The lives of elite Chinese immigrant children are dictated by accomplishment, productivity, and a complete lack of social interaction. As a child of elite Chinese immigrant parents, I often fantasized about joining the Israeli army or a Siberian labor camp for an easier life. Throughout my teenage years, my school days started at six in the morning and ended well after midnight. During my 19-20 waking hours, I was expected to go to school, study, and practice piano nonstop; under no circumstance was I permitted to waste time by hanging out with friends or watching TV after school. According to my parents, time spent not working was time wasted.
For those of you who didn’t have elite Chinese immigrant parents, this sort of upbringing sounds likes a joke or exaggeration, but I assure you it is neither. Here’s a list detailing exactly how real it is.
10 things my Chinese parents made me do:
1. practice piano and violin for hours every day
If you are the child of Chinese immigrants, you played the piano and/or violin, or, if you were hopeless at both, viola. When I turned four, I started weekly piano lessons with the chairman of the piano department at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in China. My grandmother picked me up early from preschool and made sure I practiced three hours every day. After I moved to the US, my parents took over, listening closely during my lessons, making me practice from the moment I came home from school until dinnertime, and spanking me when I didn’t cooperate.
Here was my practice schedule growing up:
. Hours Practiced Per Day Hours Practiced Per Day
Age in Years During the School Year on Weekdays During the Summers and Weekends
2-4 0.5 0.5
4-6 3 3
7-12 3.5 5-6
13-15 4-4.5 6-10
16-18 6-8 8-10
For a more detailed description of how I was trained, check out How to Raise a Concert Pianist–Chinese Immigrant Style. Between ages 6 and 13, I also practiced 1-2 hours of violin every day during the summers but was allowed to quit in high school to focus solely on piano.
2. avoid all sports involving hand or arm contact with hard surfaces
My hands were for piano and piano only. For an active six-year-old, this ruled out basketball, volleyball, tennis, and, most distressingly, gymnastics. My dad enforced this by publicly yelling at me on the rare occasions I came within arm’s reach of a basketball, volleyball, or tennis racquet. I was also not allowed to handle knives, light fires, open large jars or cans, or carry heavy objects. I was, however, allowed to figure skate, dance, swim, play soccer, and run.
3. homework outside of school
For Chinese parents, nothing is scarier than the idea of their kids scoring lower than 100 percent on any test at school. To ensure that this does not happen, extracurricular workbooks are mandatory from kindergarten on. Before my mother discovered an academic workbook store in our town, my parents hand-wrote 50-100 math problems for me every night. I had to get all the answers right by the second try, and I was not allowed to score lower than 90 percent on the first try. Starting in second grade, my mother bought workbooks in arithmetic, math word problems, logic, grammar, reading comprehension, and general science, and I had to complete assignments from each book every night. The whole process took about 2 hours. This continued until middle school, when they felt I had enough school-given homework to keep me busy.
Later on, “Study for your SAT!” was a daily refrain that began my sophomore year of high school and lasted until spring semester of senior year. I somehow managed to weasel my way out of this one after reading one or two study guides, so when I got a 1500, my parented lamented that I had ruined my chances for college. I don’t think they’ve forgiven me for missing that 1600 mark.
4. math tutoring at home
The sky is blue, the Pope is Catholic, and the Chinese do math. Throughout elementary and middle school, my dad sat next to me every night while I did my math assignments. It wasn’t enough for him to know that I did my homework–he had to re-explain in Chinese the concepts my teacher had explained earlier in class and watch every move I made to ensure that I did math the “smart way” and not the “stupid American way.” My dad’s teaching style was not lenient. If I made enough mistakes in the course of the evening, I got the backhand, or, if I made a particularly stupid mistake, he would lift me out of my chair and throw me to the floor. I got pretty good at math during those years.
5. university classes throughout high school
Because, simply put, private math tutoring and extra workbooks were not enough. My mother signed me up for my first university class during my freshman year of high school. It was a music theory course, and I was the only high school kid in the class. Throughout the next four years, I took university courses in nonfiction writing, piano, and math during both the summer and the school year in addition to a full high school course load.
6. part-time job
When I turned 15, my mother contacted one of our local ballet schools and requested them to hire me as a piano accompanist for their classes. Since I already had some notoreity as a competent pianist in my town, I did not need to audition or interview. I filled out a job application, met with the principal accompanist to discuss repertoire, and worked 5-20 hours/week until I went to college.
7. skip sleepovers, movies, dates, parties, and other fun social events
Here’s what my weekday schedule looked like junior year of high school:
5:45-6:30am: wake up, drive to school
2:15-3pm: drive home, eat snack
3-9pm: practice piano
9-9:30pm: eat dinner
1-1:30am: shower, prepare for bed
Socializing was not a priority, as friends were “a waste of time and wouldn’t get me into college.” Growing up, I was rarely allowed to chat on the phone or online. (To this day, I feel anxious whenever I talk on the phone because part of me still thinks that my mother is eavesdropping and yelling at me to finish.) I was not allowed to party or date. During my first three years of high school, I went to a total of zero parties and sleepovers. It wasn’t until spring break of my senior year that I finally found the time and rebelliousness to stay out drinking all night.
8. make a work schedule preceding the rare fun/social event
My parents were not down with the idea of junior prom because a) they thought boys and girls going on dates was completely immoral and b) I had an out-of-state piano competition the week after. To convince them that my work ethic would not lag in the face of one night of fun, I wrote a work schedule accounting for every minute of prom day:
11:30am-4:30pm: practice piano
4:30-5pm: drive to piano lesson
5-6pm: piano lesson
6-6:30pm: drive home
6:30-7pm: prepare for prom
7pm-12am: dinner and prom
12-12:30am: drive home
They grudgingly accepted this proposal but berated me for weeks afterward for practicing five and not six hours of piano.
9. avoid boys like the plague (until college graduation)
My dad told me when I was 16 that dating and sex were immoral because boys will mess up my academic plans and ruin my life. He also told me that if I ever had a high school boyfriend, he would “shoot us both.” I wasn’t sure if he owned a gun but didn’t call his bluff, as I’m sure he would have been happy to do the job with his bare hands.
Platonic guy friends were not really ok either. One of my best friends O, who I met at chemistry camp the summer after freshman year of high school, flew across the country the following year to visit me and another friend from camp. My parents, upon finding out that he was over 10 years old and had a Y chromosome, arranged for him to live in a hostel 3 miles from our house even though we had plenty of room in our house. Prior to his arrival, they informed me that if we hung out in my room, I had to keep the door open. It didn’t matter that I thought he was asexual and wouldn’t have known what to do with a boy behind closed doors anyway. They were furious at me for months after he left for “enticing” him to visit.
10. mandatory trips to China every summer
To those of you who’re thinking, “What the hell is she whining about? China is awesome!” you are absolutely right. China is awesome. And going to China for a month every summer for 12 consecutive years would’ve been a lot more awesome if I’d been allowed to, you know, go out and explore China. For my Chinese parents, however, trips to the motherland meant a) increasing my piano practice time by at least 50 percent on a rickety, out-of-tune piano and b) spending all non-piano time with octogenarian family members who are too old to enjoy life. I was never allowed to go to bars or clubs (and even if I had I wouldn’t have know who to go with), and the only places I was allowed to visit by myself were the library and bookstore. This is how good Chinese kids are supposed to spend their time, my parents said.
Now, whenever my parents ask if I want to accompany them on their next China trip, I’m just glad that I’m old enough to say no.