(Chapter 1 of upcoming book, How to go to school like an Asian)
The secret to Asian success in school — we’re only talking about Asians from Confucian cultures (Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam), most non-Confucian Asians like Filipinos and Malaysians suck at school and life in general — isn’t a secret. These inscrutable slant eyed motherfuckers are in fact abusive “B”-is- for-bitch-slapping, study-till- you-hallucinate, why-you-only-get-99? high scoring automatons people think they are. I was there, I saw it, I experienced it. I’d be doing Math with my mom as the tutor, during the Summer of course, and her favorite form of physical abuse whenever I’d start fucking up was the pinch-the-skin-and-twist. Second favorite was the bitch slap. That was normal in my family and in many other Asian families. My cousin, locked in his room with his once-a-week tutor, could be heard yelping every time the tutor smacked him with a stick. Everyone in the family could hear it and nobody would react, everyone continued on with whatever they were doing because this is normal and expected. They’d be more concerned if there weren’t any sounds of whacks and screams — that must mean the tutor must suck, fire his incompetent ass!
If I could play the role of my mother in the above scenario, I wouldn’t twist-pinch and bitch-slap little me. Getting smacked around like that just made me more tired and frustrated, it didn’t improve my performance. And I think most of my peers — non Asians included — felt the same way when they were treated that way.
Nor do I think being trained to achieve perfection as a way to avoid punishment motivates one to reach one’s potential. In the case of my tutored cousin, it didn’t work at all — he was the fuck up of the family, he barely made it out of high school not because he was busy inventing the next best thing, but because he was a lazy, self-indulgent, and selfish piece of shit. School-work related beatings had no effect, or at least not a positive one, on his character.
Still, physical abuse isn’t necessarily a bad experience — think ballet, boxing, gymnastics, football, all sports really — but the desire for it has to come from within. Self-abuse works best because it’s an expression of self-motivation and self-discipline. From what I’ve seen, self-motivated people, never the extrinsically motivated, are the highest achievers, the superstars. Former fat fuck and loser, now a Navy Seal and ultra-marathoner, David Goggins, is all about that. The first time that motherfucker tried to run 100 miles in one day without training for it, he was, at the finish, pissing blood, his feet were broken, and his lower leg bones were fractured. And that’s precisely why he is what he is today, because he routinely chooses to put himself through pain as a way to transcend suffering, to reach an earthly nirvana. There’s something spiritually cleansing and fulfilling about self-flagellation.
In any case, I don’t think my mom enjoyed hitting me. She did so mostly out of frustration, I suspect. But she was okay with smacking me because of the Confucian notion that success is only possible with sufficient suffering — “eat bitterness” (吃苦) in Chinese. For a lot of Asians, taking a beating counts as “eating bitterness.” So Asian parents are like, “why not smack my kid a few times, it’s good for them!”
The “eat bitterness” motif is repeated in the Chinese martial arts films I grew up watching. Talented kid goofs off while training. Gets smacked by sifu (master) for his lack of discipline. Still doesn’t take training seriously until some people fuck with his family. He now demands his sifu to smack him around. “Again, sifu!” “Sifu, harder!”
Suffering is also central to the Confucian notion of love. One shows love by enduring hardships, and that may be one of the reasons Asians work so hard and rarely say “I love you” to their loved ones — Confucian love is an act, not a feeling. Check out martial arts/romance classic, The Bride With White Hair: the lead female has to crawl on hot coals while enduring stick beatings in order to free herself from slavery so she can be with the one she loves. Her lover, after losing her — she leaves him after he betrays her — suffers for years on a cold mountaintop, waiting to harvest a rare reverse aging flower that he wants to give to her (her hair turned white after his betrayal) to atone for his wrongdoing. It’s his way of saying: “I’m sorry, please forgive me, I love you.”
In summary, Confucian ethics emphasizes filial piety over individuality and success requires suffering, not abundance, as neo-Marxists think. Let’s explore what these precepts mean and how they relate to the title of this chapter.
In Confucian societies, the family, not the individual, is the basic unit in society. In other words, the individual is nothing without the family, the individual exists only in relation to and in service to other individuals within a hierarchical structure. For instance, children to parents, wife to husband, apprentice to the master. So if Suzie Wong gets knocked up by a heroin addict and becomes a heroin addict herself, her sordid life is a reflection of her family’s lack of virtue, it’s neither an accident of history nor the result of institutional racism and sexism. For Asians, the consequences of fucking up affects the entire family, an entire clan even. Asians don’t need to be told that “it takes a village to raise a child.” They’ve, for better or worse, have been doing that for centuries and know that it only takes one fucktard to ruin it for the entire village. Beginning to see why nearly all living Americans, myself included, have never seen an Asian heroin addict anywhere in the world?(Remember, Filipinos don’t count as Asian in this book).
In Anglo-American society — the dominant socio-cultural environment most immigrant groups assimilate into by the third generation — the individual is the basic unit of society. Which means you could blame Tyrone, and not the family environment and values he grew up with, when he goes to jail for armed robbery. Or not blame Tyrone or his family, maybe his fuck up is due to the so-called structural problems Sociologists have been failing to solve since the 1960s?
Not saying mainstream American families don’t feel responsible for their children’s failures. They do, sometimes (and perhaps intuitively, always). But they live in a society that gives them the option to absolve themselves from blame when kiddo fucks up. They live with the temptation to blame something outside of themselves for dear Helen overdosing on meth. “My daughter is obese because of the fast food industry,” a concerned Mom rationalizes. “You know what, she’s not fat, she’s not the problem, society’s narrow minded expectations of what people should look like are,” considers well meaning Dad. It’s racism, sexism, homophobia, fat-shaming…the individual and the family are blameless.
