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Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

East Meets West

In Canada, Celebrity Obsessions, Peanut, Tolkien on January 17, 2011 at 9:38 pm

It was the hoopla I heard about first.  The Wall Street Journal‘s excerpt from an upcoming book by Amy Chua that they headlined “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” really hit a blogospheric nerve, didn’t it?  It was actually the overwhelming, extremely polarized response that made me interested in reading the original article itself. 

I feel qualified to comment on this because I am the daughter of Asian (though not Chinese) parents.  And I have to say, as uncool as it is, I basically agree with Amy Chua.  Not entirely; of course I don’t think it’s OK to call your children garbage or to deny them bathroom breaks.  But her point — that Chinese (the term is used loosely since it can apply to parents of any culture) parents put in far more work hours to parenting than Western (again, term used loosely) parents do — hits home to me because Peanut is reaching the age where I have started to question my own parenting work ethic.  For example, our response to her gradually emerging temper tantrums.  Because she’s strong-willed, Tolkien and I have long said amongst ourselves that we will have to be very firm about teaching her obedience and good manners.  Who wants to look back and realize they raised a brat?  But now that this stage is starting to become a reality, I can see that it may be quite difficult to put our principles into practice.  We decided that when P flings herself on the floor screaming in outrage at a perceived slight, we will calmly leave the room until she stops.  This has worked for mild tantrums; once she looks up to gauge our reaction and realizes she has no audience, she turns the drama off immediately (amazing how that happens) and comes toddling to find us.  However, this weekend she threw a much longer tantrum that did not resolve with our usual response.  And after ten minutes of screaming and sobbing so hard she could barely breathe, we just picked her up.  Now, it felt like we were being loving.  But I couldn’t help wondering if we were actually being lazy.  Discipline is hard, but truly loving parents do it.  And if we give in to her,  perhaps it’s because we’re not willing to put in the work required of us, perhaps it’s because it’s easier than letting her scream, and perhaps we’re not thinking of her best interests.  And then I started thinking of my friends with much older children who put in 3-4 hours of homework assistance a night and who relearn calculus themselves so they can teach it to their kids when the local high school’s math teacher isn’t cutting it and I get very tired, because dude, I didn’t like calculus when I was the one taking it, why do I have to go through all that nonsense again?  But then why should Peanut’s calc grade suffer because I’d rather watch HGTV than be a diligent teacher?

So it was with that background that I read the Chua excerpt.  And, thinking back to how my parents raised me, I think she has a good point.  “Chinese”-category parents demand and expect excellence while “Western”-category parents think, you know, excellence is cool, but what’s really important is that you have fun and have good self-esteem.  While “Chinese” parents are demanding, they also put in thousands of hours of personal sacrifice (her example is drilling kids in math and the piano) to help their children get there.  My parents were not anywhere near as psychotic as her examples, but they definitely did expect academic excellence, and they definitely did sacrifice years of their lives for us.  I have many memories of my dad going over pages and pages of math problems with me in the evenings; my parents driving me constantly to lessons, the library, competitions and performances; my parents reading and re-reading drafts of my short stories; the mutual understanding that doing excellently in school was my number-one job.

The difference for me was that I was naturally an anxious, perfectionistic kid, the kind who freaked out entirely of her own accord if she didn’t get straight A’s or made a mistake of any kind.  No joke, when I was 8 years old I used to lie in bed at night worrying about the national economy.  Because they had a kid like that, my parents very wisely recognized that their job was to bring me back down to earth by constantly telling me that I didn’t have to be the best, that all I had to do was do my best, and perfection didn’t matter.  And thank God for that, because if I’d had the Amy Chua parenting method on top of my personality I would have ended up in an institution.  As well, Baby Howie and I were encouraged to participate in extracurriculars (my utter absence of athletic ability and the fact that sports teams usually want to, you know, win was the only reason I never played sports.)  My mom had a special gift for realizing how important fitting in can be, and wanted us to be socially adept; therefore we were allowed to attend parties and sleepovers, though far less often than our Western friends were.  And my parents never, ever called us names or told us we were worthless.  We always knew we were loved (though I guess Amy Chua would argue her daughters do, too.)  Clearly, any strict (compared to the West) parenting style must be accompanied by a copious amount of love, kind words, snuggles and laughter.

But with those caveats … I still think Amy Chua is largely correct.  It has always mystified, if not irritated, me to see how excessively important sports are in American school life.  Since when did athletics supersede academics as the primary focus of a student’s energy?  With the amount of time your average U.S. high schooler devotes to sports and a social life, it’s no wonder Western kids are falling behind other kids around the world.  Interestingly, this seems to be a uniquely American rather than Western phenomenon, as I did not find this lack of academic focus to be the case when I was growing up in the Canadian school system.  School is for school, people.  And you can’t expect teachers to do it all, either.  Parents have to be willing to push education hard at home as well, though exactly what form that takes in all cases I’m not sure.  I wonder if I have that stamina.  Chua also made an interesting point when stating that nothing is fun until you’re good at it, and children naturally don’t want to put in the work to get good at things.  I think she’s right.  However, the thought of wrestling a screaming Peanut into practicing the piano or doing multiplication tables is not tremendously palatable.  Yet … I think that is our job.

