends the one Chua and Rubenfeld deem worthy of discussion. That’s where celebrated Asian-American actors, artists, poets, culinary geniuses, and writers come from. They are the people who help ensure we don’t end up living in rows of faceless, soulless cement blocks; they’re the people who reinvent the cuisine of the old country anew. They’re the people who tell stories that makes us look at ourselves in new ways.
They’re also the dissidents who develop workarounds for those living under totalitarian rule, and who dared to have their heads bashed in by cops, for the sake of democracy in South Korea–which, though it shouldn’t need reminding, were a minority, and a controversial one, as were those who openly rejected Japanese imperialism. Because they do exist today in Korea, and always have, despite the efforts of government and the schools to stamp them out, despite their current marginalization, and despite how much it costs many who choose to dissent. But they could do with a hand. Education should be aiding them, and helping divrsify the narratives kids get access to. IT’s crucial to their success in the broader sense of the word, and the success of Korea as well.
Such people–our artists, our protesters, our storytellers and those who craft joy into our lives–may well be failures by Chua and Rubenfeld’s metric, but that is merely an indicator of the paucity of the metric, and the unfairness (and short-sightedness, or even the sickness, of the society. For any society that lacks such people in significant numbers is, without a doubt, a failed society.
What is to be done, is to let a million flowers bloom.
Not so they can be stamped out, as Mao and his regime tried to do after cynically inviting “A Hundred Flowers” to bloom; but so they may flourish.
The invocation comes to mind, incidentally, because many young people (college and secondary school students) in Korea realize what I’m saying, and lately have expressed dissent in the same way that the dissidents in China did during the Hundred Flowers Campaign… –as part of the I’m Not Fine movement that exploded last year, in which students put up handwritten posters all over the place, in a kind of old-school viral protest of the educational and societal status quo.
Oh, and by the way: remember this iconic figure?
For those who don’t, it’s an image from the anti-US Beef protests of 2008, and I recommend checking out my piece on the subject, in the October 2008 issue of Clarkesworld.
While I have some sympathy for the idea that Occupy Movement was a failure in part for being unfocused, disorganized, and incoherent to anyone who wasn’t already ideologically predisposed to agree with the sentiments underlying it, I have noticed a few times people voicing an interesting claim: that participation in Occupy has altered the life-course of a certain number of people who joined in, and who will, in the future, be participating in movements in the future–movements that will benefit from the lessons learned by Occupy’s failure.
It makes me think back to all the young people I saw participating in the 2008 Protests. Lots of people–right-wing Koreans and dismissive foreigners alike–claimed the kids were forced to participate in the protests, but it didn’t look like that to me. To me, it looked like young people experiencing what was, for the first time since 1997, a growing wave of dissent against the rise of the political right wing in South Korea. A lot of those middle and high schoolers who were at the protests–and who were iconified in the form of the ubiquitous candle-girl figure above–are now in high school or college, and directly in the same age-cohort as those who were hand-writing the posters used in the I’m Not Okay movement.
Any wagers as to how many of them got their first taste of vocalizing dissent by hoisting a candle into the darkness down at the Cheonggyecheon in the summer of 2008?