How to Train Your Dragon Child

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Even as birth rates were plunging across East Asia, Taiwan saw a 15.5 percent fertility spike in 1976, the Year of the Dragon. (Photo: Daniel Dionne/flickr)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Train Your Dragon Child.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

Every 12 years, there’s a spike in births among certain communities across the globe, including the U.S. Why? Because the Year of the Dragon, according to Chinese folk belief, confers power, fortune, and more. We look at what happens to Dragon babies when they grow up, and why timing your kid’s birth based on the zodiac isn’t as ridiculous it sounds.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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From an American perspective, the most amazing story of the 2018 Winter Olympics was the story of Chloe Kim, the 17-year-old gold-medal snowboarder from California. It wasn’t only that she was so young — and so, so good at her sport:

NBC Olympics:  Ninety-eight-two-five! Chloe Kim, you are an Olympic Champion!

It wasn’t only that she’s so likeable, and so calm under pressure:

NBC Olympics: It’s so rare that people can live up to the hype! Chloe Kim absolutely did that today…

Nor was it just the fact that her Korean immigrant family, especially her father, had devoted themselves so thoroughly to her Olympic goal.

Chloe KIM: [From a “Visit California” video] He’s helped me so much on this crazy journey — giving up his job, and like, being away from my mom, and being away from home for that much, just because of me.

No, the most amazing part of the Chloe Kim story is that her story was destined to happen. Why? Because Chloe Kim is a Dragon child. That’s right: she was born in April of 2000, during the auspicious Year of the Dragon. And that is what her father reminded her, by text, the day she was going for the gold.

Jong Jin KIM:  I text her this morning, “This the time to be dragon.”

This is “the time to be a Dragon.” Did Kim really win a gold medal because she’s a Dragon child? Of course not! That’s now how the world works. …Is it? What if we told you that idea is not as absurd as it sounds?

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Stephen DUBNER: So let’s start at the beginning. Tell us, first of all, what a Dragon baby is and why this was of interest to you as an economist.

John NYE: So, the Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar, and they have a bunch of different animals for every year. People have heard of things like the Year of the Pig, the Year of the Rabbit. But of the Chinese zodiac, the only mythical creature is the Dragon.

That’s John Nye, an economist at George Mason University.

NYE: And traditionally, in Chinese belief, the children born in the Dragon year are smarter, luckier, more likely to be successful, et cetera.

Jin LI: Dragon represents power, leadership, and good fortune.

And that’s Jin Li, a professor of education at Brown.

LI: It’s extremely powerful for Chinese culture.  The emperors, you know, ever since the beginning, claimed they are associated with these powerful creatures. Only his robe will have dragon on it.

NYE: There may be a lot of regional differences, in terms of superstitions about different years.  The one that seemed to unite every place we looked at in which ethnic Chinese or Koreans, responded to this zoological signs, it seemed to be the Dragon was the common denominator.

DUBNER: John, what’s your zodiac animal?

NYE: I’m a pig.

DUBNER: And what are the fortunes or misfortunes historically associated with the year of the pig?

NYE: I believe pigs are stubborn but smart, tend to be very friendly, but also have other kinds of difficulties, due to their mixed, stubborn personality, as well as being very, very gregarious, but at the same time clever. Or something like this.

DUBNER: Now, we’ve only just met, but something in your tone of voice suggests that you’ve embraced your pig identity.

NYE: I’m not sure. I mean, I didn’t even grow up knowing about these superstitions, even though my father’s Chinese. I grew up in a more Filipino, Catholic household. So I only learned about these things much later on. Sometime in the mid-90’s, I started reading articles about the upcoming Dragon year, which was going to be 2000, and issues relating to baby booms in Taiwan.

For this part of the story, we need a demographer.

Daniel GOODKIND: I’m Daniel Goodkind. I’m an independent researcher from Arlington, Virginia.

Goodkind also works at the U.S. Census Bureau, with a focus on Asia, but he’s not speaking today in his official capacity. Anyway: Daniel Goodkind got interested in Dragon children a while ago.

