While the ‘Tiger Mom’ image is present in Hong Kong, alternative schooling options like the Gaia School show there is no ‘right’ way of parenting and education.
Sometime during Feb. 2011, after hours of math drills, Yue Yue a 12-year-old girl in Nanjing wrote a poem entitled “Mama, I’m so pressured.” The poem resonated in Hong Kong, where a college student turned it into a song and posted it on Youtube. The poem and song highlighted the struggle many Chinese youngsters face from over-demanding parents – a struggle that has gained much international attention in recent weeks with the publication of Yale University law professor, Amy Chua’s, controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
The book sparked a debate about the merits of Chinese and Western parenting. Chua’s way of showing what she called “tough love” to her daughters included high expectations for academic and musical achievements, no sleepovers, no extracurricular activities of their choice, no computer games…the list goes on. As Chua noted in an article about the book titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” that was published in the Wall Street Journal. “Chinese parents believe they know what is best for the children and therefore over-ride all their children’s own desires and preferences,” according to Chua.
The arguments in Chua’s book touched a sensitive nerve in Hong Kong, whose population is 98 percent Chinese, and where the values Chua praises are found in many local families. In Causeway Bay, among a labyrinth of neon billboards, hotels, restaurants, boutiques, electronic stores, are numerous signs advertising tuition centers. These centers offer after-school coaching in almost every subject, from English to math to history, promising to help students get A’s and improve their chances of going to a good university and getting a good job. Their popularity is just one example of how Hong Kong’s young people are paying the price for their parents’ obsession with education and success.
Hong Kong born Tse Chin Tung, a second year journalism student at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, turned the poem into music after reading about Yue Yue’s victorious battle against her mother’s orders. With only a guitar and homemade Yakult bottle maracas, Tse and her sister, Chin Lui’s song underscored the pleas of many Hong Kong students- “please give me a break!” Their simplistic yet comical performance gained over 80 thousand views in the first month after she posted the video on YouTube. Ironically, Tse is a private tutor herself, which is common among university students, and the poem reminded her of a student she tutors after school three hours a day, Monday through Friday. “Her mom wouldn’t let her have dinner if the class didn’t go well,” Tse was quoted as saying in local newspaper, Apple Daily. “Sometimes she’d have to continue studying till past midnight.”
Chua’s book highlighted a debate about parenting, education and different cultural values. While supporters said it showed the importance of discipline and hard work, critics complained that rote learning stifled creativity and problem-solving skills.
However, in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, an internationally recognized assessment administered to 15-year-olds, students in Shanghai scored first in all three categories. Hong Kong was also near the top of the list. American students did less well.
Where the average was 493 in reading, Shanghai obtained the highest at 556, Hong Kong the fourth highest at 533, and the United States rank 15th together with Poland and Iceland at 500. For mathematics where the average was 496, Shanghai obtained 600, Hong Kong 555 and the US 487. For science, students in Shanghai received a score of 575; Hong Kong students received 549. US students obtained 502, just one point above the average.
“The process may be tough, but when you see the results it’s all worth it.”
These results bolstered the arguments of those who believe strict parenting and the focus on schoolwork over everything else is the right approach. Betty Tsang Lai-chun, the mother of 20-year-old Hing Lam, does not care about the amount of time her daughter spends studying – as long as she gets top grades.
Since secondary school, Hing’s mother has been pushing her daughter relentlessly, demanding that she get better grades than her classmates. Now in her second year of studying Mathematics at Oxford on full scholarship, Hing sits in front of the webcam and recalls the path which brought her where she is today.
Betty Tsang Lai-chun makes Hing kneel for hours to reflect on her mistakes
Hing says it all began when her mother started bringing her lunch in secondary school. Chatting with other parents, her mother began to compare her grades with her classmates’.
“Her expectations came from others,” says Hing. “She would say, ‘you must get scores higher than so-and-so, you must get scores above the mean…’.” Hing says her mother would hit her if she came home with a dictation score of 97 while somebody else had gotten 100.
Lai-chun who grew up in mainland China, who is an elite student herself, used to check Hing’s homework every day.
“She was just so careless!” Lai-chun exclaims. “That was always her fatal mistake.”
If she found that Hing had made one error in a batch of questions, she would not tell Hing which one was wrong. Instead, Hing would have to redo all of the questions again.
“That would teach her to be careful, to make no mistakes in the first place,” said Lai-chun.
