In the past few days, I’ve come in contact with the fifth-grade tiger moms more than I ever had up to this point, which stirred up for me even more conflicting feeling for them. They’re all sorts of living contradictions, and I want to hug them and hide from them all at the same time. I’m still trying to figure out what to make of them and how to interact with them.
Last Friday, the elementary school held an assembly, during which a few boys in the fifth grade received awards for winning mental math and other competitions with outside organizations unaffiliated with the school. One of the boys was handed a gigantic trophy half of his size, and that’s not an exaggeration. I later found out that these award winners actually had already received trophies from the respective organizations for winning these competitions, but–get this–the trophies were small, little plastic ones that aren’t showy enough, so these boys’ parents went out and purchased these gigantic, over-the-top trophies for the school to present to them! My first reaction was one of revulsion and disgust. How shallow can they be? What kind of values are these parents imparting to their kids?
Based on this incident, one would conclude they’re self-involved, shallow, status-conscious, and showy, as I had previously concluded. But another incident showed that while this is true, they can also act as advocates and be encouraging.
The other incident also occurred on Friday, but it was more personal. Before I talk about it, here’s the background–my son and my husband both have mild asthma, so air quality is an important factor for us when considering where to live. Prior to moving to Taiwan, we researched the air quality of our city. We had read and heard, from multiple sources, that the bad air quality is generally isolated to the winter months. And because it is part of life here, there are mitigating measures we could take, such as wearing masks (which is very common here) and putting air filters in our home.
So it came as a surprise to us when the air quality declined, and then went from bad to worse, in the last week or so. Some days were better than others, but on a few of the days, the air quality was at the “orange” (unhealthy for sensitive groups) or “red” (unhealthy for all groups) level. When the air quality index (AQI) is 150 or higher (red), outdoor recess is canceled, but that still doesn’t alleviate our concern when the air quality is at the “orange” level, but outdoor recess is not canceled.
We decided to purchase some masks and start wearing them when the air quality is at the “orange” level or worse. My son was reluctant, but he surprised us by making the decision to wear his mask during recess on Friday, when the air quality was at the “orange” level. It didn’t last long. According to him, all the elementary kids immediately surrounded and mobbed him, stared at him, followed him wherever he went, and peppered him with questions. They wouldn’t leave him alone, so he had no choice but to take off his mask. This incident greatly upset and traumatized him, and surprised us given the mask-wearing culture here.
I should say here that there is no smog. Even on the days when the AQI reads at a high level, the sky can be clear. Unless you’re paying attention to the AQI readings, you’re likely quite unaware that the air quality isn’t good. Most teachers we know here don’t pay attention to the AQI readings as closely as we do, so they aren’t as vigilant about wearing masks and masks aren’t commonly seen at school. Moreover, most of the children are driven to and from school by their parents and hardly ever spend time outdoors, so they don’t normally wear masks either. Their parents may want them to, but they generally refuse.
After this incident, mask-wearing became a contentious issue in our household. My son even gave up playing outside with his friends one day because he refused to wear his mask. We had a discussion about being different and the fact that once the kids get used to seeing him wear a mask, they’ll stop paying attention to him.
I mentioned this incident to a friend who has been here for a couple of years, so she is more familiar with the school culture and parents. She suggested I bring up the issue as a health concern on the fifth-grade chat group and suggest to the class moms that masks be purchased for the entire class as an option on “orange” days.
So I did. At first, for the first 12 hours or so, there was no response to my suggestion. Then, the next morning, one mom spoke up in support of my suggestion, followed by my friend who initially suggested I bring this up. Suddenly, within half an hour of these two messages, a majority of the moms had spoken up in support; word had spread among the fifth-grade parents that my son has asthma, needs to wear a mask on some days when the air quality is less than stellar, and had been teased for doing so; and the class moms from both fifth-grade classes were contacting me privately to let me know they were “working on it,” supporting me, and letting me know they were here to help. It was as if there had been a death in my family, and everyone was reaching out in sympathy. Being their effusive selves, many moms also “congratulated” and thanked me publicly on the group for “coming up with such a good idea,” which made me extremely uncomfortable. Even though this was all happening online, I had a good sense of what my son went through on Friday when he put on his mask.
Within two hours, masks for both classes had been purchased to send into class and both fifth-grade teachers had been emailed to be apprised of what was going on. In the meantime, one class mom from my son’s class continued to keep me updated and forwarded me all her emails to the teacher on this matter. Within 24 hours of my idea “going viral,” everything was in place, the idea had been implemented, and the matter had been addressed with kids in both classes.
I came away from this experience feeling such different emotions. On the one hand, I was both touched and impressed by how quickly all the parents came together and mobilized like an army (because that is how it felt) to support a member of their community, once they made a decision to do so. It was remarkable how quickly and efficiently everything was organized and carried out, all online, no less. The sense of community and support I felt in those few hours was incredible.
On the other hand, these moms’ words and behaviors also somewhat reinforced some of my previous views of them. The initial surge of support from all the moms, following the first two messages of encouragement, was likely more to save face than anything else–for the moms who had failed to immediately come out in support (which was most of them), for their kids who were participants in the teasing, and for me. Once someone spoke up to encourage the idea, most of them had no choice but to do the same. But their motivations don’t bother me so long as they don’t rub it in my face, which they won’t because they’re too polite and they would lose face by doing so. The most they’ll do is talk and gossip about it behind my back.
Their dramatic tendency to turn a small issue into a huge scene also makes me very uncomfortable. All I wanted was to suggest an idea, have people weigh in on it, and possibly carry it out if most agreed. Instead, it turned into a big, theatrical production with all the fifth-grade moms getting involved, clucking like hens and gossiping about my son’s medical condition and what had happened to him on the playground. This lack of privacy is the reason I am usually reluctant to bring any issue to the class online group. Once something is out there, it spreads like wild fire to all corners of the community.
The incident with my son also perfectly illustrates a bigger issue that’s only covered up by the temporary solution of masks–the kids here aren’t very tolerant or accepting of differences, regardless of what they are or how small they are. When we were in Thailand, we found both the kids and adults in our school community (and in general) to be open-minded and accepting. But Taiwan is a different story. Its culture is more conformist-oriented and people here generally stay within the box when it comes to their behavior, actions, and aspirations. Even something as small as a lone child wearing a mask will make him stand out and get him unwanted attention. There also isn’t a sense of openness and having a world of possibilities here. In this respect, life here can be quite stifling.
So it is with varying degrees of appreciation and admiration, on the one hand, and some wariness, on the other, that I approach these moms. While they can play the part of the helpful and reassuring friend, I’m also aware of some of the more selfish cultural and personal forces that drive their thinking, behavior, and actions.