PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Iris Chen. Hi Iris!
IRIS: Hello Pam.
PAM: Hello! Iris is an unschooling mom and I came across her work a few months ago. I really enjoyed reading around her website, untigering.com, and I was super excited when she agreed to come on the podcast!
So, to get us started Iris …
Can you share with us a little bit about you and your family?
IRIS: Sure! So, I am a Chinese American, and I was born in the States and grew up in the States and Canada actually. After I got married, we moved out to China to teach English, and then we had two boys out there in China.
And I’ve only been unschooling for about a year but have really just fallen in love with it.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome, yeah, and it’s doesn’t take too long once you start diving in, does it? If it’s for you, if it’s a good match, it just sucks you right in, right?
IRIS: Yes, yes.
PAM: So, I love how you describe your blog, untigering.com, in your about page and I just wanted to read a little quote from it.
“Untigering is about my adventures of me trying to be an parent in the tension of my Chineseness and Americanness. It’s about me wanting to move away from being a tiger mom, but still wanting to hold on to my cultural heritage. It’s about figuring out what I believe about identity, family and success, as an outsider to both societies.”
And look! I got goosebumps again just as I was reading it.
Let’s start with your shifting definition of success. That’s a big one we talk about quite a bit here on the podcast, and as you mentioned, you and your husband were well on your way to fulfilling the “American Dream” when you did that complete 180 and moved to China. I’m really interested in hearing how that came about.
So, we lived in the Silicon Valley. It’s a very driven, very ambitious culture here, and, at that time, my husband had been working for five years as an electrical engineer, and was doing well, and we were living a very comfortable, good life.
But I think we just wanted something different; we wanted something meaningful. We wanted to be of service somewhere. And we wanted a sense of adventure too, something different. And so, we went to China just planning on teaching English for just a year—we didn’t expect on staying out for very long.
We were going to give it a year and have a good time with it. But once we got out there, we just fell in love with it—fell in love with the people and the culture. I mean we are both Chinese, but yeah, just really falling in love with the people and the culture there. And ended up staying for the next 15 years and have been there ever since!
PAM: Was the biggest piece when you were talking about wanting to feel like you were doing service kinds of work, helping people—that was something you felt was missing? Was that a big chunk of it?
I think sometimes when you stay in your own culture, you are stuck in these scripts or these tracks that ‘everybody around you is doing this,’ ‘everybody else is buying their house and having children,’ or whatever. And I think we just wanted to be intentional about the choices we made—we didn’t want to just do what everybody else was doing. But we also wanted to make intentional choices about what we wanted to do with our lives.
PAM: That’s cool! So, it was noticing that you on this track, I guess, the definition of success for people, right? And you guys were rocking that.
IRIS: Yeah, yeah, we were doing well…
PAM: And it became time to question it. Is that how?
IRIS: Yeah, Definitely. And not to say that that is wrong, but are we being intentional and mindful about that choice. For us, we just felt like that wasn’t our path, that wasn’t our calling. We wanted something different for our lives.
PAM: I love that point too, because, just because it’s conventional doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, right? Like, you said, just knowing which path is feeling good for you and is working for you, right?
IRIS: Right, exactly! I feel that follows really closely with unschooling too. It’s not that you can’t have a conventional education, or you can’t go to college. It’s not about that. It’s about doing it intentionally and because it’s meaningful and purposeful for you. Don’t because it’s just with you do.
PAM: I love that word, purposeful, because that shows the intention behind it, right? Because unschooling lives can run the gamut for young adults. And some, when you’re looking from the outside, can look very conventional, and some can look very unconventional, but they are all, either way, lived with intention and purpose. I love that.
IRIS: Yes yes yes.
PAM: I love that.
So, you guys went, and you spent your year there, in China, and you had children. I’m curious to see how that phase went, and then how you discovered unschooling and what your move to unschooling looked like. You said that was about a year ago?
