C, 0, 中国 China

Help, I’ve become a tiger mum(!)

Technically, as a 23-year-old (and thankfully currently childless and thereby free) British woman …  I am not a Chinese tiger mum. However, for the past year through my work as a tutor in Shanghai, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time communicating with, comforting and simultaneously chastising some of China’s wealthiest tiger parents. This 66hands on “Help, I’ve become a tiger mum” depicts a handful of anecdotes about my time tutoring in Shanghai and offers insight into the Chinese tiger parent mentality.

I’ve watched mothers force their child to drink coffee at 9pm to keep them awake during class. I’ve awkwardly hugged and consoled devastated parents whose child achieved only second place in the end of year class rankings. I’ve scanned through timetables of 11-year-olds with over 30 hours of extracurricular classes a week (in addition to regular school hours).

In China, being an only child is the norm. Among the families I have worked with, money is no object when it comes to a Chinese child’s education – the theory is that the more money a parent pumps into their child, the greater the return. These are not only financial returns in the form of better career prospects and higher future salaries, but social returns. Your child gets into Cambridge or Harvard? The family gains prestige, status, and most importantly – they win ‘face’.

A Chinese father once joked the status quo goes a little like this … “My child is better than your child. Those are my genes. Look how great and noble this entire family is.”

Wealthy Chinese families are educating their children at an international, bilingual school whilst filling every free hour with additional STEM, English and Language tuition, piano classes, painting and fine art tutorials, archery, equestrian, badminton etc. These children are fully bilingual, are fully supported by their parents to pursue any passion they desire, and (most … well some) have learnt how to hustle, how to work hard, and how to get what they want.

My role as a tutor in Shanghai was specifically to help Chinese children get into top UK boarding schools by teaching them interview techniques, comprehension as well as verbal and non-verbal reasoning logic exams. Based on parental requests, I set a lot of homework, and I made sure it was done to a high standard. I set long lists of new vocabulary with example sentences, grammatical exercises to be done daily, and marked pages and pages of essays, stories and poems.

Working in such an intense environment seems to have exacerbated certain and rather prominent traits of my personality – as far as my siblings are concerned, for example, I’ve developed wild ambitions for them. I get annoyed at them when I don’t feel they are reaching high enough. I also get irritated at myself for falling short of my own expectations. Earlier this week my little brother received his A level results; in the 24 hours beforehand, I felt sick with nerves. A few weeks ago I sent him a 4-page document with a list of projects, languages, courses and jobs he could do during a gap year, as he’s unsure whether university is the right next move for him. Recently, in the midst of one of my stressful moods, someone close to me told me to “relax… you’re their big sister, not their mum”.

So, when I met up with my former housemate for a coffee, I  confided in him that I felt embarrassed to have adopted some of these tiger parent traits I’ve spent so long observing (and judging). He introduced me to a popular video game called中国式家长Zhongguo shi jiazhan ‘Chinese parents’ … I was intrigued, especially as earlier this year in 2019, the producers developed an English version (trailer here and full run through of the game here) In ‘Chinese parents’, players raise virtual children from toddlers right up to the age of 18, when they take the nation’s equivalent of A levels – the infamously gruelling高考 Gao Kao. Throughout the game’s 48 rounds, by arranging academic and extracurricular activities, parents must improve their child’s intelligence, physical fitness, emotional capacity and artistic talents … the end goal? To get the child into  a prestigious university. The game then restarts – the new baby with a leg up from the improved genes from the previous protagonist.

In a nation whereby the slightest utterance of China’s two most prestigious universities 清华 Tsinghua and  北大 Beida could turn the heads of an entire room, it may come as no surprise that the game’s popularity has been unprecedented. Just one month after its release in September 2018, ‘Chinese parents’ featured in the top 10 of Steam bestsellers, of which 89% of the players gave a good review. In the trailer, developers say “Parents love us…but always in the wrong way. We love them…but always struggle to embrace them” . The aim of the game is to enable Chinese parents and children to understand one another.

Something many non-Chinese have scrutinised having played ‘Chinese parents’ is the mental health of the virtual child. In light of research by the 21st Century Education Research Institute, 392 cases were found of school-age children taking their own life (or trying to do so) between October 2016 and September 2017 – with a higher frequency in boys than girls. In ‘Chinese parents’ if a player puts too much pressure on their child, the ‘stress value’ exceeds the norm and points are deducted, giving the child a ‘negative character – including pessimism, anxiety, and even severe depression in your personality”. One Chinese media outlet said “…  and in ‘Chinese Parents’ I have seen that (including myself), no one really pays much attention to this. It is very utilitarian (and we) maintain the pressure value to a large range … It’s a game, of course, (so) you have to play like this.”

I haven’t played ‘Chinese parents’, and I’m not sure I need to either. I could end up doing something drastic like enrolling my dog in singing, piano and tap-dancing lessons. The stress within the walls of these Chinese homes is real and raw; parents want nothing more than their child to excel, and I empathise with that. I want the same thing for my siblings and myself. This year’s experiences have undoubtedly changed me (for better or for worse) and at times, I’ve felt like I’ve been in the eye of the storm, looking out only to see chaotic, frantic and panicked parents doing everything they can … sometimes for a child who simply wants to go outside and play.

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