A Talk with an Asian Dad

Summer enrichment ended two weeks ago. I enjoyed my classes as always, although the commute, now that I’ve moved, was brutal. Not sure I’ll take it on next summer, but that’s a while away.

On the last Monday Nick asked me if I’d speak to his dad.

“I’m happy to, but you have to run it by the director.”

At Kaplan, parent management is turned over to the tutor. Not so here, or at other hagwons I’ve known of. At first, I assumed the company just didn’t want parents trying to privatize the tutor and cut out the middleman. Until six years ago, when a parent whose child I was tutoring in APUSH got my number somehow and called me fourteen times, leaving agonizingly long messages giving her schedule to ask when I could meet, asking over and over again if I could meet more frequently, telling me she’d call at x o’clock, then calling up to cancel the scheduled call, asking for a report on progress each day, wondering idly if I could meet directly with them but assuring me she couldn’t afford high fees—all during a 3-day period after I’d met with her daughter for the first time. I told my boss, he threatened to fire the parent, I didn’t get any more calls.

Run all parent contact by the director. This is a rule I follow.

So after class the next day I sat down with Nick and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman.

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”


“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests—which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year—he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60–even 65–then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”


On our last day, I showed The Sixth Sense, which went over very big.

“Okay, I want you to heed me well on this. You must never tell anyone the ending.”

“You mean that he’s a….”

“STOP! Yes. That’s what I mean. Some movies—and it’s a small list—have surprises that take you out of the conventional, that take the story in a direction you never dreamed of anticipating. Tell people and you’ve robbed them. Never tell.”

“It’s like giving away the ending?”

“Worse. So, kids, we’re at the end. I’ve loved working with you. Do your best to take away the lessons from the summer. Speak up! Don’t just sit like a lump. Have ideas. Ask yourself what you think. Keep aware of what’s going on in the world. Remember that a 4.0 GPA has no bearing on whether you’re an interesting companion or a valuable ally in a bar fight.”

“But my parents…” Lincoln starts.

“Ahahah. Stop. I’m not telling you to disobey your parents. But your decisions, ultimately, are your own.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“You’re right. But I can give you a strategy, provided you promise never to say it came from me.”

“Get caught cheating?”

I look around for something to throw. “That’s not even funny. DO NOT CHEAT. I know you have pressures and it feels like the easiest way to have a life and keep your parents off your back.”

Way, way too many nods.

“Don’t. I mean it. Never mind the morality, never mind how deeply wrong it is. Every time you cheat to get that better grade, you are adding to the pressure you already feel.”

Wide eyes.

“Anyway. Here is a strategy. First, you have to make an appointment with the counsellor at your school. The white counsellor.”

“But my mom always tells me to go to the Asian counsellor.”

“Yes, I know. For this, you need a white counsellor. Then you prepare. Irene, you take in your notebook, and have it open to all sorts of dark, depressing pictures. Ideally, one with you sitting in a corner, distraught. The rest of you don’t have that out, but make yourself look sad, and exhausted.”

“I am exhausted.” from Ace.

“And if I get a B, I’ll be really sad,” said Ben.

“So it should be easy. Then you tell the counsellor how much pressure you feel, how you feel like you can’t ever screw up, that your parents will be sooooooo disappointed if you ever don’t get an A, that you sometimes can’t sleep thinking about how much they expect, and how bad you are for letting them down, by not being perfect. The counsellor will want to contact your parents. You look horrified at first, say they’ll be angry. The counsellor will back off, and then try again. You reluctantly agree. The resulting meeting will be something your parents will not want to repeat. They will either soften their behavior, or take you back to China, Korea, India, wherever, so they don’t have to deal with these crazy soft white people.”

They’re all howling with laughter by this point.

“Because remember boys and girls, in white people world, Asian parenting styles shock and appall. If you went to a white therapist, that therapist would tell your parents to stop.”

“Oh, god, that makes me laugh just thinking about their faces.” Irene says. “I’d never do it, of course.”

“But at least I can think I have a choice,” from Ellen.