IRIS: Yeah. I had this blog called untigering, because I think I was a typical tiger mom. Like, I had very high standards for what I wanted my kids to do and to study. It was my full intention to send them—well, at first we were considering conventional homeschooling, and then we were thinking about sending them to local, Chinese school, because we were living in China. We thought that if we send them to local school, they will be fluent; they will be bilingual in both Chinese and English, and that was sort of like a high priority for me, so we were really trying to get them into a local school.
But that didn’t really work out because they didn’t have enough space for foreigners, so we went another option where we went to like a local, private Chinese school. And I think we had a good experience there, but after a few years there, I felt that there was a lot about the schooling mindset that I didn’t agree with—that didn’t resonate with me. Because I had sort of part-time homeschooled them when they were younger, I felt that there was just a lot of wasted time, a lot of busy work. A lot of it was meaningless, that you just felt like you had to do as part of school.
And I was also teaching there at that school, and I was sucked into those types of patterns too, even though I didn’t believe in them, like giving homework just to give homework, or seeing what the results of grades like a mark did. They just cared about looking at the grade, they didn’t care about whether or not they understood the material. Or, even seeing my kids. They did really well in that environment, but then noticing that they were doing things more for the affirmation of the teacher; like, they were trying to get recognition and saying, “Look! Look at this!” And comparisons and stuff like that.
So, I was noticing, even though they were doing well, attitudes that were inadvertently passed on to them because of this environment. I had not really been exposed to unschooling, but I listened to a parenting conference and one of the speakers was Scott Noelle who is part of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, I think, and he wasn’t really talking about unschooling, but at the end of his talk, he referenced it.
Then I went to the website and read what self-directed education was about. I just really resonated with it and felt like, “Oh, this is something that I really believe in; or I want to believe in.” It was a very radical way—at least for me—of looking at education and sort of letting go of the reins. But there was something very appealing for me, especially since, at the time, I had to think of other options, because the school that I was sending my kids to was shutting down.
Pretty much my only option was to homeschool, and yet I was really stressed by that idea because I knew that if I took a schooling mindset and applied it to homeschooling, that would just create so much stress in my family life and for my kids because I’d just be this really controlling mom trying to get them to do their work. And I didn’t want to do that!
And so, once I discovered unschooling, yeah, I think I just really resonated with it, and was excited about what that meant for my relationship with my kids and a way that we could homeschool that would just work for us.
PAM: That’s cool! Yeah!
You were mentioning that you were teaching at the school and you were doing all the things that were expected. You mentioned, giving homework, paying attention to grades, and using that as a measure etc. And it’s so interesting to see that, and you were doing it because you had to in that situation, and then imagining having to do that at home, because it wasn’t something that you really believed in. Is that kind of how it felt, like you would have to bring that home?
IRIS: Yeah, definitely. And actually, in the school environment, I felt frustrated, because I was behaving in ways that I didn’t believe in either. Like, maybe I was just putting on that teacher hat and feeling like I had to be very authoritarian in some ways, like, “sit in your seat, pay attention, follow along,” you know…
PAM: Yeah, you were playing that role rather than being yourself.
IRIS: Yeah. Right. Like, interacting with them in the way that I would if they were just my kids or we were just home together. So, just the role of being a teacher and being in that role meant something to me, where I needed to be the one imparting information and they needed to absorb it or whatever, so…
PAM: And I guess it might be a little bit easier trying to do that within the institution because all the teachers are doing it, whereas at home, ‘Oh now it will just be me trying to play that role.’ That could be a lot harder!
IRIS: I don’t think my kids would like it, would respond well to it either, me always wearing the teacher hat.
PAM: Yeah, that’s such a good point too. So, did the school close? Did you guys finish out they year there, and then the school closed, and then you kind of transitioned into it at home?
IRIS: Yes. So, the school closed and we transitioned to what we were doing at home. A lot of the kids—it was a private, local school, and so all of the kids are pretty much local Chinese kids—they went back to their different situations, like, to a local school, or a private school, or to other options. But yeah, for us, we ended up homeschooling.
PAM: Did you pretty much end up unschooling at home from the beginning?
