Ahead of OzAsia Festival’s In Other Words fan-favourite Closing Night Debate on Sunday 5 November, comedians and writers Sami Shah and Oliver Phommavanh have given us a sneak peek into their comedic take on this year’s theme: That Australia Needs More Tiger Parents.
It’s a debate that has everything: a country, an animal, parenting styles. And it’s an event so serious that the outcome will be decided by one true judge: audience applause.
Prepare to witness the affirmative team of Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa, Shirley Le, and Sami Shah go up against the negative team of Oliver Phommavanh, Sarah Malik and Jason Chong.
How the tiger parent gets their stripes
By Sami Shah
Okay, first let’s get serious about the “tiger parent”. Much like everything else these days, it’s a phrase that has gotten devalued. A “tiger parent” now is basically any parent who expects even the mildest of conforming to basic rules. I’ve seen parents called tigers for asking their kids to do their homework at all, wondering aloud why their child is failing basic math, or asking their offspring to adhere to a reasonable bedtime. To a generation which is “traumatised” because their parents didn’t tell them they were proud of them multiple times a day, and the only book they’ve ever read was Harry Potter, so everyone is like literally Voldemort right now, a “tiger parent” just isn’t what it used to be.
When Amy Chua wrote her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in 2011, her rules were the kind most Australian children would consider a crime against humanity and run to TikTok to complain about while neglecting their homework to do another goddam dance stitch, or whatever it is they do on there. Chua said her children could never:
- attend a sleepover
- have a playdate
- be in a school play
- complain about not being in a school play
- watch TV or play computer games
- choose their own extracurricular activities
- get any grade less than an A
- not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin
She called these standard “tiger mom” rules, and every mother from India to Vietnam nodded in agreement.
Even those, like myself, who didn’t become doctors and lawyers and engineers and triple PhDs, earned their place in the arts through actual rebellion and oppression. The poem written in the trenches under fire is always better than the one written in a beachfront Airbnb, and similarly the comedian, writer, actor, dramaturge who was told they’re bringing shame to their family and is ruining their lives by chasing a hobby, will make better art than the one who was told to do whatever they want, however they want, because mommy and daddy love their little special munchkin no matter how much they fail.
Why does this matter right now? Australia is uniquely placed in the world today. Here we are; a wealthy, stable nation, with a growing migrant population. Sure, we have some problems. The referendum showed stresses and fissures that many whites thought were in our past, but any person of colour could tell you were definitely always here. Most of our political class is mediocrity heaped upon ineptitude. Our television content is almost entirely composed of realty TV shows and Charlie Pickering and Annabelle Crabb on a loop. Tony Abbott is still a thing. But, of any nation right now, we are poised to enjoy the 21st Century the most. At least be the last to succumb to the kind of far-right fascism everyone else seems to enamoured with.
Australia can, and should, have the finest doctors and lawyers, engineers and quadruple PhDs. We should also have the best artists, writers, comedians, and dramaturges. Tiger parents can get us there. I mean real tigers, the ones who you grow up to write a memoir about, titled “My mother’s cruelty” or something else ungrateful, never quite realising the only reason you have a best seller that’s winning awards is because your tiger of a mother forced you to work on your writing skills instead of wasting your time tiktok’ing. Amy Chua recently said she does have some regrets about her parenting style. Not the entire approach, but some of the things she said in anger, and not saying “I'm so proud of you, and I hope you realize that even though I tend to err on the side of criticism and finding fault, you are so much more talented and brilliant than I ever was. You exceeded my wildest expectations.” These considerations are fine in retrospect, once your children are successfully wealthy, established in their careers, and home-owners. Then, from the safety of their secured futures, it’s actually quite generous to indulge in some pity. But save it until then. Amy Chua did, and you should too.
So, consider this a clarion call then to all the tiger parents of Australia: We need you. We need you to lay down laws, to toss a thong, to tell us we’re bringing shame to the family, and to do it all with the kind of steely determination that would result in a whole generation of achievers, to carry Australia into a future that yearns to hear “I’m proud of you”, but never should.
Australia DOESN’T need more Tiger Parents
By Oliver Phommavanh
If you met me when I was 12 years old, I would have been the typical Asian kid growing up in Australia. I went to three tutoring classes every week and I was training for the Asian Kid Olympics aka the selective school entrance exams. The gold medal would be a ticket into one of these exclusive high schools where you’d be surrounded by other brainy kids and would lead me on a one-way track to a 99 ATAR and becoming a doctor. A job that carried prestige and bragging rights.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t happen.
I messed up my entrance exam and missed out on a spot in a selective school. I went to a normal high school, had average marks and ended up becoming a writer and comedian instead, two jobs that carried no guarantee of getting paid, let alone being successful.
I did feel for my parents though. Whenever they attended gatherings with their friends, they couldn’t compete in a game of ‘my kid is better than yours.’ But I’m thankful that my parents got me off the hook. That sickly feeling of not feeling good enough still lingers in my head, and I channelled that energy into one of my earlier books, Con-nerd, about a Chinese boy who wanted to be an artist but was driven to honour his family by being a doctor.
My Asian friends that I grew up with said that they would never put their own kids through the same academic hamster wheel as they went through, and yet the tutoring industry has exploded over the last 2 decades. There are tutoring classes that guarantee a placement in a selective school or opportunity class, but only if they start at three years old, otherwise it’s too late.
This new generation of tiger parents pile on much more pressure on their kids. They don’t want their kids to become doctors, they want them to excel in everything. They get their kids to get top grades, slay NAPLAN, learn a musical instrument, and pick up a sport that fits into their schedule such as swimming which starts at 7am. The simple game of ‘my kid is better than yours’ has become a spectacle for all to see across social media.
We are so lucky to be in Australia, where you have the freedom to be whoever you want to be, yet these tiger parents are so backward-thinking in how they consider their kids future can be determined with a percentage mark. Tiger parents are telling their kids to excel but where are they accelerating towards? I wrote my sequel Super Con-nerd, where Connor does make it into a selective school and discovers a sensation that he’s never felt before, being average.
I feel for these tiger kids today, because it’s not just the burden of not feeling good enough for their parents that they carry, but also the pressure to pretend that everything is fine.
For every trophy kid that Tiger parents can proudly display, there are countless others who burn out from study in high school. There are many who do their first undergraduate degree to please their parents before doing something they really want to do. It’s amazing how doing a law degree is now an entrance into the field of arts.
Australia doesn’t need any more tiger parents. Kids are already anxious enough without being weighed down with expectations. They don’t need to be pushed. They just want to be heard.
I feel lucky to be doing what I love, which includes meeting kids and telling them to follow their dreams. I get a special kick out of seeing Asian kids who know they can be a writer like me. I’m also glad that my parents can see that I can make a living out of it, as proof of this article, which I assume will be printed and pinned on the fridge door. Or at the very least, screenshot and posted up on their Facebook page. It may not a win a game of ‘my kid is better than yours’ but it’s good enough.
In Other Words: Closing Night Debate
Sunday 5 Nov '23
Banquet Room, Adelaide Festival Centre