The children of Asian migrants routinely outperform other students in exams, dominate selective school intakes, and win more places at prestigious universities. Their achievements spark debate about migrant parents ‘pushing too hard’, symbolised by the obsessive ‘tiger mother’ stereotype. 

UTS academic Christina Ho is a recent recipient of the UTS Medal for Excellence in Teaching and Research, and she’ll be speaking at a panel event to launch the new RES Hub space on Wednesday May 5th. In this Q&A, she shares more about her research into Asian migrant parents’ approaches to education, and how aspirations for their children’s future reinforce anxieties about being newcomers in an unequal society.

Introducing Christina Ho

Christina Ho is an Associate Professor and co-Discipline Coordinator, Social and Political Sciences, within the Communication program in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). Christina researches migration, cultural diversity, citizenship and identity, and has focused particularly on Chinese migration, Muslim diasporas and migrant youth and belonging. 

What’s the main focus of your research?

Sometimes I characterise my work as a study of ‘tiger mothers’; it’s a common stereotype of the pushy Asian parents who force their children to study all the time. I wanted to understand how true these stereotypes are, where that kind of behaviour comes from and how it has raised so much misunderstanding between different members of our community.

In recent years the escalation of migration from Asia has transformed the face of our education system in some ways, with the children of Asian migrants disproportionately represented in the elite, selective school population. Many people don’t understand why Asian parents approach parenting and education differently to non-Asians in Australia. That’s given rise to some anxiety, even resentment against Asian migrants for being ‘tiger parents’. They are accused of pushing their kids too hard, which means others are being left behind.

Earlier migration trends tended to include working class migrants who were not a threat to the white, educated middle class population. Now, however, anxiety about migration is added to anxiety about schooling, and educational anxiety is becoming racialised. And for migrants, aspiration and anxiety are the twin motivations that I see as driving this so-called ‘tiger parenting’.

What do you personally find most interesting in your research?

A lot of my work is drawn from my personal experience as a migrant in this country. I’ve always been interested in how that affects your life chances and issues around diversity and equality in this country. That’s what drew me to looking at experiences of migrants in the education system.

The questions raised here will also be familiar to people who live in cities like Sydney and Melbourne, where there’s cultural diversity but also a lot of competition and anxiety in education. The education system has become so competitive and hierarchical with our selective schools, private schools and partially selective schools; the arising aspirations and anxieties in this environment really play into our ideas about race, ethnicity and culture.

What surprised you most in your recent research? 

I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing Asian and non-Asian/Anglo parents of high school students who are academically elite, as well as the children themselves. They talked about how their children got into those schools and what their experiences were along the way.

I’ve been surprised by the level of ‘racialised resentment’ about Asian parenting, the anxiety about non-Asian kids not getting opportunities, and parents feeling like the ‘tiger mothers’ are cheating or ‘gaming’ the system, somehow.

It was also surprising how little understanding there has been from the non-Asian side about why those ‘tiger mums’ behave the way they do. Meanwhile, there is a sense among Asian migrants that ‘we have to work harder than everyone else’ because the future of the family depends on it. Education is considered as a kind of insurance policy and is taken very seriously.

How does your research connect with your teaching?

I teach the Social and Political Sciences major in the Bachelor of Communication, and we focus a lot on issues around social inequality, cultural diversity and the pressing social policy issues of the day. There’s a lot of organic overlap between what I research and what I teach.

The work I’ve done with migrant communities really helps me to illustrate the issues we discuss in the social sciences, and I’m able to use case studies and share stories from my research. We might look at the education system as a social institution, for example, which can open up opportunities but also replicate inequalities. When we link the topic to something so close to students’ lives and experiences like this, the class discussions really explode!

What do you hope to see as a result of your research?

By explaining where the ‘tiger parent’ stereotype is coming from, I want to provide the understanding to help people have productive conversations with each other. I would also like to ask some challenging questions to Asian-Australians too, as a fellow Asian migrant. Can we finally afford to become a bit more relaxed, to loosen up a bit and allow Asian Australian kids to have a broader educational experience than just striving for that 99.9 ATAR?

Overall, our education system is very hierarchical, and choosing the right school has become this mammoth exercise. I want to ask what we as a community can do, and also what government policy can do to try and address that.

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Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash

  • I really enjoyed the bridge building elements of your article, Christina. “By explaining where the ‘tiger parent’ stereotype is coming from, I want to provide the understanding to help people have productive conversations with each other.” Isn’t this so true about SO many aspects of social engagement?!

  • Great article. I look forward to the event on May 5th – one of many interesting sessions that makes up the RES Hub launch.

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