The 8Asians Talk About Jennifer Pan, “Tiger” Parenting, and “Everyone Loves Raymond”

jennifer-panOur internal e-mail lists have us discussing all kinds of stuff: Asian American identity, representation in the media, the experiences of activism in an academia setting and its progression as we transition to the working, adult world. The subject of Jennifer Pan, the Asian Canadian who faked her accomplishments to please her parents and later arranged with her boyfriend to have them killed, generated this conversation about Tiger parenting and leaving home:

Christine: I’m not entirely sure what to say in relation to the article, but I am curious about what experiences everyone else had with their parents. Looking back at the parenting decisions your folks made and whether or not the strict or not so strict restrictions on building personal character had an impact on you. What did you do to break-free from their hold because I’m pretty sure there is that transition between the adult child and parent.

I ask because there was another incident in Toronto where an Asian girl went missing and the last footage that was seen of her was in a bank downtown (far from where she actually lived but was near the train station). At the time, there were numerous other crimes/ incidents involving Asian girls and this was yet another among them, so it seemed that everyone was fearing the worst. She wasn’t answering her cellphone, her voicemail was full, she apparently had a heart condition and wasn’t carrying any medication for it. After reading all the reports and looking at the footage, I suspected she actually ran away and would turn up a couple of days later. But as everyone I too feared the worst. She was later located in Vancouver and watching the press conference held upon her return suggested that there was some sort of nuanced family dynamics. Some commenters suggested that she was spoiled, but I don’t think someone who is spoiled would garner that many friends to launch a social media search. To me all signs point to a smothering or restrictive parenting.

Tina: My parents had trouble letting go of me after college. We had empty nest syndrome conflict. But they were never really over-protective during my K-12 years. In fact, they were worried I wasn’t outgoing enough and tried to get me to get a boyfriend and go to prom. -_-

Mom: “Tina, do you have a boyfriend yet?”

14-year-old-me: “No.”

Mom: “Why? What’s wrong with you?”


Jeff: My parents weren’t really pushy at all with grades and achievement. They had no issue with me going to parties, dates, and dances. I was pretty self motivated, and after my brother and sister had a lot of trouble in college (our high school didn’t prepare them well), they helped me ensure that I was prepared. The only time I remember being irritated at my parents pushing was when my mom wanted me to redo an application that was messy. I was annoyed at that but did it anyway, and I ended up going to that college, Princeton.

As for my kids, I expected them to do well, but wouldn’t bash them over a B. The Daughter could have done a lot better academically in high school, but she was very active in extracurriculars and made up for it in college, graduating with honors and doing lots of internships. My sons are self motivated most of the time, and their own expectations eventually became that a 4.0 was a minimum requirement. For Number One Son, that last semester of senior year was one where he definitely wasn’t motivated but still managed to pull out an 4.0. Number Two Son is still in high school and to him, a 4.0 is a fail.

I never pushed them to apply to Ivys, instead having them choose their best fit. My parents, interestingly, have tried to push them to apply to Ivys. Weird.

Your last question was about “cutting the umbilical cord.” After grad school, I moved back home in Silicon Valley to save money. I did chip in some rent, which I am sure that they appreciated. After I got married, I moved out. My mom offered for us to stay there even after we got married, but the Wife was like “hell no…” Now that The Daughter has graduated and moved back into the house, I can’t say we have any umbilical cord issues keeping her there. She is anxious to get a job and leave, and we aren’t going to stop her. In fact, given her and The Wife’s personalities, we are encouraging her to go and get off our payroll.

Koji: My parents went the opposite of Tiger parents. They decided to raise me with no rules, no expectations. 🙂

John: My parents were fairly hands-off. They had high expectations, and my father did get involved in selecting some classes – which sometimes didn’t make sense, like taking electronics – which were classes taken more like those going to vocational school.

In middle school, my father decided that my brother and I should study French over Spanish, saying French was used more in fields of math & science, engineering, etc… but I retrospect, I think studying Spanish would have been so much more useful. Also, my parents made to switch to violin from trumpet after a year. I sucked at the violin though, since I only had one year of lessons. I played from middle school to my junior year in high school.

My father went to the best college in Taiwan (National Taiwan University), but wasn’t too involved in selecting the colleges I applied to, since I kind of knew what I wanted to study – engineering, most likely mechanical engineering. So I applied to the best engineering programs. I did enjoy visiting college campuses one summer with my dad and my brother, roadtripping it to visit places like RPI, Carnegie Mellon Cornell, PENN, Princeton, Brown, MIT, etc.

Christine: think for the most part my parents were pretty easy going. They did stress the importance of education and wanted both my sister and I to do well, but we were pretty average across the board in high school. I wasn’t able to go to any dances or any sleepovers. The sleepovers I think were just a cultural thing they were completely unfamiliar with and suspicious of. They also sent me to an all-girl Catholic high school. I do remember this one time I had a boyfriend from a neighbouring boy school and didn’t tell my parents about him. When I wanted to go out and hang out with him, I would give them some other reason. At a certain point, I think I got tired of sneaking around and just came out that I was hanging out with him. My mom actually told me to call him to tell him I was not going and didn’t allow me to see him w/o other people around.