GOODKIND: In 1986 and 1987, I was living in Taipei and I came across an article about an impending Dragon year baby boom that was going to occur in 1988. And there’s a cartoon in the middle of it, which showed a couple in bed looking rather exasperated, as three government figures were trying to lecture them that they should not try to time their births into the Dragon year.

They shouldn’t try because if too many parents chased the good fortune of the Dragon year, the resulting baby boom could swamp public resources.

NYE: There were a lot of news reports about hospitals being crowded. There were these pictures with eight babies lying outside in a rack in the hall.

GOODKIND: One thing they were concerned about was a rise in infant mortality because the births really pile up at the end of the Dragon year. But that’s also the time of the Lunar New Year. And that’s also the time that people are taking vacations, and people on maternity wards as well, and neonatal wards. So unfortunately, it appears that for complicated births, or preemies, they didn’t have enough facilities to take care of them. So infant mortality actually ticked up in 1976, at the end of that Dragon year.

Nineteen-seventy-six, 1988, 2000, and 2012: these are the most recent Dragon years. How big was the Dragon boom?

GOODKIND: Typically the rates of increase are about 15 to 20 percent, compared to the average of adjacent years.

NYE: So birth rates are plunging from the early 60’s to the mid-80’s in all these countries in East Asia. Amid this plunging birth rate — typical years are going down minus 2, minus 3 percent — the Dragon year saw, in Taiwan in ’76, a 15.5 percent spike. Singapore’s Chinese population saw an 8 percent spike. Malaysia’s Chinese population saw a 10 percent spike.

But there was one significant place the Dragon boom wasn’t happening:

NYE: You saw a Dragon-year birth effect in all East Asian countries or ethnic Chinese areas, except China.

GOODKIND: It’s only the Chinese societies outside, on the periphery.

Now, why would that be?

LI: I was born and raised in mainland China, under Communist rule.

Jin Li again.

LI: And one of the things they try to stay away from, or try to eradicate, is the old China.

The old China meaning pre-Mao and the Communist Revolution.

LI: And Mao Zedong stood at Tiananmen Square and said, “Now we have a new China.” So that means saying goodbye to the old China. Because that was understood, or was perceived, as old, backwards, not able to survive in the 20th century

Her parents, she says, knew all about the zodiac and the folk beliefs accompanying it.

LI: But, no, as a child, I didn’t notice. And yeah, you’ve vaguely heard, okay, if a girl was born the Year of the Goat, she would have trouble marrying. So what’s wrong with a goat? And my parents are just like,  “Don’t even ask.” Because they’re afraid of, you know, being identified as a counter-revolutionary, and believing the old system.

NYE: And China was so poor and you know, when you’re very poor, you may not have a lot of time to worry about things like what each year your child will be born in.

But the Dragon boom was happening among Chinese populations outside of China. Now, the special status of the Dragon went back many centuries. So you might assume the Dragon baby boom went back too. But Daniel Goodkind found that was not the case.

GOODKIND: Based on the historical data that I’ve seen, and talking to historical demographers, there really doesn’t seem to be evidence until very recently. It’s really a new tradition, actually, to try to time births in the Dragon year.

Why only recently?

GOODKIND: Well, one factor obviously is the decline in fertility rates over time. When couples are having five, six, or seven children and they’re not using contraception, then the importance of timing a birth in or out of a zodiac year might be less relevant or maybe not easy to do. But these days, when people are having just one or two children, and a reproductive lifespan might be 35 years, there’s plenty of time there to play with. People have greater control over their fertility through contraception.

Goodkind started looking around at the places where the Dragon boom was particularly strong — places like Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. They all had a couple things in common: a lot of Chinese who’d left China after the Revolution; and strong economies.

GOODKIND: Incomes were going up everywhere. And also employment was going up, including for women.

Goodkind suggests that this Chinese diaspora didn’t like how China itself was ditching so many traditional practices.

