Amy Chua predicted Linsanity, albeit unknowingly. She saw what Coach K and Doc Rivers and all of the other coaching geniuses could not because she understands a philosophy not many of us do.
Because of our squeamishness with cultural stereotypes, most of the words dedicated to understanding the role being Asian-American played in how and why so many missed on Jeremy Lin have been muted. Scared of offending, we instead act like there are no cultural differences. We ignore the truth in an attempt to be a color-blind society.
This is offensive to me, mainly because it seems so patently wrong.
His being Asian-American is exactly why I am not surprised by Lin’s success in the NBA. And I am predicting more and more kids like Lin, raised to emphasize academics, to dominate athletics as already has happened in mathematics and engineering, law schools and medical schools, and almost every inch of an ever-tightening global job market.
You know why I believe this? Chua.
The author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother wrote a really smart book about why she thinks Chinese parenting is superior and this philosophy, when applied to sports, is why nobody should be surprised that a Taiwanese-American brainiac from Harvard is killing it in the NBA despite zero expectations for him.
We say Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere when really he at least partially came out of this very Asian-American philosophy of demanding excellence in academics that rarely has been applied to sports. And while more about philosophy than ethnicity and capable of being achieved by any culture, it is also a very anti-Western parenting approach.
Can I say this without offending somebody? Probably not.
That is because it is true. And we prefer the politically correct lie over the truth nowadays.
For those who only read the Google highlights of Tiger Mother, the take away is she abhors sports as an acceptable long-term goal for kids. This is not totally untrue. On the first page, she highlights things her kids were not allowed to do, including but not limited to:
Attend a sleepover
Have a play date
Be in a school play
Choose their own extracurricular activities.
And her kids certainly were not bouncing from soccer practice to tennis in an over-scheduled pursuit of keeping up with The Joneses. This is only the surface story. My copy of Tiger Mother has been highlighted and dog-eared with little notes jotted in margins. And what I know for sure after reading this is this emphasis on excellence is exactly why her youngest daughter was good at tennis once allowed to play.
Chua talks at length about things I very much believe. Nothing is fun until you are good at it. Being good at anything requires more work than most want to do. Children especially do not want to work. All of this leads Chua to conclude “it is crucial to override their preferences.”
To back this up, Chua tells a story of The Little White Donkey — a piano piece by French composer Jacques Ibert that her daughter struggled at and wanted to quit. This led to a large battle where Chua called her daughter lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, pathetic. Eventually her daughter got it right and was beaming, having learned a lesson well beyond that piece.
I re-read that chapter when my will wanes and I fear my 3-year-old daughter will one day hate me for insisting she has to get her flash cards completely right before we can play Candy Land and then insist we play using only Spanish words. At times like this, this paragraph gives me strength.
"Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they are capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."
I do not know exactly how Lin was raised but his quantifiable stats suggest his parents believed in the latter. He had a 4.2 at a very competitive Palo Alto High and went to Harvard where he graduated with a degree in economics. He was cut by NBA teams, relegated to the D-league and only given a chance because injuries provided no other choice.
He is not starring in Linsanity simply because of God-given talent, or because his AAU coach told him how special he was, or because he called home and his dad told him he was getting run over by racist coaches in college or the NBA. Linsanity is a product of him learning the skills, work habits, and inner confidence that fueled him.
I recently read where Lin’s dad, a Taiwanese immigrant, encouraged his sons to play basketball because he was not allowed. The key and largely overlooked parts of the story, at least to me, were that he drilled them and they practiced basics only after homework was done. And his mom insisted basketball not impact his studies or he’d be barred from playing. She also refused to come to games unless he promised to try. This is very Tiger Mom.
This willingness to practice is why Asian kids dominate the top music conservatories, according to Chua, and why they will one day dominate sports, according to me. Chua has a brilliant takedown of this idea of the soccer mom as the equivalent of the Chinese mother. I am highlighting those that pertain to sports:
“(5) If your child ever disagrees with your teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach.
(6) The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal.
(7) That medal must be gold."
The lesson of Jeremy Lin is not that Tiger parenting is wrong, let kids follow their dreams and view sports as a ticket. The lesson is whatever your dream, it is more likely to be achieved with a foundation of work and sacrifice and not giving up.
And have a degree and a backup plan because you never know.
Are we teaching that in the West? No way.
Ask college, AAU and high school coaches how many parents side with them when their kid blames coaching for their lack of excellence. We live in a culture where we worship our kids, where we worship the destination and downplay the work required, where athletes give Hall of Fame speeches about working hard so their parents would not have to work, where money is the goal, where somebody else always is to blame.
We think we are helping our kids. What we are doing is giving them permission to give up, and teaching them how to fail.
The Chinese are kicking ass in the world economy not because they are smarter or better but simply because they work harder. This is not a stereotype. This, as Chua noted in her book, is backed up by “studies showing marked and quantifiable differences” between parenting philosophies.
A quick word on stereotypes: Chua wrote a 239-page book on why Asian parenting is better, and no apologies were demanded as far as I can tell. The truth about stereotypes is we only hate the ones that make us look bad.
The truth is Chinese parenting is less about ethnicity than philosophy. There are black fathers who are Tiger Moms. There are single moms who are Tiger Moms. There are Chinese moms who are not. It is about what we teach, not what we look like.
What I know for sure, two days after watching Lin bury a 3-pointer at the buzzer to fuel another New York Knicks victory, is what makes him different also is what is fueling Linsanity.