Saturday, February 12, 2011

Snow solidarity

Our families in the Midwest and friends on the US East Coast have been socked in repeatedly this winter with blizzard after blizzard. Here, injurious skiff of bridge ice notwithstanding, we've mostly had to wrangle with chill and damp. Today's non-sticking fat flakes are about as close as we could come to what y'all have had to put up with, so we took pictures at a downtown temple to show our solidarity.

This is the same temple we visited last August, when it was so hot you could get heatstroke merely by thinking about going outside. What a difference six months can make!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Some Thoughts on Tiger Mothers

Being an educator in Asia, I feel a certain obligation to weigh in on the whole "tiger mother" thing. (If you need a crash course in Amy Chua's "tiger mother" approach to parenting, here's an editorial she wrote summarizing her book, and an analysis-plus-counterpoint from the NYT.)

Unlike a lot of Chua's detractors, I've had plenty of opportunities to observe the tiger mother in the wild. In fact, seeing as I've spent my entire (young) teaching career either in Asia or working with Asian students, I've probably dealt with more tiger mothers than I have with any other type of parent.

That said, I won't spend much time on the standard objections to Chua's parenting approach: that it makes learning (or even life in general) a joyless competition, that it stifles creativity, that it's emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive, that it stunts children's social skills. These points are valid, and fit neatly with my observations, but they've been repeated often enough that I don't need to dwell on them here--as terrifying as it is to see the US edging closer and closer to the tiger-mother's heaven (that is, a world where everything depends on high-stakes tests with an emphasis on test-taking skills and memorization).

Instead, I'd like to focus on an argument that recently appeared in Slate: namely, that tiger parenting does not exploit America's competitive advantages in harder-to-measure areas of education like creativity, problem solving, self-motivation, and innovation. In doing so, I'll place emotional and psychological questions aside for the moment and evaluate tiger mothering as a strategy for success in different contexts.

The principle of competitive advantage is an idea in economics: simply put, it suggests that countries should focus on producing the things they're best suited to produce, then should trade for everything else. People often use sports analogies to explain it: a track-and-field coach would never consider a 300-pound freshman a failure because he can't keep up with the sprinters--instead, he'd focus on developing the student's discus skills, thus making use of his "competitive advantage" in size and strength and sidestepping his "competitive disadvantage" in quickness and speed. It would be stupid to try to turn the kid into a sprinter.

This, argues Ray Fisman in the aforementioned Slate article, is exactly what the tiger mother phenomenon--and the current high-stakes standardized-testing movement--threatens to do to US education. If the US has a competitive advantage in producing creative, problem-solving, socially skilled innovators, why should we revamp our system to out-compete the Chinese in producing precision-minded (but relatively uncreative) technicians? Notice that this argument doesn't privilege one type of worker over the other--both are necessary pieces of the global economy.

The Slate article focuses on large-scale economic effects, but the idea of "competitive advantage" also applies to individual cases--and, just as it does on the level of national economies, it also argues for different strategies in different situations on a personal level, as well.

Nana and I are always telling students that, in preparing for college, they should be themselves, but be the best versions of themselves that they can be. In other words, students should find a handful of things they enjoy and are good at, then should strive to become as good at those things as they can. The stereotypical tiger mother approach ignores this sensible advice: the goal is to out-compete other children (and their mothers) in the same fields (math, science, music, tests, award-collecting). The thing is, there are kids out there who are simply super-geniuses in those fields, and thanks to stereotypical tiger-mother parenting, there is also a legion of second-rate sub-geniuses in those fields. Trust me, I know people who work in college admissions, and Asian students who are pretty good at math and music and not much else are so common that they've become a cautionary tale against admitting students simply on the basis of high test scores.

The real strategy for Asian students in English-language schools should be the exact opposite: they should sell out for language and communication skills, since they're in a unique position to finish high school fluent or near-fluent in two or three languages. Nana and I often work hard to convince students here who are interested and skilled in the humanities to go for it. College freshmen who can do original research in English, Japanese, and Korean or Chinese? They'll rule the world!

But by the tiger mother paradigm, those students are failures: they should have spent more time studying for the SAT, or practicing the piano. That, for me, is the real tragedy of tiger mothering--that despite all the abuse and misery, for many students, it's simply poor strategy. Too often, tiger mothers try to turn linemen into quarterbacks, instead of just letting them be the best linemen they can be.

