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On Generational Decline


"Newborn me and my brave parents, twoyears after they arrived in America

One of my greatest fears is family decline. There’s an old Chinese saying that “prosperity can never last for three generations.” I’ll bet that if someone with empirical skills conducted a longitudinal survey about intergenerational performance, they’d find a remarkably common pattern among Chinese immigrants fortunate enough to have come to the United States as graduate students or skilled workers over the last fifty years. The pattern would go something like this:

• The immigrant generation (like my parents) is the hardest-working. Many will have started off in the United States almost penniless, but they will work nonstop until they become successful engineers, scientists, doctors,academics, or businesspeople. As parents, they will be extremely strict and rabidly thrifty. (“Don’t throw out those leftovers! Why are you using so much dishwasher liquid? You don’t need a beauty salon—I can cut your hair even nicer.”) They will invest in real estate. They will not drink much. Everything they do and earn will go toward their children’s education and future.

The next generation (mine), the first tobe born in America, will typically be high-achieving. They will usually play the piano and/or violin.They will at tend an Ivy League or Top Ten university. They will tend to be professionals—lawyers, doctors, bankers, television anchors—and surpass their parents in income, but that’s partly because they started off with more money and because their parents invested so much in them. They will be less frugal than their parents. They will enjoy cocktails. If they are female, they will often marry a white person. Whether male or female, they will not be as strict with their children as their parents were with them.

• The next generation (Sophia and Lulu’s) is the one I spend nights lying awake worrying about. Because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents, this generation will be born into the great comforts of the upper middle class. Even as children they will own many hardcover books (an almost criminal luxury from the point of view of immigrant parents). They will have wealthy friends who get paid for B-pluses. They may or may not attend private schools, but in either case they will expect expensive, brand name clothes. Finally and most problematically, they will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice. In short, all factors point to this generation being headed straight for decline.

Well, not on my watch. From the moment Sophia was born and I looked into her cute and knowing face, I was determined not to let it happen to her, not to raise a soft, entitled child—not to let my family fall.

That’s one of the reasons that I insisted Sophia and Lulu do classical music. I knew that I couldn’t artificially make them feel like poor immigrant kids. There was no getting around the fact that we lived in a large old house, owned two decent cars, and stayed in nice hotels when we vacationed. But I could make sure that Sophia and Lulu were deeper and more cultivated than my parents and I were. Classical music was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness. It was a way for my children to achieve something I hadn’t. But it was also a tie-in to the high cultural tradition of my ancient ancestors.

My antidecline campaign had other components too. Like my parents, I required Sophia and Lulu to be fluent in Chinese and to be straight-A students. “Always check your test answers three times,” I told them. “Look up every word you don’t know and memorize the exact definition.” To make sure that Sophia and Lulu weren’t pampered and decadent like the Romans when their empire fell, I also insisted that they do physical labor.

“When I was fourteen, I dug a swimming pool for my father by myself with a pick and shovel,” I told my daughters more than once. This is actually true. The pool was only three feet deep and ten feet in diameter and came in a kit, but I really did dig it in the backyard of a cabin near Lake Tahoe that my father bought, after saving up for years. “Every Saturday morning,” I also loved to harp, “I vacuumed half the house while my sister did the other half. I cleaned toilets, weeded the lawn, and chopped wood. Once I built a rock garden for my father, and I had to carry boulders that were over fifty pounds each. That’s why I’m so tough.”

Because I wanted them to practice as much as possible, I didn’t ask my daughters to chop wood or dig a pool. But I did try to make them carry heavy objects—overflowing laundry baskets up and down stairs, garbage out on Sundays, suitcases when we traveled—as often as I could. Interestingly, Jed had the opposite instinct. It bothered him to see the girls loaded down, and he always worried about their backs.

In imparting these lessons to the girls, I’d constantly remember things my own parents had said to me. “Be modest, be humble, be simple,” my mother used to chide. “The last shall come first.” What she really meant of course was, “Make sure you come in first so that you have something to be humble about.” One of my father’s bedrock principles was, “Never complain or make excuses. If something seems unfair at school, just prove yourself by working twice as hard and being twice as good.” These tenets too I tried to convey to Sophia and Lulu.

Finally, I tried to demand as much respect from the girls as my parents did of me. This is where I was least successful. Growing up, I was terrified of my parents’ disapproval. Not so with Sophia and especially Lulu. America seems to convey something to kids that Chinese culture doesn’t. In Chinese culture, it just wouldn’t occur to children to question, disobey, or talk back to their parents. In American culture, kids in books, TV shows, and movies constantly score points with their snappy backtalk and independent streaks. Typically, it’s the parents who need to be taught a life lesson—by their children.



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