Such rationalizations are difficult to make when the hierarchies are much more rigid and clearly defined under the Confucian system. Anglo cultured 13 year old Craig has no problem with calling his dad by his first name. In other words, son and dad are equal to each other as individuals, which implies one isn’t necessarily responsible for the other. Such casualness would get Confucian cultured Sung Woo smacked, usually by Mom. And Dad would chuck eight year old Suzie Wong across the room for calling her Mom a bitch. Uncles and aunts must be addressed not only as uncles and aunts, but also by their birth order. It’s “big aunty” (oldest aunt on one side of the family) or “3rd uncle” (third oldest uncle on one side of the family). It’s “little sister” or “big brother” among siblings, they rarely call each other by their first names. Koreans — the most rigidly hierarchical of the Asians — take it further, applying this logic to close friends based on birth dates. What’s implied under this hierarchical system is that “big sister” is responsible for “little brother”; father for daughter; uncle for nephew. It’s feudal. And with a feudal family structure comes a temptation to exploit those you’re responsible for, similar to what happened in feudal Europe, where aristocrats were tasked with taking care of their serfs while taking some of their daughters as mistresses. Similarly, Asian parents can pressure their kids to marry whom they want them to marry, and not whom they want to marry. Within the Confucian family structure, service to the family trumps individual desires.
If Jeb Bush came from a Confucian family, no way he’d be allowed to marry a Mexican peasant who couldn’t speak English and had no education (or schooling) he met during his prep school mandated summer abroad to some farm in Mexico and end up with a drug addict daughter. Yet he could still run for office (and sometimes win) with a trashy wife (she’s like a low grade Kardashian) in tow and a drug addicted daughter because he was judged as an individual and not as a family man responsible for his daughter being a fuck up.
Meanwhile, there isn’t a politician in Asia who can get away with having a similar family. I mean, they’re fine with peasants in power or as spouses, as long as they went to top schools or have proven themselves in some other way. But there’s no way a politician’s career can survive a daughter who is a drug addict. How can someone who can’t manage their family well govern a nation, wonders the Confucian minded citizen?
Another example of how filial piety works: imagine a gathering of three Asian couples — late 20s, early 30s — at one of the couple’s homes. Host takes a call from his father, who is terminally ill. He’s on the phone for 20 minutes listening to his father yell at him about wanting a grandchild ASAP. If this were an Anglo gathering, the host would’ve told his father that he’s busy with guests and will call him back when he can. And when he does, he’ll tell his father that he has no right to tell his wife when she should get pregnant because that’s ultimately her decision, not anyone else’s. This approach would get the Confucian son disowned by his father.
Success Requires Suffering
Asians believe that effort, not talent, leads to success. Other way around for most Americans (followers of Carol Dweck and Malcolm Gladwell are the exception). That’s why Americans have schools, public and private, that encourage 1st graders to work on what they’re good at instead of what they struggle with. That’s why American students are tracked, as early as 1st grade, into “gifted” programs. To emphasize the difference in mindset, imagine two classes of first graders, one in Japan, the other in the US. Give these first graders a Math problem that’s impossible to solve. What happens? Pick:
- Japanese and American students give up after trying to solve the problem for 30 seconds.
- Japanese students keep trying to solve it until the end of the one hour class. American students give up after 30 seconds.
- Japanese and American students work on the problem until the end of the class.
Answer is “B.”
UCLA professor James Stigler performed this experiment, here’s what he found:
The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.
But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.
American students give up quickly because they think that if you can’t figure something out with ease, you’re probably not going to figure it out with effort. Why would they think that? Because Americans emphasize talent over effort as the means to success. Check out this conversation between an American Mom and her 8 year old son, who has just told her that he and his friends talk about books. (Recorded by professor Jin Li of Brown University):
Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown-ups?
Child: I know … talk about books.
Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.
Child: Hmmm mmmm
NPR summary of Li’s analysis:
Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.
In contrast, here’s a conversation between a Taiwanese Mom and her 9 year old son, who had just won a piano competition:
“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”
This mom emphasizes how hard practice was and praises his persistence, no mention of innate talent.
Not saying Asian teachers and parents don’t think talent matters, or that Americans don’t think effort is irrelevant. Americans encourage extraordinary effort at what one is “talented” in, but they see effort in activities one isn’t “talented” in as an inefficient use of time. Asians also recognize talent, China even bred for it to create NBA star and giant Yao Ming, but they don’t see the point in mentioning talent because they expect struggle to always precede success.
That expectation is why, in Asian households, You_Are_NEVER_Enough. Got a 99? “Where’s the other 1 point?” 100? “What, no extra credit points?” “No extra credit point questions? Don’t care, figure out a way to get 110, you lazy and irresponsible shit?” To Asians, perfection is an abstraction, it’s not achievable! To say that it is would go against the Confucian worldview that a successful life MUST ALWAYS be a struggle for perfection.
Asian Jokes as Told by Asians (from Youtube comments sections)
Ronny Chieng on why we need an Asian president
- Dad: “You President yet?””
Kid: “No dad, I’m 12!”
Dad: “Talk to me when you President!”
Korean-American (Jonny Kim) Man is a Navy SEAL, Doctor & Now an Astronaut!?
- “What? You only went to the moon? What about Mars? Why you no go to Mars?””
- “I’m sure his mom still says “Why you so fat?””
- “…they are probably not proud, they are most likely asking him “when are you going to become lawyer? President?”
- “They will never be proud until he becomes the president”