GOODKIND: And I think that helped to increase the sense of Chinese-ness among those Chinese people outside of China. The government in Taiwan presented itself as the legitimate inheritor of Chinese culture, and that could have encouraged parents to see themselves as the preservers of Chinese culture, broadly defined. So this was just one tiny little slice of Chinese-ness. But it’s possible that that could have increased the incentive to time births this way.

It’s also possible, Goodkind thought, that being a minority immigrant creates an even stronger incentive to preserve your own cultural traditions. He was able to test this notion empirically, in Malaysia.

GOODKIND: I looked at the proportion of Chinese in each district, and I compared that to the size of the Dragon-year spike in those districts. And indeed I found that Chinese in districts that had a smaller proportion of the total population actually had a larger spike.

Eventually, however, as mainland China began to modernize, the Dragon boom began showing up in their fertility data too. John Nye again:

NYE: It’s only in 2000 and 2012 that you see it explode in China, to something like the levels you were seeing in Taiwan and Hong Kong before. It’s in cities which are growing rapidly and developing

DUBNER: Now, that strikes me as a little bit surprising. I would think that, I guess, the more modern or upwardly mobile parents would be a little bit less driven by that sort of belief, Year of the Dragon belief. Did it surprise you?

NYE: No, because the Dragon effect is showing up strongly in countries that are transitioning from being very poor to being very middle-class. You could argue that these developed parts in China are just now attaining the levels of economic development that you saw, say, in Malaysia or Hong Kong or Taiwan in the late 70’s. The second thing is, of course, we can’t rule out the fact that these areas also have greater access to media from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and which may also be affecting them.

GOODKIND: I think it intersects with a lot of issues in economics like preferences. You know, do people prefer carrots versus peas? Do they prefer — if they have more income — to go on vacations or buy a motorcycle? So this is all part of that consumer-choice framework. Do people prefer having a Dragon or a Rabbit or which animal?

NYE: And it may well be that as people grow richer, they’re looking for identity markers, and those identity markers, especially in a world that’s globalizing, may become far more important in the world today, for good and for bad. I would say a lot of this falls under a grand rubric of the whole debate about the secularization hypothesis, the idea that people become more secular, less religious, less spiritual, as they become more modern and richer. And over time that belief has taken some hits.

DUBNER: Okay, so you’ve written a couple of papers about Dragon babies. So let me ask you a kind of churlish question: why does your research matter?

NYE: Well, clearly, there are a number of issues here that are very important. What are the effects, in terms of education, the labor market, the marriage market — all these kinds of things are very important.

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Starting in the 1970’s, certain populations in Asia began to experience a sizable baby boom every 12 years, during the astrologically propitious Year of the Dragon. All else equal, what parent wouldn’t want their kid to be born under a good sign?

NYE: So, as usual with economists, we sat around discussing this and sort of saying, “Well, what would happen?”

That, again, is the economist John Nye.

NYE: This should be bad for them, right? Because it’ll lead to crowding. But maybe not. Maybe people will think these people are important, they’ll be treated differently.

Indeed, you could imagine the Dragon boom producing all sorts of outcomes — for the Dragon kids themselves, but also for other kids. In fact, one study found worse health outcomes for newborns in Malaysia during Dragon years, presumably due to hospital crowding. Another study found that Chinese Dragon kids born in Singapore went on to earn less than non-Dragons, perhaps due to a more crowded labor market.

NYE: So your child may suffer a deficit, because you have more competition.

That’s one possibility, at least. On the other hand, you have to ask yourself: what if the kind of parent who’s methodical enough to time a kid’s birth to a Dragon year is also the kind of parent who’ll push their kids to be successful?

NYE: So when you argue about these things, you start thinking, “Well, how am I going to test this?” And that’s how the impetus came about for this.

“This” being a study that John Nye undertook with his colleague Noel Johnson.

NYE: And he had the idea of, instead of looking at, say, Taiwanese or people in Hong Kong, to look at Asian-American immigrants.

