August 14, 2010

"Mom, stop pretending to know something you don't!"


Image by xdanger via Flickr
"Mom, stop pretending to know something you don't!"
Another day in my art class one of my students (12 year-old) said this to her mother. I just cannot forget it.

For thousands years, being completely obedient to parents has been #1 moral principle for Chinese people. Disobeying your parents is like "taboo" to Chinese people. The most important teaching of Confucianism is "Xiao", which mean obeying and serving parents unconditionally. By my opinion, before China opened the door to the world over a century ago, all Chinese kids had been treated as lowest class human being since the beginning of their lives until they were parents themselves (upon the time they of course were still their parents' "slaves" but they also got the right to enslave their own kids as they wished). That's why one of Chinese authers Lu Xun screamed out "Save the children!" (in his most famous short stories collection "Call to arms" during early of last century).

Of course, situations have been changing since a century ago, but this tradition - the unconditional responsibility of children to their parents - still has been carried on (more or less) by Chinese people to wherever they go, because it was considered as a iconic culture element - without it, you are not a Chinese.

In my art classes most students are Chinese Americans. They are influenced by 2 quite different cultures - Chinese tradition from their parents and American culture from schools, or anywhere else outside of their families. However, by my observation they are 90% Americanized, while their parents - who are mostly the first generation immigrants - are mostly still very conservative in terms of Chinese heritage.

The parents of one of my students in painting class seemed to be one of the most traditional Chinese couples I have meet in this country (USA). They "love" their daughter, but they could not help to keep pushing her to the "perfection" they aimed for her on everything. They usually stayed in my classes, sometime the mother sometime the father (I let the parents stay if they don't have places to go), watching their daughter's performance even closer than I did.
One day the mother was in class, highly unsatisfied with her daughter's painting, could not help to stand beside daughter and gave her instructions of doing this and that. Of course her daughter was extremely annoyed and kept complaining and fighting back by refusing to follow her mother's "command". "I don't want to do it. If you like, you do it!" She said. To my surprise, the mother grabbed the brush painted couple of small things on the painting. I was seriously worried at the moment that daughter might be just so pissed off and destroy the canvas. But she didn't.
Feeling somehow obligated for some detailed instruction, I picked a brush to help the daughter to fix somthing on her painting. I mixed color and painted on canvas and mother immediately said "see, now it's right". Unfortunately, before she finished the sentence, I realized the color was NOT quite "right" and threw some words like "oops, that's not quite right." And the daughter just quickly captured the moment and said it very loudly: "Mom, please stop pretending...."

Hearing the daughter saying that so loudly, I was somehow relieved. I saw her acting like a brave girl who was able to be truthful to herself, regardless her selfish and demanding mother. Another time I heard some other students referred this daughter as a little "strange", "easy to get irritated" person, but I believe as long as she could be brave enough to let herself stand up in front of her parents like that, she will be fine.

This is just one small happening but it does tell me that something fundamental about Chinese people is changing. I cannot imagine I say the same thing to my parents when I was 12. And I never heard any of my contemporaries said similar things to their parents at this early age. I am just very pleased to witness such an rebellious action taking place in a traditional Chinese family.
And this happening undoubtedly enhanced my belief in "equality" and "liberty". As soon as we taste them, we cannot live without them.

*The picture is one of illustrations from a Confucian teaching book - the part that teaches how women should behave and serve their parents and husbands, which I have not bothered reading any yet. But the art works were excellent though.


  1. I have read this post but must come back and read in more closely. I must digest it all again and yet I know whereof you speak. I was raised in a very small religious community and had a domineering mother and the traditional shift you have described is very much what I have witnessed in my own life, ablbiet I'm not Chinese. Thank you for sharing this. I shall return.
    'Til then be well and be happy,

  2. thanks TT!
    it was a fact that many religions (as well as christianity) more or less suppress children's individual self development, but i believe chinese culture went to way far beyond most other cultures or religions.

  3. I used to witness this kind of parental abuse when I was coaching gymnastics. It's more common here in the US then people imagine, especially in wealthy families that have obscenely high expectations for their children to succeed. It causes the kids a lot of stress, to the point where they often become depressed and even suicidal.

  4. Yun Yi

    I had the privilege of living and working as a teacher in Chongqing. I saw first hand the degree to which the children are made to excel and achieve. They were often exhausted and stressed beyond belief. The parents are too hard on the children but I assumed this is just the way the culture is. I love China and Chinese people dearly. To my own detriment I didn't learn enough of the language to fully understand the culture. I loved my students while wanting them to excel I wanted them to relax and have fun in achieving their goal of better English. Your article is very insightful and very nicely done. Xie Xie...

  5. @nothingprofound: "abuse", yes, you said it! however, the overwhelming "child abuse" in china i believe is hard to be surpassed because it has been the way to raise children. now things are getting better... i heard there child protect law has been established.

  6. @joer223:
    thanks for you comments.
    i was born and grew up in chongqing, one of the biggest city in china. i am sure you see lots of this kind of happenings. even though the country is in progress, physical abuse is still consider as valid way to teach children by majority of chinese people.

  7. I have returned and re-read your post and find that it made me exceedingly uncomfortable simply because this description of yours of the way children are being treated by parents in China isn't much different from what I have witnessed in Canada.

    As nothingprofound has pointed out there are many parents who drive their kids to become excellent in sports and other activities and the kids are under enormous pressure to succeed, even wheb the sport ot activity is not one they would have selected to pursue themselves. They tend to be from comfortably well of families.

