Untigering by Iris Chen

Motherhood was ruining my straight-A reputation.

When I ‘met’ Iris Chen for my podcast earlier this year, I half-jokingly sang to her that she was “strumming my pain with her fingers, singing my pain with her words…” I knew of her from her website and her Facebook Community. I then joined the private Untigering Parenting Group. As I got to know her work better, I realized I had to interview her and hear her talk about her journey,  so I did. Imagine my delight when she told me that she had a book, Untigering: Peaceful Parenting for the Deconstructing Tiger Parent, coming out January 5, 2021.

You’ll notice that she calls it UntigerING, as in: it is a continuous effort. Chen encourages everyone to remember that we aren’t aiming for perfection. She reminds us that we are human. But she points out that how we choose to parent does have a huge impact on the health and happiness of our children, especially when we give them unconditional love regardless of their achievements. We can unlearn and unprogram our belief that to be a parent means we are the controlling authority on everything relating to our children. Ironically, if we don’t try to coerce them using fear and control tactics, they can more easily attain the agency to make great decisions that are suitable for them, which leads to more success as defined by them.

There’s no need to feel shame or frustration at an impossible ideal. We will fail. We won’t always live up to our principles. But we can continue to grow and move in the direction of our vision. There is no other choice for those of us to seek to parent without oppression. We must do the work.

Most parenting books are written by white men and women. Mommy bloggers are primarily American stay-at-home moms or momtrepreneurs. In all my years of studying at the University of Google Parenting, until I read Chen’s book, I never came across someone who had had a similar experience to mine. This vacuum of Asian parenting support means that most of us get our parenting advice from white experts. Some of their advice and research is invaluable, but a lot of it doesn’t work in the context of our having Confucian/Asian backgrounds. Iris Chen’s Untigering voice is a beautiful and thoughtful response to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Tiger parenting was idealized in that book, where the stereotypical Chinese parenting approach was shown to produce top notch academic and career results. But, at what cost? Untigering highlights a different journey that many of us have been on, with varying levels of success, prioritizing the respect our children deserve and would not normally have received based on the way we were raised.

What is particularly powerful is the balance she takes between being a strong advocate for this approach and being non-judgmental about it. Frankly, that’s not easy to achieve. You know how woke scolds can be particularly harsh critics. But Iris writes as though she’s a big sister who happens to have gone through adolescence earlier than me, and she’s giving some heartfelt advice that I can tell will help make my trip through that stage much easier.

She helps me understand that we don’t have to be a product of our environment. There is not some perfect score to strive for so much as a set of values to lean into, like connection over achievements and honouring the uniqueness of our children and family situations. She provides practical suggestions with lots of room to tailor them to our own needs. Her stories are relatable and eye opening.

Chen helps us see the impact of our trauma on our parenting. She reminds us that we do not live in a vacuum and that our society is the ecosystem we exist in and there are threats to our safety. Her brilliant analysis of the myth and paradox of meritocracy (which has the opposite of its intended effect) concludes that it’s never fair, but we keep pretending it is. She asks us to really understand the systems that are set up for us to ‘fight for the crumbs’. We are playing in a rigged system that favours those at the top and she wants us to fight it. Not just for our children, but for the children of others who have systemic barriers in their way, often for generations.

It’s a call to decolonize education and question the stories of white supremacy.

Many Chinese immigrants accept racism and condescension as part and parcel of the immigrant experience. There’s no use complaining about it. Instead, beat them at their own game. Outperform. Outshine. Outlast. But in doing so, we often end up tolerating injustice and becoming complicit in perpetuating oppression. We’re not interested in dismantling these systems; only in gaming them.

I got so caught up with the initial Untigering concept that I almost missed the second half of the real message: Untigering isn’t just about a parent changing the way they treat their child, but rather how they look at society as a whole, and the injustices and systemic issues that cause trauma for specific populations. It is deconstructing a white supremacist structure and the competitions we sign up for as human beings. Do we compete and win at the expense of others who are less privileged, hiding behind the myth of meritocracy? Or do we collaborate and work together as a community to support those who need it so that we can thrive as a whole?

[Untigering] is the process of unlearning and dismantling tiger parenting so that we can practice peaceful parenting. It requires us to look back and address our childhood wounds, consider the present and what cycles need to be broken, and look ahead for how we hope to change the narrative for our children. It calls for us to question societal and cultural norms that are rooted in trauma and oppression so that generations after us can walk in greater freedom.

Iris Chen asks a lot of us. But during and after reading her book, I am left with a burning desire to look at both how I can best parent my children and how we all can lift up the less privileged children in our society.  She wants us to think about the rules we are playing, the stories we tell ourselves, and the actions we can be taking to make the world a better place.

You can find links to buy her book on her website and listen to my interview with her on my podcast.


Being Asian in a Western World

Like the Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, Crazy Rich Asians is one of very few mainstream movies depicting a primarily Asian montage of characters. We aren’t just sidekicks with funny Fu Man Chu Ching Chang Chong accents. Shows like Fresh Off the Boat or Kim’s Convenience have proved that we too can flaunt our Asian culture profitably for the money guy in the studios and networks. While I love that other people can watch shows about people who look a lot like me or have many of the unique problems we face as Asians (with conservative Asian parents), I’m also keen to see us just be mainstream in general. I’ve watched Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, The Office… and they don’t have a lot of Asian people on their roster of regular cast members. And yet I can relate to most of the people in different ways. (Maybe not Phoebe, Rachel and Monica as much, but definitely women in the workplace Pam, Kelly and Angela or even reluctant hero Jon Snow or geeky Leonard Hofstadter.).

Margaret Cho, Constance Wu, John Cho, Ken Jeong have had to evolve Asian roles from primarily martial arts types (Bruce Li, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yan Fat) to real flushed out people with love interests or motivation other than redemption and revenge. I loved Margaret Cho in Drop Dead Divas. It wasn’t an ‘Asian’ role. She happened to be Asian; her Asian-ness was never an issue in the show. And Michelle Yeoh’s impactful role in the most recent Star Trek Discovery series, too, she was an anchor character who could have been from any background. Her martial arts came in handy for the fight scenes, but her Captain Phillipa Georgiou would have been badass no matter what.

I spent a lot of my young adulthood escaping my Asian background. If you heard me over the phone, you’d be surprised to see my round bespectacled Chinese face looking at you when you came to my office. If you looked at my career in North America, you would see that I didn’t really benefit from my bilingual background or Asian experience, I don’t get ‘cast’ for something because I’m Asian or speak Chinese. I’m 12-hour time difference from my birthplace; it’s as far as one can move away from one’s heritage.

On the one hand, I’m really excited about movies like Crazy Rich Asians (even though it doesn’t quite reflect my socioeconomic background), on the other, I also want to see a richer diversity of people at every level, in every organization, in all industries. Let being Asian be like a trait that is a bonus (horseback riding, dancing, singing, archery, speaking French)… let’s not define and label people only in that way, because it then limits what they are allowed to do.

Being Asian in a Western world means being able to slide in and out of being Asian as the need arises. Like my negotiation tactics, managerial style, or analytical skills: a part of me and in my back pocket if I need them, but not defining who I am.

This makes it interesting to parent my mixed race kids, who are half Chinese. Clearly there are values that I bring with me from my Chinese cultural childhood, but we definitely relate to each other in a very Torontonian/Canadian way.