Using American data had a couple advantages — if, that is, the Dragon boom was even a thing among Asian-Americans. If so, the researchers could minimize potential crowding effects that might occur in smaller countries, like Taiwan, where the Dragon boom might strain classroom resources. And there were any number of ways they could slice and dice this robust American birth data.

NYE: And then we could look at the U.S. 2000 census.

DUBNER: So these are 1976 births, so people are going to be 23, 24 years old. Right?

NYE: Correct. Correct. At the time of the census.

DUBNER: Now, I would think, as a total layperson, “Now, wait a minute. The kind of people who are most likely to immigrate to the U.S. might have a different set of beliefs about the power, let’s say, of the year of the Dragon.”

NYE: Absolutely. So one of the things we wanted to do was compare the group you’re talking about to various reference groups, and in particular, the reference groups we were interested in is, we look in our data at Asian-Americans compared to other Americans born in the Dragon year.

Here’s what Nye and Johnson found: a five-percent spike in Asian-American births during the Dragon year of 1976. Not as dramatic as the spikes in Asia, but still significant. So they set about to investigate the outcomes of this cohort.

NYE: So basically the main comparison is to look at Asian-American immigrants, minus the non-Dragon-believing groups, who were born in the Dragon year, versus those who were also immigrants, but not born in the Dragon year. In addition, we want to make corrections for the fact that if you compare Asian-American immigrants, they tend to have the highest educational attainment relative to other groups in general, relative to Americans on average, and relative to other immigrants.

Since the Dragons they were looking at were only in their early 20’s, Nye and Johnson focused primarily on educational outcomes rather than later-in-life markers like income or marriage. So what’d they find?

NYE: We see that Asian-American Dragons have roughly a third more year of education. We’re talking three to four months more of education. If you only look at immigrants now — so you’re only comparing Asian-American Dragon immigrants to Asian-American non-Dragon immigrants, the difference increases to nearly half a year. That is a huge effect. Secondly, since in general Asian-American immigrants are roughly getting, say, call it 14 years of education on average — that means high school plus two years of college, a half-year average when people are averaging 14 years of education is basically saying 5 percent or 10 percent are finishing college who would never have finished college before.

DUBNER: So presumably that translates to a better income outcome, but you can’t actually tell that from your data, can you?

NYE: Correct.

DUBNER: You’re looking at people just when they’re 22 or 23 years old.

NYE: We know from a lot of other research that has been well established, those with more educational attainment tend to do better.

So at least in the education department, the dire warnings about overcrowding and competition didn’t seem to have hurt the U.S.-born Dragon babies. Either that or these Dragon babies were so amazing that they overcame those obstacles and still performed better. In any case, they somehow seemed to have fulfilled their Dragon destinies. How? To figure it out, Nye and Johnson focused on a subgroup in their data who they suspected had the strongest belief in the Dragon idea.

NYE: So basically, we’re looking at non-Taiwanese Asians and Taiwanese Asians in California. In terms of income, gender distribution, age distribution, they have roughly the same characteristics. The biggest difference is, the Taiwanese groups tended to have a larger proportion of people who had bachelor’s degrees, and a larger number of people who were Dragons.

DUBNER: Tell me about the characteristics of the parents, I want to know everything that you know about the mothers and/or fathers of the Dragon babies born in California in 1976.

NYE: So that’s where we found the most interesting results. For this special subgroup we drilled down on, the Taiwanese moms in California who had had Dragon babies tended to be on average a little bit older, more educated, and higher income. The income is not so strong. The bigger effect is that they were more likely to have only children.

DUBNER: Which suggests?

NYE: Very strong selection bias. Now, here’s where we’re just sort of ball-parking it, right? We’re just guessing. But one way to think about this is that well-educated, higher-income older moms who are going to only have one child, not only want to have Dragon babies, but maybe have the freedom and the wherewithal and the lower opportunity cost of obtaining a Dragon baby.

DUBNER: Is this a case of that kind of parent being more likely to wait to have a baby, in the year of the Dragon — or is it that that kind of parent will have and will put more resources into the baby who happens to be born in the Dragon year?

