Defying the “Chinese” Dream of Success

Yesterday was my second day of tutoring Zoey in English, and once again, my experience with tutoring has prompted my blog post. This week, I brought a camera to our lesson with the intention to take some photos and perhaps use them in my pechakucha.  Initially, I had resolutely planned on making my pechakucha based on the pictures that I had taken of red pandas at the Shanghai Zoo.  However, once I realized that I could neither realistically spew facts nor get away with saying, “Red panda don’t care!” for six solid minutes, I decided that a pechakucha on tutoring Zoey would be much better.

When I first showed up with the camera, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be taking photos of.  I first began with taking pictures of Zoey and her family, but as always, I felt so intrusive with the camera in my hands.  Whenever I travel, I always feel hesitant about taking photos of people; I worry that they feel annoyed or uncomfortable.  So instead of asking Mr. and Mrs. Luan for permission for me to take photos of them, I explained that I wanted photos of Zoey’s artwork.

In the presence of the camera, they were eager to showcase their daughter’s work.  They pulled out a portfolio of Zoey’s drawings.  I could tell from the frayed edges and slightly yellowed pages that they had been collecting these for years.  Most of them were scenes from a famous Chinese cartoon.  But even though most of the drawings were not completely organic or imaginative and even though I am by no means an artist, I thought they were extremely well done for an eight-year-old.  The first time I had glanced at the drawings on the wall, I had assumed that they had been traced from a coloring book.  But no, Zoey’s sense of depth and placement on a page of paper are impressive.

As I took pictures of Zoey and her drawings, I realized that what struck me the most in each picture was the amount of her parents’ genuine support.  As they picked out drawings for me take pictures of, they explained that she had begun drawing lessons and attended them regularly each week.  Every Sunday, they would also take her to a local art exhibit to see different displays.  On her desk, she had another art project that she had been working on; her mother picked up and proudly said, “Zoey likes to make her own things.  We want her to do what she enjoys.”

I so rarely hear these words professed so sincerely.  I’m still amazed at how much Zoey’s parents are willing to support what my parents would have brushed away as a mere hobby.  Growing up, I would always hear my father say, “If you were ever meant to be an artist, musician, actress, writer or anything like that, people would have come looking for your talent.  But if they haven’t come yet, you might as well focus on reality.”  Needless to say, my father was never too supportive of my interests in creative writing or poetry contests.

Before yesterday’s lesson, I had assumed that Zoey’s parents would be more concerned with her academic progress rather than her modes of self-expression.  Just as I had mentioned in a past post about one-child policy, there is a lot of pressure on only children to do well in school, acquire careers and sufficiently sustain themselves and their parents…which has understandably led many parents to steer their children toward more practical careers in economics, medicine, teaching or government.  The same mentality seems to exist among American immigrant parents.  The idea that the sacrifice of migrating to a country of opportunity must amount to something commonly permeates through and motivates immigrant families and second-generation immigrants.

What really looms over them is the fear of failing to ensure a “better” future for the next future.  But a better future here is usually defined by economic security rather than emotional content.  This seems to almost be a universal understanding among mainstream society.  With such a long history with the civil exam system, Chinese culture seems to actually be very egalitarian in terms of inspiring students to work hard and later enjoy success.  And as a result, there is a burgeoning competitiveness among students and parents.  A lot of my friends back home like to joke about the stereotypical cutthroat tactics and gravity with which Chinese parents handle their children’s education.  But is it really a Chinese thing?  Or could we just as easily call it the pursuit of the Chinese dream of success?

I can’t help but wonder if Zoey’s parents will always support her passion for art, or if someday, the trips to art exhibits, the drawing lessons and the hours of drawing will simply be remnants of an ideal childhood for Zoey once she is introduced to the gao kao (college entrance exam) and the importance of getting into a good university.

But if it seems that I am villain-zing Zoey’s parents, I do think that Saturday’s observations made one thing clear:  if such a shift is hard on Zoey, I imagine it would be much harder on her parents to enforce such a shift.  With only one child, Chinese parents must incite and endure a truly difficult transition between the limited first years of enjoying their children’s youth and the emotionally and physically arduous process of convincing their children that a good life is a prosperous and economically secure one.

As I flipped through Zoey’s drawings and admired them, her mother quietly turned to me and said in Chinese, “Perhaps if she had been born in America, she could become a real artist.  But here, it would be difficult…”  I don’t know if Zoey’s parents will ever know how very similar they are to American immigrant parents.