Category Archives: Asian Parents

Asian parents and the things they make their kids do: Why pianos lessons aren’t so different from gold bathtubs

This is a follow up to my last post; I want to expand on the topic of Asian parents and the activities they make their kids do. I am talking about activities like piano, tennis, chess, violin, ballet, calligraphy, etc. But, before I get to the meat of my argument I am going to list some characteristics these activities share.

Generally, these are activities that children aren’t naturally drawn to and instead are ones that have to be imposed on them. Tennis as opposed to basketball or piano instead of guitar/drums. These activities “might” be some of the things that benefit the most from repetition or “hard work” as opposed to other activities that might be extremely talent constrained. These activities also might be the ones where the peak age is young and to become a master you must start at a fairly young age. As an aside, the benefits from starting young and repetition seem to make these same activities the ones communist countries focused their energies on.  And finally, these activities/preferences were all at one time a signal of wealth/status and the hobbies mainly of aristocrats or the wealthy.

I am going to focus on this last point and what I have thought a lot about after studying economics. Anecdotally, I think there are times when prices steer people down the “wrong” path. In premodern times it seems that a lot of value/beauty considerations were mainly driven by a price/scarcity function. What I mean to say is that beauty was extremely intertwined with how expensive something was and by default how scarce it was. I also see the causality as running mostly one way in that if something was scarce and expensive then it was considered beautiful and not the converse that something was first declared beautiful and then became expensive. So my thesis is, “Things in the past were beautiful mainly because they were expensive and scarce and not because of individual preferences.” I admit that stated this way the argument might be too strong. Preferences did matter in the past, but relative to modern standards they were a smaller factor.

And what is wrong with price/scarcity determining beauty? The main issue is that most people believe they are unique and that their beliefs and preferences aren’t driven entirely by outside forces. I like grime, basketball, Vietnamese food, and that is what makes me who I am; I tell myself. We denigrate people that are easily affected by others, we call them posers, wanna-be’s, conformists, sheep, gullible, etc. We also have multiple folk stories (The Emperors New Clothes) and sayings that stress this point, “If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you!?” Don’t do things just because they are popular or because an expert told you to do it; make up your own mind.

What I am saying is that the price system acting as the main determinant of beauty is just a different version of this idea. We should be repulsed by this concept because instead of appreciating something genuinely you are relying on the price system to guide your preferences. I have some real world examples I would like you to think about that might strengthen my case.

The first one is the changing beauty status of gold in most of the world’s cultures. In premodern times it seems almost as if gold was considered universally beautiful. Cultures as diverse as Egypt, China, and the Mayans all considered gold extremely beautiful. Probably not coincidentally, gold was also used in most of these cultures as a commodity currency and as a store of wealth. In modern times although gold is still valuable, its value in terms of beauty has dropped significantly. And contrastingly, an extravagant use of gold today is often a signal of bad taste. I am thinking of things like Donald Trump’s all gold “luxury rooms”, gold rims, gold jewelry, gold chandeliers, gold dining sets, and the like. This video is a good illustration of the idea…

Using a lot of gold today means that you are tacky and is a direct illustration of the point where we judge people negatively who use the price system as their only determinant of beauty. It is also seen as old fashioned and from another time.

Another example I often think of is why for a certain period of time most American homes were entirely carpeted and now we’ve almost gone in the complete opposite direction. These days on the real estate market, hardwood floors are demanded and when a whole house is carpeted it is a real detriment to sales. There must have been a time when carpeting was a new mass market technology and the benefits it offered in terms of heating were very attractive and novel to people. Reinforcing my point is the fact that carpeting was usually an additional cost. I’m just guessing on this point, but my intuition comes from renovation shows when they rip up the carpeting in most homes they usually restore the original floors and this is considered an upgrade. Because this was a new technology and was more expensive people flocked to it and in turn carpeting was considered beautiful for awhile. That previous generations coveted carpeting is reflected in architecture magazines and print media from the 1970s and earlier. But, by the 1990s the era of carpeting was declining and regardless of the heating considerations most buyers now prefer hardwood floors and consider carpeting distasteful.