NYE: Both of those are possible, that they’re willing to wait, and they’re willing to plan in a way that’s appropriate.

DUBNER: Yeah. I guess if the second one is at least somewhat true, then it sounds like what I would call a self-fulfilling prophecy, yeah?

NYE: Absolutely. I think that given that these are happening in countries that are becoming bourgeois, so to speak, middle-income countries, there is this sense in which part of what being modern and economic growth does is allow you to indulge your beliefs. The second thing is that it may well be that one evidence of this is wanted babies are more fortunate.

DUBNER: Well, wantedness is really a key word because there’s a lot of literature that shows that unwantedness is just a rotten start for any kid. Yes?

NYE: Correct. Correct.

DUBNER: What about if I have a kid and I’m not really paying attention to the year, and I happen to have a kid born in the year of the Dragon, and that kid might have been, let’s say, in the 95th percentile in the school system. But now, he or she is getting crowded out by all these Dragon babies and gets knocked down to the 85th percentile.

NYE: I would think that’s a bigger problem in relatively small societies like Singapore or Hong Kong, and it’s less of a problem in the United States, where they are already a minority, so they’ll be mixing with bigger groups.

DUBNER: It does suggest, however, in some places at least, a game-theory solution, right, which is that, well, if I know that all these other parents are going to be pumping out the babies during the year of the Dragon, then I can optimize by having my smart kid, you know, six months before or after. Yes?

NYE: Correct. Assuming that’s all you want.

The census data that Nye and Johnson used couldn’t tell them anything about how these Dragon kids were being raised. Whether perhaps there was some self-fulfilling prophecy going on. But other scholars have looked into whether higher expectations lead to better outcomes. In a famous study by the psychologist Robert Rosenthal, school teachers were told that their students were “gifted” even though they weren’t; yet somehow, by the end of the term, those students did outperform their peers. There’s been some pushback as to whether teacher expectations really have such a large effect. In any case, there’s also the idea of parental expectations. A recent study by a pair of economists at Louisiana State University looked at Dragon kids born in China. These kids did have better educational outcomes than their non-Dragon peers. But the researchers found no difference in the kids’ cognitive abilities, self-esteem, or their expectations. What they did find was that their parents had higher expectations. And those parents invested more time and money in their kids’ success — talking to their kids’ teachers, for example, or letting the kids do fewer chores. Research by Yoko Yamamoto and Susan Holloway has found multiple links between a parent’s expectations and a child’s academic achievement.

Yoko YAMAMOTO: It was of course a self-fulfilling prophecy of the parents.

And that is Yoko Yamamoto.

YAMAMOTO: Because they believe that children born that year would be intelligent or would be excellent. They make a plan, and they organize the children’s lives, and they also have skills, knowledge, and time to do everything.

NYE: We’re not saying that people believe the superstition.

That’s John Nye again, on the notion of how a child is affected by a Dragon-year birth.

NYE: We’re just sort of saying, there’s this birth-year effect. In fact, one of the things that the self-fulfilling prophecy will tell you is that if other people treat your child this way, it may pay to have a birth-year Dragon baby even if you don’t believe it yourself.

DUBNER: Well, what if — okay, this is obviously wildly unrealistic — but what if you could, let’s say, designate the 12 years for different symbols, all of which are awesome, right? There’s a unicorn, there is a sunburst, there’s whatever, right? So none of them are negative. They’re all awesome. And then just persuade, you know, psychically, every parent that every child born under whatever sign is somehow destined for awesomeness as long as the parents properly invest that child with education and funding and love, and so on. I mean, obviously, it’s a mind game, but isn’t that kind of the idea here?

NYE: Yes. I don’t think we have had a lot of success at, sort of, artificially creating awesomeness. I guess that’s all I’m sort of saying.

Okay, so artificially creating awesomeness may be hard. It’s also hard to know exactly what’s going on in the minds of all those Dragon parents, and Dragon kids. Even the very best cross-sectional data won’t tell you that. So, to find out, we asked Freakonomics Radio producer Stephanie Tam to speak with some Dragon kids and parents.