Hing grimaces as she talks about the Hong Kong Certificate Levels, a public exam in which all local students take during the fifth year in secondary school. Where anyone with six A’s would be eligible for the Early Admission Scheme, offering the opportunity for elite students to enter university a year before their peers, Lai-chun expected her to receive eight A’s out of nine subjects. Hing ended up getting five A’s and four B’s. These scores were really good according to, Ku Wan-Sheung, Hing’s classmate. Wan-Sheung said Hing’s mother scolded her so loudly at school on the day the results came out that other students could hear at the end of the corridor. Lai-chun said her disappointment came from knowing that her daughter had the ability to get eight A’s but only ended up getting five because of her laziness.
“The day the results came out, I already knew which four subjects she would get a B, and I was right,” said Lai-chun.
That night, Hing had to kneel in her room for four hours while reflecting what she did wrong.
Lai-chun is confident she understands her daughter well and was determined to help her daughter meet her full potential.
“I know what she has inside her, I know,” said Lai-chun.
A mild girl in nature, Hing seldom disobeys her mother. She worked extra hard for the Hong Kong A-Levels two years later, and received a scholarship offer to Oxford.
Contrary to what some might think, Hing, like Amy Chua’s own daughters, is not resentful of her mother. In fact, the two are close friends and confidantes. Every night, Lai-chun stays up until 3 a.m. because of the time difference with Britain, to chat with Hing. The conversation sometimes lasts for three hours. From shopping to boys, there is nothing Hing keeps from her mother, not even her email and Facebook password. With the same hairstyle – straight, permed hair with cropped bangs – the pair look more like sisters.
“I’ve always been with her since she was young,” Lai-chun sighs happily. “Nobody wants their mother to pick them up from school, but she did. I even accompanied her on public exams.”
She says her daughter’s obedience came from their close relationship.
Photos of Hing are hung all over the walls of their home in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong
“Now that I’m older I understand, and I cooperate with her. If she didn’t push me then probably I won’t be where I am now. Therefore I thank her,” said Hing.Photos of Hing are hung all over the walls of their home in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong
She says she wants to find a decent job in the future and lead a quality life. Her mother also wants her to be able buy her own house, car and designer clothes.
“The process may be tough, but when you see the results it’s all worth it,” said Hing.
Hing says she believes her mother’s method of teaching is correct. In fact, Hing thinks her mother ought to have been stricter with her since kindergarten, so she could have achieved even more.
“She didn’t push me in learning the Zheng (a Chinese instrument), and I stopped learning after a few years. If she had pushed me I could have been much better player,” said Hing.
Halfway through her book, Amy Chua talks about the time when her iron-fist parenting nearly drove away her rebellious younger daughter Lulu. “Humbled by a 13 year old” as Chua puts it, she admits that one size does not fit all. Professor Catherine McBride, a psychology professor teaching in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, agrees that there is no standard method to raise a child.
“Things don’t work the way you want with every child. Parents can expose them to different things, but they cannot have control over the child’s interest,” said McBride.
It is also important that parents keep a warm relationship with their kids. If all that practice is being perceived as an act of love rather than forced labor, children are more likely to respond positively. Some parents often don’t know how to differentiate achievement from their child as an individual.
“Parents should be able to think: I want my son to be, say, a good swimmer and he wasn’t. But I still love him because he’s my son,” explained McBride.
Children who do not have enough practice in exercising autonomy might eventually not know how.
“The biggest tragedy is when the child doesn’t know what he wants or even who is he,” said Professor McBride.
Indeed, Hing, who has been following her mother’s instructions for all her life, still calls home when she cannot decide whether or not to attend a party when she is in Oxford.
Chinese parents tend to be stricter compared to Caucasian parents. Strictness, Professor McBride cautioned, should be considered in a cultural context. Like in Hong Kong where it is normal to attend afterschool tuition classes, parents who don’t send their kids to one might be called a slacker.
Indeed, after Tse put the song complaining about pressure and over-demanding parents online, another young person in Hong Kong posted a song in response, defending parents who push their kids. His lyric outlines the pressure and anxiety faced by parents to keep their children competitive enough for the real world. He ends the song with an echo to Tse’s video – “my child, papa and mama feel very pressured too.”
“My kid can be a taxi driver if he likes to!”
While many parents push their kids to keep up with credential inflation, the Gaia School, located in Tuen Mun, New Territories, offers an alternative – attempting to allow students to grow up at their own pace.
