Ho hum, another sex scandal involving a government official. Ho hum, another scandal about corrupt teachers. Just when it seems that corruption scandals can't get any more outrageous, along comes the strange saga of the International Biology Olympiad held two years ago, complete with grade tampering, visits to prostitutes and used condoms kept in a refrigerator. But there is nothing ho hum or laughable about the obsessive lengths some parents will go to ensure their child's educational successes and the enormous pressure this puts on students to live up to parental demands.
The Olympiad story is truly an "only in Taiwan" one, with quite a cast of characters. There are the parents who allegedly bribed one of the competi-tion's judges, by paying for him to visit a hostess club and have sex. To ensure the official kept his end up, the parents allegedly tapped their conversations with him and preserved a sample of his semen (the condom in the fridge). Then there is the high school biology teacher -- the alleged middleman in the deal. The story broke only because the teen who was the focus of such efforts didn't do as well as his parents wanted.
This sordid tale brings to mind the recent scandal in the US about a mother who faked IQ tests and pretended to be her son in phone calls in order to convince people that he was one of the youngest prodigies in history. The woman confessed to her elaborate deception only after her son, now eight-years old, attempted suicide because he was unable to cope with the pressure from her. Fortunately, his life was saved.
Such pressure -- and such suicide attempts -- are all too common here. The parental and social pressure on youngsters to excel so they can get into a top university is extreme. For decades the message to kids is that getting into a top university and getting a diploma is everything. In fact the more diplomas the merrier. They have been indoctrinated to believe that without an impressive education there is no chance to get ahead in life. Education is completely equated with social and economic mobility. But not just any kind of education will do -- the focus is on medicine, engineering and law. Interest and talent in almost anything else, especially sports, the arts and music, are discouraged by parents and teachers alike.
That parents want their children to succeed is natural. What is unnatural is when that success is measured solely in terms of academic achievement and money. The path to such success means a child's academic career is mapped out early on. So countless children are sent off to endless after-school math, English and other classes at cram schools, starting from elementary school onwards.
Parental domination continues into adulthood. Parents usually decide their children's university majors, complete or buy the works their children submit to various academic competitions, and do all they can to remove any obstacles to academic success. A child's individuality is completely ignored, making them overly dependent upon their parents or other authority figures and sorely lacking in problem-solving ability and a sense of responsibility.
Such children grow up to be the kind of parents their parents were -- unless they are strong enough to make an effort to break the cycle and risk upsetting their families. For many that means leaving Taiwan -- if they can afford to -- so that their children won't face the same academic nightmare.