TAM: So I was curious to find out how Dragon-year beliefs were actually playing out in the lives and minds of Asian-Americans — in part, because my own parents are from Hong Kong, and I’d never heard about this zodiac practice before. So I tracked down some Dragon children and parents, starting with two 5-year-olds who were playmates. I interviewed them with their parents in New York.

AMANDA: My name is Amanda.

JAMES: James.

AMANDA: I’m 5, and I was born as a Year of a Dragon.

TAM: What are dragons? What are they like? I’ve never met one before.

AMANDA: The head is made out of a horse head, and then it’s like a snake’s body, and then the bulls are cow’s horns.

JAMES: They’re strong.  They’re smart and they’re good.

VICTORIA: Yeah, one day he came home, he says, “I’m a Dragon, and I’m very smart.”

TAM: That’s Victoria, James’s mom.

VICTORIA: I don’t know where he gets that from. Maybe a relative or other parents exposed that to him.

JIMMY: If my son thinks that, you know, this is a good thing, then good for him. If he thinks it’s a bad thing, then obviously I would discourage him to think that way.

TAM: And that’s Jimmy, James’s dad.

JIMMY: For me, it is a zodiac, just like the Western zodiac, you know, are you an Aries, Aquarius, for me, that’s entertainment value.

VICTORIA: When I first found out, I was kind of excited, because Chinese, they like — especially their son — to be born in the Year of Dragon. It’s like hitting the jackpot.

TAM: Amanda’s parents, Nelson and Grace, also hadn’t timed her birth, and they didn’t think they gave her special treatment because she’s a Dragon. But they did find creative ways to remind her of her Dragon identity:

GRACE: I give Amanda a lot of Chinese nicknames, so one of them is called “Xiao Long Nu,” meaning “Little Dragon Girl.” And there is a famous character — her name is Xiao Long Nu and she’s, like, beautiful, and smart, and et cetera.

NELSON: I try to make jokes in Chinese, like, based on, you know, because a lot of sounds are similar. You know, it’s a tonal language. You can you can say “Xiao Long Bao” — so it’s the soup dumplings, of course, that everyone loves. And interestingly, Amanda loves them —

GRACE: Sometimes we just refer to our daughter as “Xiao Long Bao.” She loves xiao long bao.

TAM: So she’s alternately this great mythical beast and a soup dumpling.

GRACE: That’s right. It’s a fun thing. It’s a good way to go deeper and further to the Chinese culture. 

TAM: I also spoke with Wen Zhao and her 17-year-old Dragon daughter Dora. Wen had moved from China to America after college, and she raised Dora in Illinois.

Wen ZHAO: It’s very clear to me that I want to have a Dragon child when I have a choice, just because everything that I have read, you know, in books, in literature, and everything, you watch the movies, the image of a dragon, it’s all good.

TAM: Her doctor had told her to expect a C-section, so she decided to have a Dragon.

ZHAO: So I knew I could choose what day I have her born, in the end of the Dragon year or the beginning of the Snake year. By the date I selected, Dora would be full term already. So she was born on the tail of the Dragon year.

TAM: Interestingly, that freedom to choose her zodiac has also shaped her daughter’s relationship to her Dragon identity.

DORA: Because I was born in 2001, and in the American calendar or the Western calendar, I’m considered Snake, but in the lunar calendar, I’m considered Dragon, I would always have to look at both of them to see like, which prediction was more, like, accurate to what I thought about myself.

TAM: Dora’s now a high-school junior:

DORA: I do remember they say Dragons are very authoritative, which for especially a little girl, when you’re always told that you’re very cute, was pretty nice to hear; you know, I too, I can be pretty bad-ass.

