Tiger Moms Who Lunch

The moms I know here are funny. They’re a little amusing, a little sad, and a little intimidating. They are both interesting and boring. Watching them is a little like watching a group of grown sorority girls trying to hold onto their youth (though, to be fair, many of them are actually still fairly young).

The Thai moms were similar in some ways and different in others. Like the moms here, most of the Thai moms at our international school were from wealthy families, so they didn’t work. They were driven to school every day by their chauffeurs, dressed to the nines, impeccably made up, to see and to be seen. Their daily lives consisted of shopping, socializing with friends, and other leisurely activities. As far as I could tell, and based on emails from the school, most of them weren’t very involved in their children’s education. There was no volunteering for the school, no helping with homework (many of them probably couldn’t anyway because of the language barrier). They hired tutors and instructors, and enrolled their children in classes, but they didn’t lift a finger.

The moms in the United States, on the other hand, are over-worked and under-appreciated. Many are stressed trying to balance work and family, and trying to ensure their children are well-educated, properly enriched, well-rounded, provided nutritious meals, are competitive enough, and of good character. They are frazzled and exhausted, especially the ones that work outside the home, and have little to no energy for self-care or personal interests. When we moved back to the U.S. after two years in Thailand, I was aghast at how worn-out and disheveled the American moms appeared to be compared to the Thai (and other Asian) moms. And I couldn’t tell how old any of them were because they all looked really old to me.

The moms I’ve met here are like the Thai moms in their lifestyle–most of them don’t work and don’t need to work; they are beautifully put together; they look and act really young (there’s a secretary at the school who I thought was in her late 20s at most, but it turns out she’s in her mid- to late-30s and has a 13-year-old child!); and they spend their days shopping and lunching.

But unlike the Thai moms, they focus all their extra time and energy on their children. Before the school year started, within ten minutes of learning of the teacher assignments for the students, all the moms had mobilized and created Line groups for the entire grade and for each class, and had added all the parents (25 kids in each of the two fifth-grade classes, totaling 100 parents for the fifth grade) to the proper groups. Within an hour, people had volunteered to be room moms, a lunch for all the parents had been organized, and almost 60 messages had been sent back and forth between the moms to welcome each other, congratulate each other, say hi to each other, mostly using stickers.

The stickers are the funniest thing about these moms. On Line, they act like teenage girls, communicating mostly through funny and cutesy stickers. They are very effusive and dramatic. If one person sends out a short message to inform parents of something, EVERYONE else will respond with stickers and emojis, gushing about how hard the messenger works and how much she is appreciated, and thanking her enthusiastically. Mostly in Chinese. It’s all too much.

In person, they’re not much better. They’re all very friendly and nice, but they also giggle and gossip; and brag about their children, their wealth, and their businesses. One woman, whom I have yet to meet in person, bragged to me when we first met online that she has two children at my husband’s school (one of whom is the same age as my son), in addition to one son at UCLA, where she and her husband are paying US$78,000 a year for his education. This was all mentioned out of context, so I know it was to brag about her oldest son’s achievements and her (or her husband’s) wealth. I also know her husband is an American from California, and her family is “multi-cultural,” like mine is, as she keeps reminding me.

Another mom, whose son is in my son’s class, bragged to me that her son is in the highest vocabulary group in the class, and that the vocabulary words he is learning are so difficult that he has never heard of them, and neither she nor her husband (both of whom had studied in the U.S. during college) know them either. I just smiled and nodded because my son also is in that group and he is familiar with about half of the words on the list most of the time (the words aren’t especially difficult, in my opinion–examples include “refute” and “stratagem,” which was one of the words my son studied for his school spelling bee last year).

More importantly, I was a bit shocked and horrified to learn that she and her husband had both studied in the U.S. and didn’t know any of those words.

In keeping with the Chinese people’s tendency to focus on education, and only on education, these Taiwanese moms at our school have considerable tiger-mom tendencies and are more competitive than the Thai moms.

Most of these Taiwanese kids are excessively scheduled for after-school programs, including and especially 補習班 (buxiban, or cram school, which provides supplemental education, mostly in the subjects of English and math), so as to give them a leg up in the college application process. Most of the kids have no free time to do what they want, to think and reflect, or to learn about themselves and the world.

These kids have few personal interests or passions–most of the boys enjoy basketball and are crazy about the NBA, and play video games, and that’s it. They lack creativity, imagination, and curiosity. One ten-year-old boy in my son’s class is being made by his parents to run for president of Student Council, despite his reluctance, because the high school his parents plan for him to attend requires activities like that. A 13-year-old boy I met constantly asks the adults he’s with what to do because he has no idea what to do with himself when he’s not on a schedule! Essentially, the sole life purpose of most of these kids is to do well in school, check off all the boxes, and get into Harvard. That’s not an exaggeration.

It’s been an eye-opening and interesting learning experience for me to interact with these parents. These parents bring me back to my school days, when I was subjected to similar ideas and behaviors from my parents, which was quite miserable for me. I’ve had to bite my tongue about the Taiwanese parenting philosophy; I know it’s the cultural norm for them. Nevertheless, it’s been difficult to adjust to this rigid way of life and thinking.

At the same time, it also teaches me what is important in a child’s education and development by allowing me to witness first-hand the consequences of tunnel vision. It makes me question how long we should stay here and have my son be educated here. As important as education is to me, and as much as I appreciate some of the values taught here–such as respect, perseverance, and a strong work ethic–I also want my son to continue to live a full and interesting life, to continue to pursue his interests outside of academics, to be a well-rounded person that is capable of thinking for himself, and to be free to be himself.

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