How did Jennifer Pan slip so far, and why are so many people sympathizing?

I read about Jennifer Pan yesterday over breakfast, how she doctored her report cards, pretended to go to college, and hired people to kill her parents when they found out about her lies. At lunch, I read some of the comments after the Toronto Life article (I know, I know, never read the comments), and I had to stop because they made me feel sick and sad, for everyone.

MorinMoss wrote, “In the end, I moved away and cut off communication [with my family]; after 3 decades I still rebuff them completely. I think Jennifer’s biggest problem was that she didn’t know how to plan an escape and Daniel was no help… But her father is wrong. He didn’t lose his daughter when his wife was murdered – he suffocated his eldest child a long time ago and the creature that tried to fit into the trophy case he wanted so badly was merely wearing Jennifer’s body.”

Another commenter sided with the parents, saying, “I have zero sympathy for Jennifer & those convicted. If anything, I feel very sympathetic for her dad – he literally lost everything at that one moment, i can only imagine how hurt he is and how he has to relive that moment everyday through reality.”

In response, another angry person echoed MorinMoss:

“They didn’t want the best thing for her. They wanted the best thing for themselves. A trophy child. We and they know that the best thing for a child is to be happy. If you won’t let her go to dances or friends she won’t be very happy. If you show your disappointment very clearly, she won’t be happy. If you force her to do things she doesn’t like, she won’t be happy. That’s mental abuse. These parents were awful. Selfish reasons? She wasn’t allowed to be selfish. Her parents forbid it. She easily could of finished her high school degree if her parents would have supported her instead of ordered her around.

Nevertheless she clearly hated her parents so much that she didn’t see them as people anymore and wanted them killed. She is to blame for the murders but her parents are to blame for making her even consider it.”

There is no point in assigning blame. There is already so much misunderstanding in this tragedy, and I find it difficult to put into words the heavy sorrow I feel for this family. The article suggests that her mother was reluctant to be so strict but went along with it because she thought this would make her children successful. I hope she didn’t have time to realize, as her husband did, that it wasn’t just a random robbery. What a tragedy in parenting, to force yourself to go against your instinct to nurture your child, thinking that this is the best thing for her, to spend all those years with someone who will one day despise and kill you because she never learned how to be a functional human. It’s a very extreme version of something I’ve seen repeated in so many Asian families.

II.

A brief exploration of Chinese schooling and Confucian parenting

This parental pressure and resulting resentment is also quite common within China (I can’t speak for the rest of Asia, but I imagine it is similar), where there is even more pressure on students to succeed academically, because they have so few chances and so few opportunities otherwise. A lot of tiger parenting in Chinese immigrants stems from this native environment.

The Chinese school system somewhat resembles the New York private school system, in that it’s both expensive and competitive to send your kids to school, and the more you spend on their schooling, the better the school, the better the subsequent school, and the better their performance and chances of getting into a top college (hopefully). Chinese students study 12+ hours a day (more at school than at home, in contrast to America), all culminating in the college entrance exam. You get one opportunity to take this exam in a year, and this exam is everything.

Before you take the test, you have to select your top choice(s) for college, and the process is somewhat like matching for medical residency. If you select an average university (the equivalent of a backup school), and you somehow get an amazing score on the exam, you are still stuck with the average university even if you could have gotten into a better one. On the other hand, if you select a reach school, and your score isn’t high enough, you don’t get into that reach school or any school that year. You’ll have to try again next year. It’s a tricky calculation that puts a lot of pressure on the students to excel, with absolutely no room for failure.

If you don’t get into a college on your first try, you have to just wait a year. And what can you do in China without a college degree? Very little. Chinese students don’t really take gap years or join the Peace Corps, and there isn’t as much support for innovation. Anything that isn’t “normal” is considered bad, and there’s a lot of classism and emphasis on status symbols and blue collar vs. white collar jobs.

The pressure is worsened by traditional Chinese parenting styles, which date all the way back to Confucius, who thought that praising your children would make them complacent and lazy. This is why a lot of Chinese/Asian immigrant parents never say anything positive. They’re deathly terrified that telling their kids they did a good job will eliminate their motivation to do better, which most of us in the US recognize as absurd but is the prevailing theory in Confucian cultures.

Now, what ends up happening is that you get parents who apply too much pressure to their kids academically, give only negative reinforcement for bad performance and no positive reinforcement for good performance, and no mention at all of how to be a decent adult human instead of just an excellent student. It’s as if they think morality is innate. In China, you get kids who are exhausted and resent their parents but have no idea how to boil water and don’t understand that you can’t just hit people when you’re mad at them and have no sense of responsibility. And you get kids who respond very differently from each other because they are wired differently, but in China there’s just normal and abnormal.

