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.