I’ve been talking to my friend Wenbo Xu again, quizzing him about all things Chinese as I lie face down, bristling with acupuncture needles. I love these conversations. They’ve become a quite unexpected bonus of my regular visits to him. I mumble my questions through the hole in his treatment table and then wait as he frames his reply. English is a difficult language for him. It fills his mouth awkwardly, making him gnaw and chew at it.
This week, with Amy Chua’s highly divisive book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, making its debut in the UK, we discuss the Chinese approach to parenting and education. The almost fanatical desire for success is a product of the single-child policy, he believes. Six people, two parents and four grandparents, all place their hopes in one child.
Wenbo’s first son, Datong, was eight when they left China. The pressure on children there, the control, was one of the reasons he left, he says. He didn’t want that for his son. (Regular readers of the blog will know that that is just one symptom of the deeper reason for his departure nine years ago: he wished his family to be free, to live in a democracy. See Chinese medicine)
‘And what about when you arrived here?’ He replies that he really noticed the difference, even wondered whether things here had gone too far the other way. ‘So do you think we’re soft in the West?’ ‘Well, the children hardly have any homework!’ He explains that Datong is clever, works hard and gets good reports. He’s top of his class and is going to study medicine, but he probably wouldn’t be at an equivalent level to his cousins in China.
‘But I like that children here can be friends with their parents, they can joke with them. My little boy Luke – he’s two – he calls ‘Daddy, Daddy’ and when I don’t answer he calls me by name. We all laugh. In China that would be shocking. Impossible! My father didn’t speak to me as equal till I had graduated from university and had my job as a doctor.’
Wenbo’s father, I remember from an earlier conversation, had been trained as a teacher and sent off to work in a school in the mountains. He hated it and returned to his village to farm, whereupon he was appointed village teacher. Because of that he was spared re-education under the Cultural Revolution, though not the animosity of some of his neighbours who put up posters denouncing him as an intellectual. Wenbo’s maternal grandfather was not so lucky. He was jailed twice, once in the 1950s, once during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, for having been a member of Chiang Kai-Shek’s government. On his second release from jail the villagers denied him entry to his home and sent him to live in a cowshed. Wenbo remembers being present on the day he was given his house back and the villagers returned his furniture.
I ask him about names. He explains that during the Cultural Revolution many children were given names with the prefix Wu, denoting war. It was a revolution driven by words and slogans and Mao wanted an army of bellicose people mobilised by violent language. But Wenbo’s father valued wisdom over bellicosity and in an act of defiance named his children with the prefix Wen, denoting knowledge. Wenbo means ‘wide knowledge’ he explains, then laughs. ‘That too big name for me!’
I leave thinking he’s wrong. How many European doctors do I know who have not only qualified in western medicine but also know where to place an acupuncture needle, how to prescribe herbal remedies and give you a neck massage?