Growing up with and among Chinese immigrant family members, the status of one’s education and personal finances were very important within my family and in our community. It was normal for family members to gossip about, compete against, and compare with one another, whether it’s about your school grades, where you went to college or grad school, your major in college, the type of job you got after college, how much money you made, how much you paid for your house and car, or any number of things having to do with money or status.
While a good education was a priority, having children who earned good grades, went to a well-regarded school, and made a lot of money also elevated one’s family’s status. Parents, including mine, compared and bragged about their children’s achievements, salaries, and lifestyles to make themselves look good within their communities.
It was a miserable existence for me, partly because I refused to play the game. Because I didn’t care enough to work my butt off to get straight As in school, I was dismissed as intellectually deficient and regarded as the “black sheep” of the family. When I became a teacher after college, my lowly status as the black sheep of the family became definitive. I further cemented my family’s view of me when I married a man who would also become a teacher. It was only after I decided to attend law school and became an attorney that my status was somewhat elevated in my family’s eyes and I was deemed “worthy” of their attention. But by then, I had fought against, and distanced myself from, my relatives and their opinions of me.
It was especially important for me to get away from this type of critical and disapproving existence once I had my son, who would’ve been (and sometimes is–thank goodness he doesn’t understand) subjected to the exact same comparisons and assessment with his generation of children in the family. Over the past years, I had forgotten how brutal it is to live constantly under such a judgmental microscope.
But now, living in my birth country and being part of an international school community, I’m surrounded by it again. Most of the students who attend the school are very wealthy, even by western standards. Of course, all the parents who send their children there care very much about their children’s education. After all, the Taiwanese parents’ goals for sending their children to the school are to provide them with a good education and to get them into Harvard.
The parents push and challenge their children at every turn, sometimes at the expense of developing their children’s character and personalities. At only ten, one Malay girl in my son’s class has already determined she is going to Harvard and become a doctor, come hell or high water. She is naturally a very intelligent girl, but she also is very driven and pressured by her parents. She strives to be the number one student in her grade every year and cares very much about her test scores on standardized tests. She can tick off all the things she’s doing to keep her “on track” and what she needs to do to stay “on track.” She gets tutored after school to get her ahead, takes multiple classes and lessons, and has no free time. She is allowed play dates or free time only during school holidays, and only then, they cannot exceed four hours. While this girl is currently a happy, cheerful girl who’s able to handle all the pressure from her parents, I suspect she will be a quite different person by the time she enters high school. A majority of the current high school students have lived this way their entire lives and have no inkling of their own thoughts and ideas, personalities, passions, or interests.
So while the children are there to receive what the parents consider to be a quality, world-class education, it also doesn’t hurt that sending their children to this school elevates their own status. It tells others that they have enough money to send their children to the school, that their children were admitted to the school (which implies a certain level of intelligence), that their children are “westernized” and speak English, etc. The moms also are quite showy about their wealth in other ways.
Their children are the same–very much aware of their family status, their wealth, and their privilege, and sometimes quite boastful and arrogant because of it. My son regularly comes home with stories of his classmates bragging about the size of their homes, the price tag of something they own (I had to laugh when he told me of one boy bragging that his mechanical pencils and the lead in them are “special” because they are expensive and imported), or their extravagant lifestyles. The ten-year-old daughter of the mom who bragged to me about how much her older son’s college tuition is costing her asked of another girl, “If you’re not rich, why are you here?” What a lovely person she’s turning out to be!
When we were in Thailand, we were also part of a school with children from very wealthy families, including some from the Thai royal family. But their attitude toward their family wealth was very different. Sure, there were a few who were just as pompous and pretentious as the people I’ve encountered at the school here, but for the most part, they were kind, humble, and down-to-earth.
The Thai students and their parents cared about education, but not at the expense of being a good human being. They didn’t flaunt their wealth, they didn’t brag about their lifestyles. Being kind and compassionate were important to them and the school, and community service was a big part of the curriculum. Even the elementary-aged children would get involved in such work through making art to sell or a similar, age-appropriate activity. Here, no such thing exists. The families and students are most focused on themselves and accomplishing their academic and financial goals.
It’s ironic that I got away from this type of environment with my family only to jump feet first into a similar environment. Because of my own upbringing, I’ve been feeling a lot of negative emotions about Taiwan and its people when I hear stories such as the ones I mentioned. I’m careful not to project my own experiences onto my child to allow him to experience this country on his own terms. And it wouldn’t be so bad if we had a wider social network here outside of the school community. At the same time, I’m not sure how to shield him from this mindset and behavior except to be mindful of the messages he may be getting from his classmates at school, to talk with him about our own values and the reasons we don’t think and feel as his classmates do, and to model for him the values we want to impart to him.