IRIS: At that point, yeah. It was sort of like we had our summer off and then we started.
At the beginning, I was like, “There’s a few things that we are going to do,” so, I wasn’t in total “jump in the deep end.” We were still in the process of deschooling. So, I was like, “We still gotta do math.” You know, “We’re Asians, we do math!” At that point, I was not yet ready to let go of that and felt like that needed to be taught. And then we did other things like Chinese class and piano class, but other than that, I was really able to sort of let the rest of it go.
I would read to them—sometimes I would pick a book or they would pick a book and I would read aloud to them. But the rest of the day was pretty open and they could do what they wanted to do. But I think after a few weeks into it, because of my changing views and my philosophy of unschooling, making them do math didn’t make sense to me anymore. Because, if I truly believe that kids can learn through life and learn naturally in ways that are meaningful for them, then why was I making them sit and fill out these worksheets that didn’t have meaning for them?
And I also read, I think it was a Peter Gray article about learning math, and how kids in the future if they want to go into a field that requires math, that they can actually learn it really quickly, because they already have the skills to know how to learn. So, they don’t have to spend their entire childhood spending hours and hours doing workbooks and learning math, they can just go on and learn it really quickly if they want to. And so, I think hearing those things and wrestling with it a little more allowed me to let go of the math. So yeah, I no longer require them do math. That was part of my deschooling process.
PAM: Oh absolutely. I think whatever “the thing” is for us—whether it’s math, or maybe it’s reading, or spelling. That was something that I held onto for a little while, just for the first couple of weeks. Because, whatever that one thing is, then we see them all the rest of the time, and see how much they are learning, and we see them in action. And we’re continuing to learn and read ourselves. So, I think that’s a pretty normal transition time, because there’s always that one last thing that it’s hard for us to let go of. But as we keep going just a few weeks, it starts to gel together and we can kind of release that last big thing, right?
IRIS: Yeah. Absolutely.
The other two things that I was holding onto was Chinese—Chinese language lessons—and piano. And we live in China, so it sort of made sense. And with piano, that is something that they had wanted to do when they were younger, but it’s been four years and we were still having them do it, and sometimes there was a lot of tension around piano practice and stuff like that. So, it wasn’t until more recently, maybe a couple of months ago, where we actually again had to question why we were continuing those activities and whether or not those activities were things that our kids wanted to do.
So, we put them before them and asked, “Do you want to continue? These are the reasons that we think, from our perspective, but what do you guys think?” And it was interesting, because they didn’t really want to continue with the Chinese lessons, but they did want to continue with the piano. That was actually really affirming to us in a way, because we had thought that maybe if we didn’t force them to do it that they wouldn’t do either. But to know that once they had the option to consider for themselves and really tap into their own desires, that they realized that, “I do really want to continue with the piano.” So, now as we move forward, at least with the piano, they can continue with enjoyment, and not feeling like it’s not mom and dad making me do it, but that they are in control.
PAM: That’s a really great point. It is so interesting to see them, executing their agency, I guess, in making choices. And it’s nice to know that you get to that point in the relationship—it might have been a few months till you guys felt like you could ask that question and get a real answer from them; because at first, it could be very reactionary. Like you said, we figured at first it could be like “No I don’t want to do anything because you were making me do that.” But to actually take the time to think about it and to make a choice for what really works for them, right?
IRIS: Right, that’s a really good point.
I think sometimes they might react because we have been so controlling and we’ve robbed them of that agency for so long, so, once they have agency they’re like, “Ok, well, I’m just going to rebel, or I’m just going to do my own thing and not do what I know you want me to do.”
But yeah, I think that can be a process too, allowing them to do that until they get to the point where there is that trust and they are like, “Oh, mom and dad honor my choices, and maybe some of what I want to do is what mom and dad want me to do, and that’s ok.”
PAM: Yeah, that’s such a huge process—I call it deschooling for us—but also for the kids too because it’s building that relationship and that trust back in, right? Because if they say no to everything that’s ok too. And when you ask, it’s about being ok with the no. And none of these noes are forever. They can always, like you said, later on, say, “Hey, you know what, I think maybe I do want to pick that back up.”
