Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Asian kids, Jewish education

Having just spent a couple of weeks doing teaching placement at a Jewish school, I by chance happened to meet the father of one of the students. Nothing unusual there, except that he was Asian - as far as I could tell, an immigrant from China - and as far as I could tell, not one of the Chosen People. His son was one of a couple of students of apparent Chinese background who I had noticed at this school.
I asked this parent, in as tactful a way as possible, about the Jewish connection. There was none, he happily said, but he figured that it was a good school and that was good enough for him. His son, as far as I could tell, is content and accepted as the rare Asian face amongst a student body that is overwhelmingly made up of Ashkenazi Jews. The school is fairly secular, but is nonetheless very proud of its Jewishness and connections to Israel; it's culturally rather than religiously Jewish.

In any case, it's still an unusual choice for a non-Jewish Chinese student. Yet my Hong Kong-born friend Helen did her high schooling at a Jewish school in Melbourne as well. She was the only Asian student there. Like the Chinese parent I met recently, Helen's parents presumably figured that the Jewish emphasis on high academic achievement bode well for their daughter.

I've spent time in a lot of schools, and come across Hindu and Sikh students in Christian schools, which I assume is due to those schools being the best in a particular district.

I guess it's not altogether surprising, really. Certain Asian cultures are obsessed with their children's academic achievements. So some Asian parents have reasoned that having their child immersed in someone else's religion or culture is a small price to pay for a top-class education. Indeed, they may even regard the exposure to a different religious tradition as beneficial to that education.

So there are some shared values between Jews and Asians in regard to the primacy of education. But do they value the same type of education?

Coincidentally, BigWOWO has a good post up about Jewish culture valuing the humanities as a core aspect of education in a way that Asians typically do not. I happen to agree. At the Jewish school I observed a explicit push in the curriculum to teach students to think critically and philosophically from a very early age. I think it's fantastic.

Asian parenting tends to have a different focus though. Amy Chua, who put Chinese-style parenting (or at least a version of it) in the headlines with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, makes it quite clear in the opening pages what the priorities are in her children's education. Maths is big. Piano and/or violin are essential. Drama and sport, not so much. Other instruments, not so much. Indeed, I had to do a double take the first time I met a young woman of Chinese background who had not learned either piano or violin, but instead was learning to play the djembe. You don't see many Chinese parents clamoring for their kids to learn African drums. Chua ironically has a Jewish husband, and daughters who are raised to see themselves as Jewish, yet her approach to education is thoroughly Chinese.

As someone whose circle of friends is dominated by South and East Asians, it almost goes without saying that virtually everyone I hang with either has a university degree or is studying for it, and got grades in high school that put me to shame.

But particularly among East Asians, I notice plenty of business-brains and math-brains and IT-brains, but very few humanities-brains. Which is fine; it's not hard to see the greater perks of a degree in medicine or pharmacy as opposed to say, a Masters in philosophy. But I fear that Asian culture is so obsessed with churning out children who grow up to have only traditionally-valued careers, that we will lose something in the way of imagination and innovation. Or even just the ability to be interesting in conversation.

As is pointed out in BigWOWO's article, and returning to the theme with which I began this one, there is perhaps something Asians can learn from the Jewish approach to education. In the US, ethnic Indians, Japanese and Jews are amongst the very highest-performing groups in terms of wealth and education, yet notably Jews have achieved their success in a broader range of fields, from hard sciences to the entertainment industry. To my mind, that suggests that their community is maximising the diverse range of talents contained within it, rather than trying to turn everyone into a doctor.

See also:

Gina Yashere - The Pushy Nigerian Mum

Goodness Gracious Me - Typical Asian Parents


  1. rather than trying to turn everyone into a doctor.

    Haha, if only you knew... Google "Jewish mother".

  2. Pretty disgusting


  3. Thanks, ES! I linked your blog post in the main part of my post.

    You wrote: "In the US, ethnic Indians, Japanese and Jews are amongst the very highest-performing groups in terms of wealth and education, yet notably Jews have achieved their success in a broader range of fields, from hard sciences to the entertainment industry. "

    I totally agree! Plus, the Jews as a group know how to innovate. Founding something like Facebook or Google (both founded by Jews) takes computer smarts and programming ability, but it also takes humanities-style thinking to consider how people think and could use the product. Humanities!!! :)

  4. Is this the new inferiority complex of what Jewish-washed Asians?

  5. I would like to put you all on the right track when it comes to talking about Asian parenting.

    There no one way of parenting and each Asian family is different.

  6. @ Anon:
    Where is the inferiority complex?
    If some people do something well, others should learn from it. Admitting that you can learn from someone else is not inferiority. I have no reason to disrespect any parent who tries to do what's best for their child's education.

    @ Tek:
    What you say is obvious. But for the sake of coherency, I have to generalise occasionally. I assume that my readers are savvy enough to know that if I say "Asian", I'm not referring to every single Asian person or family or culture.

  7. Really interesting post. Contrary to how the "Chinese"/Asian way is pitted against the Western/American/Jewish way in Tiger Mother, and its reaction pieces, such as Ayelet Waldman's, Asian and Jewish cultures seem to have much in common, IMHO. Academics are highly valued in most of the Jewish families I've known, but I would agree that the emphasis is broader - with more value on Humanities and public interest than the stereotypical Asian immigrant. Having said that, I'll also add that I was raised by an Asian immigrant dad who highly valued critical thinking and political involvement... so there!

  8. @ HapaMama:

    Likewise, my Asian parent is has a PhD in Anthropology, so I was always gonna get a strong dose of humanities growing up.

    In addition, I'm not sure that Indonesians (like my mother) have quite the same level of cultural drive towards education as say, Indians or Chinese.

  9. We are a jewish family with three boys - they go to jewish school but our emphasis is on the humantiies - language - they only speak chinese in the house! (intensive language tutors - wanted them to learn something that would be a real challenge.)

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