Archive for the ‘U.S.-China relations’ Category

I wanted to write about some fantastic Chinese documentaries I’ve seen over the past year, but instead I’m going to have to write about the debate raging over Amy Chua, of Tiger Mother infamy.

I’ve received enough emails from people wondering if her approach is really typical of “Chinese” parenting or my own upbringing (God forbid!) that I want to reply once and for all here, and then I’ll refer everyone to this blog entry.

First, Chua’s super-controlling style of parenting is not “traditional Chinese” for many reasons, most obviously the fact that most Chinese have had no opportunity to parent the way Chua does. She takes one grain of truth–that Chinese traditionally have emphasized the importance of education–and then manages to conflate that with her own hyperbole to promote her book. Controversy sells. But let’s get a few facts clear. Chua is American. Her parents were ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. (I guess the title “Battle-hymn of the Imelda Marcos Mother” just didn’t have the same ka-ching to it.) However, Chua is exploiting current fears of a rising China,  stereotypes about Chinese (and “Westerners”), the “model minority” stereotype, and almost every mother’s own conflicted feelings about her parenting in order to sell books.

Secondly, there’s been a lot written already about the harmful effects Chua’s abusive language and control-freak style may actually have on children. I will refer everyone to several of the myriad articles about this subject, including this CNN report showing that Asian American females, ages 15-24, have the highest suicide rate of anyone in the U.S. in that age group. This beautiful essay,  \”My Life as the Child of a Tiger Mother\”,by memoirist Lac Su, explains how he would give up all his current success if he only he could erase the psychic scars caused by his parents’ abusive behavior, which in some ways dovetails with Chua’s name calling. This article written by Betty Ming Liu, Parents like Amy Chua Are the Reason Why Asian Americans Like Me Are in Therapy, describes her critique humorously while this Quora post by Christine Lu explores how her older sister’s efforts to fulfill the pressure to be  “perfect” and “successful” resulted in her sister’s suicide. (Meanwhile, a good round-up of bloggers critiques as well as thoughtful analysis is provided by Cynthia Liu.)

Finally, I’d like to address the fundamental problem with Chua’s thesis: she oversimplifies a complex issue with a simple binary of Western indulgent v. Chinese strict.

In fact, this issue is about class not ethnicity. How many people can afford the nannies, tutors, special camps, private schools, etc. that Chua and her husband have paid for? Yet Chua’s book and PR do not emphasize this class privilege or all the people who have contributed to her children’s academic successes. No one woman could do everything, or seriously spend as much time as Chua claims that she did micromanaging her children’s every rehearsal and lives, as Janet Maslin points out in her review in the New York Times.

Chua’s parents were from very wealthy families. (See Chua’s first book, World on Fire, for anecdotes about her relative’s stash of solid gold bars.) Chua is also extremely wealthy. (For example, her daughters attend the private Hopkins School, which charges $30,000+ per year for tuition for grades 7-12.)

Money buys many wonderful opportunities. For example, want your kids to have a recital at Carnegie Hall, too? Anyone can pay to rent one of Carnegie Hall’s many venues. Current cost for a recital at the smallest of the halls (capacity 268, Weill Recital Hall) is about $4,500 for a weekend evening or Sunday afternoon. How do I know? I emailed Carnegie Hall\’s \”Hall Rental\” page on its website and asked.

So what’s wrong with spending a ton of money to raise your kids to have a great education and a lot of special opportunities? Nothing, in and of itself…if you’ve got the money. But it’s alarming that the issue of money and privilege is being obscured in this debate, and the focus in the media is solely on the efforts of one person–the mother–as though it doesn’t take a village (or an incredibly wealthy community) to raise a child.

This refusal to acknowledge privilege and the greater role of community in helping to raise successful children reminds me of The Atlantic‘s cover story, The Rise of the New Global Elite, about the new wealthy who relate to each other around the world but feel little to no obligations to the societies in which they grew up.  (See especially pp. 6-7.) According to the article, the new elite believe that solely through their own hard work and merit did they rise to the top. They don’t recognize the privileges of growing up in a largely middle-class society without crime to worry about, with good schools, and with access to jobs. They do not acknowledge the role of luck in their own success or being in the right place at the right time in history. For example, most of the American elites featured grew up in an era that did not have a universal draft, which would otherwise have required them to serve in America’s two ongoing wars, rather than continue their educations uninterrupted and to travel freely to make money for themselves and their companies. The fact that others–generally poorer and less educated– make these sacrifices of going to war for the nation, and thus for them, does not apparently translate to gratitude.

