This post reviews Laura Li-Hua Sun, “Dare to Home School: Faith and Cultural Experiences of Chinese Christian Mothers” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Biola University, 2007). [Link to dissertation here]
Sun begins by explaining how important formal education is to the Chinese, who see it as a means of maintaining their privileged status as “children of the dragon” over other people groups. Yet despite this powerful cultural tradition, some Chinese Christian mothers are choosing homeschooling. Why?
Sun describes how for many “overseas born” Chinese mothers, homeschooling is becoming a way to navigate the cultural shifts that come with immigration to the United States and the development of a Christian worldview. Homeschooling becomes a “sacred path” for these mothers as they work out what it means for them and their children to be Chinese, American, and Christian.
Sun is uniquely placed to do this study. In remarkable self-disclosures she describes her own schooling in Taiwan, her conversion to Christianity, her immigration, and her journalism among Chinese immigrants.
Sun conducted interviews with 100 homeschooling Chinese mothers, whom she found using a “snowball” method, meaning that once she found one mom she asked that one for referrals and so on. The result of this approach, however, is that Sun’s sample is really one-sided. A large number of the mothers interviewed here are affiliated in some way with Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute International (ATI) and/or his Institute for Basic Life Principles. I describe Gothard’s work in detail in my book on homeschool history, but let me say here that his influence has been especially powerful in the more aggressively political side of the homeschooling movement that would like to restore the United States to what it considers to be the U.S.’s historic Christian roots. Gothard has long been a very controversial and divisive figure in Evangelical Christianity.
Sun describes how Gothard has become quite popular both in China and among Chinese immigrants. Her sensitive and rich exposition of Chinese American sensibilities makes it clear why so many of them are drawn to Gothard and to Michael Pearl’s No Greater Joy Minsitries. Both of these men are outspoken advocates of traditional gender roles, of submission to patriarchal leadership, and of strong discipline. Most of these Chinese immigrants already possess such traditional attitudes and find the views of these Christian leaders consistent with the conventions of their Chinese background. Many Chinese, Sun argues, see Gothard as a sort of American Confucius.
Many Chinese born mothers become understandably disillusioned by the individualism and lack of concern for elders displayed by American youth, and they worry that their own children will imbibe these same sentiments. The vast gulf separating Chinese immigrants from their children is the subject of many of novelist Amy Tan’s well-known works. Homeschooling for Chinese mothers is a way to try and avoid the Amy Tan syndrome–the generational breakdown and the failure to transmit Chinese cultural values in the New World.
But these mothers are not motivated only by a desire to perpetuate old world customs and hierarchies. They are also self-consciously counter-cultural. Their Christianity causes them to challenge the success ethic of traditional Chinese culture, exchanging for it a focus on missionary work and preparation for heaven. Less self-consciously, but clear in Sun’s description, these women are beginning to find their own voices, as they bond together in support groups and take on the responsibility for educating their children themselves. Ironically perhaps, homeschooling is thus an effort to preserve traditional gender roles even as it provides an outlet for these foreign-born mothers to transcend the roles into which they were born.
I could go on describing more of the rich details Sun provides on this fascinating homeschooling demographic. Her dissertation is unlike anything I’ve ever read–partly scholarship, partly autobiography, partly journalistic foray into various topics as they occur to her. I don’t know how she got her committee to pass it, but I’m glad they did. It’s hard to summarize any clear conclusions from her rambling study, but it’s so full of fascinating details and asides that one forgives its untidiness. Though I’m not sure how representative these women are of Chinese American homeschoolers more generally, what Sun provides is fascinating to read. I strongly recommend that anyone wanting to know more about Chinese American mothers or, indeed, about Chinese immigrant culture generally, click through to the study itself and check it out.