The plight of the condor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


Is there really a difference between Chinese parents and Western parents? It's a topic that most parents in Hong Kong approach with caution, lest they be accused of being prejudiced, narrow-minded or downright racist. We all know the cliches, but how true are they? Does the place of our ancestry, or our ethnicity, really determine what kind of parent we will become? We observe, we compare, we talk, but usually in hushed tones.

Into this quiet conversation, one book lobbed a virtual hand grenade - Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It seemed all of Hong Kong was abuzz last year as the book raised the questions most of us were afraid to ask about the differences between Eastern and Western approaches to parenting.

Tiger Mother created such a volatile public debate because Chua was so willing to divide parents along racial lines. Moreover, her approach to parenting seemed to confirm the stereotype some people have in their minds about Asian parents in Western societies.

Chua seemed ruthless about setting high academic standards for her children, preferred that they suffer through music lessons they didn't enjoy rather than express themselves with other art forms, and had no interest in encouraging them to do well in sports. Perhaps most controversial of all, she didn't seem to place much value in helping her children to make friends or keep up with popular culture.

A generous view of Tiger Mother would suggest that Chua's real achievement was to dig into her culture's strongest values, especially a commitment to hard work and family, even if those values seem unpopular in the culture where her children are growing up. It's a long-sighted and countercultural move. You've got to respect that.

In a way, it runs against the grain of a lot of expat thinking. Many of us value immersing our children in the culture where we live, allowing them to be localised. Imagine if an expat parent in Hong Kong were to say something like: 'I just think the local culture has it all wrong.' It's increasingly common for expat parents to pride themselves on being culturally eclectic.

When my parents moved from Chile to Australia, no one really talked about expats. My parents were immigrants (even though they had dreams of returning to their home country), and our household, like many immigrant households I knew as a child, was a cultural fortress. My parents were struggling to hold onto their traditions with almost the same determination that many expat parents I know invest in acquiring new cultural identities.

All this got me wondering: what, if anything, from my cultural background might give my daughter a head start in life? If Chua and others like her could be tiger mothers, then maybe I could adopt the national bird of Chile and call myself a 'condor father'.

Trouble is, the condor is an odd kind of bird to adopt as a mascot. Sure, from a distance, its huge wingspan and graceful flight look majestic against the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. But up close, the condor can't hide the fact that it is a cousin of the common vulture.

So, with mixed feelings I started to explore what a condor father would stand for in a cosmopolitan city. Words like hospitable, dignified and passionate came to mind. Moreover, Chileans love good music, a good joke, a good meal and a good game of soccer.

Friendship, community and hospitality are important values in my culture. As an expat parent, I worry sometimes what moving from country to country might do to my child's ability to make and sustain friendships. From my upbringing, I try to pass on the sense that storytelling and how we tell the story of our lives really matters. Even the most mundane experiences have more meaning when shared with friends and family, especially in the presence of good food and with gentle humour.

Playfulness would also be important. Everyone knows South Americans love soccer, but its cultural significance transcends sport. While the top players' skills are talked about in language usually reserved for high art, the real place of soccer in the imagination is seen in streets and parks, where any child who can kick joins in and the lack of a decent ball doesn't hold anyone back from having fun. What is prized are joy, flair and self-expression.

Playfulness is also evident in the way we use language. Chile has a rich literary and journalistic heritage and a wonderfully vibrant way of using colloquial terms. I've always loved the Chilean phrase for a hot day, which translates as 'the ducks are falling out of the sky already roasted.'

But music has to represent the biggest gulf between the condor father and the tiger mother.

I started playing guitar at age five and have logged plenty of practice over the years. But my parents never pushed me to practise, dictated what style of music I should play or what instrument to concentrate on. What struck me reading Tiger Mother was how middle-class the obsession with children learning classical music really was. It recalled conversations I've had over and over again with parents in Hong Kong, both Eastern and Western, about how to approach their children's musical development.

I started with folk and pop music, not classical. When I bought my first electric guitar at age 16 with my own pocket money, my parents didn't regard that as some kind of rebellion. Although I eventually found a path into professional music, it never involved the formal training that many parents seem to assume is necessary (or that is common in the classical world).

As an aside, I do wonder what would happen to popular and jazz music in Hong Kong if the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts were to open a university standard programme in jazz and contemporary music, akin to that offered in such places as Berklee College in Boston. Would that legitimise contemporary music as a career in the eyes of parents?

Ultimately, Tiger Mother is not really a book about Chinese parenting. It is about overly ambitious middle-class parenting. What shocked me about Chua's book wasn't her so-called Chinese values as much as how ruthlessly career-minded she wanted her children to be.

Maybe my unease at the title condor father reflects a deeper uncertainty. Chua seems so damn confident that her approach to parenting is right, and I'm almost always unsure of my parenting style.

But many of the goals Chua had for her children are goals I share for mine. I would like my child to go to a good university and to be genuinely proficient in music. I would like my child to be critically distant from popular culture. And to be frank, I have spent, in global terms, some pretty obscene amounts of money to help my child reach those goals.

Maybe the most shocking thing about Tiger Mother for the rest of us - whether we are condors, kangaroos, bulldogs or whatever - is that Chua has a plan for getting her children to the top of the same tree we hope ours will one day climb. And while she set about to execute her plan ruthlessly, most of the rest of us are just making it up as we go along.

Fernando Gros is a writer, musician and photographer