We used to recognize in America that having a strong middle class made us a strong nation. But according to The Atlantic article, we are creating an entitled class (yes, they are smart, they go to good schools, they work hard, but they also have the opportunity to do so) and an underclass, who cannot get ahead no matter how hard they work because they simply do not have access to the best education, connections, and opportunities that the elite enjoy. This divide is dangerous.

We as a nation need to look for real solutions that will help ALL OF US as a society, not just a few of us. We need to stop blaming “indulgent Western parents” or unions or teachers or such-and-such ethnic group, and look at the lack of opportunity that a society increasingly segregated by class leads to as well as the declining state of our public school systems, for example. If you can put your kids in a $30,000/year private school, then of course the kids can get a good education and meet many children of influential people who will help them later in life.

But most parents who are working two full-time jobs just to get by do not have the time, which Chua claims somehow that she has, to self-tutor their children. Nor do most families have hundreds of thousands of dollars to use just to put their kid through a private junior high and high school.

Some parents are truly neglectful of their children, of course, but the problems we see in our education system and economy are not simply issues of bad parenting…or “lax Western parenting” to borrow the publicity’s inflammatory rhetoric.

But notice how the debate raging in our media now is solely about parenting styles and not about the class issues or real solutions to the greater gap in educational opportunities in America for poorer or middle-class people.

Perhaps the elite who are able to take advantage of their opportunities and make the most of them feel that’s enough. Perhaps they feel no obligations to the greater good of their societies. Perhaps it’s enough to grab a bigger piece of the pie for themselves. And maybe they truly can convince themselves that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans deserve to have more collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent (Kristof, 1-1-2011). But if they’re wrong, and we really do need a thriving middle class to prevent most of America from sliding into a permanent underclass, if we need a thriving middle class to keep our country stable, to help lift the poor, to nurture people who will think outside the box rather than think merely how to preserve their own privilege, to innovate for the greater good, then we are all in trouble.

I wish the American media would recognize that we need real solutions and a real examination of our growing societal inequity, not stereotypes.

Read Full Post »

I had the pleasure of meeting William Wang Graylin, filmmaker and entrepreneur, while he was visiting San Francisco this week.

Will produced and co-directed an independent documentary about his father, the painter Victor Kai Wang, called THEMES AND VARIATIONS.

William Wang Graylin (holding a DVD of his film) and me in SF

Will has a fascinating family history, which he also explores in the movie. His parents seemed to be living the ultimate romance: his father was a young artist, his mother a dancer, when they met and fell in love in China. All seemed to go well until the Cultural Revolution. Will’s family was “sent down to the countryside” because of their “bourgeois” class origins and learned to plant crops and live in a village. Will’s father adapted to village life fairly well and was even able to continue painting. However, Will’s mother is hapa, that is mixed-race, half Chinese and half white, and so was considered to be, in the eyes of the regime at the time, half American. As the P.R.C. and the U.S. did not have diplomatic relations in those days, she was thus considered to be an “enemy.” As a result, she was imprisoned and released only long enough to give birth to Will’s younger brother.

The family eventually immigrated to the U.S. (a relative sponsored them) in 1980, but Will’s mother suffered severe PTSD as a result of her mistreatment during the Cultural Revolution. She was hospitalized for months. His parents divorced eventually, and Will describes his efforts to understand his gifted but seemingly emotionally remote father.

THEMES AND VARIATIONS: A PORTRAIT OF VICTOR KAI WANG is not a bitter film, however. It is contemplative in tone, as Will strives to understand the effects of the forces of history on a family and on an artist. At times the documentary is almost meditative as it focuses on the many painting styles that Victor Kai Wang has explored in his life.

It was certainly interesting to get to meet the filmmaker after learning so much about his early life in China and the U.S.!

Themes and Variations

For people who are interested in Chinese art and mid-20th century Chinese history, I highly recommend THEMES AND VARIATIONS. It is a fascinating portrait of an artist and his family struggling to live in “interesting times.”

Kristopher Gee is the co-director.

