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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Amy Chua's Parenting Style Cannot Produce Creativity?

I would tend to disagree with the premise that the Chinese style of educating students cannot produce innovation and creativity. Rather, I think that the Asian cultures do not reward/fete/celebrate/recognise highly creative people, and hence few of these very creative people become famous.

Creativity stems from a certain bent of mind that propels an individual beyond rules and accepted conventions. Steve Jobs broke every rule in music retailing, and created new rules with the iPhone and iPOD. Elvis Presley broke all the rules of accepted and good music by making black music white. Lee Kuan Yew broke all the previous rules of industrial engagement by enacting new legislation about land acquisition and labour relations. Coco Chanel broke all the rules of feminine fashion to build an enduring empire. Vincent Van Gogh broke all the rules of painting technique and was at the forefront of Impressionist art.

Creative people break the mould.

In a collectivistic culture where people tend towards the hive mentality, the social context does not reward people who break away from the accepted way of doing things. These highly creative people are considered disobedient rebels who bring dishonour to family and country.

I grew up in Singapore with parents who demanded everything. I mopped the floor before I went to school, carried the groceries, helped with dishes and the clothes. I wasn't allowed to even go out for movies (nor drink soft drinks... and had to eat EXACTLY what mom wanted me to eat). I had never even heard of playdates and sleepovers. There were so many rules that I could break a few by just breathing (ok... that's exaggeration). My Mother was not a Tiger, she was Tyrannosaurus Rex (ummmm... exaggeration too). And yes... my report card needed to be perfect or I would get caned. Well... my report card was NOT perfect when I got to my teens. Just for the heck of it, I chose to be caned instead. And if being caned was the price of freedom, then hit me, Mommy, one more time.

Consider the notion that when you work a muscle you strengthen it. And hence, when a child prone to creativity hits road blocks all the time from parents, he/she hones that potential for creativity.

No? It doesn't make sense to you?

If creativity stems from the propensity to break rules and make new ones, then how would a liberal education provide enough rules to give a child with a creative bent any practice in breaking rules? Did not Coco Chanel grow up repressed in an early 20th century strait-laced Catholic convent? Did not Lee Kuan Yew have a very authoritarian father? Is it not plausible that creativity is honed in The Crucible of Childhood Rule Inflicted Pain?

In the 1st year of my PhD programme, a renowned researcher working in the field of creativity came to give guest lectures to the PhD students. There were 6 people in that lecture, and we did a series of creativity tests.I was the only Singaporean there. My scores were not only the highest in that group, the 2nd guy was really far behind. He was German, and somewhat of a rebel himself, except that his parents respected his rebelliousness and didn't fight him. Mine fought me every step of the way.

I am older now and more able to control my reflexes to do the opposite of what is accepted... to find odd ways of looking at problems... and to try it out just for the heck of it. But people like me don't succeed in cultures where a collective identity is prized.

Many many ground-breaking researchers today (in USA) are Chinese. Amy Chua's father was one such. Notice that he was the black sheep of his family. Had he stayed in the Philippines, he would've been the loser son. Research requires creativity even if you're doing just mediocre stuff. To achieve recognition amongst researchers (which Amy Chua's father obviously did), needs a lot of well-honed creativity indeed. One of the founders of Yahoo was Chinese, rebel son of immigrant parents. Amy Chua (herself a researcher) demonstrates a lot of creativity. Her writing is evocative and holds a sense of drama that twists in your guts. Otherwise, why do we react to her book with so much emotion? Indeed, she is creative enough to even put out the book that broke every rule in American parenting. She dared what no other Chinese nor American parent dared. That's part of being creative.

Elvis Presley dared to take black music and make it white. Black music had always been there. Adopting and adapting it was possible for every musician. Only Elvis thought of doing it in a big way. The difference is, you do that in USA, you are idolized. You do that in China, you are ostracized.

Even Amy's threats were creative (whoa! donate a doll house piece by piece?)... though no one can beat my friend's mom who told her grandson that she would put him in the toilet bowl and flush him away. Even I was horrified by that!

Ballet dancer Li Cunxin danced with the Houston Ballet for sixteen years. He moved to Melbourne with his wife and their two children where Li became a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Li was one of the world's best in his time. Ballet is a creative effort. Yet, Li grew up in China and was trained in a horribly repressive way in a school where the Amy Chua style was institutionalized. Watch "Mao's Last Dancer" to understand.

I don't think Amy Chua's methods kill creativity. If anything, I think it hones a child's potential for creativity because it invites and strengthens the child's will to rebel and do things her way... differently. That's Lulu. I'm willing to bet that if anyone tested Lulu for creativity, her scores, like mine, would be off the charts.