    At the other end of the economic scale are inner city and country children who are the caregivers for younger siblings called latch key kids who are always under stress because both parents work out of the home. Country kids these days also have parents who work outside the home. That means the kids hhave farm chores to do that they cannot ever escape day in and day out. They too have parents who drive them to succeed when it comes to doing well at getting an education. But the kids are tired and find staying awake during the day at school and then after school and chores are done to study to be challenge they cannot meet. The country kids and latcg key kids are exhausted and stressed right out. Worse still when the kids are bussed in to high schools to associate with other students they are faced with kids who behave like the adults we witness on the BC forums. The midleclass and well off urban kids excel at bullying and latcg key kids and country kids are frequently their targets. So the well off highschool kids get picked up by mommy or daddy or drive their own cars home. The country kids get on the schoolbus and when they get home after being bullied all day long they have chores, caregiving and cooking to do well into the evening hours. Meanwgile the middle class and well of kids are found in the evening hours playing in house leagues sports, drama clubs, art & science clubs, etc. where many parents are extremely competitive and obessed with having their kids excel.

    Many of my friends chose to have one parent in the home. After their kids experienced the asylums called public schools they pulled them out and home schooled their kids. This meant an extreme reduction in income coming into the gme but it also meant their kids could be kids and the parents could cgoose which other kids their kids associated with. Remarkably, kids can complete the entire year's curriculum in just 5 - 6 months rather than 10 when gome scgooled and this means that they can participate in extra curricular activities. All of the home schooled kids I know have done very well. Here they are compelled to attend Frade 12 in a public highschool and every one of them hated having to attend, just as much as I did years ago.

    I believe our capitalist obessession with earning more money than your neighbors do and calling that "success", along with competition valued over cooperation in all endeavors is ruining the opportunities for children to grow at a natural pace and become the best human beings they can be.

    SIGH ...

  8. SIGH ... I can now see the typos I made above. I am visually impaired and I have recovered from a head injury I suffered 2 years ago, but I have some lasting problems I'm trying to learn gow to cope with.

    I did not learn gow to touch type when I was gully sighted. Now I use a keyboard that does not have alphabetical letters on the keys. I'm trying to learn to type by position recal and failing. :( What seems to be happening is I click the "g" key rather than the "h" key ie. I clicking 1 key to the left or ight of the one I actaully want to click. I'm dgaring this with you because I gave recently been ridiculed for editing on the BC forums and for what people think are spelling errors. I can spell very well - it's my keyboarding and my ability to sequance my thoughts that sucks. I do apologize for the annoying errors in my first comment and hope you and your readers will still choose to think well of me while I learn.

  9. Hugs TT! Please don't worry about typos. I got what you meant.
    People sometime can be very mean online only because they don't have guts to show their true/ugly spirit in real life.
    Thanks for writing about “latch key kids”. First time hear it. Too bad Chinese people don’t have a name for this type of kids because they are considered "normal". A typical Chinese parenting is like this: when kids are 0-3 year-old, they let somebody else taking care of kids, 4- 7 year old they started to teach kids elementary school curriculum, 6-12 they believe their kids should go to college and become a well known prodigy. This, is they type of Chinese educated "elites" families. Lower classes are worse, or better, depend on parents' love nature...
    Lots of Chinese people never knew the term “child abuse”, they thought it was something completely belong to western culture, because in traditional Chinese people’s eye, parents simple have right to do anything to do their kids. How could a child been abuse by their own parents? And as long as you grow up with a visually perfect physical appearance, you should be grateful for you parents. Like one of my friend’s mother questioned me one day when I mentioned my parents were too busy to take care of me: if they don’t take care of you, how did you grow up?
    Even nowadays, if you say anything bad about parents, people would still consider you as a ungrateful person. I myself actually was seriously abused by my parents. And I almost have not received the emotional support even from my closest Chinese friends. They simply believe I was trying to find excuse for my own problems. Well…
    I have written quite several serious articles about this topic and many Chinese readers simply denied the fact and think I was trying to put some the bad on Chinese people’s faces. Of course, there were also many of them embraced my ideas.

    Sorry to hear you had an accident 2 years ago. I had a friend in real life who had a car accident hurt his back and since then his life was never the same. Many CFS sufferers had chronic “issues” by accidents. I hope you would be careful with those medicines but, I assume you knew about that already. Take good care and I believe you will be recovered!

  10. I grew up with "Don't ever answer me back".

    I'm finding it quite hard at this stage parenting two teens and a pre-teen. Part of me feels very rude of them to answer back. The other part of me wants to encourage them to speak up with confidence. I admire the Western kids - they're so outspoken. Asian kids tend to be shy. For many years I couldn't write because I was afraid of being laughed at or told off. So I drew alot. Today, I started blogging and it releases so much in me. But still I can't write pages.

  11. @pigtimes, thanks! hope you have lots of fun with blogging.

  12. It' s hard to come by decent info on the web.

  13. "Filial piety" -- I think this is the usual English translation of xiao. It has held China back for centuries. You won't need me to tell you that China was the technologically most advanced country in the world 2000 years ago, but look what happened to Admiral Zheng He after he returned from his epic voyages of discovery during the Ming Dynasty.

    However, I think that Confucianism is effectively dead in modern China. Sure, there are pushy parents, always have been, but nowadays I think it is China's flirtation with capitalism that causes parents to overload their children with expectations. And I would expect Confucian ideals to be stronger in expatriate Chinese anxious to preserve their cultural heritage when far from the motherland.

    I have written about this problem myself in Confucius He Say.

  14. @dennis hodgson,
    you are right, "filial piety" is the word. i will visit your blog soon. and thanks for taking time reading through my blog.

  15. I love this story - I have often wondered on this because my son's Chinese teacher has very little patience with him and told me he needed medication. (which didn't sit well with me!) All of my kids are like this girl you wrote about and it can be trying for me because I want them to be respectful, however I also recognize that it is good that they have such strong personalities that they have a voice - even if my son does get into such trouble with his teacher.