Perhaps, one of the most extreme examples of this price=beauty phenomenon is the DeBeers monopoly on diamonds. Although, I’m not the most knowledgeable on the subject; I think the gist of it is that DeBeers bought up all the diamond mines in the world, restricted their supply, and launched one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever and convinced women across the world of its beauty and value. I propose that the diamond would not mean what it does as an engagement ring if it was not expensive and it would probably be replaced by another expensive jewel if it’s price were considerably lower. I will admit it is hard to disentangle which came first the beauty or the price, but one can easily do the thought experiment of a world where diamond prices were different and how it would affect our perceptions of its value. A more concrete example of this is the price of cubic zirconia which are considerably cheaper, but nearly identical in looks to the human eye.

There are countless other examples in history of “fads” where for a brief period of time an item was considered extremely beautiful because it was expensive such as Dutch tulips in the 17th century.

And why do I think what Asian parents make their children do is a version of this price/beauty formula? It doesn’t seem to me a mere coincidence that it just so happens that every activity Asian parents choose for their children are activities that rich people of a previous generation took part in. And it is my supposition given the rest of my post that rich people of those generations did those activities because they were expensive and were mainly signals of wealth. Asian parents, I am telling you, “If all of your friends forced their kids to play piano, would you!?” Using price or scarcity as the only determinant in a thing’s cultural or aesthetic value is shallow and shortsighted.

The idea of “Asianness”

There’s a mistake that many Asian parents and their children make that has really bothered me over the years. It is that they confuse the idea of “Asianness” with what are mostly values from a different era. These are the values and ethics espoused by people like Amy Chua of “tiger mom” fame. The gist of it is to postpone fun, work hard, study, save, don’t do frivolous things, have your kids do various activities that were signals of status/wealth a generation ago: tennis, ballet, ice skating, violin, calligraphy, etc. Most of the progenitors of these ideals came to the United States during the 1970s, but one thing to note is that the cultural values of Asia in the 1970s weren’t equivalent to the values held by Americans or Europeans of the 1970s. Asia was a laggard not only in things like GDP and technology, but also culturally. 1970s Asia is culturally probably closer to 1900s America in terms of where cultural attitudes were in regards to work life, home life, and especially children.

Once these immigrants came to America, they tried extremely hard to maintain a sense of identity and to pass on their ways to their children. In a blunt way everything they did was an espousal of “Asianness” and how they were different from the Americans. My problem with this is that eventually what became “Asianness” was really a value system from another generation.

The best evidence I have for my thesis is to just go to all these Asian countries in 2013 and see how they approach child rearing and if they behave the way Amy Chua and her ilk describe as a fundamentally Asian style of raising children. Theoretically, the parents from Asia should be even more “Asian” than the Asians that came to America. But, what you notice when you go to countries like Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, etc. is that their values have changed. While their values are different from Americans, these modern Asian parents definitely do not hold the same values as Amy Chua. Modern Japanese mothers resemble American mothers more so than the version of Asian mothers espoused by the “tiger mom”. They enjoy their children and don’t view life as the brutal struggle it might have been for many in 1970s Asia.

You also see this phenomenon with multiple ethnic groups. Probably the closest analogy would be the way Jews identify themselves. You can see this in movie stereotypes and in regular life also the way Jews talk about the differences between them and the goyim. Their values are also frozen in time like the Asians from when they immigrated and when you look at modern parents in say Israel you can see that most of them don’t adhere to those ideas of Jewishness anymore and are in fact closer to modern American parents or modern European parents than they are to older Jewish Americans.

Another good thought experiment with this idea as Americans is when we watch shows like Mad Men that portray attitudes from the 1950s and 1960s. We watch how they treat children and other adults and think, “Wow, I would never let my child do that these days.” We don’t look at those values, which are at times the same values as “Asian values” and say those are “American values”. We understand the way kids were raised in the 1950s are just the norms of that era and not some general “American” norms.