US & World

Paper Tigers: What happens to the kids of tiger moms and dads when they grow up?

Cover of New York Magazine featuring Wesley Yang's article, Paper Tigers.
Cover of New York Magazine featuring Wesley Yang's article, Paper Tigers.
New York Magazine

Author Amy Chua raised eyebrows earlier this year with her autobiography of motherhood, "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." The book suggests strict parenting can help kids get into Ivy League schools. But what happens to those kids when the test taking is over? That's the question New York magazine writer Wesley Yang set out to answer in his article, "Paper Tigers."

There are certain values Wesley Yang sees as intrinsically Asian. Values like filial piety, deference to authority, humility, hard work and "earnest, striving middle-class servility."

Yang says he was never a fan of those values.

"Like all of these things that were kind of sold to other Asian American people I never really bought into them and I didn't want to have anything to do with them."

Yang is the son of Korean immigrants. But he wasn't pressured to conform to the traditional Asian values, in part because his parents had already lived in America for 20 years when he was born and they'd adopted a more western worldview.

"You know, my father was a little bit different than other immigrants. He didn't go out of his way to instill those values in us."

But Yang says no matter how he felt, he thought the world still saw him as typically "Asian."

"I didn't identify with this culture," Yang remembers. "I didn't feel a part of it. And yet my face would always identify with it to me in the eyes of others. So there is this estrangement I would feel to my identity."

Yang learned he wasn't alone. For his recent New York Magazine article he interviewed other Asian-Americans who felt neither fully Asian nor American.

One gripe Yang and others have with Asian values is the obsession with getting into top-notch schools and acing tests. Yang spoke to one student at a prestigious private high school in New York City who told him the focus on testing left his Asian peers ill-prepared for what comes next.

"One of the kids that I interviewed... told me there are all these kids that can get 800 on their verbal SAT who cannot write. And people know about it. College admissions officers know about it."

This lack of real world skills leads to discrimination after graduation, according to Welsey Yang. He calls it the "bamboo ceiling."

He points to American law firms as a classic example. Yang says Asian Americans are the most represented group at the associate level. But he says Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted to partner.

"There is a way Asian people are trained to be that is not consistent with American ideas of how a leader is supposed to be. They have been trained to be humble and hard working and if they face an obstacle at work, simply to double down and work twice as hard."

In Yang's view, that attitude will only lead to Asians being taken for granted. Sure, it's frustrating, but Yang points out that Asians like him don't always have the cultural knowledge needed to transform into a take-charge kind of person.

On top of that, he points to a book by author Jane Hyun called "Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling" that argues that it can take four to five generations for a family to abandon some of these deep Asian values.

In the end, Yang accepts his Asian and American values. They've taught him a lot and besides, he says, it's too late to start over now.

"I'm not going to change. This is who I am and I am just going to bare all the costs that are associated with it."

Wesley Yang spoke with Madeleine Brand for the Madeleine Brand Show. For the full interview listen here.