TAM: It was looking a lot like Asian-Americans were picking and choosing the parts of the Chinese zodiac and culture that they liked. It felt like a kind of cultural consumerism. You could focus on positive traits that fit, and aspire to ones that didn’t. That idea of aspirational identity came up again with the oldest Dragon I spoke with, Margaret Tung. She’s 29, grew up in California, and is now the senior marketing manager at an online pet products company in New York. She was the most intentional and fully-fledged Dragon I spoke with; and by all accounts, seemed to be a breathing embodiment of Dragon-y success, as a Yale graduate and two-time C.E.O.:

Margaret TUNG: I remember growing up,  my parents would tell me that so many people in their friend circle or in their immigrant friend circle were trying to have kids in 1988, because not only was it a Dragon year, it was also the Golden Dragon year, which is the most auspicious.

TAM: Okay, when did you first discover you were a Dragon and what was your reaction?

TUNG: It’s probably when I was 3, that’s the earliest memory I have of anyone in my family calling me “Long-Long,” which is like, Little Dragon. Ultimately, it’s a reminder of your ancestry and of your culture.

TAM: Okay, so you said that you identified with the Dragon characteristics. And I’m curious, what are those characteristics, and how would you describe your personality and the parts that you felt matched up?

TUNG: I think the ones that really stand out are, they’re very ambitious and they’re also very willful. I grew up in a household where my parents really encouraged me to be the best version of myself. I think my mom she really felt it was her job to encourage that. And in moments that were really challenging and difficult, I was like, “Oh, but actually like, that’s the way people see me, is ambitious and smart and willful, so those are things that are still within me, even though I don’t feel them at the moment. And yeah, as a younger kid, I couldn’t fully fit in, because I just obviously didn’t look like this white culture that was all around me. And I never would. And so internally, it was the one thing that I held onto, or like, really reminded myself of, when I had my own identity crisis.

TAM: In your mom’s eyes, what was the best you could be?

TUNG: I think the most important thing for her was that, you know, her kids get the best education they could, but then she also wanted us to discover our own passions and talents.

TAM: Do you feel like you’ve achieved more success than your fellow non-Dragon, barnyard animal siblings and cousins?

TUNG: Oh man, I don’t know. I think the barnyard animals are probably giving me a run for my money. But yeah, I mean, did knowing and understanding the characteristics of what being a Dragon means affect me in any way growing up? It certainly did. It gave me the right to be a more willful human being, despite the fact that I am also an Asian female, who’s expected to be very, like, obedient, expected to take direction well, and instead I’m the kind of person who is much stronger in what I believe, has no hesitation saying what I think. But also, have developed into a much more open person than I otherwise would be.

That was Stephanie Tam, talking to Asian-American Dragon kids, and their parents. And, before we go, here’s a bit more on the most famous Dragon kid, and parent, at the moment: Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim and her dad, Jong Jin Kim. The Kim family is Korean, not Chinese; but they, too, believe in Dragon power.

Jong Jin KIM: I text her this morning, “This the time to be dragon.”

Chloe KIM: To make my dream come true, it took a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Like, how much my dad has given up for me, and I know I wouldn’t be here without him.

This tape is from a “Visit California” promotional video.

Jong Jin KIM: When she was about 8 or 9, I found that her potential to make Olympian.

Chloe KIM: Everything was a whole crazy learning experience. I remember one trip when he finally learned about wax. You — you bought candles!

Jong Jin KIM: Yeah yeah yeah yeah —

Chloe KIM: Yeah, he bought candles; he melted candles onto my board thinking it’d be the same thing. Candle wax! If I had a message to give my dad, it’d probably be, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” He’s helped me so much on this crazy journey — giving up his job, and like, being away from my mom, and being away from home for that much, just because of me. It’s a lot. And, you know, I thank him for it. Dads rule!

Especially Dragon dads.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Stephanie Tam, with fact-checking help from Brian Gutierrez. Special thanks to Nick Zaccardi from NBC Olympics and Visit California. Our staff also includes Alison Hockenberry, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Max Miller, and Harry Huggins; the music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or via email at radio@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas behind this episode.

SOURCES

  • Daniel Goodkind, researcher at the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Jin Li, professor of education at Brown University.
  • John Nye, economist at George Mason University.
  • Yoko Yamamoto, professor of education at Brown University.

RESOURCES

ETC.