I think a key problem here is the lack of education about and belief in psychology (and individuality). Depression, anxiety, mental illness–these are not words that exist in Chinese culture, at least not in a medicalized form that is commonly understood by non-medical professionals. (I don’t mean literally, though that could be true. I don’t personally know the official terminology if it exists.) The closest approximation I have for depression is just sadness (which translated literally is “injured heart” but is not treated nearly as seriously as that may suggest). Anxiety is just nervousness. Mental illness is “spirit nerve disease,” and you would say that about the woman who cuts you off on the highway or anybody who gets on your nerves. These are not considered medical problems by lay people. They are just moral weaknesses. This is true in America as well, but it’s even more pervasive in China (and thus among immigrants from China).

The other Confucian remnant is the concept of filial piety, this idea that parents have done their part by feeding their children and keeping them alive to adulthood, and children now owe them everything. Parents have no duty to their children, but the children have many. Confucianism is a strict religion with no deity except your ancestors.

A highly pressurized school system + rigid Confucian beliefs + no understanding of mental health = a perfect storm of trauma and poor parent-child relationships.

Within the last decade, Chinese people have become aware of this growing problem. There is now a law (that no one enforces) requiring children to visit their parents for the holidays. When I was in college, my mom became obsessed with this essay (or book? I can’t find it Googling in English) called, “Give Me My Dreams Back,” written by a Chinese kid who felt that he had lost his identity because of his strict parents and schooling. It was wildly popular, and a lot of people identified with the sentiment. In response to all of this, there are new schools of thought on parenting styles and Chinese mothers who are writing books about how you need to love and nurture and even praise your children. These are mothers who may have felt their parents inadequate, who don’t want to have strained relationships with their children.

III.

Even in light of these parenting issues, Jennifer Pan’s story is extreme, and I find it truly horrifying the extent to which people are sympathizing with her. I really don’t know what can be done about it except for current and future generations to learn from the mistakes of their parents. But the overwhelming singleminded anger I saw in those comments is worrisome.

I will say that I was briefly an angry child of Asian immigrants. I felt misunderstood and socially stunted (…and that’s how you make a poet), not because they were particularly strict on a day-to-day level (especially not for Asian parents) but because they were so set on having me skip grades and become a doctor and have a traditionally successful suburban life I didn’t want and was not yet brave enough to reject. I totally remember telling my parents in high school that they didn’t love me as a person but as something to brag about, that I was not Chinese but American, so it wasn’t fair to expose me to this other culture and not let me be a part of it. I am not particularly proud of those days.

In reality, my parents were not that strict. Admittedly, it helps that having grown up partly in poor neighborhoods where I was severely bullied, I was highly motivated to get out and stay out. My father subscribed fully to Confucian schools of thought, and we had a lot of conflicts. But he mostly left childcare to my mother, which in retrospect was probably the best thing he could have done. I think it’s important to note that my mother had the intuition to not push me further because she knew I was pushing myself really hard already. Unlike a lot of Chinese parents, she did tell me that she was proud of me, and she did tell me that it was okay as long as I did my best, and she told me, “This is great that you’re translating your history classes to me, because I can learn something too. Keep it up.” I attribute some of this to her love of reading and exposure to Western literature, and I feel like this upbringing is the only reason I am not a constant quivering ball of tightly coiled insecurity (only sometimes).

Reading about this Jennifer Pan case and the stories behind all the suicides at elite universities, I thought of my freshman year of college. I made a really stupid mistake in my Calculus class. I’d done really well all semester, like 100% after the curve well. So I got overly confident and didn’t study for my last exam, and I totally bombed it. And I knew, the minute I walked out, that I totally bombed it. The last exam was so utterly demoralizing that I called my mom afterwards hyperventilating. She was obviously worried about my extreme reaction but stayed calm and just told me that it was okay, and it didn’t matter and just try your best next time, totally unlike a stereotypical Asian parent. And she told me to take a nap because that always made her feel better, and I did. (It turned out my epic fail was enough to bring my grade down 11%, making my first-ever B+ in my strongest subject. My professor, months later, basically told me I was pretty good at math, and that had perhaps been a foolish decision on my part. I think he was trying not to laugh, and I now also just find it funny that I was so ridiculous, so yay, progress.)

Several years later, I realize what a momentous thing my mother did, how accepting and nurturing she was, especially given her own cultural context. I am so grateful to have had the mother I had, and I am hoping against everything I believe that there is some spiritual realm in which she knows this.

So maybe I am not the best person to comment on this case, because I am so clearly biased by my mother-loss and my somewhat atypical Asian-American experience. Mostly, I just can’t get over how sad this all is, and I really hope something changes in the way we think about success and mental health in these countries.

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