Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why Tiger Moms are Great, but Not Great for Democracy

"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

-William Blake

I suppose this post seems a bit dated, as the “Tiger Mom” meme has already put its girdle around the earth, planting itself safely and securely into the subconsciousness of suburban moms throughout the developed world. And what a meme it was, a strand of RNA perfectly fashioned to colonize the increasingly timorous Western DNA in a way that China's economic and military miracles could never achieve. It spoke directly to our most important demographic—our exhausted soccer moms: “While Chinese and American moms are both breaking their backs raising their kids, the Chinese are raising their children better than you are, and that is why we're seeing this tectonic shift of wealth, power, and influence to the East.”

I suppose I didn't write anything about the Tiger Meme when it first hit the news in part because I thought it would do some good. I haven't yet figured out what type of Shaolin Animal School parenting tactics my mother used on me, but it certainly wasn't not of the tiger-variety, and so I may suffer from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome. More than that, after spending two years teaching English to American kids whose mothers were decidedly not Tiger Moms, I've welcomed a bit of fear if it meant a few more of my students would take Shakespeare to heart, or Blake, as this post hopes you have.

But my biggest “I suppose I didn't write” was probably the way we defended our mothers: “Sure Chinese kids beat the pants off our kids in math and science (while their moms are beating the pants off of them), but our kids are more creative, free-thinking, and [hopefully] happy.” Most spent their time trying to convince themselves that our system will win this battle just like we won the Cold War.  The responses were defensive and cliché (often displaying a woefully inadequate understanding of Chinese culture), belying the argument that “we” are better, more cosmopolitan, freer thinkers. Worst of all, they seemed to set up a dangerous proposition: we will know which child-rearing style is right by watching whose economic and political power proves ascendant.

And yet, they served their purpose: the fear was met and neutralized, if not eliminated. And so the latest case of our Orientangst came and went, or rather, eased uneasily back below the surface of our subconsciousness like the specter of the U-Boat after the Great War – we don't how to deal with them, but at least we won't have to worry about them for another twenty years.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oceans and Mulberry Groves: A Hebei Middle School Girl's Tips for Dealing with Tragedy and Time

We are time's subjects, and time bids be gone.”
Henry IV Part Two

If you've been paying anything more than scant attention to China the past six months, you're probably aware that China's had a full plate of metaphorical problems of late (accompanied by metaphorical solutions to those problems): the proverbial dams bursting and the Han Brinker-type plugging of dykes; a pre-emptive cutting of (jasmine?) trees to save poorly defined forests; and plenty of (international and domestic) chickens coming home to roost. Of course, the particular resonance of any and all of the above idioms will depend on at least two factors: one, your own political ideology and, two, your understanding of what's actually happening “in China,” something I'd like to suggest that no one, Chinese or non-, can ever wholly grasp.

Of course, that's debatable, and I'm happy to debate it with anyone. Here's some provocative opening generalizations.
  1. Size Problems. China's simply too big and too complex.
  2. Media Problems. The media is either incapable of, or prevented from, publishing reports of consequence. Most reports of consequence aren't published, but supplied on a need-to-know basis.
  3. Bureaucracy Problems. People of need-to-know status are almost completely surrounded by yes-men and women who obfuscate information out of self-interest and/or a desire to please. People below the need-to-know-folks at the provincial, county, and village levels have no interest in letting anyone know what's actually happening on the ground.
  4. Sociological Problems. China's empirical tradition is not strong, and is complicated by the fact that most political/economic elites have little interest in real interaction with the vast majority of Chinese who dress/eat/live worse than they do. In short, well-entrenched stereotypes and prejudices regarding different regions and classes hinder true understanding.
  5. Interest Problems. And the kicker, most people just don't have time, energy or interest enough to care.
Of course, none of these stops anyone, including the author, from putting forward what may be wildly irresponsible claims, most centered on what “the left behind” population in China wants or needs. We're elitist populists, speaking for a population few of us know. This is dumb.  Most of the time, these opinions are based on careful reading of the media reports we deem to be the truth; “inside information” from people “in the know” who really aren't (again, also, our friends); and regional and class biases that make my Wisconsinite distaste for most (all?) things Illinois seem quite agapic.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Egypt Means for China: Just More Boring Scientific Proof

(Photo from Evan Osnos)

I'm sitting in my apartment, inspired by what's just happened in Egypt, and wondering if the millions of Chinese living around me feel the same.

In one of my last posts (quite a while ago, I know), I asked: 

“What is still unresolved [in China]? [I]t's the question of whether or not the concept of “scientific development” extends to political reform, rule of law, and universal values.  Besides the overabundance of Greek-inspired architecture in China, another thing one notices if one spends a lot of time here is the (surprising?) belief, held by more people than you would think, that democratic progress is inexorable.  In many ways it makes sense.  The story of post-Renaissance Europe is a messy, violent, bloody period, but progress in science, culture, art and economics were intricately tied to political reform.  Enlightenment-era romantics certainly believed this was the case.  More than that, China's neighbors -- South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan -- are all excellent examples of how well democracy took in Confucianist countries when it was more or less imposed upon them (by foreign and domestic agents).  Perhaps their confidence that democracy is just another offshoot of their economic and social progress of the past thirty years is not too far-fetched.”

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