When I have my doubts about the “Chinese” style, I have only to re-read this absurd blog post by actress Elisabeth Rohm and I am re-convinced.  (I am a celebrity trivia nut, and I don’t have any clear idea who Elisabeth Rohm is.  Ms. Elisabeth Rohm, I think that’s a bad sign.  For you.)  This is a People magazine celebrity mom blog entry (the most embarrassing part of this sentence is that I am publicly admitting to having read a People magazine celebrity mom blog entry. )  Anyway, I thought it was ridiculous before I even read the WSJ article, and now doubly so.  To me, it’s a caricature of everything that stereotypes say is wrong with Western parenting, and I’m a Westerner as well as Asian, so I take offense.  When her daughter — “intentionally”, I might add– hits her in the face, her response is to tell her how sweet and kind she is?  I realize it’s part of an effort to motivate the child to behave better, but really, you have got to be kidding me.  What on earth is wrong with saying “You are not allowed to do that”?  Or “You never hit your mother — or anyone else”?  Or, you know, “No”?  The psycho-babble is particularly impressive.  “Non-reactive parenting”?  What, exactly, is wrong with reacting?  I’m pretty sure that a swift reaction gets kids’ attention.  Not reacting swiftly would tell me, at least, that the non-reactor was under some kind of heavy sedation.

So … on the spectrum of parenting between Amy Chua and Elisabeth Rohm (oh, she’s on Law and Order!  Got it!), I want to be closer to the Amy Chua end, with a healthy dose of loving kindness and humour.  Much like my parents were and are.  Time will tell whether we are able to do as good a job for Peanut.  Tell her what, I’ll let her keep her dollhouse.  Just as long as she gets straight A’s and goes to Harvard.

I’m kidding!  Yale would probably be OK too.

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Happy 2011! (And An Illusion, Dashed)

In Books, Medicine, Peanut on January 3, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I hope everyone had a merry Christmas and an awesome New Year’s!  We got to spend time with both our families and had a white Christmas for the first time in years, which was beautiful.  We took advantage of the white stuff by taking the Peanut sledding for the first time, which she greeted with … suspicion, mixed with reserved distaste.  It is becoming increasingly clear that she is dead-set on letting us know that she is a city girl.  At the age of 12 months I took her to the park on a beautiful summer day, thinking she’d enjoy the feel of the soft grass on her little bare feet, and I wish I’d had my camcorder to record the dainty wrinkling of her nose and prissy lifting of each foot, one at a time, to carefully shake off any invisible contamination.  Needless to say, a Little House on the Prairie-esque skipping down the grassy hill with girlish abandon did not ensue.

"Seriously, couldn't we do a spa or something instead?"

Nonetheless, we had a wonderful Christmas season.  Every New Year’s Eve since we’ve been married, somehow either Tolkien or I have been on call.  This year it was his turn, so my parents joined me and Peanut for a low-key NYE celebration, which we enjoyed, and now it is back to real life and goodbye to another holiday season.  January is really kind of a crappy month (my apologies to any January birthday-babies out there) — why does it always have to follow the glittering party that is December?

Anyway, I have already achieved my sole 2011 resolution, which was to finish Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  (It helps that I only had 35 pages to go by Dec. 31, and also that I made no other resolutions.  I set the bar high.)  I’ve been reading this book for three and a half years, and not because I’m in the slow reading group.  (I reads real good.)  I was so bored by the slow pace of the first half of the book that I dropped it and read a million others in between.  But that boredom was finally outweighed by the annoyance of seeing it taunting me smugly from my nighttable day after day, and so I vowed not to allow myself to pick up another book until I finished that one.  Which vow I then proceeded to follow with two months of just not reading at all.  Finally I gave myself a mental disciplinary thrashing and forced myself to open it again.  Turned out to be quite an interesting book, in the end, but so very depressing.  The point of all this, though, is that recently whenever I finish a book I enjoyed I’ve been entering it into http://bookseer.com, a site that spits out recommendations for other books based on the one you type in.  The recommendations it has given for other books have been fairly spot-on.  For Tess?  It recommends “nothing.”  Not sure what to make of that.  

All this recent book obsession is clearly the sign of a long-starved reading-lover who was ensconced in her medical bubble for years and has only just been emancipated.  I have friends who managed to read fiction during med school, but I was not one of them.  After cramming microbiology and pharmacology for 13 hours a day, every day, I just couldn’t take the eyestrain of more reading, even for pleasure.  And the thing is that even after the first two years of med school, when you finally leave the classroom and start on the hospital wards, you still have so much studying to do for your clinical rotations.  Then in residency you’re reading like crazy about your patients and their conditions.  And studying for lecture exams.  And then when you’re done residency you’re cramming like crazy for your written and oral board exams.  My oral board exam was in May of 2010 and it was my last exam for 10 years.  10 years, people!  Do you know what it is to tell a physician that they don’t have an exam for 10 years?  Probably something like being told you’ve won the lottery and don’t need to worry about money for the rest of your life, but not quite believing it, so you keep secretly squirreling away dollar bills on the side while publicly splurging on a Lamborghini.  I still study several days a week.  Only now I also have a stack of novels on that nightstand.

Christmas gifts received, and now next up on the reading list.

Which gets me thinking about all the books I read and loved as a child, especially since I’m hoping that Peanut might one day be literate and could enjoy some of the same ones.  One of the authors whose books I really devoured was Enid Blyton.  I was so into her British boarding school novels that I frequently used the word “fortnight” in regular 10-year-old conversation, and it took me several of them (fortnights, that is) to realize how preposterous I sounded.  So anyway, thinking of her stories, I Googled her yesterday, and would you believe, it turns out this author of sweet innocent children’s tales was apparently an adulterous, abusive, malicious, lying crazy person

This information has so shaken my belief system that this entire post was a rambling way of getting to that single point.  Enid Blyton, an insane witch.  Why don’t you just tell me there’s no Santa Claus too?