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Asian Culture

Six Ways My Asian “Tiger” Parents Impacted My Upbringing (and the Life Lessons That Come With Them)


How have Asian, or “Tiger Parents,” affected your upbringing?



Dear Anonymous,

As a recently-turned-thirty-year-old whose friends are becoming parents and whose family have been dropping hints about the biological clock, the subject of parenthood and the role of culture on parenting style has been a common topic in my thoughts.

Through what I have observed and what I personally believe, parenting is a deeply personal and individual subject. Many factors play into a parent’s style of bringing up his child, and while I question the extent of the role that culture plays on the subject, I recognize that it certainly plays a significant one – stereotypes, after all, exist for a reason. I suggest that for this topic, the word culture should not only encompass ethnicity but also the specific circumstances, environment, and even time frame that might impact a parent’s worldview. An Asian refugee who immigrated to the U.S. in the 70’s, for example, likely had very different experiences and expectations for her child than an engineer who immigrated during the dot-com bubble in the 90’s or an international student in the 2010’s.

The term “tiger parent” is even more recent, and can mean different things to different people. I think of the phrase as a scale. My parents, for example, I would rate as “middling” tigers: they were strict when it came to my grades, but were otherwise rather lax towards my social life (though admittedly due to my own personality, there was not much that they needed to be concerned about).

In this response, I offer the top six ways that my upbringing was impacted by my parents (Chinese, well-educated computer scientists, mid-90’s immigrants to the U.S., residents for more than 20 years in the D.C. metro area, and whose outlook is likely deeply influenced by having been on a college campus in Beijing during the summer of 1989). I also extend them into six life lessons that I find valuable and enduring.

1) My top priority was a well-rounded education 

My education is one of the earliest memories I have. When I was a toddler in China, I remember attending a boarding preschool, where I returned to my parents on the weekends and was taught everything from how to peel an egg to my first English vocabulary. When we immigrated to the U.S., my parents made it clear that getting good grades was my job, and that I was expected to be a straight A student. Furthermore, I was expected to do well in all subjects, regardless of my natural affinity. My mother in particular wanted me to take advantage of the opportunities available to me that hadn’t been accessible to her in rural China. She got me a piano teacher even though we’d just arrived and barely had any savings. I later learned how to ride a bike and how to swim. There were dance classes, Chinese classes, art classes, and a (thankfully short) attempt at team sports. My ultimate aim was to get accepted into a highly-ranked college for my undergraduate studies.

Life lesson #1: Invest in a well-rounded education

In today’s knowledge-driven and competitive world, education is key to many jobs and careers. A well-rounded education not only sets you apart with unique skills and insights but also enriches your life.

2) I was always expected to put in 100%

There were no excuses for not applying myself 100% to anything I was doing. I was expected to learn physics even if the teacher was speaking alien. I was expected to play even if I wanted to run away from the softball hurtling through the air. I could eventually give up softball or not pursue the AP physics class, but not before trying my best and seeing the season or semester through.

Life lesson #2: Nothing can replace a good work ethic

You may have all the talent in the world, but you won’t become better unless you put in the work. On the other hand, you can do anything you put your mind to. Trust me, I passed physics (though I am still horrendous at any type of team sport).

3) I had to justify all of my expenses

I did not have an allowance, so anything that I wanted or needed had to go through my parents’ approval. We also rarely bought anything at full price.

Life lesson #3: Differentiate between needs and wants, and spend within your means

Having your parents approve every purchase means you learn very quickly how to differentiate between things you needed (usually approved) and things you wanted (usually denied).

Our family’s focus on purchasing discounted items also taught me how to judge the value of items and techniques to save money, which helps me live within my means to this day.

4) I had to figure out my own path

Both of my parents worked, and so I spent a lot of time alone. When I was younger, this meant entertaining myself at a booth in the back as I waited for my parents to finish up at their fast food jobs. When I was older, I had to figure out the U.S. college admissions process without their help, and then how to break into the financial services industry without any connections.

Life lesson #4: Take ownership of your challenges, and be resourceful

I could either wallow in my challenges and rage at the unfairness of the world, or I could take the reins and take charge. In order to apply and get into college, or to get a job in my target industry, I had to find out what resources were available, leverage them to the best of my availability, and sometimes be creative in my outreach.

5) I was expected to help out around the house

As a family member, I was expected to contribute to the running of everyone’s lives. My chores included running the rice cooker, prepping vegetables and assisting my mom while she cooked, washing the dishes, cleaning my own room, cleaning my bathroom, and doing my own laundry.

Life lesson #5: Take on your share 

Whether it’s chores, an assignment at school, or a project at work, always do your part. It’ll keep your roommate or spouse happy, teach you new skills or knowledge, and earn you goodwill from classmates and colleagues.

6) We balanced work and play

As long as I was doing well in school and finished my homework, my parents generally had no objections to how I spent the rest of my time. When the new Harry Potter book came out, they would take me to Costco first thing Saturday morning and let me sit uninterrupted for the rest of the day to read it. I regularly had sleepovers and watched my favorite TV shows. Even when my parents were living on graduate student salaries in our early days in the U.S., we took road trips to Disneyworld and New Orleans.

Life lesson #6: Life should be enjoyed, but take care of your priorities

In the end, it’s all about balance. Make sure one doesn’t encroach on your hopes and plans for the other.