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The Last of the Tiger Parents

In first grade, I arrived at my suburban elementary school as a sort of academic vaudeville trickster. My classmates stood speechless as I absorbed thick tomes on medieval history, wrote and presented research reports, and breezed through fifth-grade math problems like a bored teenager.


My teachers anointed me a genius, but I knew the truth. My non-Asian friends hadn’t spent hours marching through the snow, reciting multiplication tables. They hadn’t stood at attention at the crack of dawn reading the newspaper aloud, with each stumble earning a stinging rebuke. Like a Navy SEAL thrown into a pool of raw conscripts, at 6, I had spent much of my conscious life training for this moment.


To my authoritarian father, all has gone according to plan。 I excelled in school, attending Amherst College and Harvard Law School。 I’ve embraced his conventional vision of success: I’m a lawyer。 But like many second-generation immigrant overachievers, I’ve spent decades struggling with the paradox of my upbringing。 Were the same childhood experiences that long evoked my resentment also responsible for my academic and professional achievements? And if so, was the trade-off between happiness and success worth it?

对于我那专制的父亲来说,一切都是按计划进行的。我在学校表现优异,上了阿默斯特学院(Amherst College)和哈佛法学院(Harvard Law School)。我接受了他传统的成功愿景,当上了律师。但是,像许多第二代移民中的成绩优异者一样,我花了几十年的时间与成长中的这个悖论做斗争。长期令我怨恨的童年经历是否同样缔造了我在学业和专业方面的成就?如果是这样,用幸福交换成功的代价是否值得?

The way I and other Asian-Americans of my generation answer these questions could affect American society more broadly。 My generation’s academic success has sparked a crisis of sorts in our country’s elite educational institutions。 For example, despite having the highest poverty rate in New York City, Asian-Americans make up a large majority of students at the city’s premier public high schools — including 73 percent at the storied Stuyvesant — where admission is decided solely on the basis of a standardized test。 Mayor Bill de Blasio has reacted by proposing to scrap the test to allow more white, black and Hispanic students to attend。

我和我这一代的其他亚裔美国人对这些问题的回答,可能会更广泛地影响美国社会。我们这一代的学术成就,引发了我们国家的精英教育机构的种种危机。例如,尽管是纽约市贫困率最高的群体,亚裔美国人在该市首屈一指的公立高中里占据了多数名额,在久负盛名的史岱文森高中(Stuyvesant),亚裔的比例占来了73%——该中学入学完全取决于标准化测试。白思豪(Bill de Blasio)市长最近提出废除考试,以便让更多白人、黑人和西语裔学生入学。

Meanwhile, Harvard faces a lawsuit claiming that the university artificially caps the number of Asian students by emphasizing non-merit-based factors in admissions, in the same way it deliberately designed its admissions policies in the 1920s to limit Jewish enrollment. Harvard itself has found that its share of incoming Asian students would more than double, to nearly half the class, if it considered only academic merit in deciding whom to admit.


Efforts to adjust these imbalances may or may not be warranted, but history also suggests they may naturally abate on their own. If the children of immigrants are often preternaturally driven, a phenomenon known as “second-generation advantage,” the grandchildren of immigrants usually experience “third-generation decline.” By the third generation, families absorb American cultural values, lose the feverish immigrant zeal to succeed and cease being, in any real sense, immigrants at all.


I’ve experienced this transition myself, as I’ve started a family of my own. When I became a parent, I felt the wonder and uncertainty that accompany the awesome responsibility of fatherhood. But I was absolutely sure of one thing: The childhood I devise for my two young daughters will look nothing like mine. They will feel valued and supported. They will know home as a place of joy and fun. They will never wonder whether their father’s love is conditioned on an unblemished report card.


I’ve assumed this means my daughters might someday bring home grades or make life choices that my father would have regarded as failures。 If so, I embrace the decline。


During my constitutional law class, Akhil Amar — the only Asian-American professor I’ve ever had — asked for a show of hands: Whose parents immigrated to the United States after 1965? I joined all the other Asian students in raising my hand, along with a few white compatriots with hard-to-pronounce last names. As Mr. Amar explained, our American story was made possible by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a groundbreaking statute that washed away a century of laws, like the frankly named Chinese Exclusion Act, aimed at making sure people like us never became Americans.

