Asian parents teach far more than just "rote memorization"

June 10, 2015

A few weeks ago, I read this piece about Eddie Huang and his complicated relationship with the TV show inspired by his memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, and wanted to pick at something tossed into the article that’s a big pet peeve of mine:
Today the means that many Asian-Americans apply to achieve academic success (a narrow emphasis on rote memorization and test preparation) could not be more out of step with the attitudes and practices of the socially liberal elite that Asians aspire to join.

There are a couple reasons this irritates me:
  1. “Rote memorization” is always referenced with a hint of derision, implying certain “better” ways of learning, but in fact, rote memorization is a necessary and useful tool in the learning process.
  2. Rote memorization is frequently implied as the sole reason Asian-American kids are so successful in the American school system, and why Asian kids do well on the international tests around math/science/etc.

I really try not to be someone that comes off as looking for things to be slighted by; I think a lot of microaggressions, while definitely real things, might be better ascribed to thoughtlessness and callousness rather than maliciousness. But, the stereotype that Asian kids are good at school because they’re mindless drones memorizing the answers really gets under my skin. I find it distasteful at best, and racist at worst, like it’s a way for non-Asians to pat themselves on the back and reassure themselves that their kids actually are still smarter, because they “let” their kids be more creative, while those Asian parents are stifling it all out of their kids.

Re: #1, sometimes drilling the same concepts over and over is in fact the most efficient tactic for learning something. I have fond memories of my mom making me practice the times table while driving around from one activity to another. Her intent was that those calculations could become automatic so I could use them quickly and get more math practice done in a shorter amount of time, even if I didn’t fully wrap my mind around why you want to multiply things in the first place. It was good enough for a time to just understand that you would have to. Her standard was for everything up to the 9s to be automatic and ideally I would get most of the 11s and 12s, but that could be a stretch goal for an American third grader. None of this messing around with boxes and such like they do in Common Core.

This is how effective methods of teaching programming can work too, like the first few chapters of Learn Python the Hard Way. When there’s so much new stuff being thrown at you, sometimes the best way is just to be willing to accept and take things for granted. If you stop to examine every single little piece, you won’t get somewhere fast enough to keep going with the learning. Learning to compartmentalize what you don’t understand yet is a very useful skill.

So, that’s #1. For #2, yes, a lot of Asian parents have their kids parrot answers. In our town, my mom once heard of a family where the dad went and somehow bought years and years worth of the problems posed during the math league challenges. He then had his daughter do all of them, essentially memorizing the answers in advance, since those questions don’t change that much.

But I think more importantly than that in Asian parenting culture is the emphasis on schoolwork as important and your job as the kid. Your contribution to the family unit is to do well in school, since for better or worse, the ENTIRE FAMILY is oriented towards clearing barriers to the kids doing better at school. My sister and I barely had to do any chores, we always had a quiet place to do homework, and if we needed something for school like getting to the library, my parents would drop everything to make it happen.

They taught us that grades were earned through study and hard work, not a result of natural ability or at the whims of the teacher. If it was a math or science subject, my parents would never have accepted “the teacher gave me this grade” versus “I could’ve studied harder” as the reason behind mistakes on a piece of homework or a test.

Even teachers not being good teachers wasn’t a sufficient reason! We were expected to find a way. My parents would try to help us as much as they could but in my mom’s case, she would sometimes look at a problem and say it had been too many years since she’d learned that math, but then send me off to figure it out on my own with a reminder that even if she’s forgotten the principles because she doesn’t use it anymore in her day-to-day, the training for our brains in successfully learning it at least once was invaluable. So the “but when will I ever need algebra” complaint would never fly. And with my dad, we learned how to teach ourselves pretty quickly, almost in self-defense, because a quick question to him could easily turn into a 3 hour digression about number theory that left you more muddled than before.

Finally, there is of course the classic Asian parent response when you brought home a 99% on a test to immediately ask, “What did you get wrong?” My mom’s position was that American schools, though they had other strengths, clearly had lower standards than Chinese schools when it came to math and science so if she did well in the Chinese system, she fiercely believed there was no reason we couldn’t get top grades here, if only we worked hard enough.

But this emphasis on always looking back at past results to see how you could improve—that’s a hugely useful lesson for a kid to learn! Even before it’s helpful to being applied to the work environment, just think about the typical course structure: you start with some introductory topics, have a few exams or a midterm in between, and then you have a final that covers everything. They’re set up to build on previous concepts, so going back and reviewing your earlier mistakes both cements the foundation for the more advanced topics and also grants you a leg up on all the sections of the final that are about the early topics.

I certainly recognize the enormous amounts of privilege that my parents gave us. Even though they both grew up materially poor in China and Taiwan, my maternal grandparents were a chemical engineering professor and doctor, and both my parents were able to come to the U.S. and later attended graduate school here. So they carried plenty of that implicit knowledge around education and clawing your way up through the middle class and could gift that to us. (Though I will also note that there are Asian kids who do well at Stuyvesant whose parents don’t have college degrees and have menial day jobs) I also am more than happy to grant that school grades are very flawed measurements in many ways, and an overemphasis on school can have tragic consequences.

But for the love of god, please don’t dismiss everything Asian parents teach their kids about school as “mere rote memorization.” You may not agree with their methods, but you should try to analyze and learn from their approach if you’re feeling insecure, not seek to diminish those parents’ and kids’ accomplishments.

Further reading:
  • The Fresh Off the Boat memoir has some hilarious parts related to food, even if I’m not into the hiphop part of his narrative
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, for all the controversy people stoked up around it, is another insightful look into Asian-American parenting culture. If people seem like they haven’t talked to many first generation Asian-Americans about their childhoods but want to learn more, I tell them to just read this book instead.
  • I Love Yous Are For White People is a raw, painful memoir that I still think about from time to time