Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Paper Tiger Mother: On Amy Chua

Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has provoked controversy for its supposed argument that Chinese mothers are better than American ones. But don’t be fooled. Chua’s book is not about being a Chinese mother. What Chua’s actually doing is inventing a new model of high-stakes, high-pressure, middle-class American parenting—and calling it “Chinese.”

Chua’s book leads us into a trap, one Chua herself has fallen into. To “be Chinese,” in Chua’s mind, is to excel through relentless work; to “be Western” is to fail, to settle for lazy mediocrity. It’s no wonder, then, that the fear of not being “Chinese” enough is palpable on every page of Chua’s book, and that “Chinese” parenting becomes something like an extreme sport.

At the book’s end, I felt sorry not for Chua’s children but for Chua herself. The relentless pressure she puts on her children to succeed, and on herself to be a “tiger mother,” is rooted in a myopic view of Chinese and American cultures and their fundamental incompatibility. What I wanted to say to her was: relax, Professor Chua. You’re not Chinese; you’re Chinese American.

"Chinese Mothers Are Superior"

I first heard about Chua’s book in early January, when a friend who worked in publishing mentioned a Yale professor who had written a book about being a Chinese mother. A few days later, a former student sent me a message asking, “What do you think of this?” Attached was a link to the now-infamous Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” a selection of excerpts from Chua’s book. The article sets out to explain “how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids,” and proceeds to lay out a series of jarring contrasts between “Chinese” and “Western” mothers:
“Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t.” Western parents will praise a B grade, while Chinese parents will “excoriate, punish and shame the child.” And Chua describes calling her daughter “garbage” when she acts disrespectfully.

“Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences,” even if this means “coercion.” Example: Chua threatens to donate her daughter’s favorite dollhouse to the Salvation Army if she doesn’t get a piano piece perfect.

“Even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers.” Example: Chua’s daughters were never allowed to “attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.”
My first reaction to this article, predictably, was that it was awful. It ratified every stereotype about strict, punitive Asian parenting producing model-minority success stories who’ve never had a day of fun in their lives (in fact, it could have been a sidebar to Maclean’s “Too Asian” article). Worse yet, it could have been in the dictionary next to “essentialist.” Chua’s choice of “Western” (as opposed to, say, “American”) as the opposite of “Chinese” reinforced the idea that these different parenting styles were the result of a fundamental, unbridgeable cultural gap between East and West. And despite a few halting attempts at humor, the piece seemed to lack any kind of self-awareness or irony.

The reaction to the piece was swift and surprisingly vehement. Critics labeled Chua a “monster” and a “Mommie Dearest”; columnists like David Brooks and Ayelet Waldman inveighed against her; and she even reportedly received death threats.

Less widely reported on (OK, not reported on at all), was the heated response to the article among Asian American readers. Many argued that Chua’s article showed everything that was wrong with the “Crazy Asian Mom,” particularly in her psychological effects on her children; Betty Ming Liu captures this sentiment in her headline, “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian Americans like me are in therapy.” Others pointed to the high rates of suicide among young Asian American women.

Since then, Chua has been making the rounds of interviews and talk shows, spinning furiously. She has argued that the excerpts in the WSJ article were taken out of context. She has insisted that Tiger Mother is ”not a how-to guide”. She has called it a “memoir” of her “journey and transformation as a mother” in which she is ultimately “humbled” by her daughter. She told NPR, “I do not think the Chinese way is superior.” She even claimed to Stephen Colbert that the book was intended as “self-parody.” (Colbert’s response: “Can I get you a bicycle to backpedal any faster?”)

Well, I’ve actually read the book, and I can tell you that these claims are—to use one of Chua’s favorite terms of affection—garbage. Chua does assert, over and over again, that the Chinese way is better, and spells out in great detail how to follow it. Over the course of the book, she neither grows nor changes, and her beliefs and practices about parenting never shift. She is never humbled, although she is defeated—exactly once—in response to which she simply changes tactics and presses on. As much as I wish it were parody, the book is always in deadly earnest; even at those moments where we might laugh (uncomfortably) at Chua, she is never laughing with us. There is no journey, only the relentless pursuit of a quixotic ideal of Chineseness, and the grim determination to make her daughters Chinese, at any cost.

Chinese Parenting for "A Nation of Wusses"

Here’s the first question: why would anyone care, just at this moment, what a Chinese mother has to say about parenting? Chua gives us a glimpse of this at the end of Tiger Mother, when her older daughter Sophia gives a triumphant violin recital in front of an audience of supreme court justices from around the world at Chua’s house. Afterwards, the justices crowd around her, asking: “What is your secret? Do you think it’s something about the Asian family culture that tends to produce so many exceptional musicians?” Chua’s response: “I told them I was struggling to finish a book on just those questions and that I would send them a copy when it was done.”

