Written by Pei-Chia Lan.
Image credit: 親子 by Takashi Kashiwaya/ Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
My recent book, Raising Global Families: Parenting, Immigration, and Class in Taiwan and the US, started with a puzzle: Why do Taiwanese parents nowadays face even more intensified pressure, anxiety, and uncertainty, despite their expanded access to cultural resources, market services, and global mobility in comparison with the earlier generations?
To answer this question, my research team conducted school observation, discourse analysis, and in-depth interviews with parents from more than 50 families across the socio-economic spectrum. Their children attended a variety of schools, including bilingual private schools, experimental charter schools, and small-sized public schools in remote areas. Later, I also interviewed about 30 Taiwanese immigrants in the Boston Area (USA) as a parallel comparison. Parents in my study come from distinct class backgrounds, face different challenges, and choose various ways to raise their children. However, they share one thing in common—they all feel anxious and insecure about raising children in times of rapid change and uncertainty.
This book has brought me to give talks and meet readers around the world. In addition to academic dialogues and theoretical debates, I noticed that the book interested or surprised the audience in somewhat different ways across regions and countries. The book tour has helped me piece together a broader picture that showcases what is general and particular in Taiwan’s experience.
When I gave talks in North America and Western Europe, many people were surprised that Taiwanese parents embrace innovative ideas of childrearing and share a passionate aspiration for Western ideas of education and childhood. German listeners were amazed that Waldorf education won great popularity in an island thousands of miles away as the system is subject to much criticism in its native Germany. British audiences were amused that an article entitled “Fifty Things Children Should Do before Twelve,” published by the UK National Trust, has been widely circulated among Taiwanese parents, even if most British children do only a few of these things. Shadowed by the stereotype of the ‘tiger mom’ attached to Chinese parenting in Amy Chua’s bestseller memoir, the American audience was surprised to learn that many Taiwanese parents try hard to dissociate themselves from the tradition of harsh discipline.
Studying Global Childrearing
In the book, I argue that Taiwan is a strategic site to study global childrearing. Transnational connections and mobility are critical means to economic success and cultural advancement. Middle-class parents lament their own “lost childhood” in a poorer, authoritarian Taiwan. They are determined to offer their children more happiness and autonomy. Changing styles of childrearing under the marked influence of Western culture becomes an identity marker, through which many parents highlight their families’ upward mobility and cosmopolitan engagement.
Of course, Taiwan is not a unique case in this aspect. My book talk received a lot of nodding and echoes among the East Asian audience. South Korea, in particular, shares a very similar pathway of compressed modernity, leading to two streams of global parenting.
The globalization of production and markets facilitates the hypermobility of professionals, such as engineers and financial workers. It creates a globally oriented consumer lifestyle among the “transnational middle class” in the global South. The gendered division of labour is salient in these global households. While the frequent flyers for business and work are mostly men (nicknamed “goose fathers” in South Korea), their wives take on most of the responsibility for raising children in line with the ideals of modern childhood and global education.
Parents on the lower spectrum of social class are trapped in the local economy, but they are not immune from the impact of global forces. Capital outflow and the inflow of migrant workers have deprived job security for the working class, especially males. Many of these men in Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea now seek foreign brides from China and Southeast Asia, organizing a different form of global family. However, the receiving societies usually do not recognize these immigrants’ transnational connections as valuable or “cosmopolitan” as Western cultural capital. The situation has only changed recently through Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy since 2016. The government now praises the children of immigrant mothers, or the “new second generation,” for their potential to facilitate Taiwan’s trade and geopolitical connections with Southeast Asia.
Compared to the situation in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore display similar trends but also distinctive differences. Middle-class parents in these two city-states face fierce competition in all-level educational arenas. Some Hong Kong audience members shared their stressful experiences of going through interviews for their children to get a seat at kindergarten. Kiasu, the vernacular Minnan phrase of “fear of losing,” vividly captures the intensity of parental anxiety in Singapore. Parents are thus pressured even more toward the strategy of what I call “cultivating global competitiveness.” By sending their children to English-language kindergartens, international schools, American summer camps, etc., parents make concerted and expensive plans to prepare their children for the future of global mobility.
