Nation, World + Society

UCLA sociologist zeroes in on what motivates 'tiger moms'

A new study argues that some Chinese- and Vietnamese-American mothers see education as the only sure path to upward mobility

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Do so-called "tiger moms" — Asian-American mothers who push their children to get straight As and gain admission into elite universities — have a narrow view of success?

A new study co-authored by sociology and Asian American studies professor Min Zhou of UCLA’s College of Letters and Science argues that they do. Chinese- and Vietnamese-American "tiger moms," a term popularized by author and Yale law professor Amy Chua, see education as the only sure path to upward mobility.

"They fear that their nonwhite children may experience discrimination in ‘soft’ fields like writing, acting or art," Zhou said. "So they steer their children toward more conservative professions such as medicine, law and engineering.

"The parents think that their children would not experience bias from employers, fellow employees, peers, customers and clients because of the ‘hard’ records of merit in these fields," she added.

For the study, which was published this month in the journal Race and Social Problems and was co-authored with Jennifer Lee, UC Irvine sociology professor, researchers analyzed in-depth interviews with 82 adult children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants in the Los Angeles area.

"Tiger moms" make no qualms about their intensive efforts to groom their children through extra classes, activities and tutors, the study’s authors wrote. They pressure their kids to get straight As so they can gain admission to the nation’s elite universities and pursue graduate degrees.

One person interviewed for the study said: "A is for average, and B is an Asian fail."

Study authors referred to this narrow view of achievement as a "success frame."

They also noted that many Chinese parents come to the U.S. with a college degree so they are able to afford extra tutoring, after-school classes, SAT prep courses and summer school classes in local community colleges.

Furthermore, entrepreneurs in these immigrant communities run tutoring, college preparation courses and other educational programs at affordable prices for immigrant families, which creates even more pressure for "tiger moms" and their children to excel.

Even Vietnamese parents who came to the U.S. as refugees and with little education also shepherd their children into these programs.

"For the Chinese and Vietnamese respondents, high school was mandatory, college was an obligation, and only after earning an advanced degree does one deserve kudos," the study’s authors wrote.

For example, Caroline, a 35-year-old second-generation Chinese-American woman said that her mother believes it’s ludicrous that graduating from high school is cause for celebration.

"I was happy (at my high school graduation), but you know what? My mother was very blunt," Caroline said. "She said, ‘This is a good day, but it’s not that special.’"

"It’s a further obligation that you go to college and get a bachelor’s degree," she added. "Thereafter, if you get a Ph.D. or a master’s, that’s the big thing; that’s the icing on the cake with a cherry on top, and that’s what she values."

Even Asian-Americans in the study who achieved some degree of success but didn’t attend what their parents considered to be a top university feel that they have failed.

Study participant Maryann, a child of Vietnamese immigrants who had only obtained a sixth-grade education, graduated from a Cal State university. She’s working as a substitute teacher while she’s getting her M.A. in education.

"Despite the extraordinary intergenerational mobility that she has attained, Maryann feels that she departed from the success frame because she earned only a 3.5 GPA and graduated from a Cal State university rather than a UC," the study’s authors wrote.

Yet another Chinese-American woman who graduated from a UC school, owns a profitable contracting and design company and earned $160,000 in one year, feels unsuccessful because she doesn’t have an advanced degree.

But the study’s authors said exerting such pressure on young Asian-Americans takes a toll.

Asian-Americans who don’t fit the success frame feel like failures or underachievers, and often distance themselves from their ethnic identities, family and friends, they said. A Princeton study found that Asian-American college students at elite universities had the highest academic outcomes, but the lowest levels of self-esteem compared to white, black and Latino students.

Zhou and Lee recommend that Asian-American parents widen their view of success "so that their children do not feel so constricted in their occupational pursuits." Already, second-generation Asian-Americans are broadening their views, they said.

"Broadening the success frame is not a route to failure," the study’s authors wrote. "Instead, it may lead to uncharted and fulfilling pathways to success."

The interviews were randomly selected from the survey of Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles. The survey is a research project funded by the Russell Sage Foundation that’s produced a series of studies on Los Angeles immigrants and will culminate in a book by Zhou and Lee.

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