Over the May 1 holiday I was feeling a little bored so I decided to go furniture shopping. Browsing, actually. I needed something but wasn’t really in the market or mood to buy. I just wanted to have a look.
When I entered the store a young salesperson approached me and, as is typical in China, wanted to follow me around the store with order pad in hand. I brushed him off making it clear that I had no intention of buying anything. And to my surprise and relief he left me alone.
After browsing for a while, however, I did have a question but all of the salespeople, of course, were tied up following other shoppers around. As luck would have it, however, a young sales lady came speed-walking by on her way to who-knows-where and I jumped in her path and asked if she could help.
She immediately looked around to find my requisite sales attendant but not finding anyone hovering nearby asked, in broken but comprehensible English, if my salesperson had gone somewhere. After I explained that I had none, and a moment of her visible astonishment that I had gotten away with that, she smiled and said that she would be happy to help but noted that her English was very poor. I noted, in equally broken, but apparently comprehensible Chinese, that we’d find a way to work out the communication.
And we did. As is always the case. Between her English, which was better than she believed, my elementary Chinese, which is not, and a lot of sign and body language, we got through it. And, of course, we both had smart phones with online translators, which we both resorted to in a pinch. (In response to a question regarding a cabinet she held up the word ‘conjoined’, but I’m actually pretty fluent at translating online translators after all these years, so I immediately knew what she meant.)
And as it turns out the store was having a sale – a pretty big sale, in fact – which is not all that common at this particular store. So, knowing that I would ultimately be in the market for a particular piece of furniture I worked at getting myself in the mood and ultimately decided I would come back the next day – with a wallet this time – and give it some serious consideration.
With sales people the world over I’ve learned not to appear too enthusiastic so I told her I might come back the next day but did ask her for her card, knowing that once you have established a simple communication process with someone with whom you do not share a common language you don’t want to start over with someone new. (Turns out her family name is Wang, a name she shares with approximately 100 million other Chinese according to a 2007 government census.)
So I showed up the next day and showed the card to the young man who literally ran up to me as I walked in the door. (Foreigners are often given this kind of attention by commissioned sales people, unfortunately. The Chinese are outstanding statisticians and know the odds are in their favor if you have round eyes and a big nose and happen to have found your way to China.)
He found Ms. Wang and she began to escort me through the store, stopping along the way to give me a small bottle of water as it was a rather warm and humid day in Beijing. And as we arrived back at the section of the store where I had initially made my queries she began to repeat the answers she had provided the day before. Only this time her English, if not impeccable, was at a notably higher level than it had been just 24 hours before.
Quite literally taken aback by such an abrupt advance in fluency I complimented her on her English and asked how she could have possibly advanced so far in only one day. Had her skills advanced for some inexplicable reason or did she, as I presumed, simply feel more confident – or more motivated (I actually had a wallet this time.) – on this particular day?
At which she went on to explain, smile brilliant across her face, that she had stayed up very late into the evening brushing up on her English knowing that there was some chance that I might return. She felt it important, she said, to show respect for her customers.
Good answer; sale made; commission earned.
I had a bit of a chuckle a few days later, therefore, when I read an article in The Economist entitled, Revenge of the tiger mother. It was about a study by Amy Hsin and Yu Xie, two sociologists from the City University of New York and the University of Michigan, respectively. The study was an attempt to understand the well-documented fact that Asian-Americans achieve at a much higher rate than other ethnic sub-groups in the United States.
Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, famously attributed the achievement gap to harsh (read good) Asian parenting, coining the phrase ‘tiger mother’ and igniting a firestorm of controversy among American mothers offended by the implied racial stereotype of the lax and coddling Western parent.
I do remember, actually, a parent-teacher conference several years ago here in Beijing in which my wife and I shared with my daughter’s teacher her disappointment that her report card scores were not as high as a Chinese boy in her class with whom she was friends. The teacher, an Australian as I recall, immediately noted, “You can’t compare your daughters with the Asian kids. The Asian kids leave school and immediately go into private tutoring whether they need it or not. As an educator it drives me crazy. The kids need much broader development at this age and a little playtime with other kids is a good thing. Your daughter is doing just fine. Tell her not to worry.”
And I also know that one of the biggest social problems facing China today – and this comes from my Chinese friends and colleagues – is the rise of the ‘little emperor.’ These are the only children of China who are quite literally coddled by two parents who were themselves single children, and four grand-parents, all of whom are intent on giving the child ‘a good life’ – often meaning anything he or she wants.
This past weekend, in fact, I ran into a Chinese mother I hadn’t seen in some time and inquired about her young son. She immediately replied, “It’s terrible. He’s almost six and has memorized the phone numbers of his four grandparents, all of whom live within 5 kilometers. He is impossible to discipline. If we tell him no he calls his grandmother without our knowledge. If she says no he calls his other grandmother. And then he starts with the grandfathers. It’s awful.”
At any rate, what Ms. Hsin and Ms. Xie found was that the achievement gap could not be explained by socio-demographic factors or differences in cognitive ability. (It is actually hard to believe that in this day and age anyone would think to test cognitive differences as an explanation for differences in racial or ethnic achievement.)
The most likely explanation, they found, is the simple fact that Asian-Americans work harder at achievement than everyone else, a trait they attribute, in part, to the optimism of first or second-generation immigrants. (Barring special events like the Irish potato famine, isn’t that why people emigrate? The promise of a better life?)
This is no big scientific breakthrough in my mind, unlike the discovery of a new atomic particle or a hidden galaxy. It is, to quote my own dad yet again, common sense.
People work hard for lots of reasons and optimism is certainly one of them. But so is need, lack of alternative, and the example of role models.
I had my first job at 11. When our neighbor offered the use of his power mower after seeing my brother and I mowing the lawn with mechanical hand mowers my father declined, noting, “I have two power mowers already.” And my closest friend, a New Englander who likes to burn wood and could easily afford a dozen wood splitters, still spends many a fall weekend splitting it by hand.
Take any group of successful people and you will find too many differences to find any kind of statistically significant commonalities to their success. With one exception. They all worked hard at whatever it was they achieved.
Thank you, Ms. Wang, for reminding me of that eternal truth.
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