But now they’ve gotten to a point in the relationship that they know they are making that choice for themselves, not to please you, and you know that too.
IRIS: So, that was something that both my husband and I had to be ok with, it like, “Ok, if they say no to both of these things, we have to be ok with this, rather than trying to manipulate them to choose something.” Being ok with the no.
I think with unschooling we are always hoping that they will say yes to something, that they will grab onto something that they really love, but I think that for kids who haven’t been given a lot of freedom, I think the first choice is to say no, and they have to have the freedom to do that.
PAM: That finally helps them to feel powerful when they haven’t felt like they’ve had a lot of power.
I’m really curious to learn more about unschooling in China. I was hoping you could share a bit about your experience and kind of like the pros and cons that you see about unschooling there.
IRIS: Yeah, I actually wrote a blog post about this, and I would be interested to know if there are any other unschoolers in China. I have no idea.
But I think one of the really challenging things is the easy access to information because we have a firewall. It’s really hard to get information online, and I feel like probably for a lot of unschoolers, a lot of the information they get is online. So, that is sometimes really challenging for us. We can’t get on YouTube or Twitter or Instagram or Facebook without a VPN—a virtual private network. Sometimes the Internet makes it hard to get all those things. I think that is a challenge.
I think another thing is just the cultural values is just very high on academics. It’s definitely the whole society is very focused on children doing well in school—getting the good grades, doing well on the tests. We are in an environment that really pushes those types of values. So, we’re pretty weird to them. So that’s also, I guess, another challenge.
And I think there’s also the lack of affordable resources. Whereas here I feel like there’s the library, the community center, there’s the free days at the museum, there’s nature, there’s a lot to work with, and there’s also a community—a pretty strong unschooling or homeschooling community.
I think in China there aren’t a lot of free resources, because most families only have one child and they are willing to pay a lot of money for their child to do cool stuff. And so, a lot of things cost a lot of money, so in that way there aren’t a lot of affordable resources, in my opinion. We do have a homeschooling community, which I’m very, very thankful for, but not necessarily unschooling, so not very many people with the same perspective on schooling.
So those are some of the cons, but those can also be pros too, in my mind. Just the fact that because they culture emphasizes so strongly on academics, people actually see the detrimental parts of that. They see how the system is really broken and they don’t want that for their kids, but their choices are limited and it’s pretty risky for them to try other things. So, in some ways they see a more extreme example of the negative things we see in schooling in the west. They know something needs to change, or something isn’t right here. They can understand the value of more choice, more freedom, more agency. Like, when I tell my friends about it, it’s something that sounds really amazing, but it’s too outside of the box for them at this point.
And I think also the bicultural aspect of living oversees is something that’s built-in for us. This sense of learning from another culture, learning a different language, eating different types of foods. Sort of like the worldschooling thing, right? We are learning from life and our perspective isn’t just based on our own experience or our own culture—you’re exposed to different people and different cultures. So that’s a big one too.
PAM: That’s really interesting. Especially the part that academics are such a big focus, and there’s so much pressure on the kids, they really see the negative effects. And yes, I can see that yeah, it’s totally too out of the box to step away from it, but I can imagine them wanting to figure out ways to support their kids, while still putting the pressure on? You know what I mean? It seems it’s quite a dichotomy, but I can see how, “This is what we have to do, this kind of pressure, but I’m going to help you to live with it, because this is just the way it has to be,” right?
IRIS: Yeah, there’s definitely that attitude, it’s like, “Well, this is the way it is. How can I help and support you? And I know it’s really stressful and unfair, but this is the way it is.”
So, I feel that I recognize that I have a lot of privilege in this in terms of the choices that I have as a foreigner living in America, and, even if I was in America, I’m very thankful for the privilege to not have to send my kids to school. So, I really try to not try to push unschooling upon my Chinese friends, because I know that that’s an unfair standard for them, I guess. All I know is that I believe in it, and I’m going for it, and I will support you in whatever choices that you make because I know that you are doing what’s best for your child too.
