A success story with or without ‘Tiger Moms’

by Tom Plate

High up in the category of news that’s too familiar to be newsworthy is the latest poll that finds Asians to be the most-educated and highest-earning population in the United States.

Right. The good people at the Pew Research Center pretty much wasted their time and much of America’s newsprint on this one. They could have spared themselves the cost of their otherwise meritorious and laborious statistical methodology and simply have called around to ask a few professors here in the U.S. what’s going on. Unless the faculty member were at some cow college in range of some fly-bitten southern swampland, the probability of their best prepared and best- performing students being Asian or Asian-American would be quite high.

This almost nationwide trend has been steady for years and hardly any secret. From 1994-2008, I was privileged to teach undergraduates at the University of California, Los Angeles. Not all of my best students were Asian but a lot of them were and there were very many of them. It is not for nothing that years ago UCLA became unofficially famed as the “University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians.”

At times American professors are also privileged to come into the company of “Tiger Moms.” This is the name not entirely of admiration that rose to controversy in the aftermath of Yale Law professor Amy Chua’s best-seller “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.” This book celebrates the role of the pushy Asian mom as boot-camp sergeant to her brood.

Fortunately I did not meet too many of these testosterone ladies, because few of the Asian students who worked hard in my classes ever had to be given less than an A-minus. And when I did meet Lady Tiger Mom, they were invariably pleasant. This was because their kid’s overall grade-point average would hover close to 4.0, or (as everyone knew) the kid’s life would have been in danger.

Accordingly, the Pew Research Center Survey found that Asians in the U.S. across the board put more emphasis than non-Asian Americans on conventional marriage, parenting, hard work and careers. It also found that three-fifths of Asians feel that other American parents, in general, do not put enough pressure on their children to succeed in school.

Here I throw up a red flag and ask America’s Tiger Moms to back off. One size, as most boutique owners privately admit, rarely fits all. Some kids do respond to the whip (figuratively speaking), but then others will seek escape, especially into drugs.

America is not Singapore, where societal controls have in the past permitted parents the role of confession-extorting police lieutenants. In our globalized culture, even Singapore is not Singapore any more.

My friends there tell me that, even in the tiny bucolic island city-state, parenting is more trying than ever, just as for decades it has been all but a nightmare in Southern California, the global geographical center of teen self-indulgence, beaten-down parents, dangerous dieting schemes and overpriced psychiatrists in Porsches.

So, I urge anyone still planning to read the Tiger Mom book to regard it with caution. You might want to treat it not as some instructional bible, but more in the spirit of admiring how the Nazis organized their invasion of Czechoslovakia. Sometimes kindness will kill children, but sometimes it will fill the young adult’s soul with sunshine and trigger spiritual and intellectual rebirth. At least it’s worth a try.

My all-time favorite Asian-American student sometimes would collapse in my university office and recount the many times her father used to punch her smack in the face for not getting A’s. It took a few years of distinctly unlicensed professorial counseling for her to get over that. But time — and kindness — can heal wounds.

Next month she proudly enters professional graduate school in social work, which — as almost everyone agrees — is one of the few truly honorable professions left. (By the way, here is some advice to Asians and their Tiger Moms: Stop going to law school. Too many of you are already there! Please try something else.)

The Pew study did illuminate a new area. It reports that Asians in the U.S. either directly hail from or trace their roots to mainly six nations: China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam. Each of these countries, even the Philippines, is a good bet in the future and should occupy a high priority in the U.S. international-relations effort.

Undoubtedly, that effort will be helped by America’s overall openness to immigration that has made Asians the fastest-growing sector of our population.

In other words, on balance, this is a huge American success story — as American as President Barack Obama’s signoff of “God bless the United States of America” on his speeches. Then again, only the president’s stepfather was Asian. But be nice to him: Not everyone can be perfect.

Tom Plate, author of the “Giants of Asia” series, is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University. The next “Giant,” to be published in September, is “Conversations with Ban Ki-moon.”