Things changed when I graduated high school early, enrolled myself in a co-ed school to complete my credits. I also started hanging out at recording studios and radio stations with DJs who could’ve very easily manipulated a very green 17 year old girl.

By the time I was in college, they kind of loosened the reigns a lot. By then I was driving, working and going to school. I think at one point, around my mid-20s, but still living with my parents, my dad asked my mom where I was/ where did I go. My mom’s response was a flippant, “I don’t know, I don’t ask her these things.”

In relation to Jennifer Pan, I was chatting with my husband about it and wondered about how she compared herself to the leniency given to her friends, or maybe even her younger brother. We’ll never know if there was a difference between how she was treated versus her brother. Like, despite her having a boyfriend, was her brother given free reign over his time so long as he kept his grades up? In any case, it seems to me, the entire thing imploded when she couldn’t reach the standards expected of her and worked to literally keep up with the status quo by building lies. It sort of reminds me about that Korean American woman who snuck into some university? I think that happened more than once, no?

Joz: openly resent the Tiger parent stereotype not because it’s true/untrue, but mostly because there aren’t any other “Asian parent tropes” out there to act as any counter-narratives to “Tigering.”

Many of us in this group talk about having/being parents who were basically not “Tigers” or maybe at best “Tiger-ish.” Yet how come when discussions of parenting for Asian Americans are concerned, we aren’t able to have more nuanced discussions because everything hinges off “were your parents strict or not?”

One of things I picked up in this story was actually how the Dad was a Tiger but the Mom “his reluctant accomplice.” There is a lot going on here, beyond “strict parenting.” There were running themes of the mother enabling her daughter, but behind the back of her husband.

There were also issues of mental health, immigrant parents who didn’t know the system and who therefore could be duped into their daughter’s facade, and also a school system that didn’t at least identify that she didn’t graduate high school for failing calculus. I am still unclear how Jennifer could have not finished high school because of failing just one class and how the high school wouldn’t have followed up with her to get that taken care of over the course of a summer or whatever.

Another thing that I hope comes out of the conversations around this story is this notion of the “golden child” which is really just the model minority rearing its ugly head in a different context. I think what many of us might be able to relate with is how relatively easy it could have been to dupe your parents in certain ways, especially if they were immigrants and/or they trusted you. How many of us who knew the “good (Asian or non-Asian) kid” who snuck out the of the house, partied, or led a “double-life” under their parents’ noses? (Note: none of those other kids ended up having their parents killed.)

As for my own personal experience, I’ve been open in saying that my parents were not Tigers, although they were probably a little stricter than that of my non Asian peers. I certainly knew many Asian parents who were far, far stricter than mine. But I hate even talking about this because my own drive and ambition was always stronger than anything my parents put on me. If anything, I put pressure on myself and my parents asked me not to work so hard so I could spend time with family. At the same time, they obviously placed a high value and great deal of pride on my academic success. But my father was the one who encouraged and fostered my love for the arts and music (and not in a “learn the piano” kind of way). My mother supported every non-academic activity I ever did, because she wanted me to have as full of a life experience as I could (and not because extracurriculars looked good on a college application). Of course, they expected me to get good grades and go to college, but that was the trajectory for me regardless if they were going to be strict with me. The older I get, the more I realize my parents did not come from the mold of Tigers at all.

So going back to my first statement: If my (Asian) parents weren’t Tiger Parents, what were they?

Koji:  I’m a tiger dad. I expect my son to go to a better school than my wife, take care of me when I get old, become president of the United States, play professional basketball for the Lakers, and of course be a supermodel. 🙂

Mike: “Tiger” has become such a loaded term. I have friends who throw that word around whenever someone pushes their kid a little bit. We taught our 2.5yo daughter how to count to 40 in English, and I just found out she learned how to could to 40 in Mandarin too (from her Mandarin-immersion preschool). She has the aptitude to do this, so why not teach her this? We caught a few, “Oh, you’re such a tiger” comments from friends though. We didn’t mind because we know they’re joking around, but this totally blurs the meaning of a “tiger” parent.

I don’t know if there’s any kind of official definition for this term yet, but I tend to think of it as pushing one’s children academically at the cost of their self esteem and mental health.

Fortunately, I don’t have any friends that do this, but I hear stories from friends who live near Palo Alto and Los Gatos, two wealthy cities in the SF Bay Area that are known to have high pressure school environments. A few Palo Alto high school students were in the news recently for suicides because of the academic pressure they were feeling.

That, to me, is how I tend to define “tiger” parenting.

My parents were strict and hit me with a feather duster if i misbehaved. They never said “I love you” or “I’m sorry.” They didn’t really push me to get A’s either, but they did tell me to study and do my homework and eat all of my food every day. And on occasion, they did little things that showed they loved me, like buying me toys as a kid, making my favorite meals, etc. My Dad tended to be the strong silent type who ruled the house with an iron fist. My Mom was surprisingly progressive and, sometimes, I think she learned most of her parenting techniques from watching “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Yea, seriously. When I got married and had kids, she told me, “I want to live near you one day, but not close enough that I’m always coming over and intruding on your life, like Raymond’s mother.” So glad her takeaways from the show were positive…


(photo credit: Alex Tavshunsky/CBC)

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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