Asia is renowned for producing some of the best and brightest students in the world. Such academic achievement is often underpinned by parental pressure, strict discipline and relentless hard study.
In Hong Kong, the demand for extra tuition has turned cram or tutorial school teachers into rich celebrities.
Yet some students have been driven to contemplate suicide as they try to make the grade.
101 East asks: What is the secret behind Asian students’ academic success and what happens when the pressure becomes too much?
In search of the Tiger mother
By filmmaker Lynn Lee
What was your childhood like? If you are Chinese, was it filled with after-school tuition classes, piano and swimming lessons, ballet and homework? Did your parents tell you it was all for your own good? Do you now agree?
Recently, we spent three weeks in Hong Kong visiting schools and talking to a whole lot of kids. Our brief was to make an Amy Chua-inspired film about education in one of Asia’s most competitive cities. We hoped to prove a few theories – primarily that Chinese parents tend to be more hands on, more demanding and less forgiving of their children, and that the kids tend to be more stressed out than their western counterparts. We left with a few surprising conclusions.
Early on in the shoot, we tried hard to track down a so-called Tiger mum or dad. It seemed like the logical thing to do. Kids in Hong Kong regularly top global rankings in Maths and Science. The city’s universities are some of the best in Asia. Competition for a place is intense. Perfect conditions for Tiger parenting. Or so we thought.
“No one wants to be regarded as a Tiger!” Deborah, our production assistant, wailed one afternoon. She had made countless calls, sent out emails, even posted messages on Facebook. There were a few leads. But none led to that aggressive, in-your-face, unapologetically demanding parent we thought we so badly needed.
We wondered if the people we approached were put-off by the negative connotations associated with the Tiger label. Surely there had to be more than a few Amy Chuas in Hong Kong?
How else would you explain the child who excels at school, published a book at eight, passed her Grade Eight piano exam at 12, regularly wins music competitions, and fills up the rest of her time with French, swimming, yoga and basketball?
Yes, this kid exists. Her name is Stephanie Eng and she is just 14-years-old – a tiny, intense, focused ball of energy who when asked, admitted to being incredibly stressed out sometimes. But Stephanie also came across as highly motivated, unresentful and very eager to make her doting dad proud. Asked if she was under too much pressure, she said she pushed herself even harder than her parents do.
It is a sentiment we would hear over and over again in Hong Kong. It made no difference whether we were speaking with genius kids or middling students. They all said they worked hard in order to get ahead, stress was an inevitable part of growing up, and a good education meant good jobs, which in turn meant higher salaries and a cushier life. Parents played a part in motivating them. But they were their own harshest taskmasters.
The perfect way?
One morning, we found ourselves filming in one of Hong Kong’s better secondary schools. It was the start of the new term and we had been invited to attend the prize-presentation ceremony. Sitting at the back of the assembly hall, I marveled at how quiet and attentive the students were.
The principal’s welcome-back speech caught my attention. “Discipline,” she said, “must begin before poor practices become habitualised and character is permanently bent and twisted. When you say you have done it, ask yourself, is it in the best way or the best possible way? Or the perfect way?”
She sounded so much like the principal at my Junior College. And according to Kirsten, our assistant producer, she sounded like her principal too. And then it hit me. Forget Amy Chua. Parents in Singapore or Hong Kong, whether tigerish or not, are really just a subset of the environment – an environment where kids think it is normal to attend hours of classes outside of school, learn music, excel in sports and still feel they have to do more.
Growing up, it never occurred to me that my parents or teachers were being unusually harsh. Every kid I knew understood why it was important to work hard. It was something we learnt from a very young age. Amy Chua might seem extreme in the US, but in Singapore and Hong Kong (and probably China), the pursuit of perfection is viewed not only as a good thing, but as necessary. Demanding parents are not being unreasonable. They are merely giving their kids a leg up.
Not everyone in Hong Kong is obsessed with perfection though. Towards the end of our shoot, we visited Gaia School, which we jokingly referred to in our research notes as “the hippie place”. The primary school sits in the middle of a traditional village, on the edge of a large country park. Students do not wear school uniforms, or take exams in their first two years. Concepts like democracy and personal responsibility are inculcated early on. Play is an important element of the day’s curriculum. It was a refreshing change, but we wondered if kids from Gaia leave academically disadvantaged
“We don’t have to produce geniuses,” Gaia’s principal told us over lunch. “We just want our children to be happy.”
Before we left, we interviewed Bonnie. Her son was starting Primary One and she had taken the day off to settle him in. The boy did not look like he needed much help though. In fact, he appeared to be having a really good time. We asked Bonnie why she decided to send her child to Gaia.
“My daughter was a student here too,” she said. “This school gives students a mind of their own and a good sense of who they are.”
Bonnie’s daughter graduated last year and is now in a regular secondary school. She topped her class recently.