Great Expectations

It’s hardly a secret that some Asian parents have a notorious reputation for expecting a great deal of their children; it is a feature of Eastern parenting been parodied, persecuted and sometimes even praised. A catalogue of acceptable careers as devised by generations of Asian parents who ‘definitely know better than you’ includes:

  • Medicine / Dentistry / Pharmacy
  • Law
  • Engineering
  • Economics / Business / Maths / Accounting

The list for many Asian parents ends here. Telling your father that you wish to study music or the arts is often simply not an option and many children are indoctrinated with the idea that pursuing science or vocational degrees is the only guarantee of success. Languages are particularly controversial; I imagine that expressing a desire to study French or Spanish at university would have quickly been rejected with the reasoning that I could learn Punjabi free. Although many parents have adopted a more liberal approach and instead encourage their children to define their career paths by what they enjoy, in my personal experience only a rare and lucky minority can claim to have parents that fall into the latter category.

As parents pray that their children will forge careers in high-paying and highly-competitive fields, it leaves the younger generation under a great deal of pressure. As a child I never dreamt of being a ballerina or an astronaut (albeit for a while I was utterly resolute that I would one day be a dolphin); they were far-fetched careers without tangible benefits. Instead I focused on my literacy, numeracy and colouring in homework (always endeavouring to stay strictly within the lines) because I had been advised time and time again by everyone older than me that doing well in school was the only thing that would get me far in life.

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There’s no point denying there’s a certain credibility to this fact but I wonder how beneficial it is to give young children constant reminders of their need to excel in their education, particularly as many parents forget that straight A*s aren’t achievable by everyone, despite their best efforts. A well known joke of the child that rushes home to tell their parents that they got 97% in an exam, only to be asked what happened to the other 3% rings too true.  I, like many others, genuinely dreaded marks less than 90% and I almost pity the teachers that had to mark my work, as the high expectations I had of myself were clearly evident.

We all know how vulnerable, impressionable and susceptible to environmental stress children are but when it comes to education, this all seems to be disregarded. Government assessments now start from the delicate of age of seven and a wonderful letter penned by a primary school headteacher outlines just how little these tests tell us. Nevertheless the stage at which children discover stress seems to decrease with each generation. The highest priorities still lie with studies of course, hence the thousands of pounds many parents now invest into their three-year-old’s schooling but if acing exams isn’t enough, children are now expected to take up a musical instrument, play a county-level sport and have a burgeoning group of friends. Many of my youngest cousins seem to have busier schedules than me and while there are very real concerns of how much time some groups of children spend in front of the television, I worry more about the children who don’t even have time for television in between their extracurricular activities and supplementary tuition.

The pressure originates from our families and the competitive culture that made the four-thousand mile journey from sub-continental Asia with our ancestors. Cars, big houses and jewellery count for a lot but the absolute measure of success lies with how well you raise your children. Eventually parental pressure evolves into a pressure we place on ourselves. No one told me to revise for sixteen hours a day in the month before my last set of exams and indeed, my parents actively discouraged it as it became clearer that my health was suffering as consequence. Yet the need to do well has become so ingrained that I was willing to sacrifice basic requirements such as sleep and food and I found myself in a self-imposed exile from fun.

Goodness-Gracious-Me-2014

These pressures are by no means confined to members of Asian minorities and without providing spoilers, Dead Poets Society explores these issues and demonstrates that there is much more to life beyond a classroom. It also depicts Neil – the film’s alternate protagonist – who is unable to bear his father’s hopes for his prospective career in medicine, when his enjoyment and talents lie in theatre. Society expects to hear and frowns upon stories of failed actors and musicians but we turn a blind eye and even offer sympathy to the numbers of medical school dropouts and failed investment bankers because it seems as though attempting to succeed in a the latter professions is worth more than in the former – a concept which confounds me. If your talents lie in the arts and not in a laboratory, who is anyone to compare the value of two entirely different sets of skills?

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I love my degree and I am pleased to say that I chose to study medicine despite my parents better efforts to discourage me from it but in truth, I only ever really considered vocations from the ‘Unofficial Asian Career Guide’. I expect that if there was a recipe for success, it would plainly state that equal measures of passion and ability are required. There is no assurance of success in anything but if your heart doesn’t lie in whatever you choose to pursue, then there is a great deal of potential for failure. Perhaps it would be prudent therefore to stop limiting the potential of the younger generations by ushering them along predetermined paths and instead encouraging them to forge a path for themselves in whatever their imagination conceives.

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2 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. I really enjoyed reading this- particularly the notions of ‘success’ and the historical rootedness of high expectations – they stem from our parents’ and grandparents’ migration stories of sacrifice to some degree. You may have read Gladwell’s Outliers book? An interesting read on notions of ‘success’.

    • Thanks for the kind words and for the recommendation. I haven’t but it’s been mentioned to me before – I’m sure it’ll be a welcome addition to my bookcase!

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