Tiger Mother, of course, is that book, and don’t let Chua tell you that it isn’t a how-to book. She offers answers for every middle-class parental worry: how to make your daughter happy (force her to be “the best violinist in the state”); how to get her to practice piano (threaten to sell her stuff); how to respond when your child gives you an inadequate gift (throw it back at her and tell her that it’s “not good enough”). This is what Chua calls the “virtuous circle” of Chinese parenting: you force your kids to do things they don’t want to do (through coercion, shaming, relentless practice and “rote repetition,” if necessary), since “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

Some of Chua’s statements seem shocking, but they’re also not: they’re just exaggerated versions of exactly what we’d expect a Chinese mother to say. Those judges, like many Americans, believe there’s something about Asian parenting that produces hard-working, high-achieving, musically talented children who are more disciplined than their non-Asian counterparts—a belief Chua is only too happy to capitalize on. It’s a belief that’s been around in the U.S. since at least the mid-1960s, when stories about how Asian Americans were “outwhiting the whites” (to borrow from the title of one Newsweek article) began appearing in the media. It’s what we’d now recognize as the “model minority” image: Asians upholding the values of discipline, hard work, and capitalist individualism that white and black Americans seemed to have forgotten.

But of course the more immediate context for the attention Chua’s book is getting is the global rise of China—a context cited by nearly every non-Asian American review of the book. In this case, China anxiety sounds a lot like the model minority writ large. China is kicking our butts because—as Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell recently put it—America has become “a nation of wusses,” in contrast to the disciplined, forward-marching, calculus-doing Chinese. Maybe the secret is in Chinese parenting—or so the people snapping up copies of Chua’s book seem to have hoped.

They’ve gotten a bit more than they bargained for, because Chua’s relationship to “being Chinese” is a lot more complicated than it would appear. The “crazy Asian mom” is more stereotypically the immigrant mother, but Chua herself is American-born. She claims that Chinese parenting is something she learned from her own parents and is trying to pass on to her children; but Chua’s version of Chinese parenting is far more extreme than anything her Chinese parents did.

Inventing the Chinese Mom

In describing her father, Chua hits all the familiar notes: he found A-minuses unacceptable, saw getting second place as a “disgrace,” banned sleepovers and forced her to drill math and piano daily. (It’s interesting to note that all of the Chinese parenting Chua chooses to replicate comes not from her mother but from her father; a “tiger mother” sounds a lot like a Chinese father, crossed with an anxiety-ridden, overscheduling middle-class American mom.)

Plenty of Asian Americans can tell you about having a parent like this. Some respond by dutifully getting straight As and becoming doctors, engineers, or concert pianists; others rebel, fall into depression, become novelists or artists. But I can think of few Asian Americans who do what Chua does: double down on the Chinese parenting by going to lengths that her own parents could never have imagined.

Chua’s father may have drilled her in piano. But did he say these things to her?
1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.
2. I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality!
3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!
Those are some of the things Chua said to her daughter Sophia to get her to practice—techniques that were, Chua reports with satisfaction, “highly effective.”

And would Chua’s frugal Chinese parents have spent thousands of dollars and driven 18 hours round-trip for a single weekend of lessons with a famed teacher, as Chua does for one of her daughters? Or celebrate her other daughter’s Carnegie Hall debut by buying a gown from Barneys and busing her entire grade in for a lavish reception at a fancy hotel? Of the latter, Chua writes, “My mother was horrified by my extravagance.”

That’s a perfect choice of words to capture the oddity of Chua’s parenting style. The literary critic Sau-ling C. Wong, drawing from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, has characterized the conflict between the immigrant and American-born generations in Asian America as a clash between “necessity” and “extravagance.” The older generation emphasizes frugality, survival, discipline, tradition; the younger generation’s “American” desires seem like excess and frivolity in comparison. Chua’s parenting somehow manages to combine necessity and extravagance; her fantasies are not simply of success for her daughters but of spectacular triumphs (winning worldwide competitions, playing Carnegie Hall), and the lengths she will go to in order to achieve these goals are extravagantly irrational.

Again, it’s Chua’s own Chinese mother who questions her extreme methods. When Chua’s younger daughter, Lulu, begins to rebel and act out—fighting with her violin teacher, chopping off all her hair—Chua has the following remarkable conversation with her mother:
“You have to stop being so stubborn, Amy. You’re too strict with Lulu—too extreme. You’re going to regret it.”

“Why are you turning on me now?” I shot back. This is how you raised me.”

“You can’t do what Daddy and I did,” my mother replied. “Things are different now. Lulu’s not you—and she’s not Sophia. She has a different personality, and you can’t force her.”

“I’m sticking to the Chinese way,” I said. “It works better. I don’t care if nobody supports me. You’ve been brainwashed by your Western friends.”
The Chinese mother is not Chinese enough for Chua. The “Chinese way” is so absolute that it is impervious to the sensible advice of one’s own Chinese parent. Any deviation from that path is a sign of “Western” weakness.

