My Perfectly Normal Kid Can Beat Up Your Tiger Mom’s Perfect Little Cub

You would have to be as disconnected from current affairs as an Appalachian mountain man circa 1763, if you hadn’t noticed the heightened media coverage of China’s rise and competition with the West, and the West’s concomitant obsession with Chinese rising competitiveness. In Amy Chua’s recent book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chinese tough-love child rearing, which is shown to produce academically excellent and highly competitive children, is pitted against Western-style parenting, which is understood to condemn a child to a life of underachievement. The clash of ideologies – education and hard work versus scholastic slackerdom and daydreaming – is being played out against the backdrop of America’s rightfully lamentable educational system. If truth be told, our country’s current “education crisis” points to systemic failures that would undermine American competitiveness far more than the alleged softness, lenity, and indulgence of us non-Tiger parents.

Whether your kid is barred from having any fun at all, attending play dates (for what, to play?), or going to bed before midnight for fear of missing out on extra credits … or not, won’t change America’s standing as the most industrious and innovative – speak most competitive – nation on earth. Say, how bad can it be, if even our Harvard dropouts (sure, throw some Stanford preemies into the mix too) continue to launch industry-defining, multi-billion-dollar companies that soak up every software engineer in the Western hemisphere who can as much as fog a mirror? The issue, of course, is that there won’t be enough American scientists and engineers to around in order to fuel America’s celebrated and inexorable industrial growth engine.

But China’s talent gap is closing fast, the battle lines are drawn for all the brains we can get in business, and better shape up if your pedagogy entailed plunking the spoilt rugrats down in front of Baby Einstein and entrusting the rest of their rugrat lives to a sub-standard educational system. Behold the Tiger Mom! There is a whole triple concerto-for violin, cello, and piano-playing cadre of scientifically-trained elite engineers lurching for your kids’ lunch box. Here’s what you do: first, you panic. Then, take ‘em out of Kindergarten Mandarin class – for that won’t help either. Finally, go growl like a tiger and join in the battle cry of practice drills, public shaming, and wretched insults in the name of achieving amazing success for your sprout.

On the face of it, Chua’s “battle hymn” mémoire is a charming but insipid ode to the joy of non-permissive parenting (imagine a typical tigerish, middle-class striver, Sino-Anne Hathaway-type, wishing for nothing more than to impart on her daughters a winning start in the lottery of life – while trashing a dollhouse during a piano recital lacking in poise and calling her offspring “garbage” just to reinforce the point). The booklet’s central claim that an Asian child’s stereotypical success is due to superior Asian parenting is substantiated by anecdotal assertions that the relentless pursuit of academic excellence, the original ‘practice makes perfect’ mindset, respect for authority, and intolerance of mediocrity are all Chinese inventions (yes, yes … along with paper, printing, gunpowder, and the bloody compass).

By contrast – as sharp as a tiger’s claw – us pampering, mollycoddling, non-straight-A-grades-tolerating, and video game-allowing (yikes, even Wii-provisioning!) Westerners have long lost the upper hand in raising a formidable youth (harking back to when Mrs. Buffett would grill young Warren mercilessly on the ins and outs of asset allocation, when William Henry Gates III was shuttled back and forth between classes in BASIC programming and predatory business practice, and – here’s a shocker – when Richard Branson, Jr. was purposely left stranded at both street corners and rock concerts to find his way home, palpably by his very own mother in her attempt to teach that little dyslexic devil a lesson or two in self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship …).

To sum up, ever since the fall of Constantinople (in 1453) or Bill Clinton’s more contemporary publication of “My Life,” has Western parenting been on the decline. If you’re in your teens today and you ain’t Tiger Mom’s perfect little cub, or if you haven’t been raised by a pushy Korean um ma or even an old-fashioned nagging Jewish mamah, chances are you’ll have to struggle mightily to make your mark in the world against the onslaught of better educated and more motivated youngsters from afar. And if you’re a parent, in particular one of those ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ organic brassica-eating Montessori-Albert Schweitzer-ites (all non-competitive Barney and Friends-embracers-cum-spawners, as far as the Tiger Mom is concerned), you’re probably just jealous that your lesser fry hasn’t been playing Carnegie Hall at the age of 14, or you’re put out perhaps that this puerile 4-year-old of yours is still waving back at the Teletubbies.

If you belong to a book club that’s boycotting Tiger Mom’s nasty little trade secrets, fret not, mon soeur. Here’s what’s coming at you, without wishing to cause undue worry: there’s a continent’s worth of overachievers – waiting to pounce upon your children’s future jobs (like the hordes of Suleiman the Magnificent laying siege to the gates of Vienna in 1529). You must get up and unplug the Xbox right away and furthermore chasten your child to never Google a school problem’s answer again, but rather derive it from first principles like all applicants to Tsinghua University must be able to do, at the risk of getting beaten with the bamboo stick (how does a cell phone work, what is a microprocessor, how does your body absorb fat from food? … you get the point). That literary invention called globalization has obviously bound together the American and Chinese economies for the foreseeable future; while Amy Chua’s foray into popular literature has helped to politically desensitize the debate as to which culture can and will produce the brainzillas necessary for economic world domination.