“Exactly. Which is my point. Choose to become genuinely well-educated and thoughtful people. Don’t be satisfied with a report card that lies about you. Now, get out of here. Enjoy the dregs of summer.”

Nick stayed behind.

“My dad is changing the spreadsheet.”


“He has a spreadsheet with my classes through senior year.”


“I’m taking honors English and history this year, instead of a second independent studies project. Then he’s moving the pretty easy biotech class to junior year, and AP Chem to senior year. And I’m going to take a programming course during the summer, rather than during school. That way I’ll be able to focus on AP English and US History as well as BC Calc next year.”

“How’s it feel?”

“Really good.” His beam matched mine. “I’m going to try and talk him down to AB Calc, even. Thanks for helping out.”

One dad at a time.


About educationrealist

39 responses to “A Talk with an Asian Dad

  • Jim

    Very Interesting. But keep in mind that the differences between whites and East Asians say are not just cultural but also genetic. Also keep in mind that although many aspects of East Asian culture and behavior may seem strange and even repulsive to whites, East Asians have generally been very successful over the last 4,000 years of human history.

    • educationrealist

      Yes, because none of these thoughts ever occurred to me before.

    • Sisyphean

      Yes this is the interesting question in my mind as well. These kids like all kids have feelings and being a non Asian teacher watching them suffer (while getting all A’s) must be trying. It seems natural that ER would want to impose well rounded values on these folks because it’s such a nice thing to do. It presumes of course that those values are the best for human well being but a lot of people are guilty of that. Certainly in the West coast being able to demonstrate creativity is a huge deal so maybe this is the best way. Only time will tell.

      • educationrealist

        If you think “don’t cheat” or “think for yourself” are imposing inappropriate cultural values, then I’m not sure what to tell you.

      • Sisyphean

        That’s a bit of a reductive view of my comments I think. I disagree with cheating because I, like you, value hard work for its own sake. If someone values a credential more than they value growth, than they’ll be disappointed in the long run by a strategy that values growth over credentials, which is what you’re selling them here. The fact that you need to package your growth strategy in terms of how the growth is an advantage for gaining credentials ought to be a pointer that you’re pulling a fast one.

        I’d also like to stress that I’m not saying that it’s universally bad that you’re doing this, only that you should recognize 1) I am imposing my values on these kids and 2) It’s possible all the consequences won’t be for their betterment (subjective, obviously.)

      • educationrealist

        I’m sorry, but the idea that a teacher telling students not to cheat is an imposition of values is utterly absurd. And I don’t value hard work for its own sake.

      • Sisyphean

        Where exactly did I say I had a problem with you telling them not to cheat? Feel free to do so. You seem inordinately interested in branding me a lover of cheating I am most definitely not. I’m sure you’re also aware that I don’t need to be referring to the coal mines when I speak of hard work.

      • educationrealist

        No, I don’t think you are a lover of cheaters. I think you are a relativist. I absolutely think there are times when teachers impose values on kids. For example, I think the thing people would more typically object to is my advice to get the parents targeted by the counsellors. But I try to make it clear that I am talking about cultural values, not something they must do, and it’s their choice. I still think some people would have difficulty with what I did–and I’m fine with that, so long as they understand that I wasn’t imposing a value system on them, rather making them aware of others, so that they had choices.

        But on cheating? That’s nuts. As a teacher, you do NOT say, it’s your choice to cheat. You also don’t tell kids that it’s their choice to take steroids, or to beat others to a pulp. Those aren’t values that are debatable.

      • Sisyphean

        If I’m a relativist, I’m a half-assed one. I’m not saying that all imposition of values is bad only that it can be short lived or have unintended consequences. I wonder what those unintended consequences might be.

        I have no issue with your tactics involving guidance. My guidance counselor was a complete waste of time, so I figure finding any good use for them is a work of genius.

