The Hispanic-Asian conundrum

In high school I had a Freshman-level Spanish class taught by an old crotchety white teacher who loved to drone on about courting young Mexican girls back in the day. That was as exciting as his class ever got. He was the most boring old geezer to ever teach one of my classes and his lessons were interminable. It was Hell and no one wanted to be sitting there. But there was a student in that class who always acted up. He was always talking and laughing really loudly, not listening, not caring in the slightest about the class and not afraid to demonstrate it. Once, the teacher, having had enough of him, sent the student to the principal’s office. As he walked out the door he yelled “you old fart!” and we all sat in bemused silence. The teacher continued as if nothing had happened (and it’s possible he didn’t hear because that was rapidly dwindling as well). On the surface, this does not seem like the most remarkable story. This sort of thing happens all the time, and it did. No, you see, what made this unusual is that the student in question, the trouble-making ruffian, was Japanese. A substantial ratio of my high school student body was Asian, but it was primarily Japanese. They were the archetypal Asian image: reserved, studious, conscientious, restrained, obedient. And then there was “B.” He stands out in my memory because of this simple fact. He was one of the few Asians I ever knew who acted out and openly rebelled. Up until this period, my image of Asians was one of parentally-enforced meek obedience.

Due to my geographical origins, I grew up with lots of Asians, mostly Japanese, Koreans and Chinese. I’ve know so many (and an ex-wife) that I consider myself familiar with their cultures and values. Asian conformity and obedience is a powerful and tremendous force which hovers over Asian children from the moment they are born. Asian parents usually come in pairs because divorce is not common in their culture. Asian parents (Amy Chua notwithstanding) are ferociously demanding and unmerciful as a prison warden. They demand utter abidance of rules and standards. This strict conformity molds children who have tremendous stores of focus and detailed attentiveness. Several of my Asian acquaintances are shocked when I relate childhood tales of petulance on my part. I argued with my parents, I rebelled, I disobeyed…all the crap that most Asian children could not get away with (in one piece). Hence, they learned quickly to never question, never openly doubt, and within this stringent framework of behavior and obsequious capitulation to parental rule, Asian children learn to channel their existence into a resolute tunnel of academic and societal advancement and excellence.

One of the resulting cultural anchors Asians struggle with is the oft-cited opinion that their culture is neither creative nor trailblazing. The putative Asian image is one of harried diligence and refined conformity existing within the oppressive borders of etiquette and laws. That the Asian culture’s aggressive intellect excels at that which is already created. That the Asian mind perfects and makes the mediocre better. But this is offset by the perception that Asians lack the ability to think “outside the box.” This cultural sense of allegiance and conformity, passed on from generation to generation, stifles creativity and originality in its present incarnation. Where do I stand on this? I tend to agree with this archetype. The cultural Asian model is restrained and conservative. Flamboyance and wild abandon are tempered or neutered. Asian kids are generally repressed but unbelievably focussed. When your cultural lineage is structured like this how can it be a surprise that you treat society, which ultimately is a stand-in for your parents, with the same crippled respect as you would your own father and mother? Having been shaped by overbearing and demanding parents, innovative approaches are stillborn. As such, I always shared a distinct kinship with many of my Asian friends for this reason. I found I shared many of their values of restraint and reason. Of caution and temperance…but.

And a big but.

I come from a culture which seems nearly the antithesis to the Asian I just described.
Mexican culture is outward.

Mexican culture revels in its own overpowering and intimidating sense of joie de vivre. Mexican culture lives for today. We rarely consider the future. Native American Indian society was not tremendously occupied with the linear procession of time. Time, as a non concept, as an “anti-concept,” was clearly bestowed upon the Mexican persona. Mexican children are not restrained in the least. They act out, they argue, they talk back, they question. They fight. Mexican parents typically lose control of their children on day 1. The concept of a “tiger mom” in my culture is a bit laughable because Mexican parents ultimately ooze jelly-like soft-hearted warmth for their children. I dare you to spend an afternoon in a typical Mexican household and you’ll be amazed by the shouting and yelling on the part of angry parents. Yet, in the long run, these same parents will spoil their children in every way possible (financially, emotionally, spiritually). Unlike the Asian household, fear or the threat of force was never inculcated early on. There is no iron-fisted patriarch or matriarch. As Mexican children, we get away with a lot. This lenience shapes our world view. It evolves into a distinct lack of material, Western discipline. Quite contrary to the Asian world-view. Such an environment molds generations of free-wheeling and undisciplined wanderlust. In another era, another land, perhaps it would work. But this is 21st Century commericalist, coporatist America. It does not share these values.

“IQ” follows mental rigor and training. I don’t believe IQ is a valid measure of raw intelligence. It is impossible for humans to devise a truly environment-free quantification of human intelligence because ultimately, language and conscious perceptions must be used to institute and extract the test. IQ scores are ultimately trampled by Schrodinger’s feline metaphor. That which is used to measure intelligence inevitably distorts the results. As a measure of learned mental acuity, IQ is wonderful. As a measure of innate intelligence…who knows.

I consider myself relatively fortunate in that my childhood exposed me to many cross-cultural worlds most people do not experience. For a period on my 20s and 30s, I “hung out” and was close friends with Asian and White guys who earned advanced degrees from UCLA & UC Berkeley, while at the same time, hanging out with crack-snorting Mexican dudes with “cry today, laugh tomorrow” tattoos and their massive forearms. I’ve seen both sides of this ivy fence. I’ve existed intimately within each world, and I feel safe in asserting that intelligence is real but its manifested human range is too trivial in pragmatic terms as to have much inherent value.