PAM: Exactly, because everybody’s choices to make right? And they see you living it. You don’t have to convince them or change their minds or anything. Just by seeing you living it they know it’s an option. I can’t imagine trying to put pressure on that or trying to convince them. That won’t help at all, will it?
IRISI: I have talked to some local moms who have chosen alternative ways of doing education and I’m so proud of them. I mean, it’s a really big risk and a really big jump for them. So, I do want to support them as much as I can and to help them to think about education in a different way so that it’s not so scary for them, because it is really scary for them to make choices like that.
PAM: And I mean, that’s the thing about living out in the world as you do—people know you’re there when they have questions or are even just curious. Not even that they are planning a move in the near future, but just curious to learn a little bit more and ask questions. That’s awesome that you’re speaking with them and sharing your experience. That’s awesome. And so, how often do you guys visit in the States then?
IRIS: We come back every summer. I’m not sure how my kids feel. I mean, we grew up in the States, so we are very comfortable in both cultures. I wonder how my kids feel about it? But they love visiting the States and seeing family and everything. We come back every summer for about two months.
PAM: That’s awesome. I will definitely share a link to that blog post.
You also have a great blog post about letting go of expectations especially around achievement—as we’ve been talking about already—but when a child dives into an interest, it’s so easy for us to envision this as “Oh, ok, piano! This is their life-long passion and they can make a career out of it!” And I feel like we almost rationalize to ourselves that it’s ok to let them have at it because, ‘This could be their big career, this could be what they do forever.’ And maybe we realize that that could be pushing a little bit too much, and we try to convince ourselves that we are just supporting him. But that can quickly backfire, can’t it?
IRIS: Yes. I think sometimes that our version of support is actually in the guise of support, but we are actually coming in with our own exceptions, like “Oh, they are going to be amazing at this!” Or, “They are going to go to the Olympics!” Or, “They are going to win an amazing prize!” But we’re actually coming in with our own expectations, and in a lot of ways it’s still about achievement and outside affirmation rather than about the joy and the process of learning something new.
So, maybe part of the appeal of unschooling for me in the beginning was like, ‘Oh, these kids are doing amazing things and they are following their passions, but I think I just read this headline by Idzie Desmarais who writes “I’m Unschooled…” What does she write?
IRIS: Yes, I can write. Yes! And it’s like, sometimes our kids are unexceptional, and why do we have this pressure that we put on our kids to be exceptional and to be a genius at a young age? I mean, some are, and that’s great, but how just to accept our kids where they’re at and just to be fellow sojourners with them in the process of their learning.
I think something that I’m not actually good at right now is actually empowering them and giving them the resources. Sometimes I’m just like, “Oh, just use the free app and see how much you get out of it.” But I don’t know if that’s bad either, because if they really are into it, then they will let me know, and then I will hopefully get them the resources. Maybe in the meantime they can just dabble and that’s ok too.
PAM: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, and I kinda think of it as a dance. I often call it the dance of parenting, because it’s like, you don’t want to overpower them with stuff, and step on their toes and kind of take over like you’re directing, like you’re leading—like in dance terms. But you also want to react to their lead, right? As long as you are reasonably comfortable that in the relationship, if they want more, they’ll say something.
And for us, that’s part of making sure we’re connected, staying connected. Asking them, “How’s that free app going? Did you finish all the stuff that was available there? Did you want a little bit more?” Not always expecting them to come to you. So, again, it’s the dance, right?
You don’t expect them to come, but you don’t want to push too hard, so that they feel like you’re controlling or like you’ve got some kind of expectation hiding in there. So yeah, it’s just the push and pull, back and forth. It’s living together.
IRIS: So, I think that’s something that I really had to learn to step back and hold my tongue and really not try to strew too hard. Like, we go to the library and there’s all these books that I think they might be interested in, and I like ask them, “Do you want to read this?” And they slip through and they are like, “Nope.” And I have to be ok with that! Maybe in the past I would have been like, “Well, I’m going to borrow it anyways and read it to you.” And I’m just backing off and saying. “It’s ok, you’re reading a lot of other stuff.”