(Note: Nana says she's going to weigh in with her own set of objections to tiger mothering soon.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Commuting casualty

Justin and I have an obnoxiously easy commute. It takes us maybe five minutes to get to school on bikes, on a route with essentially no traffic and a great view. We go over the bridge, with a mountain range downriver to the right and the ocean to the left, and often catch a glimpse of the cranes from the nearby sanctuary hanging out in the river. Then it's along the river, heavily populated by little dogs in stupid outfits, up the hill, down the hill, and we're done. Meanwhile, my sister still has flashbacks from commuting in Atlanta.

The only downside of my commute? Last week, we had a tiny skiff of snow. The bridge itself wasn't icy, but the ramp down from it was. I braked, I failed, I bit it. Here is the result:

Apologies for the leg hair. I promise the part at the lower right is a leg warmer.

Looking back on it, a five-colored kneecap was a small price to pay. As mentioned, I was on the bridge ramp, and when your bike wipes out, so does everything in your bike basket, including cell phone, house and classroom keys, wallet with foreigner card, and precious tuna sandwich. In a stroke of inexplicable luck, everything I was carrying stayed on the ramp instead of flying over or through the railings and into the river, where Justin would have had to fish them out. (Of course Justin - hey, I just fell off a bike here, people).

Moral of the story: Muppet Family Christmas was right. "Watch out for the icy patch!"

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Justin and Nana Eat Weird Stuff For Your Entertainment: Lights, Streams, and Maple?

At parent-teacher conferences, a student gave me a gift box from Josuian, and I completely regret that I did not photograph the box in its original form before unpacking, because it was beautiful. Packaging in Japan is a big deal, sometimes to the point of hilarity. A mundane box of crackers here can be like one of those prank birthday party gifts that starts out the size of a suitcase and ends up containing a pair of stud earrings. Aesthetic, yes. Ecologically friendly, not so much.

First item in the box: 詩, Kyoukusui no uta, translated by Google Translate as "Poetry meandering stream." I can't do much better, except that it's probably the other way around: "The Meandering Stream's Poetry."

(See what I mean about the packaging?)

Basically, it's a sweet gelatin with a hint of plum. The texture is not as scary as it looks - it melts on your tongue. Sort of like a lighter, flakier Jell-O, without the synthetic aftertaste. Justin totally dug it.
Next, "天光", tennou kou. "Tennou light," according to Google; with my mad Chinese character recollection skillz, I produce "Light of the Heavenly King/King of Heaven." Due to the lantern-shaped packaging?

Red bean paste around real roasted chestnut.
I looooove roasted chestnut. If I were a Heavenly King, I would definitely eat these. Well, actually, the red bean paste wasn't amazing, so I'd probably just eat the chestnuts, and as far as I'm concerned they can hold the packaging, too. I am always looking for ways to save Heavenly Taxpayer money.

[Update: "Tenno" is the term for the Japanese emperor. Live and learn!]

Finally, 紫もち or "Tsukushi mochi," unhelpfully translated by Google as "Tsukushi rice Aoyagi."
Also more packaging.
Let's see what I can do for you on the name. "Mochi" is a rice cake. This particular character pronounced "shi" means "violet" if you read it by itself. Tsuku, on the other hand... I had to try 3 different online dictionaries to even get a definition. This one tells me it's an old musical instrument. On the other hand, if we read them as one word "Tsukushi," Wikipedia turns up "Tsukushi" as an archaic name for Kyushu, the island we now live on. I have also turned up English web sites showing "Tsukushigata" as the name for the dark purple Japanese maple, but I haven't been able to find any kanji (characters) to confirm that it would be the "right" Tsukushi. (Japanese has lots of homophones - words with the same pronunciation but completely different meanings, reflected in the characters the way we show it by writing "pear" and "pair").
After eating, though, I am leaning towards the "maple" translation as the correct one. That little packet in the photo above contains maple syrup, to be drizzled like so according to the pamphlet that came in the candy box:

The other little packet contained a toothpick-type skewer - mochi are normally finger foods but this one would clearly gunk up your fingers. As for the taste? It's a weird concept but it kind of works.
In any case, it beats an American "apple for the teacher!"