Japan is an exception in the region. I found out that middle-class Japanese mothers, despite their dedication to education, are relatively immune from the craze for global parenting. English language and international exposure are not emphasized as much in children’s cultivation, because Japan’s labour market still credits higher value to local elite degrees than overseas qualifications.
Changing Societies, Changing Childrearing
My book also highlights that middle-class Taiwanese parents are not a homogenous whole. A growing number of them are pursuing the strategy of “orchestrating natural growth” – prioritizing children’s “natural growth” over what they see as harmful interventions from parents and institutions such as competition and learning pressure. Many of these parents choose alternative education programs, or even educate their children at home, adopting non-traditional pedagogy and jettisoning textbooks and examinations. People in Hong Kong and Singapore told me that it is unlikely for parents to choose such school given the intense competition children face. In China, the newly established Waldorf schools have attracted an increasing number of young parents, but the institutions are deemed illegal under the government’s strict regulation.
The rapid growth of experimental schools is a result of Taiwan’s democratization and robust civil society. Taiwan’s education reform started in the late 1990s to respond to social movements organized by parents and educators. Absorbing the reformer ideas, the government made tremendous changes in the educational system over the years, including the deregulation of textbooks, the prohibition of corporal punishment at schools, and the expansion of higher education. Multiple tracks of college admission are open, including applications based on individual merit. Pressured by parents’ advocates, the parliament gradually lifted legal barriers to experimental education and home-schooling. With the relief of academic pressure and institutional regulation, more and more Taiwanese parents feel confident enough to explore innovative pedagogy for their children.
Nevertheless, these Taiwanese parents still struggle with a disjuncture between parental values and larger institutional environments. Despite embracing notions of a happy childhood, they worry about their children’s prospects of maintaining a life of material comfort in a time of economic depression. They are also often concerned about whether their outspoken, opinionated children can survive in the workplace that still respects hierarchy and authority.
Taiwanese Families Abroad
Finally, my talks in Taiwan often attract some lay audience, especially middle-class mothers who embrace the ideas of global parenting or aspire immigration to the US— a “paradise for children” in the portrait of Taiwan’s public narratives. These parents were surprised and even dismayed when learning that Chinese American middle-class family life is not as relaxing or stress-free as they assumed.
Immigrant parents I interviewed in the US reported their worry about children’s future shadowed by the immigrant stigma and institutional racism. Concerned about the dubious existence of “Asian quota” in college admission, they view permissive parenting and its uncertain consequences as a white privilege that immigrant families cannot afford. Feeling increasingly anxious about the new global order, they look to the Asian middle-class and attempt to set a higher bar for their children’s academic performance. Some parents import learning kits for math and science from Taiwan, China or Singapore because they prefer the challenge and repetitive practice in the Asian curriculum. Some send their children to summer school in Taiwan or China for Chinese-learning programs or SAT preparation courses.
I use the term “cultivating ethnic-cultural capital” to describe that immigrant parents manage to instil the values, language, culture, lifestyle, networks, and resources associated with their homeland or immigrant background in their children for the pursuit of success and mobility. It is important to remember that “ethnic, cultural capital” does not refer to a parcel of values and customs that newcomers bring directly from their homeland. Instead, it involves a dynamic process of cultural negotiation in which immigrant parents selectively mobilize their cultural heritage and sometimes mix-and-match it with values and practices in the new country.
Raising Global Families uses parenting as a lens to examine cultural transformation and persisting inequality in the contexts of globalization and immigration. The changing and diversified practices of childrearing illustrate Taiwan’s compressed development and energetic society. Meanwhile, we are facing new challenges such as low fertility, multiculturalism, and widening wealth gaps. The comparison with Taiwanese immigrants in the US further shows that ethnic culture is neither static nor uniform but rather is constantly transforming. We need to study global Taiwan beyond the geographic borders by investigating transnational inflows and outflows of capital, culture, and people.
Pei-Chia Lan is professor of sociology at National Taiwan University. She is the author of Global Cinderellas: Migrant Domestics and Newly Rich Employers in Taiwan (Duke, 2006) and Raising Global Families: Parenting, Immigration, and Class in Taiwan and the US (Stanford, 2018).
This article is part of a special edition on changing families in Taiwan.