Chua’s narrow and dogmatic view of what is Chinese thus has as its counterpart a skewed image of the “Western.” Chua describes “Western parenting” as if it is the product of fundamental cultural differences, but it’s really nothing more than a caricature of permissive, post-Dr. Spock, white middle-class American parenting. The “Western” mothers that Chua mocks worry about their children’s self-esteem, let their children make their own choices and praise their mediocre accomplishments. Then they “have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class” or “fly off with friends for a few days to mud springs in California.” Chua differentiates herself from these insufferable, self-indulgent yuppie moms by making Chinese parenting above all about hard work--“a never-ending uphill battle” and a “24-7 time commitment” that is “miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun.”

The extremity of Chua’s parenting style is not the product of Chineseness, but of her own cultural misunderstandings. Taking two exceedingly narrow visions of parenting, Chua understands them through a bogus cultural divide, imagining that her parental choices are somehow a test of her fundamental Chinese identity.

From Chinese to Chinese American?

The only hint of a way out of the Chinese-Western binary is offered by Chua’s children, who are, after all, only half Chinese (Chua’s husband is white). In one of the few passages in the book where Chua’s older daughter, Sophia, gets to be heard, she questions her mother’s labels:
[W]hen I referred in passing to Sophia as being Chinese, she interrupted me: “Mommy—I’m not Chinese.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, Mommy—you’re the only one who thinks so. No one in China thinks I’m Chinese. No one in America thinks I’m Chinese.”

This bothered me intensely, but all I said was, “Well, they’re all wrong. You are Chinese.”
Lulu, the younger daughter, puts it more bluntly: “I know—I’m not what you want—I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head?”

Well, why can’t she? The agony of this book—the source of the relentless torture that Chua puts herself and her daughters through—is that Chua just can’t break out of her binary thinking. When her will prevails and her daughters succeed, Chua sees it as a triumph of Chinese parenting. When her daughter wins a fight and gets to make her own decision about something, Chua thinks, “What a Western parent I’ve become…What a failure.”

The possibility Chua refuses to see, I think, is the possibility of being neither Chinese nor Western, but Chinese American—by which I mean not a blend of or compromise between East and West, but a more complex and fluid sense of what it means to be a person of Chinese descent in America. In the book’s last chapter, Chua briefly entertains what she calls a “hybrid” approach to parenting, but that just means “The Chinese way until the child is eighteen” and “the Western way after that.” Chua passes up every opportunity for insight, growth, or change in the book because she is unable to move beyond the idea that Chineseness is an absolute.

Chua could benefit from one more piece of wisdom from a book I’ve already mentioned, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Every time I think I know what it means to “be Chinese,” or any time I’m confronted with a student who claims that same certainty, I return to Kingston’s challenge to her readers:
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?

Kingston is as interested as Chua in what it means to be Chinese, and what it means to be a Chinese mother or daughter. But Kingston is also humble enough to know that her experience is just one among many, full of idiosyncrasies, and that the things she calls “Chinese” may not be Chinese at all. What makes Kingston’s book so compelling is that it starts with no assumptions about what is Chinese; instead, it is an exploration of Chineseness, full of questions, inventions, stories told and retold. This spirit of openness is what makes Kingston’s book a Chinese American text, and it’s what allows Kingston to both draw on the power of her Chinese mother’s voice and make a kind of peace with it. Understanding that one can be Chinese American helps us avoid the trap of the Chinese vs. the Western, showing that such categories can both guide and limit our lives.

So if I were Chua’s tiger mother, I would assign her to reread The Woman Warrior over and over again, until she realizes that it’s possible to be not just Chinese, but Chinese American. Until then, no playdates.


HFCHFC said...

Thanks for writing such a great and intelligent piece! As a fellow Chinese American, I think your insights are right on the mark. This is the best response to Amy Chua and the whole "Tiger Mother" debate that I have seen.

Jennifer said...

Bravo! This is the best response I've read, to date, on the whole Chua debacle. Thank you for this--it was insightful, especially your comments about Chinese American culture/identity.

Ming Ling said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking analysis of the culture clash that Chua instigates. I too agree that she creates a false dichotomy between parenting styles, although my focus is on her arbitrary definitions and conflating of good and bad (which I describe here). Starting from that already deeply flawed premise, she then lays on top of it her own idiosyncratic cultural labels. So what she describes as "good" isn't actually good, and then when she pronounces it "Chinese" it isn't truly Chinese either.

There's a somewhat amusing parallel between Chua's misaligned contrast between "Chinese" and "Western" and the media's misaligned contrast between Shanghai students and American students (as explained by another cognitive scientist).

pam said...

Tim, thanks for writing this powerhouse of an article (with its compendium of links, which I'm gonna check out). People close to me have been literally hiding Chua's book and any articles about Chua's book from me over the past month, wanting to spare me the trauma of the encounter. So this is seriously the first real exposure I've had to tigermother-gate. Now I don't know whether to fall to the ground with hysterical laughter or stab myself in the heart. Maybe I'll do both (overachiever).

But seriously, an excellent take on the subject. Nice invocation of Kingston (keeping in perspective the personal family insanities that we all must sift from and within larger "culture"). Who's leading the brigade to liberate Chua's daughters from the totalitarian suburb-regime? Quick, before they become drugged-out juvie punk rockers or (gasp) avant-garde artists.