My boys are really into coding and gaming and stuff, and so, we are back in the States and I know some people at gaming companies, people who are coders and stuff like that. And so, I asked them, do you want me to ask if you can visit this gaming company or whatever. And I thought this would be really fun for them and they are like, “Ehhhh.” So, there are ways that I’m trying to open doors for them and help them improve or whatever, but they are just not there yet, and so I have to be ok with that.
PAM: I love that example because I had that so many times over the years. Because, they are at a place, and you can kind of see next steps, a few steps down, but I came to realize that that’s a few steps down the path that I envision, right?
So, we are all surprised when I say, ‘I have this way to contact this person, that’s a few steps down. Would you like to go hang out with them, meet them,’ whatever, and they are like, ‘no thanks.’ Because we have no idea what path is their’s, and even if they’re ready to take a next step—maybe they are completely comfortable where they are.
It’s a lot of our work, isn’t it? Thinking that through, figuring that out, realizing that not all of these plans, all these possibilities that we are envisioning for them around the spot that they are in, may be completely different from what they are, right?
IRIS: And my kids are like eight and ten. So, I have to realize that they are still young and there’s no need to box them in yet. See, the tiger mom in me. See, I still need to do that, to untiger.
PAM: Well yeah, because they have this time, if they have the interest, they could be rocking it a few years from now, right? But but but…
IRIS: Exactly. I realize a lot of it is about my own aspirations, my own projections for them, so I need to let that go…
PAM: Because it’s our envisioning their achievement at a young age. So again, it’s our thinking, our conventional definition of success. And it can sneak up on us in so many different ways, can’t it?
IRIS: Yep yep.
PAM: Um, let’s see. Yes!
I have been looking forward to this question, about your experience with the tension of feeling like an outsider in both Chinese and American societies. I was wondering if you’d share your thoughts about weaving together your cultural heritage with what you’re discovering now makes sense with what you’re learning now about children and learning and parenting and family. I was just hoping to know what that kind of looks like for you now? How do you weave that together?
IRIS: Sure. Yeah, It’s a really big question, and I’m still in process. I just went to watch this play last night called Soft Power, and it’s like a, they call it a Chinese musical about America, so it’s written by an Asian American, but it’s sort of like a Chinese view of what America is like.
And there are some scenes in it where, it’s like, as an Asian American in America, I’m never American enough, I’m not western enough, I’m not white enough. And in China, I’m not Chinese enough—like, my Chinese isn’t good enough, my ways of communicating aren’t Chinese enough. And so, in both culture, we are outsiders, or there’s feelings of not being enough, not belonging or whatever.
But I think there is also value in that, in that we can sort of step back and be observers of both cultures, so that we can sort of critique both cultures but also celebrate both cultures so that I don’t have to feel defensive about America. If there’s like something about America that’s gone terribly wrong, I don’t have to say, “Oh, I’m an American. I need to defend it.” or I don’t need to be patriotic or defend it. And same with Chinese culture. If something says something bad about Chinese culture, I can also accept it or deconstruct it or whatever because I’m a little bit of an outsider.
And so, I’m finding that being in this position as an Asian American, I can be a lot more intentional about the things from different cultures that I am incorporating into my family life and into my parenting, so, it doesn’t have to be fully western, or and it doesn’t have to be fully Chinese. Like, nowadays we are more of a global society, and I think if we had the humility to learn from each other, that there are ways that we can learn from different cultures.
I’m just reading all these articles about the Mayan culture in Mexico, and how their children are very different from American children, and how can we learn from that culture, and just how the blessing of being bicultural is that we can be a lot more intentional about the things that we take from each culture.
