What about the crazy obsession with school? We Americans live in a country where people start multimillion dollar businesses in their garages, and others make a comfortable living drawing cartoons. Where does a crazy person get the idea that a failing grade on one lousy sixth grade test should be treated like it's life and death?
The thing is, once upon a time in China (starting about 500-600 AD), one failed test could ruin your life. Your whole life -- your career, your status, your marriage prospects, the way people looked at you -- it all depended completely on certain written examinations. All civil service positions were determined by these tests, and anybody who was anybody was in civil service.
And who wouldn't want to be, with those awesome hats.
This was actually quite a bit of progress at the time, since the previous system, like most medieval systems, was set up so you got a government job based on who your uncle knew. Becoming a government official based on how good you were at something (even if that something was often poetry) was actually fairly revolutionary at the time.
So while my mom was growing up in Taiwan, the system had evolved, of course, but the idea was still that a series of tests would determine your destiny. Taking tests to get into junior high, high school, and university were like three rounds of a single-elimination tournament. Lose the first round with a bad junior high test score and you were permanently out of the top university sweepstakes.
That's cool, kid, it means you have more time to prepare for your fast food career.
Test scores even figured into what your major would be. My mom was stuck with diplomacy, which she didn't even want, while some other kid who actually wanted to study diplomacy didn't have the test scores to get it.
Anyway, that's not true in the U.S., obviously. Students change majors and transfer schools left and right. High school entrance examinations are rare and only for schools where kids learn to wear cardigans tied over their shoulders. Surely anyone who's spent 10 years in this country would grasp that, right?
Well, China has been doing this "tests are everything" thing hardcore since at least 581 AD. You can't stop whistling a stupid credit report commercial jingle after listening to it for two days, so imagine how hard it is for a whole society of people to stop doing things they've been doing for 1500 years.
The amazing thing, though, is that they are.
In China, the bestselling parenting books in the past have been what you would expect, with titles like Harvard Girl Liu Yiting, From Andover to Harvard and Yale Girl, all obviously about how to raise your child so that it gets into Harvard or Yale, which I guess is part of the invasion plan. (Spoiler: it's by making your small child hold an ice cube as long as they can to build stamina.)
"Harvard Girl Liu Yiting" - multidisciplinary genius, perhaps, graphic designer, no.
That's why it was such a surprise to see Yin Jianli's A Good Mom Is Better Than a Good Teacher take China's bestseller list by storm, where it's been hanging out at the top since 2009.
Okay, I guess the entire Chinese publishing industry needs to look into this graphic design thing.
Yin offers revolutionary and controversial new advice, like listening to your children, or not yelling at toddlers for painting rivers pink. Something is definitely changing in the culture when someone can say something as nutty as "Kids shouldn't be slaves of homework," and not get thrown in an asylum.
Yin isn't the only person saying it, either. One mom in China wrote an editorial saying that the abusive, one-dimensional "Chinese way" Chua described was so out of date that it was like Chinese parenting's version of parachute pants.
Or shoulder pads, if you like.
I'm not saying all Chinese parents have stopped telling kids that they bring shame to their family or making them hold ice cubes or whatever, but it's certainly not the Unquestioned Way To Raise Kids anymore.
Part of it is just people adapting and improving like people do, and part of it is big societal changes like the one-child policy, where the pressure of having four grandparents and two parents with a laser-beam focus on one child is causing some kids to snap, making parents rethink whether what they've been doing for thousands of years is still the right way to do things.
It often isn't.
Remember the scare stories I mentioned earlier, parents telling urban legends about the kid who got complimented so much he had to drop out of school? Well my mom told me a couple of "true" stories about Chinese-American kids, ones who were pushed hard to succeed by their immigrant parents, and were driven, yelled at, and denied affection until they "succeeded" by graduating from med school, which is of course the best thing a Chinese child can do. In the first story, the son accepted his diploma on graduation day and then handed it over to his mom and told her, "There. That's what you've wanted. I'm done." He found another career and never wanted anything to do with medicine, or his mom, again.
In the second story, shortly after graduating from med school, the son had a nervous breakdown and had to be committed.
I'm sure there's a version where the son found a hook hanging from the diploma too.
She swears these totally happened to a friend of a friend, and maybe they did, whatever. The point is that old Chinese moms are telling these stories to each other. Urban legends get retold because they play on our subconscious fears, and moms talking about horror stories that result from traditional Chinese parenting are moms that are afraid the old ways might be wrong.
The Chinese kids we should be afraid of are the ones whose parents are reading Yin Jianli's book. Seriously, kids with the balls-to-the-wall work ethic of Chinese tradition plus the confidence and security of being raised by parents who encourage them to paint rivers pink and be who they are? Now that's unstoppable.
Our future masters?
But I don't know, if China does manage to turn out a highly-educated generation of confident individuals who think for themselves, maybe it's not America that needs to be scared.
Side note: One thing all cultures can agree on is that cancer is bad, so I'll be participating in a 100 mile bike ride to raise money for leukemia research. Click here to find out more or donate.
Be sure to buy our New York Times bestselling new book because America is the greatest. And check out more from Christina in 5 Topics Guaranteed to Elicit (Condescending) Advice.