在宪法课上,我唯一的亚裔美籍教授阿克尔·阿马尔(Akhil Amar)要我们举手示意:谁的父母是在1965年移民来美国的?我和所有其他亚洲学生一起举起了手,还有几位姓氏难以发音的白人同学也举了手。正如阿马尔解释的那样,我们的美国故事是由于1965年的《移民与国籍法》(Immigration and Nationality Act)才得以实现的,这是一个开创性的法规,冲破了一个世纪以来那些旨在确保像我们这样的人永远不能成为美国人的法律——例如有着直白名称的《排华法案》(Chinese Exclusion Act) 。

In the decades that followed, a large wave of Asian immigrants arrived in the United States. Like my parents, many of these new arrivals brought two cultural values that would carry their children far: a near-religious devotion to education as the key to social mobility and a belief that academic achievement depends mostly on effort rather than inborn ability. Many (though certainly not all, and probably less than half) also came armed with the belief that the best way to instill these values is through harsh methods that other Americans can regard as cruel.


The results have been striking。 Today, Asian-Americans fill the nation’s top universities in staggering numbers, enter elite professions like medicine at incredible rates (nearly 20 percent of new doctors have Asian roots) and generally do better in school and make more money than any other demographic slice。 Although overall trends mask vast diversity within our community, now 20 million strong, as a group we’ve broken the curve on standard metrics of success。


Because of pre-1965 immigration restrictions, the third-generation stories of most Asian-American families have yet to be written. Today, many second-generation Americans like me are at a parenting crossroads: Do we replicate the severe, controlling parenting styles many of us were raised with — methods that we often assume shaped our own success?


Amy Chua famously answered this question yes. In her memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” she explained that her fanatical parenting choices were driven by the desire to avoid “family decline.” But most second-generation Asian-Americans are not joining her. Rather, studies show that we’re largely abandoning traditional Asian parenting styles in favor of a modern, Western approach focused on developing open and warm relationships with our children.


蔡美儿对这一问题做出的肯定回答十分出名。在她的回忆录《虎妈战歌》(Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)中,她解释说,避免“家族没落”的欲望促使她挑选了这一极端的教育方式。但大部分二代亚裔美国人并不与她为伍。相反,研究表明,我们很大程度上正在舍弃传统的亚洲教育方式,转而摘取西方的现代方法,注复培养开放而暖和的亲子关系。

My wife is also a second-generation Asian-American overachiever (she’s a doctor, the other immigrant-parent-approved profession), and together we’re trying to instill in our daughters the same grit and reverence for learning that our upbringings gave us, but in a happy and supportive home environment. (In this effort, we’ve followed the example of her parents, whose unfailing kindness is also common among Asian immigrants, proving it’s possible to have it both ways.) We’ve also adopted the relationship-driven mind-set common among young parents today but not among most immigrant parents, who emphasize discipline. For example, before my oldest daughter was on an early-morning school schedule, I freely indulged her disregard for bedtime on a condition: The night was firmly earmarked for learning. We’d sometimes stay up past midnight, lying on our stomachs with feet in the air, huddled over a dry-erase board and a bowl of popcorn, practicing phonics or learning about sea creatures. My own father, by contrast, strictly policed bedtime, angrily shutting down my attempts to hide under the sheets with a book and a flashlight.


Studies on second-generation parenting also show that many of us are striving to cultivate individuality and autonomy in our children in a way that we feel was missing from our own childhoods. As the respondent in one study explained: “As a young adult I really struggled with what I wanted to do. I was always told that I would be a doctor and so I never had a chance to really look outside of that and if I did, it wasn’t nurtured at all.” With her own children, she said, “we try to expose them to everything under the sun and then home in on the things that excite them, what they like.”


The traditional Asian parenting model is, in theory at least, premised on imposing pain now to reap meritocratic rewards later。 For much of my life, I accepted this premise and assumed there must be a trade-off between inculcating academic success and happiness。 But as I’ve learned since becoming a parent, the research shows that children tend to do best, across the board, when parents command loving respect, not fearful obedience — when they are both strict and supportive, directive and kindhearted。 By contrast, children subjected to hostile “tiger” parenting methods are more likely to be depressed, anxious and insecure。 And while many tiger cubs run the gantlet and emerge as academic gladiators, on average, children subjected to high-pressure parenting actually tend to do worse in school。 In short, a firm hand works best when paired with a warm embrace。 This is the approach I’ve tried to take with my daughters。


Like all parents, however, my failures stack up alongside my successes. And I know that the decision to abandon immigrant parenting principles could backfire. The striving immigrant mind-set, however severe, can produce results. Every time I snuggle my daughters as they back away from a challenge — when my own father would have screamed and spit and spanked until I prevailed — I wonder if I’m failing them in a very different way than he did me.


But I’m temperamentally unable to mimic my father’s succeed-at-all-costs immigrant mind-set, an instinct I share with most of my generation. And maybe that marks our immigrant parents’ ultimate triumph: We have become American. As part of the American parenting mainstream, I aim to raise children who are happy, confident and kind — and not necessarily as driven, dutiful and successful as the model Asian child. If that means the next generation will have fewer virtuoso violinists and neurosurgeons, well, I still embrace the decline.




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