For example, Chinese culture, the values that we have, the focus on family is very strong, and respect and responsibility and just working hard, and these are things that I associate with Chinese culture. And those are good values, I believe in those values, but I think the how—the way we get to that—is also important, and so maybe the how is a more western approach, because the Chinese way of getting to these values is often through patriarchy, through authoritarianism, through shame.
Those are maybe the ways that sort of get embedded into the culture in a lot of ways, and now that I can see that that’s not how I want to get to those values, I can find other ways to get to those values that are more respectful and provide more agency and freedom. Those are still values that I want to honor and instill in my family, but it’s just a matter of how we get there.
PAM: Yeah, I loved that. I loved the realization that you can still get to the same place, but a different way, with a different path. It’s not, ‘If you don’t use these authoritarian shame control tools, you’ll never get there.’ Like, that’s the message that they use to continue parenting and just structuring society these ways. But to realize that you can still get there but in different way, that’s eye opening, right?
IRIS: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
I think—and I’m just speaking for myself as an Asian American—we don’t have a lot of models or examples that we have seen of a family dynamic that operates like that. I think that, at least for me, I’m feeling my way through.
Like, we have the typical white, western family, but in my experience, Asian families, the way we interact, the dynamics are a little bit different. Just feeling our way through so that we can uphold our Asian values and the things that we love about our Asian culture, while doing it in a respectful and honoring way. That seems very un-Asian in some ways.
PAM: I’m really curious. You were talking about being bicultural and the advantage in that you could choose what resonated with you from both cultures. So, it became more about, you’re already open to choices, it sounds like, right? Did that kind of help when you discovered unschooling, which is focused on choices? Did that help a bit that you were already picking and choosing things that were working for you, that this was just kind of another thing that you were going to pick?
IRIS: I think so! I think that living overseas made our lifestyle, very intentional. Because we didn’t totally fit into that culture, and we weren’t going to just bring American culture over there either, right? So, it was definitely we made very intentional choices about how we were going to live, and the aspects of American culture that we wanted to bring over that were important to us, but ways that we wanted to incorporate the culture around us too. And so I think that did give us the freedom to be more intentional and purposeful—those words keep coming up!—about the choices we made with schooling.
So, maybe if we had lived here in the States we wouldn’t have had to question it was much, because that’s just the way everyone does it, but because we had to be really intentional about that as we lived overseas. In some ways it opens the doors for us for a lot more options in some ways, because we aren’t stuck in a certain track.
PAM: I can’t remember, I’m going to butcher the quote completely, but you know “once your mind opens to a new idea, right? Or grows from a new idea, it can never go back.” Like, once you see one choice and you make a little bit different choice, all of a sudden you see more of them everywhere.
PAM: Well, that’s beautiful.
You recently published a blog post titled, ‘Unschooling as an Asian American is an Act of Resistance.’ I thought it was a great piece, Iris, and I was hoping you’d share your thoughts about it here.
IRIS: That blog post was about how, as a Chinese American specifically, it adds a different layer to my decision to unschool, and I think that’s true for a lot of people of color. It’s not solely about educational choice, that there is a component of resisting racism in it. So, part of it for me was about resisting.
There are three thing I was resisting, and the first one was resisting cultural pressures, and I talked about this already a little bit, about Chinese culture in particular emphasizes a lot on academics, like, the test-based system pretty much originated in China. So, really rejecting that view of what education looks like, so from the Asian side, resisting those cultural pressures of having high academics or going to an Ivy League school or having a certain type of career. So, I’m resisting those pressures on that side, which as a culture and maybe my extended family, they are like “What are you doing? That’s very strange what you’re doing!”
And I think also as a second generation immigrant, where a lot of our families have moved to the west to provide more opportunities, to provide these educational opportunities, and then if you don’t take them, they feel like, “Why? What did we sacrifice all that for?” So, there’s a lot of pressure on that side of it.
I think there is also the resistance of Asian stereotypes. Where maybe there’s views of like the stereotypical Asian nerd, or you see Jeremy Lin, who’s a Chinese American basketball player. He has faced a lot of racism because people just don’t see him as athletic. People just don’t see Asians as athletic, or attractive, or as outspoken, or as a leader. So, there are these ways that society stereotypes Asians as not having these opportunities, especially in a schooling environment.