It is now neither taboo to identify with extreme parenting nor to be loudly alarmed by the high, and mostly stress-related, suicide rate among China’s young people. When a group of teenagers from Shanghai posted top scores in an international test of practical knowledge in reading, mathematics, and science administered by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Chinese mothers could feel vindicated, especially with the United States taking only 17th place in reading and coming in even lower in math and science. The question, of course, is not whether Chinese mothers are superior, along with their offspring, or whether Americans somehow wouldn’t wish to give their kids a winning start in life, but rather whether the US educational system is fit to train enough winning young adults in the future.

Some contend that education in this country is as broken as our health care system and would require a similarly complex overhaul, while costing the kind of money to fix that nobody is willing or able to pay. Moreover, with inequality sharply on the rise (the widening chasm between the rich and the poor within the country), what is emerging now and here is an unfortunate tale of two Americas. The inequitable distribution of wealth is closely mirrored by the unequal access to the kind of education befitting a Tiger Mom’s aspirations. Rich people pay for private schools and tutors or move their families into ZIP codes with excellent public schools (which in good/expensive neighborhoods resemble gleaming halls of learning that feed their graduates to the Ivy League; whereas students in bad/poor areas must enter their brain hospice through metal detectors). Two recent books on the subject of inequality, “Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich” by Robert Frank and “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making” by David Rothkopf, have shone a spotlight on unequal educational opportunity as a worsening social indicator, as the rich are getting (far) richer, while the poor are staying (relatively) poor. (Although it is unclear how exactly it is that inequality causes all sorts of social ills – from failing school grades, more teenage pregnancies, higher crime rates, to greater obesity – it is certain that the rising tide of America’s wealth boom has not lifted all boats.)

America’s ability to produce “Outliers” (as in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success”), individuals who will achieve extraordinary success in life is unparalleled. This will happen with or without Tiger Moms, with or without the “10,000-Hour Rule” (if you ever wondered how Mozart became Mozart, go spend 10,000 hours practicing a specific task and see what will happen). And in your blogger’s humble opinion, right after you’ve aced your reading, math, and science tests, other leading indicators for future employment success are “uncommon intelligence,” a passion for learning something new, and a knack for entrepreneurship. How to drill those into your kid’s head? Don’t ask the Tiger Mom. A new “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? Perhaps, for America must figure out how to transform its educational system to provide democratic / meritocratic access to top-notch learning to the majority of its people, not just a few. Always remember, there are far more Chinese Tiger Moms than there are people in the States, and not even our outliers and cognitive elite will be able to compete against them alone.

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Dragon Claws and Tiger Paws: The Hackers of Globalization

What’s all the fuss about globalization being either good or bad, manageable or inevitable? Globalization is but a fuzzy measure of how globally connected, integrated, and dependent you are on others in terms of economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and not the least ecological interchange. Last time you ever poked fun at that goofy Icelander for believing in his wights, elves, and huldufólk (“hidden people”), for he’ll come right back at ya, by closing his country’s banks – turning a whole bunch of UK depositors into such huldufólk – and shutting down your airspace for weeks on end (and all you can do is sue Thor for spewing volcanic ash and other forms of Icelandic ectoplasm, including Björk, over your Fatherland). (Though on that note, the brave pilots of Deutsche Lufthansa must be congratulated for being the first to face the pulverized magma, proudly living their corporate motto that the “Hansa is flying even when the birds are walking.”)

No, globalization would be a simple and straightforward matter if we just called it global trade (and indeed, if it was just that: worldwide import/export), and if it wasn’t for such complicating factors as the vast inequalities accentuated but perhaps not caused by putting us all on an economic Mercator projection, an equal free-trade footing. In the good old days, it used to be fair and equitable: you’d send a nutter like Marco Polo off on his Silk Road to scam the Kublai Khan with some cheap Venetian costume jewelry, and the fool would come home with spaghetti – home being Italy, mind you! Let’s call this one “Bucket A”: arguments for or against the notion that the world’s haves and have-nots will benefit very differently from the effects of globalization. If the upper left-hand corner of your paycheck says “The World Bank Group,” you’ll likely be a naysayer, arguing that global inequality has risen as a function of increased globalization for a number of factual reasons that are measured in something called the “Gini coefficient,” and the explication thereof would stretch the scope of this blog as much an A-Rod-professed monogamy. Know that your blogger – like most civilized people – categorically condemns the exploitation of impoverished workers and joins with militant fervor in the persecution of all exploiters of child labor (if you can, check out our friend David Arkless’s and his company Manpower’s support of http://www.notforsalecampaign.org/ – a rather worthwhile cause!).