        And again, yes, it would be foolish to condone cheating, especially as someone whose culture is founded on social trust. However it is the kids’ choice to cheat, to take steroids, to have sex, to be bullies. Kids make those choices daily, hell adults do. Personally I’d prefer a frank discussion of the merits (like short term success) and costs (dependence, risk of being caught, etc.) of cheating, but that’s what I always wanted from my teachers, more information and fewer assertions. Maybe that’s just me though.

      • educationrealist

        I think the short-term success aspect is a given. And honestly, I can’t get behind people like you who think that it’s acceptable for kids to consider something immoral purely from an outcomes standpoint.

      • Sisyphean

        Not purely, but I don’t exclude any perspective because someone would find it immoral. I don’t believe in the see no evil, hear no evil, approach. If that means I’d be perceived as a poor teacher, I’m ok with that.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I am tempted to cynically say no culture *really* values “think for yourself.

        Instead, I will pull up a cynical Mark Twain quote, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

      • educationrealist


        In fairness to me, I was addressing a specific known problem–that they all tend not to think or have opinions *at all*.

        In short, I’m not buying into the cultural hegemony charge, dammit.

  • retired

    Yes they’ve been very successful over the past 4000 years. That’s why us white losers are leaving our failed country by the millions to move to Asia where we can get a decent education and make our fortune in Asian businesses. Plus, we can have all the political and personal freedom that we’ve been denied these last 238 years in the oppressive west, you fool. I asked a 1st gen Chinese how many 10’s of millions Mao killed. He said no one talks about it because it’s too tragic. (Answer: 60 to 80 MILLION, not counting the 236 MILLION abortions)
    That’s why Asians kids are so miserable with their 4.2 gpa’s and their 2400 SAT’s

  • retired

    Never mind my rant at “Jim” A great article.
    I have a step-nephew that could have been in your hagwon.
    Would have been more fun to tell the story with true tiger mom, like my step-sister.

    • educationrealist

      You know, all the tiger moms I personally know are quite self-deprecating about their ferocity. But I have pretty good luck with Indian dads. They are more entrepreneurial, less “it’s all about the transcript”.

      • vijay

        More on the above; there needs to be a decomposition of the word “Asian”; there is nothing in common between Indians, Chinese and Japanese and Koreans, and Filipinos and Vietnamese. As Tolstoy noted, each of these ethnic family is unhappy in its own way.

        I would also tone down the Indians being entrepreneurial tack; simply, the Indian system (education, government, health care etc) has failed in such a big way that it has forced people to become independent of the government in ll walks of life and become “entrepreneurial”.

        Having said all this, the Asian Parent looks much better than the other extreme of “no parent”.

      • educationrealist

        I am well aware of that difference (note the mention of China, Korea, India), however, from a white perspective, the demands look almost identical. Differences: Indians are more amenable to thinking like this, and men more than women. I would not have been as successful with most Chinese moms I’ve met.

        There isn’t as much “no parents” as you’d think. That said, of course, these are caring loving parents.

  • Jim

    retired – Please don’t be silly. I’m not saying that whites do not have a lot of civilizational accomplishments. It’s true that in general there has probably been more personal freedom in the West than in East Asia but of course there have been plenty of oppressive regimes in the West. And leaders like Hitler or Stalin were not exactly averse to horrific violence.

    It’s not a question of mindless cheerleading on the behalf of East Asian cultures vs. Western cultures. But East Asian cultures on the whole have been pretty impressive over the last 4,000 years. The bronze work of the Sung dynasty for example is generally considered superior even to that of Mycenae. By about 500 AD the Chinese had over 1200 miles of internal water canals. Recognizing the strengths of East Asian cultures is not a denigration of white cultures. You are reacting to my comments in a childish way.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Dare I say it? An inspiring story.

  • Miss Minnie


    As a Chinese immigrant and a future mom, how, then, should I prepare my kids to meet the demands of a racially charged job market? If Asian-style cramming is so bad, how, then, should I prepare my kids so that they can gain the extra 200 SAT points necessary to get into decent colleges?

    Even if my child were “creative”, so to speak, they wouldn’t get an edge. Few American employers expect creativity from the Chinese. They see a Chinese (or Indian) face, they expect a certain attention to detail, mathematical acumen, and technical skill set – and, from my experience, they don’t differentiate US-born people from the rest of us.

