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Mina Choi Tenison

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Tiger Mom, Get in Line!

Last year when the Tiger Mother article came out, many friends asked me what I thought of the story. Most of them knew that my children were enrolled in competitive local Shanghai schools and they had been privy to my complaints about the tremendous homework load imposed on students.

I smiled and said, "Tiger Mom thinks that she is Chinese, but in fact she is American." When they asked me what I meant by that, I simply said, "That pushiness to succeed and putting your child through anything to make sure they stay ahead of the pack only works in America, not in China."

Most of them were still unclear and asked me to explain further. I replied, "When you're a pushy mother and you're asking your children to do extra homework and take more classes than their peers, it only works if very few people are as pushy as you are AND if the education system is hinged on meritocracy as it is in America."

When they looked back at me in confusion, I proceeded to explain what I have discovered so far: Here in China, especially in Shanghai, where everyone I know is pushing their child to do 3 to 5 hours of homework every day (keeping children as young as age eight and nine up until 11pm), being a Tiger Mom is not enough to guarantee your child's success in the education system.

Add to that a system which is not hinged on meritocracy, but on connections, or rather, how well a particular parent has influenced the system in her favor. This includes methods as varied as displaying how powerful your connections are, or simply sending teachers extravagant gifts such as the latest mobile phones or designer handbags. In this scenario, the Tiger Mom will find that suddenly, no matter how many hours her children toil away at homework, and no matter how hard she pushes them, there will always be other children who will get better grades than hers for reasons unbeknownst to her.

When I was in high school in U.S. more than 20 years ago, I worked on a research paper about teachers' expectations and student performance. The conclusion was that a student, deprived of encouragement from the teacher, is very easily disaffected from becoming a good student. So no matter how bright a particular student might be, if the teacher fails to encourage the student, or even actively criticizes that student, that particular student will never shine.

In China, what I have noticed is that more often than not, a teacher's judgment about a student's ability is often swayed by external factors.

Even for the teacher who wants to be fair to her students, the pressures from her colleagues and perhaps even the administrators make it difficult for her to exercise complete fairness in administering to her many students.

In Shanghai, where the test for middle school has been abolished, these external factors are often decisive in whether your child gets into a top school or not. Of course, your child's academic scores and awards are important, but more important is your guanxi. The question all Shanghai parents start asking in fifth grade is, "Which school are you picking for your children? Who do you know there? Which method are you using to get your child in?"

What I have discovered is that most parents had already cultivated a particular relationship to guarantee their child's place in a desired school. And they would be damned if they were going to share their information with anyone else.

My husband sat next to a Shanghai woman on a plane who admitted that she had paid 100,000RMB through her connection get her child into one particular school. Her attitude was edifying; she said breezily, "You only pay it once and then it's seven year of nearly free tuition. It's better than paying for Yale or Harvard."

Another friend of mine paid thousands of RMB for his child to attend "fudaoke" (extra classes) with one important teacher at a destination school. He found out upon arriving at the weekend class that his child was one of twenty students each paying several hundred RMB per session to cultivate a relationship with the powerful teacher. I asked him how much he thought he had to pay to get his daughter a place in the school. He said, "I don't know how much. It depends how people are taking their cuts and commissions along the way. But once they ask me for money, that's good news. That means we're in."

One Shanghai friend told me a couple of years ago, "My girlfriend is furious because the teacher has not been treating her daughter well." She said, "I don't understand. I gave that teacher so many gifts: a new mobile phone, a transportation card. How can she mistreat my daughter?!" My friend then chortled and said, "I told her, If you're giving gifts, the others are giving gifts. And even better ones! Wake up!"

What l I'd like to say to Amy Chua and other Tiger Moms is to come to China and see if their sense of competitiveness, which they attribute to being "Chinese", can really pass muster in their imagined homeland. They might just realize that being a "tiger" is not good enough, especially when there's a powerful dragon looming behind you.

Or maybe it's simpler to just say, "Tiger Mom, come to China – and get in line!"

WALL STREET JOURNAL CHINESE Digital Edition, May 17, 2012

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