Visit the Untigering website, preview a chapter of her new book, and listen to our interview below.
As a Chinese-American and daughter of a pastor, Iris Chen played by the rules and succeeded, but felt that those (impressive) achievements didn’t quite have meaning in her life. She is now on a journey of Untigering which she defines as Gentle Parenting and Unschooling. Always thoughtful and insightful, Iris has brought together a community of parents from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds to share with and learn from each other.
When I first realized that I was parenting my children in a way that *I* didn’t want to be parented, I went on a search at the University of Google. The concept of Untigering quickly jumped out at me and I immediately became a fan of Iris Chen’s and joined the community she was building on Facebook. What surprised me most was how many people related to what I was going through… and that they weren’t all Asian American! They came from all over. We really are more alike than different. While she writes and speaks from her own experience of being Asian American, there are common elements for all of us unlearning and unprogramming in order to build an approach that works for our own unique family. (You can access a preview of a chapter from her book: “Redefining Success: An Untigering Parent’s Guide to Our Beliefs About Success, How We Came to Them, and How to Change Them“.)
In our podcast, Iris touches on numerous topics:
- Obedience: Coming from a cultural and religious background that meant strict rules and the expectation is that you’re do as your told, she knew that she was going to do things differently with her kids. It was difficult, because she defaulted to an authoritarian style of parenting and had a tendency to demand obedience.
- Acknowledging Past Trauma: It is very important to explore our own wounds, our past trauma, not for blaming purposes, but to move forward. She could see that our personalities responded to our parenting and social conditioning and what she was doing was harmful to her children. She got back in touch and got to know herself. This is very hard! It is unnatural and there is a lot of work to be done.
- Learning: The world is changing so rapidly. The content that kids learn in third grade become irrelevant. Instead of focusing on content, we should be giving them the skills for how to learn. She sees learning as a life process… learning in many different ways, not just in school. She points out: as adults, we are constantlyg learning new things in organic ways. We should allows kids to learn that way too.
- Curating Own Lifestyle: Living in China for 16 years, they were able to curate their life and culture, not American, not Chinese, a Third Culture. They created the family and community culture they wanted. It gave her the freedom to say, this does not work for our family, can we create something new? It gave them the freedom not to fit in a box. We often don’t question things when we are in it, because ‘that’s just the way things are’.
- Achievement and expectation: We shouldn’t focus on the outward markers of achievement to prove that we’ve made it. For her, those achievements didn’t end up meaning anything. When she no longer had anyone telling her what the standards and expectations were, she was at a loss… did not know how to manage time and what to do with life. As she got older, she had to get back in touch with what she loved to do.
- Consent-based living: It’s not just about education. It’s about relationships and parenting. It’s about how to honour our children. Unschooling isn’t just about education. It’s consent-based. It’s not coercive, not about ‘sit down and pay attention to what I have to teach you’ says someone with authority and a lesson plan. It’s a way of living and relating with each other with respect and consent.
Her Key Message: Know and love yourself. All the details will stem from that one place where we know who we are and can know and love and accept who we are. Everything should come from a place of unconditional love.
After living at home with my parents up to the age of 18, I moved from Taipei, Taiwan, where I was born, to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to attend university. I was (am) Chinese ethnically, and (sort of) culturally, and (not perfectly) linguistically. But I’m not from China, was not born in China, do not have a Chinese passport, and do not align myself with the government of the People’s Republic of China. I don’t read simplified Chinese from China, I barely read traditional/complex Chinese from Taiwan. I sound native Chinese with a light Taiwan accent until I start trying to use words for business or history or art… or… really anything more than eating and living daily life… or idioms.
I didn’t realize how complicated I felt about my origin and background until I went to university in Canada, the country of my citizenship… partially because I lived in Canada nowhere near as long as I had lived in the US and Taiwan up to that point in my life. A typical conversation went like this:
New friend (NF): So, where are YOU from?
Me: I’m from Taiwan.
NF: So, you are Taiwanese.
Me: No… I’m Chinese.
NF: So, you are from China?
Me: No, I was born in Taiwan.
NF: So you are…Taiwanese?
Me: NO! I’m definitely not Taiwanese!
NF: I’m confused.
Me: [Background about Republic of China and Communist China as I understood it in my limited way. As I never really studied it in school… only learned about it through my parents.]
NF: Uh, okay. But why is your English so good? It sounds native.
Me: Oh, my English is better than my Chinese.
NF: It is? Why?
Me: [Background about leaving Taiwan when I was 3 and moving around in California and then returning to Taiwan at age 12.]
NF: So you’re American?
Me: No, I’m Canadian.
NF: But you lived in the US?
Me: Yes, but we immigrated to Canada in between.
Yeah. So, I was sort of treated like an international student, until I opened my mouth. Then people just assumed I was Canadian. But my Canadian knowledge was very limited. I actually knew a lot more about American history than anything else due to going to an American school where we studied American history in grades 10 and 11.
NF: Let’s watch hockey this weekend!
Me: Uh, okay! Sounds… fun…
NF: blah blah blah, the Kings, blah blah, the Great One, blah blah…?
Me: The… Great… One?
NF: You don’t know who the Great One is?!?!?!?!?
NF: Wayne Gretzky!
Me: Sure! Wayne Gretzky! (Eek?!?!?!?)
NF: [Looks quizzically at me, like, what kind of Canadian are you anyway?!?!?!?]
To be honest, I felt neither here nor there. I never felt like I was ‘in’ an ‘in group’ because I am always an outsider. I’m not really ‘local’ anywhere. No one truly ever understood my background. I moved around approximately every one or two years by the time I was 25. I was really good at surviving and adapting to a new environment right away… but I wasn’t very comfortable getting too close to people.
I’ve both felt very protective of people from Taiwan, but at the same time, did not want to insult people from China. The whole issue around the economy and independence is political and I didn’t like politics. And while I have experienced some anti-Chinese racism and challenges, for the most part, I have felt fortunate. I don’t fit with the Taiwanese group, I don’t fit with the Chinese group… and I don’t quite fit in with the expats.
As I contemplated this, I realized that we all feel this way, we just use different categories. We can feel ‘out’ due to our height, weight, gender, socio-economic status, schools we went to, clubs we didn’t join, athletic prowess (or lack of!), and… and… and…!
The answer is to find people we connect with, not feel rejected or left out by groups we don’t join. We can find people who care about the same things, people who also have racially mixed kids, working moms, Untigering parents, third culture kids, people who love Hamilton, neighbours whose kids go to the same schools… I’m Chinese, Not Chinese. I’m Canadian, Not Canadian. But actually, I’m Chinese-Canadian and lots of other things… and yet not any label. I’m just me.
You be you. I’ll be me. And when we come together, let’s have a good time.
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.