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A son can bear with equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair.
Niccolo Machiavelli

Tiger Dad

I read today the Tiger mom’s husband was backing his wife.  Of course he would.  As the article suggests, these two sure know how to utilize the media to promote their book.  As I read more and more, I think that we are missing the point.  These parents are just guiding their children with a firm hand.  To many of us out there who never had a parent who pushed hard, this may seem like a foreign concept.  It is a fine art.  A balancing act of cultivating, nurturing, and motivating without a rebellion.

When I was young, we were all taught to treat my grandfather with respect.   When you visited my grandfather you had to listen to him speak his philosophies even if you thought they were outdated.  This was a very successful man and he didn’t get to where he was without strong conviction.  He had no education and he somehow raised 6 boys and my mother from the streets of Chinatown to the posh estates of Atherton, CA. All of his sons except his first worked for him in his meat company.  Even his nephews worked for him.  It was a family business.  If you were a male, you were expected to work in my grandfather’s meat packing company.  I remember spending one summer when I was 12 (a year older than my son) that as an 80 pound kid while my friends were on vacation, I pushed around slabs of beef twice my size in a 20 degree refrigerated meet locker slipping and sliding on the discarded fat on the the floor.  My parents knew I’d hate it, but they wanted me to understand what it meant to work hard and to understand what made my grandfather successful.  This was before the movie Rocky ever came out, so there was no Asian glory in pushing around bloody carcasses of beef.  I didn’t earn minimum wage of $3/hr. My grandfather would yell my name at lunch over the speaker to come in and eat a lunch that he made.  That was my pay.  Family worked for my grandfather gratis.  It was a privilege, not a job.   Hard work, family values, and a tight fist with money is what I learned and all I needed to know about my grandfather’s money.  This is something shared amongst many Asian cultures around the world.  It is also shared by the cultures of many of my Caucasian friends who are closer to their heritage and have tight family bonds.

As the first son of the first daughter in a traditional Chinese family, not as much was expected of me, but these letters which I am re-publishing are because of this incident.  When I told my grandfather that I was going to camp the next summer instead of working for him in his freezer, he asked his friend, a successful Asian businessman, for copies of letters he had just written for his own son who had just graduated from Harvard.   My grandfather gave these copies of the letters to my dad in hope that they would inspire me to join the family business.  I never worked at the meat company again, but mostly because I understood that I wasn’t in the direct male lineage of the family.  I spent the next summer helping out for $3/hr at my mother’s gift shop selling jelly beans and gift cards.

My grandfather and his  good friend would always go for long walks or sit down over tea for hours discussing business and the issues of raising young children in the Western world.  They were raising Asian children in a 98% white upper class neighborhood where kids drove Porsches to school and tied tennis sweaters around their necks despite the 75 degree weather.  Another planet to 2 Asian men in their 60s who fought for everything they had.  Both men had multiple sons and a daughter.  The following is a second letter in a series of the three letters written by my grandfather’s friend to his eldest son.  My guess is that these letters were inspired by those long conversations with my grandfather:

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Dear XXXX:

The following statement tells you my concept and philosophy in the disposition of property and money.

Before I came to the United States I had established five trustees, four for each of the children and one for us.  The value of of each child’s trustee is about $250,000.00 and ours is about $1,000,000.00.  The children’s trustees get their income from the investment, such like dividend and interest.  The income of ours will be evenly distributed to you children when it is matured  All the trustees are under the fidelity and management of  XXXXX Bank and will be matured in February 1984.  When mature, the value of each child’s trustee will be about $350,000.00 to $500,000.00.

The above-mentioned property and money which is to be given to the children has been decided, but the remaining of our other property and money has not been decided.  It depends on the followings:

1) Your behavior and attitude with which you treat your parents and your contribution to the family.

2) Your concept and philosophy in utilizing money.  If you expect, after receiving the property and money from us, to enjoy an easy life for yourself, then the chance of receiving the inherited property and money from us is zero.  You may have your enjoyment with the money you earn from your work.

3) If you expect to improve yourself, your skill and knowledge, and to develop some kind of business, then the chance is big.  But it still depends on some other factors.

4) If you expect to utilize our property and money to commit certain contribution to the society and to the country, then the chance will even be bigger.

Anyhow, the distribution of our property and money to you is under certain conditions: 1) to improve yourself, 2) to contribute to the family, and 3) to contribute to society and to the country. Otherwise, you will be very disappointed and it is better not to expect it.

For the time being, I still have not made any will, until I am able to have a full observation of you.

If you want to work the family business, in order to maintain our relationship better than today, you should treat our business as an ordinary outside working institute, i.e. you are only allowed to spend every single penny which is connected with the business.  If you make any expenditure not connected with the business, or you want to get advantage from the company, it will hurt our relationship and I strongly suggest you not do it, even sometimes if sometimes it can get some advantage from income tax.  If you want to get some merchandise and/or facility from the company, you should pay a fair market price.  You may make some special arrangement with me with regards to expenditures which are connected to your personal purpose.  But I still hope this should not happen very often.

In family, I hope you will pay all minor expenses by yourself, such as laundry, clothes, and cosmetic, etc., etc..

PRIVACY.  In order to maintain our happy life, all of us should from the bottom of our hearts fully respect each other’s privacy.  We should pay attention to the following points.  1) We should all treat our friends as mutual friends, and not to interfere with their personal relationships. 2) Ordinary daily life, such as meal time and others, should be complied with family customs, without creating extra work or burden to the family. 3) In order not to let the family worry, we should let the family know our rough schedule, especially our whereabouts when we leave home.

This is my second letter to you, discussing the concept and philosophy in property and money.  This letter will also be distributed to your brothers.  I welcome your  comments, and theirs, on my letters No. 1 and on this letter No. 2 .

Love from,

Your father

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Granted these letters are over 30 years old, but they reflect the culture by which many in my generation were subjected to.  The firm but loving hand.  The family unit is a microcosm of what children are exposed to compared to what they see day to day.  And the gap between the 2 cultures and philosophies grows every day.  It would be only natural for us to be shocked by such dialogue to a young adult today.   Do not get lost in the financial figures (remember those numbers are circa 1978), but consider Paris Hilton’s father sending this letter to his daughter.  Notice how my grandfather’s friend doesn’t even address the fact that his daughter would get a chance to see the letter.  She is treated equally financially, but what is expected of her is not mentioned.  Perhaps that is why Amy Chua became the Tiger Mom.   She had to guess the expectations of achievement to uphold the family values.

I can divulge that while the two younger sons and daughter did not go on to work for their father long term, they are all relatively successful in their own ways.  Unfortunately their parents split up as the mother and father eventually disagreed with the father’s evaluation and expectations of their children.

(To be continued – Letter #3)

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Note: These letters I am publishing are typed with the misspellings and grammatical errors as they were written.  The first letter written in my previous posting was written on April 14, 1978.  The letter in this blog posting was written a week later on April 20, 1978.

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