Are Chinese moms social?

Are Chinese moms social? January 20, 2011

Today a daughter came home from school, placed the back of her hand against her forehead, and declared that she had been MORTIFIED at school. In class they played the game “That’s me” where everyone stood to various questions. To the statement “I can text on my phone,” apparently everyone stood up but her.

Yes, I am that evil Chinese mother who has not provided texting to her children.

But I suspect my motives for barring texting are different from Amy Chua, of late evil Chinese mother fame, who didn’t let her kids do sleepovers or playdates or other such social things. I’ve resisted texting specifically because I WANT my kids to have social skills, and I don’t think texting helps anyone develop emotional intelligence, good eye contact, or listening skills.

OK, OK. I’m also annoyed by teens, and yes, fellow adults, who rather than paying attention to the folks they’re with, engage socially with those they’d rather be with via texting or e-mail or even conversations. It hurts my feelings. Literally someone else is prioritized over me, and if I’ve taken time out of my life to be with you, I don’t really want to hang around while you hang around with someone else—feels too much like bad times from fourth grade. Of course, now that I have an i-phone—I can and do engage in that very egregious behavior at times. Sorry.

My mother was a strange Chinese mother in many ways. While I never felt she prioritized my development as a social or emotional being—always emphasizing the stereotypical grades, perfect oldest child behavior, and filial piety—what she practiced came out more than what she preached, and my Mama LOVES people. My Mama becomes bosom buddies with check-out ladies at Safeway. My Mama spends life surrounded by her coterie of companions. In fact, as I’ve been trying to interview her for her life history these past weeks, I’m constantly foiled by her need to go to small group, or cook dinner for the interim pastor, or just go out to breakfast, lunch or dinner with whomever she wants to hang with that day.

As a result, growing up, I enjoyed a constant stream of playdates and sleepovers. Not because Mama diligently set them up, but because she was perpetually having her own playdates, which meant I got to play with her playdate’s kids. Three of my closest friendships growing up all came from Mama hanging out with their moms. I don’t think Mama ever denied me a sleepover or social event in my entire life because it went completely against her nature and values. Any lack of social life I faced was entirely my own fault, my own lack of attractiveness or reaching out.

David Brooks in his op-ed “Amy Chua is a wimp” thinks that Chua has coddled her children because the real cognitive test of intelligence comes from navigating social situations, much more than the focused attention of practicing 4 hours at the piano. Brooks writes, “Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.”

I have to say I agree with Brooks, and hence my anti-texting stance. I want my kids to learn how to have real conversations, to learn subtle body language, to read the mood of a group by both non-verbal and verbal signals. No matter how texting and Facebook have taken over teen socializing, I still can’t believe that genuine friendships and intimate marriages will survive on a diet of texting and tweets. And this is from a woman who sometimes sits on the couch next to her gorgeous husband and e-mails back and forth with him while watching “House” on TV rather than talking.

When I visited Northwestern with my father my junior year of high school, we hung out with a crew of physicists because my father is a physicist. I talked in the elevator with a Chinese female physicist, whose Chinese husband was also a physicist. She told me her son, a year younger than me, was already studying at Caltech.

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” I said, all while acutely feeling what a loser Chinese daughter I had already proven myself to be. Here I was, the exact average age for my grade, not a math genius, and looking at Northwestern—a subpar school for Chinese dream daughters.

“No it’s not,” she corrected me. Tapping her head, she continued, “He’s very smart, but socially not so good. It’s a problem he’s had since he was very young.”

And then she looked at me with longing in her eyes. Despite my bad hair, buckteeth and impoverished fashion sense, apparently my ability to even engage her in conversation contrasted with her son who I now think probably has Asberger’s.

I ended up going to Northwestern. And even though I would eventually have to wrestle with what it meant that I was the only Tuan of four to never attend an Ivy League school (let the music of a thousand tiny violins begin here—and if that’s what you were thinking, you clearly weren’t raised by a Chinese Tiger mom!), my brief conversation with that Chinese physicist mother has always hung with me. She got all the brilliance, all the pedigree, all the status that Chinese moms want, but she also mourned some losses.

Tomorrow my oldest daughter takes her midterm in PE, which involves writing a short essay on what’s a healthy lifestyle. I quizzed her about what she thought, given being raised by me. “Eat vegetables and exercise?” she said.

“Yes, but what’s a healthy life?” I pushed. After lots of hemming and hawing and feeding her many answers, we talked about enjoying a healthy body, healthy relationships, healthy spirituality, healthy self-concept, and a healthy connection with the world. After all, God created us body, soul, emotions, and mind within a web of relationships and embedded in a marvelous creation.

Yeah, that’s what this Tiger mom’s trying to instill.

Someday soon we’re going to provide texting. But not just yet. Let’s work on standing straight and good eye contact just a little more.

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