William Wang Graylin is also CEO and founder of ROAM Data, which develops software and applications for mobile phones, including a program that enables any cellphone to become a credit card machine. I can’t explain the technology although Will demonstrated how it works to me. I think I’ve now seen the future! Pretty cool stuff.

Click on this link to learn more about ROAM Data, the company and its technology.

(Special thanks to CBC journalist Christina Wong for introducing me to this film and to Will!)

Read Full Post »

The Committee of 100 held its annual conference in San Francisco April 7-10, 2010 and I was lucky enough to score a guest pass from Jennifer 8 Lee.

Me at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Committee of 100 logo

The theme this year is “Envisioning Our Future Together.”

Today I attended a fascinating panel, “Educating the Next Generation of Global Leaders,” featuring a rock star roster of academic administrators from California and China: Henry Yang, Chancellor, University of California, Santa Barbara; Zhou Qifeng, President, Peking University; Gu Binglin, President, Tsinghua University; John L. Hennessy, President, Stanford University; and Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor, University of California, San Diego.

(I thought it was interesting that every single administrator came from a science and/or engineering background, no humanities people at all. Ah, well.)

I also thought it was interesting that both President Zhou of Peking University (a.k.a. Bei Da, 北大) and President Gu of Tsinghua ( 清華大學) delivered their speeches in fluent English. I wonder how many American university presidents could deliver their speeches in Chinese (or any non-English language)? It certainly spoke of the importance China places on internationalizing its education system, especially in its elite universities.

(Note: Perhaps if American universities wanted to place more emphasis on Modern Languages, Comparative Literature, Translation and other departments that are currently facing terrible budget cuts, maybe the “next generation of (American) global leaders” will be able to communicate in other languages, too. But as a humanities major, I am obviously biased on these matters.)

Conference Program

Each of the university administrators was asked to speak briefly (5-7 minutes) on what universities must do to prepare their students to become the aforementioned “global leaders” in the 21st century.

President Zhou of Peking University emphasized the need for students to be first and foremost good, global citizens. He emphasized Peking University’s efforts to increase study abroad programs, to bring in more international students, and to develop its new Yuan Pei program for undergrads, which is essentially a liberal arts type study program that is co-run with Yale University. He says students must be “international,” meaning they must understand the cultures of the world, so that in the future “our students will not be limited by borders.”

He received a rousing hand of applause.

(BTW, Peking University currently sends 1,000 students on study abroad programs every year. There are 33,000 students total, including 14,000 undergraduates. There are 4,000 international students; 2,700 are degree students enrolled at Bei Da, not just on study abroad programs.)

President Gu of Tsinghua University

President Gu emphasized the historical, international roots of Tsinghua University, China’s equivalent of M.I.T. It was founded in 1911 with Boxer Indemnity Fund money and many of its students went on to study in the United States. (Historical note: Click on these links for more info on the Boxer Rebellion and the Boxer Indemnity Fund Scholarships to educate Chinese students in the U.S. )

My grandfather (center) in sunglasses

(Personal note: My grandfather went to Tsinghua in the 1920s and then as a Boxer Indemnity Fund scholar was allowed to come to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he obtained his B.A. He then went on to study law at Northwestern University’s Law School, where he received his J.D.)

President Gu felt the most important factors in education today are to teach students to have 1) a capacity to innovate; 2) a global vision; and 3) social commitment.

President Hennessy of  Stanford emphasized five points in his speech. 1) Critical thinking skills; 2) a global perspective; 3) a multi-disciplinary perspective; 4) a need to appreciate two things: arts & culture as “the arts are a bridge among cultures,” and an appreciation and understanding of science and technology; and 5) boldness, the ability to think outside the box, and to make a big difference in the world.

Chancellor Fox emphasized the importance of funding the public research university, noting that research leads to discovery, which is essential for all societies to survive and flourish. Echoing many of the themes of the other speakers, Chancellor Fox said the three pillars of the university were 1) an interdisciplinary approach; 2) internationalization; and 3) innovation.

Chancellor Yang fielded some questions from the audience, including, What can Chinese and the U.S. universities learn from each other? How can more women be encouraged to enter the sciences? Why aren’t there more Asian and Asian American administrators in the U.S.?

There were no simple answers to any of these questions, so I’m going to leave them as questions. Anyone reading this post can think of possible solutions and answers.