The only thing though... is that you never HEAR of famous creative people in China because such souls aren't feted nor celebrated. Gee... you're not supposed to idolise such people. Art to the Chinese are time-honoured traditions. You learn an ancient art form. You don't create your own Elvis Presley style. You don't hear of such people in China (because they are social outcasts) but that doesn't mean the system does not produce them.

I don't want my kids to be creative. What's so great about being creative that I need to put my kids through The Crucible of Childhood Rule Inflicted Pain? Creativity is a burden and a curse. As a Chinese parent, I want my kids to blend into the world they belong to and be good enough to live a comfortable life where they have enough to eat, a nice home and people to love. I vaguely remember that the Japanese have a saying "A beautiful flower that sticks out in a field of grass, gets its head chopped off".

Western eyes trained on Asian cultures cannot but achieve a distorted view. One should not interpret the ways and social mores of Asian cultures using Western values. It becomes too easy to simplistically draw negative judgment.

Nobody talks about 4000 years of Western history though in actual fact, Western history is old... very very old. Westerners simply don't see that as important. Chinese people are ALWAYS talking about those few thousand years (ad nauseum). This is because the Chinese think it is important to stay true to history. This means there is great respect for the old way of doing things. Hence, young upstarts (creative no doubt) are pooh poohed. Hence, artistes feted in China are kungfu artistes (long tradition), face mask changers (again long tradition), xiang shen (again long tradition). No Elvis.

Similarly, if you examine the personalities of the Chinese leaders, you won't find fiery Churchills nor charismatic Obamas. You find personable and highly effective people who look bland - something like Singapore's Goh Keng Swee. You don't have to be charismatic to be a good leader, and make an impact on your world. Who can say Goh Keng Swee left behind no mark as a leader? Indeed, research has shown that a certain type of charismatic leadership can actually harm the community.

Chinese leaders don't stick out, and therefore their heads don't get chopped off as they rise through the ranks. Lastly, has anyone noticed how creative Chinese fraudsters are? The last I heard, the Chinese in Hong Kong have devised a way to get around Singapore's latest property dampening measures. Incorporate a company. Use the company to buy the property. Sell the company when you wanna sell the property. Voilà! Save on property tax.


Blur Ting said...

Thanks to your mum, you've become such a creative writer. It may be a long long post but I enjoyed every bit of it.

petunialee said...

Ting - Awwwwwww! That's a nice thing to say!! And true, I have The Crucible of Childhood Rule Inflicted Pain to thank for being a wordsmith of some little skill.

I'm not sure the prize was worth the suffering though. It's a useless talent mostly.

Blur Ting said...

It's terrible of your mum to put you through a terrible childhood but I must say life after that is great, isn't it? Some children lead a pampered childhood but end up with an abusive husband. Life is just full of uncertainties.

Your talent is very useful! It brings joy to the readers from all around the world each day. I think it is even better than being say, a great dressmaker, because words can touch the heart and soothe the soul.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

very insightful......i paused often to mull over the rationality, and i see alot of sense in there.

regretfully, creativity in china was more celebrated than the modern one. alot of the engineering and astronomical breakthrough are very supported by the courts, and those people were given high ranks of fat salaries.

i wonder if supressing creativity has to do with communism? with those communist countries in question, but largely Russia, their model is very much like China......though i've little knowledge of Russian civilization to warrant much thoughts.

wat do you think? tat political atmosphere has to do with putting down creative people?

googoobrain said...

Hi Petunia,

Thanks for your comment on our Star Bloggers blog!

You've got some great views to share and we'd like to speak to you about possibly having you on our programme.

Please drop us an email at with your contact number and we'll be in touch!

the team

Wen-ai said...

Wow... I've never thought of Creativity as a "curse and a burden" but you are right. Very interesting take on parenting and creativity. Creativity is frowned upon in Asia UNTIL you have made it big. And suddenly, instead of being an outcast, you become a superstar. So I should repressed my kid(s) in the future to hone their creativity eh?

Malar said...

You had very stern mum! Anyway your talent is so special! I love to read your post!
Happy Chinese New Year!

petunialee said...

Ting - Your words in this post soothe MY heart!!

petunialee said...

Fry - The Daughter is intrigued too. She wanna test this hypothesis as a possible research project.

petunialee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
petunialee said...

Wen-Ai: Yup! This perspective is like turning the lamp on its hand isn't it?

petunialee said...

Malar - Gee... thank you... it makes me feel good to know that people enjoy the words. I make it a point to write more because someone called L told me she logs in every day.

So I try to write everyday if I can.

petunialee said...

Ting - Teehee! Yeah... And it's people like you that make blogging life such a joy. I love reading you and your comment today touches my heart.

And I also agree with you that no one in the world has it all plain sailing. Life has a way of putting us through tests. And life with The Husband, the Kids and Milo IS nice indeed!

Anonymous said...

I'm still learning about your culture petunialee...thanks for sharing!

petunialee said...

Theanne - my pleasure to share! Thanks for reading!