China Power

China’s Incognito Parents

Two books offer some surprising insights into the minds of Chinese parents – and why they make the decisions they do.

After a long and hard year in Beijing, I'm back in Toronto reading and reflecting. Before I left Beijing in early July, I had finished student recruitment. At the end of our admissions camp, we admitted 40 students, but the top half turned us down to attend other international divisions. Hurt and angry, I became even more so when my staff told me that many of our programme’s parents, even though they had praised our English reading programme, wanted us to focus on standardized test preparation in year two. 

All summer, I struggled to explain these two major setbacks. I thought I had made a compelling case that the best way to learn English is by reading, and in so doing our students would thrive on the US college campus, and develop a life-long habit of reading English newspapers and books so they could succeed in the global economy. Otherwise, our students would enter college allergic to books, a disability and fear that would trap them in a Chinese bubble in both college and in life. 

So why do Chinese parents insist on their children taking test prep courses rather than reading books to prepare for the SAT?  Why are they so obsessed with getting their child into college when so many American and Chinese college graduates can’t find work?  Why are our parents unhappy with our programme even though their child has become more motivated and diligent?    

Ultimately, I can’t reconcile our parents’ thinking and their actions. I honestly believe our parents want the best possible education for their child, but I also see them hampering our efforts. What’s going on? 

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A new book Incognito by the neuroscientist David Eagleman offers an intriguing possibility – that I can’t figure out Chinese parents because their thinking is controlled by their conscious self, while their actions are controlled by their subconscious self. The conscious self is how we want to appear in public, but the subconscious self is the repository of our experiences and our emotions, and ultimately that’s where our true self lies.    

David Eagleman explains that the conscious self is the CEO, while the subconscious is the corporation. The CEO sets goals and direction, but it’s the subconscious that plans, organizes, and executes. To accomplish its mission, the subconscious has many parts that arrange themselves as a ‘team of rivals’ that struggle for primacy while always working towards the goals established by the CEO, explains Eagleman. Evolution has discovered this to be the most efficient relationship for two reasons: plausible deniability (to maintain our social position and reputation), and effectiveness (to be able to obtain what is in our best self-interest).

Two concrete examples to illustrate the interplay between the conscious and subconscious can be found in William Cohan’s new book Money and Power, which explains how Goldman Sachs survived the 2008 sub-prime crisis. As its CEO Lloyd Blankfein became wary of Goldman’s sub-prime positions, the book suggests Goldman Sachs bundled the riskiest mortgages to create securities, sold them to clients, and bet that they would fail. What made such subterfuge possible is said to be the fact that Goldman Sachs was a ‘team of rivals,’ with the clear-eyed traders cynically shorting the securities, while the silver-tongued investment bankers first convinced themselves that the securities were great investments before selling them to their clients. If Blankfein had coordinated everything, the various departments couldn’t have worked together by working against each other, and he couldn’t have denied fraud allegations with a straight face, which is what he subsequently did.             

Then consider the case of Hank Paulson, who was number two at Goldman Sachs when he along with John Thornton and John Thain launched a palace coup to topple Jon Corzine. Once in power, Paulson was supposed to gradually relinquish power to Thornton and Thain, but he is said to have discovered he liked having power so much he pushed out the two Johns.   

According to this view, Paulson rose to the top because he let his Machiavellian auto-pilot take control while his conscious self-maintained a trusting, naïve veneer: If Paulson ever let on he had a greater ambition than selflessly serving the best interests of Goldman Sachs, he could have never ousted Corzine.

So let’s return to Chinese parents, and figure out not who they think they are, but who they really are. After a year of dealing with our Chinese parents, here’s how I think they think: ‘I love and want what’s best for my child. College in America will prepare my child for the global economy, and he’s fortunate to be learning creativity and critical thinking skills at Peking High International.  Yes, Mr. Jiang may be a bit too naïve and idealistic, but I trust him to have the best interest of my child at heart.’

But what does their subconscious believe? The trick to understanding their subconscious is not to peer inside their mental landscape because it’s a ‘team of rivals’ designed to mislead and beguile. The trick is to see the Chinese landscape they’ve witnessed these past 50 years, and the emotions they’ve absorbed as life lessons:  the disillusionment brought on by the tyrannical chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the fear wrought by the uncertainty and inequality of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the greed created by the corruption and moral bankruptcy of Jiang Zemin’s China, and now the angry pride unleashed by China’s dizzying and intoxicating economic rise.

At a subconscious level, here’s what our programme’s parents really believe: ‘I succeeded because of my ability to maintain and manage guanxi, not because of critical thinking skills and creativity. My child will succeed based on his ability to conform to Chinese society and to obey me.  My child will study in the United States to meet other rich and powerful Chinese. That my child crams for the SAT rather than read books and that he lives in a Chinese bubble will prove to me and to Chinese society that he’s a loyal and obedient Chinese, and that will ensure his transition back to China after he’s bored with the bright lights of New York and the blackjack tables of Las Vegas. Why should my child learn English and American cultural values when China is superior to the West?  Creativity and critical thinking skills are Western imports, and ought to be distrusted as dangerous influences.’

So while consciously our Chinese parents are supportive of our pedagogy (they have no choice), they will subconsciously do whatever they can to sabotage our efforts, including complaining about how much their child reads in English, arranging SAT prep classes on weekends, and questioning our pedagogy to other parents who are considering enrolling. 

And this sabotage can only become more blatant and destructive, as our programme matures and strengthens. So what do I do now?  Um, I don’t know – maybe my subconscious can figure something out.

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P.S.  In last week’s posting, two readers commented that the posting was intellectually lazy. In hindsight, I now see the posting was a rant, so thanks to my readers for keeping me intellectually honest.