So, there’s ways that we can achieve. Like, if we were on the academic route and we’re smart and that follows the stereotype so people can accept that, but if you don’t want to follow that stereotype, like if you aren’t super academic but you really enjoy dance, or you want to be a football player or whatever it is, there are stereotypes that prevent you from achieving those things in that environment.
I feel that unschooling is a way outside of that. That we can provide different opportunities that hopefully can resist some of those stereotypes and not have kids boxed into being a certain type of Asian. So, there’s that.
And then I think the last one was the curriculum, and the very white-centric, very patriotic, American, information that is given in most western schooling environments is very western-centric. And I think that we are realizing more and more that the story we are telling each other isn’t the whole truth, and that there are many different perspectives out there on the history. So, not only stories about our country or about the world that are very euro-centric, but pretty much all of curriculum is. Or even sports—most schools don’t necessarily have Asian sports like badminton, but they will have basketball or golf, things that are more associated with western things. Or the music that is played in band, or just a lot of different things that are just typical, white-centric instead of a more global, multicultural, view of the world. And so, unschooling can allow us to expose them to whatever resonates with them, and it doesn’t have to be just that one canon that we are used to.
PAM: Yeah, that’s so narrow, isn’t it? The curriculum, just in general. And yeah, you don’t really realize it because, if you’re on that path, you just absorb it because that is what we are supposed to do. Somebody has said, “This is what we cover,” and somebody has said “This is the angle of the story that we are going to cover.”
I loved the idea of it’s also being a resistance to all that—conventional isn’t even the right word, stereotypical probably is, for lack of a better word—white culture that’s there, and all of the other stories are ignored. And I love that idea of it also being a big act of resistance of that main cultural story.
That the world is so much bigger, so much wider. And that we can bring that world to the kids. But also, just standing up and choosing that it’s important to us. It’s our choice too for our families. That this is an important way that we want to be in the world and that we want to share with our children. Does that makes sense?
IRIS: Yeah, definitely. And where they can be sort of the protagonist of their own stories, whereas like, if we grow up in the typical American schooling system, we are never the protagonist of our own story system, we are never the protagonist in our own stories. The stories that we read, there are very few, there are more and more, but very few books that are required reading at that age, that tell stories about Asian Americans or Asians.
PAM: I love that point too, and I’ll share a link to that too.
I really wanted to know what your favorite thing about unschooling is right now?
IRIS: There are so many things, but I really think it’s not so much just about schooling, but it’s really a whole lifestyle sometimes, so I just really love how it gives me so many opportunities to connect with my children, and just the relationship that we have with one another and the growing respect we have for one another. And just enjoying each other.
Whereas, it’s not about herding my kids through the day, getting them to one class or that class, it’s really about just enjoying life together. It’s a really slow pace that allows us the opportunity to just connect and enjoy one another. So, I’m really thankful for that.
PAM: Oh, I love that. And you don’t realize how fast that pace is until you step away, do you think? I found that I appreciated that slowness and that ability to be in relationship and be in the moment with them way more than I even expected.
IRIS: Yeah, yeah, and I think that’s sort of my personality too, I’m more of a homebody I like things to be slower. I get overwhelmed with too many things. But, yeah, just really enjoying that opportunity to build relationship with them.
PAM: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me Iris. I’m so glad you said yes. I had so much fun!
IRIS: I had a lot of fun too. Thank you for asking me Pam.
PAM: Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
IRIS: My blog is untigering.com and I also have a facebook page that’s Untigering. I also started a facebook group for parents who are or have been tiger parents, and that’s called Untigering Parents, and then on twitter I am @untigeringmom.
PAM: Excellent. I will put all those links in the show notes for people too. And thanks so much. Have a great day. Say hi to everyone. You guys are in the States now, right?
IRIS: Yes, we are.
PAM: Yay. Thank you! Bye!
IRIS: Ok, bye!