    I had some friends who took nontraditional majors in college, like fashion and English. They definitely couldn’t get jobs with these majors, whereas the rest of us could. Non-Asians who majored in lib. arts, however, had a higher rate of employment. Again, this is probably due to employers’ expectations of various races.

    From my perspective, cramming is the best adaptive strategy for people in our social position. This is especially true here on the East Coast, where the main races in society are black and white. We don’t have a social or political safety net here, and lib. arts Asians often end up working in the same laundromats and nail salons as their forbears.

    • educationrealist

      That’s an interesting point of view, but it’s not borne out in my experience. Is there any evidence of discrimination against Asians in the arts?

      And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take math and science.

      • Mark Roulo

        Miss Minnie: “I had some friends who took nontraditional majors in college, like fashion and English. They definitely couldn’t get jobs with these majors, whereas the rest of us could.”
        EducationRealist: “Is there any evidence of discrimination against Asians in the arts?”

        I read Miss Minnie’s comment as: “I had some friends who majored in fashion and English. They couldn’t get jobs. Those of us (Asians) who got STEM degrees could (get jobs).”

      • educationrealist

        But then she says non-Asians in fashion and English did get jobs.

      • Mark Roulo

        “But then she says non-Asians in fashion and English did get jobs.”

        Not quite. The comparison group was “Non-Asians who majored in lib. arts” so the non-STEM majors might not be the same. But … yeah … I think your read on the intent of the comment is better than mine.

    • Mark Roulo

      “As a Chinese immigrant and a future mom, how, then, should I prepare my kids to meet the demands of a racially charged job market? If Asian-style cramming is so bad, how, then, should I prepare my kids so that they can gain the extra 200 SAT points necessary to get into decent colleges?

      Even if my child were ‘creative’, so to speak, they wouldn’t get an edge. Few American employers expect creativity from the Chinese.”

      The cost (I won’t say “problem”) to cramming is that the time spent solely to improve a test score is time that is unavailable to spend on other activities. Two of those activities include (a) actually learning material [but not optimizing for a high test score], and (b) enjoying being a kid.

      I don’t have an answer to your question of how to make up the 200 points (I assume, of SAT score), but I have a few rambling comments and a question.

      Comment #1: You are following the same strategy that most other Chinese and Chinese-Americans are pursuing … get very high test scores. Which means that, almost by definition, you’ll be stacked with those other Chinese on a very one dimensional line. If your kid can’t beat the *other* Chinese kids (and Korean kids and Indian kids), your kid won’t look super interesting to the colleges in question. They’ll already *have* their desired number of one-dimensional, high scoring Asians. They’ll be trying to fill the incoming class with other stuff. One thing to think about is how your kid might be able to stand out from all the other Asian kids by appearing different instead of just better along one metric.

      Comment #2: It will help if you quantify the total number of slots at the schools you find acceptable. If anything other than HYP is a disaster, then you should panic early 🙂 If University of Texas, Austin is acceptable, then there are closer to 100,000 slots available (I’m using USNWR rankings here … not great, but probably okay for these purposes).

      Comment #3: It might also help to be clear on what you (or your child) wants out of college: education, credential, job-training, or what. I like to ask this, “Given a choice between a *degree* from the college of your choice, but *no* education from there *OR* and education from there, but no degree, which would you choose?” I’m not suggesting a right or wrong answer, but it helps to be clear on what you are trying to achieve.

      Comment #4: “Creative” is overrated, but, to quote a former co-worker of mine, you still “don’t want to be a lightbulb.” Coming across as interchangeable with lots of other folks isn’t a winning strategy, either (though it can work okay to get you in the door … especially if you are a talented and hard-working light bulb). The more senior folks I see (including myself, he mentioned immodestly) do have a tendency to do one thing that most folks don’t seem to do: We have learned to “change the question.” *This* can be a very valuable skill (including in a technical track … that’s where I hang out). This isn’t the same thing as creative, but it is also very different from learning how to be a hard-working, talented, grind-it-out person. What I don’t know is whether it can be *taught* or not. I’m quite sure that if it can be taught, cramming isn’t the way to teach it.