I was very honored to be able to attend this event, which raises so many interesting questions for all of us who are interested in global education. I also found the cultural interaction between the Chinese and American administrators heartening. If we can talk reasonably and intelligently about our common goals and our common needs as global citizens, then there really is hope for the future.

MLK Memorial Waterfall

After the panel, I went for a walk in the beautiful Yerba Buena Gardens and stopped by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and Waterfall where quotations from Dr. King are engraved in the stone walls.

MLK Memorial

I fond this quotation particularly moving, which Dr. King delivered in San Francisco in 1956:

“I believe that the day will come when all God’s children from bass black to treble white will be significant on the Constitution’s keyboard.”

MLK Jr. Memorial

MLK Memorial

On days like today, although I know that we are far from this ideal, both at home and in the world, I do have renewed hope for the future.

For more information, here’s the link about the Committee of 100 (actually there are more like 150 people who belong to this group to promote better US-Greater China ties and to help Chinese Americans participate more fully in all aspects of American life, as their mission statement says).

For more information, here’s a link about the ever generous Jennifer 8. Lee,  www.jennifer8lee.com/bio. She used to be a reporter for the New York Times. She’s also the author of the best-selling book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

And of course, here’s the link for more information on the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco.

Read Full Post »

I was interviewed by travel guru Rick Steves for his radio show about the book CHINA A TO Z, which I co-authored with my father.

However, I just realized that I never put a link to that interview on my blog. So here it is, folks! You can listen to the hour-long radio show or click on the book icon.

The archived show is called “An American Travel Guide to China.”

Rick Steves, China A to Z, & May-lee! 🙂

Read Full Post »

My father called me bright and very early this morning to tell me that Senator Kennedy had died.

For my father, like so many of his generation, the Kennedy family has embodied so many American dreams and nightmares. When I was a child just starting school, both my parents talked so frequently of Pres. John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the moment they learned of his death, their horrified reactions, their tears,  that I had no idea it had occurred a decade earlier. It seemed to me they were discussing a recent event, like my Ye-ye’s second heart attack, my maternal grandfather’s trip to the hospital. I assumed we must be related, the Kennedys and our family. Why else did my parents talk about them so much and so passionately?

This morning my father’s voice sounded ragged around the edges, heavy, the opposite of his usual excited manner of shouting into the phone to me. The death of Senator Kennedy meant the last link to that time of great hope and great despair that he and my mother had shared together, when the Civil Rights Movement made it possible for their interracial marriage to be recognized in all 50 states, when the Kennedy brothers campaigned on hope, when my parents prayed for the end to the terrible war in Vietnam. The deaths of JFK, MLK, RFK hurt them deeply.

I don’t think I fully understood what my parents had meant about the excitement and hope they had felt when JFK was elected president until I experienced the same emotions during President Obama’s campaign for the presidency.

My father later called me back. He’d gone searching through his files and found a letter that Senator Edward Kennedy had sent to him when my father was a young poly-sci professor at the University of Redlands. My father now exclaimed excitedly, “Kennedy agreed with me about China! He wanted better relations! He knew China and the U.S. should have close ties!” (When my father is excited, all of his declarations end in exclamation points.)

He read one paragraph of the letter to me: “As your correspondence indicates, we share many views in common on the need for the United States to explore ways to improve our relations with China. I feel very strongly that it is the United States who must take the first step to end the present impasse in these relations. We should abandon our current futile policy of diplomatic, political, and economic isolation of the mainland and begin to move now toward a policy that seeks to bring China into the international community. Only through such action can we realistically hope to ensure future peace for Asia and the world.”

The letter was dated May 6, 1969. Senator Ted Kennedy was ahead of his times in his thinking, then as now.

My father then faxed the letter to me and said he was going to bring it to his class today on China to show his students.

I scanned the letter into a pdf copy because I thought it was historically interesting to read Sen. Kennedy’s prescient thinking on U.S.-China relations, views shared by my father. In 1969, many American politicians saw China as The Enemy, a Communist state that could never change, that was hellbent on spreading Communism through the world (the domino theory). History has proven such short-sightedness wrong.

To read the full text of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s letter to my father, please click here: Ltr-Senator-Ted-Kennedy-to-Prof-Winberg-Chai

Read Full Post »