The Education of Isaiah Chen

 “Victor, how is the house search going?” his mom asked over the phone.

“Its going great mom” gushed Victor.

“What neighborhoods are you looking at?”

“I don't think you've heard of it - east of downtown, near the park where the homeless hang out”

“Victor, don’t worry about buying a nice house, just focus on the neighborhood with the highest- scoring schools”

“What are you talking about mom?  Competitive schooling and supersized suburbia are for Pharisees.  We want Isaiah to reach the city for Christ. The urban center is where the unreached are.”

“I know Isaiah is a just a baby but he will grow fast.  It's never too early to think about schools.  And I can help watch him if Julie want to go back to work”

“Mom, are you even listening to me?  We’re not going to send him to Asian Academic All-Star Factory school.  We’re not even going to send him to Christ Redeemer Jesus Son of God daycare and preschool."

“Really?  I heard they have a great program - how much does it cost?”

“Dude mom, its ridiculously expensive but you’re missing the point.  Julie is going to home school Isaiah until kindergarten.  And in case you were wondering, we’re going to keep hosting missionary families and former addicts because we want him to see what a redemptive lifestyle is all about.”

“That’s good – don’t spend so much money while they’re young.  Save it for high school and college.  A child’s education is not cheap.” his mom concluded. 

“Mom, I‘m sorry Isaiah is crying.  I gotta go.  I love you and I’ll talk to you soon” he said as he hung up the phone. 

Victor let out a deep sigh.  Then he chuckled to himself and went back to washing the dishes.

THE  QUESTION: Victor’s mom is correct about one thing.  A child’s education is not cheap.  It is perhaps the most costly thing a parent can provide.  How to approach our children's education is quite possibly the most vexing question we as Asian American Christians can wrestle with.  Its is more troublesome than dealing with our own education.  Its one thing to be responsible for one’s self but its a whole different ballgame to be responsible for someone else.  And how a family addresses this question reveals their value system.  Our educational background, income, view of education, purpose in life, relationship with parents, and religious convictions all come into play.  And at stake is the future course of a child’s life.  Yet I am appalled at how unreflective many believers are concerning the philosophy of education.  It appears the question has already been answered implicitly and the real struggle is in the execution of the details.  That is backwards.  The approach matters less than the values we are inculcating.  Shouldn’t we be struggling with the underlying values before the details?   

A CHILD OF MY PARENTS: As a 2nd generation Asian American, I often poke fun at how my immigrant parents raised me.  I complain about how my parents made me take SAT classes and withheld affection from my brother and me us unless we brought home straight A's. I know my Asian American peers have similar complaints.  Implicit is the subtle claim that we would never raise our own children in the same way.  We will never sacrifice time with family by working long hours in a stressful job so we can afford a home in a neighborhood with competitive schools.  We will never evaluate our children’s success solely based on his/her test scores and certainly never evaluate a potential school for our children solely based on test scores.  We will never capitulate to the influence of our peers and feel ashamed that we aren’t doing enough to help our kids succeed academically.  We will certainly never compare our kids’ academic performance to their peers.  And we will never act as if academic performance and a degree from prestigious university is tantamount to success and happiness.  As many of peers begin to have children, I hear lip service to these claims but our actions betray a different reality.  I hear all kinds of well-intentioned rationale “I just want what’s best for our kids” and “the schools in that area are NOT good” (as if sending them to a school with mid-level test scores is a death sentence). 

DID WE TURN OUT OK?  When we question the parenting framework adopted from our parents, we tend to think:

“Well, we’ll do what our parents did because after all we turned out ok.”

Really? Are we really ok?  This means our parents did a good job in raising us, particularly in regards to education.  After all, it sounds spiritual – they sacrificed time and money to pay for the finest education possible.  But let’s take a step back.  What does it really mean to be okay? 

If we measure okay as faithful church attending, regular tithing, financially stable, home owners then we are doing fine. But being okay is not the same thing as being a disciple of Jesus.  We are called to an abundant life of disciple-making.  We are called to live out our freedom and joy in the gospel.  For a Christian parent, the goal of a child’s education is to know the LORD.   This cannot not measured by income or educational pedigree or marital status.  Being okay as a Christian has nothing to do with those things and everything to do with our relationship with Jesus.  So then the core question is this: how did our upbringing and education contribute towards our spiritual growth?

At this point, it is too easy to rip on our parents and decry how poor a job they did.  I think the parental report card for most Asian immigrants is mixed.  In Silicon Valley, our well-educated mothers and fathers did an excellent job providing materially for us.  They tried to stay married on our behalf. They made tremendous sacrifices to help us succeed academically. And many of us grew up in Christian households, where we attended church as a family.  But in a morally conscious and performance-driven household, its difficult for us coming out of it to tell exactly what was so messed up about our upbringing.  We are genuinely confused about what is healthy and what is antithetical to the grace of God.  Many of my peers were emotionally starved by Christian parents.   My wife believed being calloused towards others was a normative Christian experience.   

So did we really turn out ok?  Let’s assume we did – that we are indeed growing as believers in the LORD because of our upbringing and education.   Yet I wonder if that is truly the case.  Is it possible our growth in maturity, character, and knowledge was due to the grace of God in spite of our upbringing and not because of it?  My parents, who have grown tremendously as believers in the past decade, often acknowledge this.  And many of us recognize our struggles with toxic shame, fear of failure, lack of affection and intimacy problems are at least partly attributable to our parents. If we're not as okay as we'd like to think, how would we want to school our kids differently?

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