      Comment #5: “From my perspective, cramming is the best adaptive strategy for people in our social position.” This might be true, but the Asians I work with (from Asia!) also grew up going to cram schools. This doesn’t appear to be something Asians do in America as a response to America, but a strategy that is in place from the country of genetic origin.

      Best of luck to you and your kid 🙂

    • Ruth

      Hi Minnie,

      I’m very late to the party in responding to this, but as another Asian woman in America I often see a false dichotomy being established when many other Asians speak about college admissions – the rationale being that Asian students too often fall into the “nerdy STEM robot” stereotype and so they should study more artsy, “creative” subjects to stand out. I personally don’t believe it has anything to do with STEM vs. arts subjects themselves, and has much more to do with underlying intangible characteristics such as motivation, curiosity, self-reflection, and openness to new ideas. What I perceive as the real problem is that far too many Asian students do extremely well and have very good numbers, but their achievements and excellence come from extrinsic factors such as wanting to please their parents, rather than a genuine desire to learn about the subjects and in turn, perhaps something about themselves as well.

      Whether your child is interested in STEM or the arts, by all means encourage them to pursue their interests – but at the same time, it is also critical to foster a spirit of inquiry and be genuinely interested in what they think. For example, questions such as “Why do you think that is?”, “What do you think about that?”, “How does that make you feel?” are all very important and I see them being asked far less often on average in Asian households.

  • retired

    Hey Minnie
    Why don’t you look beyond the tiger mom paradigm?
    Quit your job when you have a child and raise her yourself. Take her to the park, the swimming pool. Let her play soccer. Teach her to read for fun. Go to the movies. Go somewhere else besides your mom’s house for vacation. Make some 洋鬼子 friends and watch how they raise their kids. Let her dream a little and don’t tell her she can’t do that because it won’t pay well. Maybe she’ll grow up and be happy and fulfilled, unlike many asians i know.
    My nephews are graduating with a business degrees and got very good paying jobs with good companies. My high school kid does volunteer work for an organization that he loves. He is leaning to fly because he wants to.
    This is not China, this is America. You are free to dream and be an American.

  • Miss Minnie

    Here’s the deal. I do have American (black, white and Hispanic) friends who are moms. And yes, the comparison group was Asians vs. non-Asians in the liberal arts vs. STEM. Asians have a much harder time getting lib. arts type jobs than non-Asians, even if they act the same. It’s not just race, but the particular social network someone is in.

    What I’m talking about is the fact that Chinese kids in China *do* major in liberal arts, literature and stuff like that. There are rappers in China. There’s a cosplay (like Trekkies here) scene in China. Chinese people join bands. Indian heavy metal is a thing. School may be stricter but that does exist. They do get liberal arts types jobs there, because they are in particular social networks that allow it.

    But in the US, Chinese and other Asians are *racially* viewed as belonging in certain careers and certain social scenes. This affects what kinds of jobs they get accepted to when they enter the job market. And this probably shapes what they major in.

    When I was in college (in the US) someone told me that Asian was the antithesis of Punk Rock. I was puzzled by this of course. But soon it hit me – the position of a specific community is heavily shaped by the opportunities they’re allowed to have. That’s all I’m saying.

    • educationrealist

      I do understand what you’re saying. What I’m asking is if you have data showing that employers don’t hire Asians with liberal arts degrees.

      • Miss Minnie

        I don’t have stats showing disproportionate unemployment by race and degree, this is anecdotal. Just my personal experience.

        But there is a lot of evidence showing that compared to whites, Asians have higher employment with the same level of education. And compared to blacks, whites and Hispanics, Asians have more long-term unemployment.


  • lil

    So you’re no dewey eyed dreamer, you mock most teacher movies bit you still cast yourself as the white savior for those poor overworked Asian kids

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