Marvelous mothers

Updated: May 12, 2022 China Daily Print
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Xiu Wei, a technology company employee and part-time piano teacher (right), works at home as her mother helps with her daughter's homework in Singapore. [Photo provided to China Daily]

For those struggling between jiwa and foxi-the terms for parenting models, respectively equivalent to Western concepts of "helicopter and free-range" parenting styles-the documentary series Marvelous Moms is like a mirror that will help Chinese parents examine their own confusion and stress.

Running on the streaming platform Tencent Video since April 21, the documentary follows more than 10 Chinese families shortlisted from more than 100 candidates in China, the United States, Japan and Singapore, exploring a variety of parenting models formed from online trends and traditional values.

Director Jiang Youxi says she got the inspiration in early 2019, when she was shooting a documentary about Chinese students studying in the US.

"I was surprised to find that most people born in the 1990s or later achieved excellence in their overseas campus life. I was curious to figure out how they were raised and how this well-performing generation grew up," Jiang says in an online interview.

During the shooting, Jiang encountered a professor of quantum physics at Yale University, whose views made her realize that China's current public education system, which takes exams as a priority, has a positive impact on students, who can handle setbacks and work hard to pursuing their goals.

"For a long time, a lot of people have viewed 'happy education' as a superior education model," she says, adding that such a theory has been doubted by some American experts like Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in recent years.

Jiang gives an example, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, written by Lukianoff and Haidt, a 2018 best-seller listed by multiple media outlets, including The New York Times and the Financial Times.

The first chapter of the book starts with a famous quote from Chinese thinker Mengzi, also known as Mencius (372-289 BC), which says: "When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him in poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is less competent about."

Lele, a single mother in Dali in Yunnan province, paints with her daughter. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The words from over 2,000 years ago have empowered generations of Chinese to confront challenges on their way to fulfilling their dreams. As a mother of two children, the words resonated with Jiang, and she found its enduring impact reflected on some of the mothers featured in the documentary.

Perhaps easily reminding the audience of Olympic gold medalist Gu Ailing, also known as Eileen Gu, who has been trained on ice from a young age, the first episode turns the lens to Jasmine, a 6-year-old girl who started learning figure skating at the age of 4 and spends six days a week training in a sports center about 100 kilometers from her home in Los Angeles.

Her mother, a native of Changchun, Jilin province, went to the US at 24. Educated in UCLA in the US and Oxford in Britain, the woman with two master's degrees in education is tailoring an unconventional life path for her young daughter, wishing that she might compete in the Olympics in the future.

Aside from the intensive training, Jasmine also takes after-school academic lessons from Chinese online tutoring services and shoots some advertisement flicks arranged by a US acting agency.

"I believe the mother also wants to change stereotypes of overseas Chinese who were once believed to be only good in studies. Interestingly, the audience can see she is clear about playing two 'roles' in her daughter's life-a strict coach when pushing Jasmine to train and a caring mother while not involved in sports," says Jiang, the director.

Shen Rujia, a Shanghai native and internet influencer, helps her son to play cello, one of the routine tasks Shen assigns to her son. [Photo provided to China Daily]

This model-pushing children to a higher level while not neglecting the tender side as a mother-can also be seen in another two tales about Shen Rujia, a Shanghai native and internet influencer who writes popular parenting articles, and Xiu Wei, a Fujian woman who is married to a Singaporean.

On Shen's WeChat account, the mother writes about her life of being a typical "helicopter parent", who spends every night sitting with her primary-school son to see that all routine "tasks" are done. The list ranges from extra homework in subjects like math and English to practicing a musical instrument.

Xiu's example is a reflection of the stressful parental life amid Singapore's elite education. She now lives in Singapore as a technology company employee and part-time piano teacher. Xiu wishes that her 9-year-old daughter joins the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in the future.

To pursue the goal, the girl spends a lot of her after-school time practicing the piano and erhu, a Chinese two-stringed bowed musical instrument, aside from academic tuition and exercises.

Despite such parenting patterns, there are concerns if the children are put under too much pressure. All the episodes of the series, shot for around one year, also reveal that the mothers have sought to balance between pushing studies and maintaining a harmonious relationship with the children.

Jiang says she once thought it might be difficult to persuade families to be on camera, with their most private moments. But she was surprised to find that most mothers her team contacted agreed on the shooting, because they want to get feedback of their parenting methods from the audience.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

Not all the episodes feature a "tiger mom". Modern women's changing attitudes toward love and marriage, and the impact on their children are also visible in the series, exemplified by a single mother in Yunnan province who gives her son and daughter a lot of freedom to follow their hearts.

"The documentary aims to explore the diversity of family education and parenting styles. There are no standard criteria for judging a 'correct' or 'good' education pattern," Jiang says.

"Every child is like a seed. How much sunshine the seed needs and how strongly it can resist the storm will depend on what kind of a seed it is. Just like the Chinese saying 'teaching shall suit each student's capabilities', you should give the children enough patience and care, as well as respect their distinctive personalities."

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