• Reducing Asian migrants’ behaviour to explanations such as ‘It’s just their culture’ is not only “simplistic but also dangerous,” Christina Cho says. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Fear of being locked out from opportunity lies behind the ‘pushy’ Asian mum cliché – not some kind of innate cultural difference.
By
Sharon Verghis

18 Jun 2020 - 11:55 AM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2020 - 6:01 PM

“It’s just their culture.” To many Australian parents, it’s an easy explanation for the phenomenon of the Asian tiger parent and their dragon offspring.

Cultural differences between East and West lie behind the dramatic new paradigm shift in Australian education, they believe: from the cutthroat competition for entry into superstar selective schools to the rise of a private tutoring industry estimated to be now worth $1.25 billion, from the explosion of high-stakes testing and cram schools for primary students to the domination of Asian names in the HSC and VCE lists.

The Asian migrant juggernaut has fundamentally transformed Australian classrooms over the last twenty years.

In both NSW and Victoria, as academic Christina Ho details in her new book, Aspiration and Anxiety: Asian Migrants and Australian Schooling, approximately five per cent of residents are of Chinese ancestry but students with Chinese surnames comprised nearly a quarter of the ‘all round achievers’ in NSW’s High School Certificate according to 2016 figures.

Children of Asian migrants, Ho writes, are “disproportionately successful in education in Australia, and in other countries such as the US, Canada and UK."

Children of Asian migrants, Ho writes, are “disproportionately successful in education in Australia, and in other countries such as the US, Canada and UK. They outperform others in standardised tests, are over-represented in high-performing schools and classes, and have higher rates of admission to university.”

Cultural difference must explain the Asian education miracle – what else could it be? 

Not so fast, says Ho, Associate Professor of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Technology. 

Reducing Asian migrants’ behaviour to explanations such as ‘It’s just their culture’ is not only “simplistic but also dangerous,” she says.

Public debate focusing solely on cultural reasons can end up stifling much needed open discussion – especially around issues with a sensitive racial context.

Yes, culture plays a large role in the outsized academic footprint of Asian migrants, particularly from East Asia, says Ho – you only have to look to the ancient traditions of Confucianism with its emphasis on obeying authority, discipline and hard work.

But as she explores in her new book, it presents a misleading picture of the Asian experience, discounting everything from the social stigma faced by Asian children who don’t fit the model minority stereotype, to the role played by social class, economics and government policy in driving behaviour and outcomes.

The twin forces of aspiration and anxiety interact to give rise to the tiger parent, Ho says – one cannot exist without the other.

The twin forces of aspiration and anxiety interact to give rise to the tiger parent, Ho says – one cannot exist without the other.

With no cultural capital – this includes local knowledge, contacts and social networks - they are driven by ‘aspirational capital’, the desire for upward social mobility based on children’s education and career.

This is what drives the intensive, marks-at-all-costs tiger parenting culture that so many Anglo-Australian parents are uneasy with, Ho says.

Fear of being locked out from opportunity lies behind the ‘pushy’ Asian mum cliché – not some kind of innate cultural difference. And this fear is not misplaced: research points to the reality of the bamboo ceiling and widespread workplace discrimination, as research on Asian surnames in job applications has shown.

The culture argument also fails to take into account the key role of government policy, particularly in terms of neoliberal reforms in education and immigration, in creating the very conditions in our schools fuelling growing racial resentment about tiger parenting.

Over the last 20 years, successive Australian governments have prioritised skilled migrants over family reunion migrants and refugees. At the same time, neoliberal education reforms promoting school choice has created a hierarchical and competitive education marketplace with Australia now having one of the most segmented educational systems in the world, Ho says.

Over the last 20 years, successive Australian governments have prioritised skilled migrants over family reunion migrants and refugees.

In many ways, the Asian tiger parent is the “perfect neoliberal citizen: aspirational, enterprising, self-sufficient and competitive.”

If their offspring happen to be flourishing in this hypercompetitive education culture, why blame them and not the government policies that have engineered exactly the kind of educational system that so many Australian parents are anxious about today, Ho asks?

If we only choose to look through the cultural lens, we overlook the harder questions that need to be asked: what sort of society do we want, what do we need to change about our education and immigration systems, what values do we want to  cultivate in our communities?

Ho says everything should be up for discussion: the merits of a more egalitarian immigration system that values the contributions of refugees as much as cashed-up skilled migrants; the downsides of having such a highly segregated school system with its resulting silos of race and class; the narrowness of existing selection tests;  whether we need selective schools at all  - why can’t gifted children, academic or otherwise, be catered for in mainstream schools?

As an Asian-Australian herself, she’s well aware she can address sensitive issues head on. She wants that same privilege extended to Anglo-Australians so they, too, can interrogate their concerns without fear of being accused of racism.

“I think if you get it away from just about culture and start thinking about it in terms of society and government policy - something we can change - it’s no longer about this intractable clash of cultures."

“I think if you get it away from just about culture and start thinking about it in terms of society and government policy - something we can change - it’s no longer about this intractable clash of cultures.

“People are far less hesitant about having a full discussion about policy because there’s not this sensitivity about criticising someone’s race or culture. In terms of opening up debate, it’s a much more productive way to go.”

Sharon Verghis is a freelance writer. You can find out more about Christina Ho's Aspiration & Anxiety here

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