Some of the other, softer, and more academic arguments brought forth by the anti-Davos crowd (rash boarders, by and large, who eschew après-ski and raclette with Angelina Jolie) have to do mainly with agriculture subsidies in rich countries (thereby lowering the market price for poor farmers’ crops), the non-existence or at best weakened state of labor unions in destitute regions, and – oh behold, the Bugaboo! – the rapid growth of offshore outsourcing. In “Bucket B” we shall lump all arguments either in favor of or opposed to the notion that globalization will revert all “things” back to their normal mean. And all these things are purportedly economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and perhaps even ecological in nature (you can appreciate how complicated a well-rounded treatment of globalization can get – and most of them alas are as cohesive as Destiny’s Child). Think of it as the global equilibrium point, where say a big media company in the States is outsourcing all of its IT development to India, where the Indian IT developers – because of these two interlocking economic trends called global wage arbitrage and purchase price parity – are making a respectable middle-class living, allowing them in turn to tune into, as it so happens, their client’s satellite TV channel to watch the admittedly timeless episodes of Rachel and Friends, thus sending about $1.50 in revenues back to Burbank, California for each $1.00 spent on outsourcing. The labor savings and the incremental foreign revenues are strengthening the firm in the U.S. such that it can afford to hire more domestic workers. A spiraling win-win scenario, or so it would appear, were it not for the pesky competition all now filing into Bangalore, tilting the local supply-and-demand ratio towards ever inflating wages. Over time, as you would expect, the Bengaḷūrus will be able to command the same level of pay as the good folks back home in Burbank. That’s what “mean reversion” means in this case: everyone’s making the same rupees and watching the same TV shows (where the largest common denominator will, thank heavens, also be the lowest one – watch out Slumdog, here come Jessica Simpson’s hair extensions).

Aforementioned Buckets A and B deal with resource re-distribution and societal re-shaping, respectively. It is perhaps intuitive that according to the KOF (ETH Zürich) Index of Globalization, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden rank first among the world’s most globalized nations (and that despite ABBA!), while Iran, Burundi, and North Korea are plotting away in impressive isolation. Cynics will contend that although the driving forces behind globalization are well understood, corporations (mostly again in rich countries) are in the driver’s seat, and thus it is hardly surprising that globalization will follow a corporate, and almost by definition, opaque agenda. Others point to the “avengers” of globalization, those that are part of a nation’s diaspora, the reverse exodus of Western-trained workers back to their country of origin (such as the legions of highly educated and very successful Indians in Silicon Valley, for example, returning home to start new businesses in India). And of course, there are those who watch Roy Rogers movies on TCM and eat lots of apple pie and claim that the United States will never fall behind, because we – and nobody else! – have the monopoly on innovation. (I’ve got something innovative for you, and it’s not the Xbox 360: here in the States we’ve got more massage therapists entering the workforce every year than computer scientists; and we’re now graduating more social workers from our colleges than engineers – of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with massage therapy or social work, quite the contrary, but you shouldn’t then wonder why someone moved your cheese all the way from Chennai, or why there are as many Indians on the list of the top-ten richest people in the world as there are Americans.)

I’ll close with a contention that may well be controversial: our conception of globalization is about as relevant today as Paul Bremer’s last lecture in the Sunni auditorium at Baghdad University on why “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Globalization has been a decidedly Western concept ever since the Greco-Roman world established trade links with the Parthians and the Han. It’s pretty evident that the Chinese and the Indians – the only two countries with more than a billion people each which together make up nearly 40% of the world’s population – find our notions of global connectivity, integration, and interdependence about as quaint as a Quaker’s chuckle. Bucket A, Bucket B, pro or con, it really doesn’t matter. You might as well try to explain to an Indian “classical” musician the difference between Mozart and Miles Davis or insist to a Chinese that opera is all about stout white men crooning Verdi. Give it another 30 years, and China will produce 40% of the world GDP, with the U.S. (15%) and the EU (5%) lagging emphatically behind. With Chinese economic hegemony and supremacy in hardware, and India’s leadership in software and an unrelenting focus on scientific and technical education, and a potential coming together of two powerful allies at the purposeful exclusion of the United States, the economic, political, and social constructs of the West have lost their relevance as far as the Dragon and the Tiger are concerned (notwithstanding the tragic reality that both countries will still have to lift hundreds of millions out of abject poverty.)

Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you or your company be thinking about establishing an offshore presence in either India or China. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has a ten-year history and successful track record of doing business in both countries and helping our clients successfully navigate some of the challenges of globalization.