Gaia school, meaning “nature school” in Greek, was founded in 2007. Following the footsteps of an education approach used in the US, England and Taiwan, Gaia school aims to foster healthy and positive personality growth in children through nature loving curriculum.
Away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Gaia School, rests in a green sanctuary by the entrance of Tuen Mun Country Park and provides primary education which stresses humanistic values. Abandoning rules found in almost every conventional school in Hong Kong – no school uniform, no excessive homework and lots of outdoor activities- Yip Chung-Sing, principal of Gaia School, makes mother nature the teacher. Nicknamed “Starfish”, a homonym to the word “Sing”(Star) in his name, Yip is a tall skinny man in a tracksuit. With a casual smile, he sits by a little farm patch and overlooks students competing to see who can stand on one leg the longest.
“Man should not distance himself from nature,” Yip said.
Now without the long hours of extra tuition classes, students have time to explore the earth and discover their own uniqueness. Yip believes learning to become a self-disciplined and responsible person is more important than collecting A’s.
“My kid can be a taxi driver if he likes to!” said Yip.
As long as one enjoys his job and has time for hobbies, Yip considers it a fulfilling life.
Like many schools in Hong Kong, prospective Gaia students must undergo an interview before admission. Instead of looking at their list of awards, however, Yip makes sure that parents share the same vision and are prepared to practice the same principles when the child is at home. As many activities require considerable help, parents are encouraged to join school events as volunteers.
To further distinguish this approach from the “tiger mom style,” at Gaia, children are seen as having equal status to their teachers. In case of disagreements, a “court of life”- composed of fellow students, seniors and teachers acting as judges and jury- is convened to resolve the conflict. Punishment will usually involve offering services to the school i.e. painting the walls or sweeping the school compound. Although the Gaia School has only 36 students, it shows that parents in Hong Kong are starting to seek alternative ways to raise their children.
As the bell rang, yelling children burst from their classrooms and headed straight for the playground to play dodge ball. The playground was bustling with children’s laughter. “I like this school because I don’t get scolded by teachers like in my last primary school,” beamed a little girl in pigtails. Another boy nicknamed “Owl” yelled from behind: “And we get to play and run up the hills!” Away from high level piano qualifications or conventional academic qualifications, these children live a natural, stress-free, childhood.
An elderly lady stood watching her grandson. “It’s very different from how I raised his father,” she notes. Staring back at the ball of energy running across the court, she simply waves away worries for her grandson’s future success, “He’s been thinking on his own since he got here. That’s more important than simply absorbing knowledge.”
“Mama, I’m So Pressured” Composed by Tse Chin Tung
|Mama, I’m so pressured|
The minutes and seconds are ticking by
The birds outside have long flown home
Whether in the cold winter or hot summer
I’m always at home
I’m at home
Not playing with Barbie dolls
Nor going on online game site 4388
But holding a pen scribbling on Olympian math
So much pressure
I hate the 5678 on the blackboard
When can I give myself a break?
a grass and a flower
I too, wish to explore them
So much pressure
How I wish to play dolls with my friends
You’ll be the dad and I’ll be the mom
Take care of the baby till he’s all grown up
Day by day time is taken up by learning
The stuff I learn gets harder and harder
Mama, I want to tell you
I won’t be a failure when I grow up
Don’t let me have nothing to do with nature
Mama, I’m so pressured
Give me a break, will you?
“Baby, Papa Mama’s is Even More Pressured” Composed by Rock Chan
|Baby, papa mama is even more pressured|
Every day we work and work and work and worry you that you don’t grow
Baby, papa mama is even more pressured
Hoping you’ll run faster than him, than her, than him, than her
I pay for your school fees with all my salary
I registered you for metal arithmetic and accounting class
Plus Olympics math which is pretty expensive
Hoping that you’ll work hard to not put them to waste
I panic as rice gets too expensive
But to raise you, it’s alright
Pa and ma wants you to know
Other parents pump (their kids)
With even more classic readings
Famous novels from east and west
Learning from French to Japanese
Hoping that you’ll have a good fortune ahead.
It’s a fault of the society, I can’t help it.
It forces you, forces me to play along with the world’s mistake
My child, papa mama
Feel very pressured too
迫我 迫你 盡迎合世界之過
孩子, 爸爸 媽媽
Janet So, Melanie Leung, and Jaqueline P’ng are students in the Journalism Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong