Bullish: What I Learned About Success in a Korean Cram School

Nineteen days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran Amy Chua’s Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. As of today, there are 7,590 comments. A few days ago, at 5,700 comments, the WSJ remarked that the piece had already generated more comments than any other in the history of the Wall Street Journal, which is quite astounding when you think about how much the cool kids these days enjoy typing “ha ha u suck” beneath articles about hedge fund derivatives.

Chua’s article, an excerpt from her now-bestselling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, detailed the manner in which, as a “Chinese mother” (a label she qualifies may be applied to hard-nosed non-Chinese mothers, and not to all Chinese women who are mothers), she deprived her children of sleepovers, play dates, and participation in school plays while forcing them to play piano or violin, rejecting their shoddily-handcrafted birthday cards to her, ordering them to get A’s, and once calling her daughter “garbage.” The 7,590 comments left have already exhaustively covered the deficits of this parenting style (trust me, they’ve objected in myriad important ways): creating kids who lack real intellectual curiosity and/or social skills, leading to high rates of suicide among high-achieving Asian-American kids, etc. No point rehashing that (and certainly not in Bullish).

But the debate over Chua’s article has spawned a whole network of articles pontificating on why we all care so much about Tiger Mothering — perhaps because, as Chua suggests:

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

On that score, Hanna Rosin (author The Atlantic‘s The End of Men), replies in the WSJ, “With that, she really has our number. At the present moment in Western parenting, we believe that our children are special and entitled, but we do not have the guts or the tools to make that reality true for them. This explains, I think, a large part of the fascination with Ms. Chua’s book.”

And hence its presence in Bullish. (This column, despite initial appearances, is not ultimately about children or child-raising).

From 2006-2007, I was Director of English Curriculum at a Korean-American study academy (or hagwon) in Queens. I taught four hours of SAT English every Saturday (four!), did private tutoring during the week, and, during the summer, taught four hours of SAT English per day, which was followed by two hours of math taught by my employer, an imposing Korean-American math teacher. That is, these kids attended SAT class six hours per day (seven including lunch break), five days per week, all summer long — sometimes every summer of high school.

After awhile, I basically ran out of vocabulary words to teach. I moved on to teaching little snippets of Victorian culture and language (most of my students were non-native speakers who were totally screwed when Austen or Dickens popped up in a reading passage). I once explained that “Shiver me timbers” is recognizable by everyone as something pirates say, even though most people don’t know or care what it actually means. I then taught all my students to correctly use savoir faire and je ne sais quoi in conversation.

What I’m getting at is that a typical commercial SAT class is about 24 hours of instruction. A student in a hagwon might receive 30 hours of instruction in a week during the summer, or 1,080 hours of instruction over three summers. Malcolm Gladwell famously declared that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. There are more important things in life than becoming an “expert” on the SAT, but 1,080 hours, it turned out, was enough to bump a small but satisfying handful of kids from talking like their parents to talking like native speakers — the kind who go to good colleges. It wasn’t that their parents fed them organic baby food or got them into the right private schools or took them on enriching European vacations; it was the hours. Very, very many hours.

And the tests! Oh, the tests. When I first began working at the hagwon, my boss apprised me that we would have a practice test every day. I assumed that we were having a communication issue. The SAT is four hours long, I explained — if we have a four-hour test every day, we’ll never have a chance to teach anything. She replied that that was simply how they did it in Korea. I talked her down to a 25-minute practice section Monday through Thursday and a full-length exam on Fridays.

I met Chua-like parents, most of whom demanded that their children become pharmacists. One girl was forbidden from ever hip-hop dancing (and her mom did mean ever). Once, a young man confessed that he had a secret wish. Upon much prodding (I was expecting that he wanted to be a rock star or a drag queen), he whispered: “I wish I could be a marine biologist.” When one of my charges was, in fact, admitted to pharmacy school, his father bowed to me. It was nice.

I’m certainly not saying that we should all adopt the hagwon method. My class also contained a number of absolutely miserable kids who sat in the back and wanted, justifiably, to be anywhere else besides a permanent SAT class. But I’ll tell you something else that doesn’t work: a bunch of the mincing, artsy bullshit I see from Upper West Side white people. Such as throwing expensive educational resources (engineering camp, “environmental science” cruises to Costa Rica, me) at a kid just hoping it’ll “spark” something — with no demands that he justify the expenditure with effort or results. Also: calling me way too late in the game, as a sort of band-aid solution, because “I didn’t want to stress him out.” Hmmn, you know what’s stressful? Not being prepared. Having deadlines you can’t possibly meet. Depressingly low expectations.

Po Bronson in New York Magazine writes:

American mothers and fathers are dying for permission to be a little tougher on their kids. The point is, kids don’t want to suck at sports, they don’t like being lost in math class, and they don’t enjoy the distorted aural contours emanating from their instruments. The cheering is nice, but they’d prefer that someone actually teach them how to improve.

So, let’s talk about now. You can’t change how you were raised. (If your mom made you practice the piano without bathroom breaks until you got it right, I am truly sorry. And, when my hip-hop-dance-loving student enrolled in pharmacy school, it kind of broke my heart. I had hoped she would break loose and it would be like Korean Flashdance). But you can be your own tiger mother — or maybe, tiger life-coach:

One of the most cogent points of Chua’s article was this:

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.”

It’s certainly not true that nothing is fun until you’re good at it (lots of perfectly blithe teens are clumsily dry-humping away). But Chua’s point holds for an awful lot of things, including much of your career. People — especially women — are so often encouraged to “do what you love,” despite the fact that most of the things we love 1) don’t make any money, 2) are loved by lots of other people, thus driving down prices, and 3) require doing lots of things you don’t love in order to market, make to spec, and sell the thing you do love. In a lot of cases, we’d be better off picking something lucrative, flexible, and challenging, and applying ourselves to it in a way that becomes ultimately gratifying — and allows us to fund our hobbies on the side.

I wrote in How to Make Money as an Artsy-Artist Commie Pinko Weirdo about accepting that you need “a season to create, a season to sell.” My oft-quoted BFF Molly Crabapple gives speeches at art schools about making a living as an artist, and if you raise your hand to say that marketing and networking aren’t part of your job and you “just wanna draw,” she will cut you. (Okay, she will cut you with her mind. Er, she actually probably has more important things to do.) Of course those things are part of your job; they’re part of life in a post-Industrial society. You might love your baby, but you still have to wipe its ass.

In the last few years, research has come out (see here and here) showing that, actually, you do learn more by repeated testing. Some kinds of stress are actually good for you (there’s a word for that idea — eustress). As I wrote in Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE, one’s twenties and early thirties are the time to “cut out all the fucking around, and you can easily step up your career and life.” That includes seeking out stressful situations that push the limits of whatever expertise you are mid-10,000-hours in developing. It means developing tests for yourself. Offer to speak to a group (the Chamber of Commerce, a local Girl Scout troop, etc.) on whatever it is you do. Prepare for the questions you might get asked. When you are asked questions you can’t answer, say honestly that you don’t know (admitting you don’t know something actually can build your credibility regarding the things that you do know). When you do find out the answers to those questions, you will remember them forever.

In a graduate-level education class, I once questioned the enthusiasm of my classmates (largely elementary school teachers) for the “teaching” method by which students are put in groups and forced to teach each other. I tried to word it politely, but, essentially, I asked, “Isn’t that just wasting the smart kids’ time by forcing them to drag the dumb kids along?” Several teachers responded that, actually, it really increased the (insert politically-correct word for “smart”) kids’ self-esteem. When I responded, “But self-esteem isn’t the same as learning,” I was met with horror. I hold to my position. As it turns out, American students have the highest self-esteem about their math and science skills, and the lowest actual performance; Asian kids, the reverse.

Self-esteem talk is helpful for a few people with exceptionally low self-regard. But if you have passed the basic tests of sustainable adult life, then you are well past the point that slapping self-esteem onto yourself like a new coat of paint makes any sense.

Self-esteem talk leads to a lot of praise for a lot of very, very general activity. Kids explore their “multiple intelligences” by learning to multiply in five different ways, but without practicing any of those ways enough to master any of them — practice (the repetitive kind, that gets boring sometimes) has fallen out of fashion. And adult women are constantly exhorted to love themselves and to improve their confidence — apparently, just because? Professional matchmakers often speak of people whose overblown self-confidence keeps them from finding love with anyone who isn’t a titan of business in a movie-star body.

I talked in Five Ways to Improve Your Life Through Math about quantifying your value to your company. Amy Chua is correct that rote repetition is undervalued in building skills and knowledge among children; similarly, I think adults suffering from low self-esteem should stop thinking about the symptom of the problem, and address the problem itself by building skills, volunteering or otherwise improving the world around us (the actual one, not the ones in our heads), and developing a simply unassailable expertise in something. 10,000 hours is a long time. But it’ll probably take even longer (as in, an eternity) to coat yourself in a patina of self-love that you can convince yourself really means anything.

Don’t get me wrong — Amy Chua is kind of an awful bitch. But the reason she’s awful is because her kids didn’t have any choice, and because they’re kids. An adult should be tough enough for an Amy Chua. An inner Amy Chua. A tiger mother of the mind.

originally published on The Gloss