Are Chinese Mothers Superior? You Can Decide for Yourself

Basically Amy Chua wrote the book we didn't. Which means my own Tiger Mother was right: my lazinessgoing to be my "downfall" one day.
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Three years ago, when Diana and I were kicking around book ideas, there was one that rose to the top for us, one we thought was pure gold. Its working title was: How to Raise a Child Prodigy. Although neither of us were prodigies -- a fact that filled us both with regret -- and neither of us were parents yet, we felt qualified to write the book anyway, because we were products of Hardass Asian Parenting, which was no different, in our minds, from Prodigy Parenting (see: the long, ever-expanding list of Asian prodigies). Plus, we imagined the book as a way to talk about what it's like to be Asian American without getting heavy, a way to laugh at ourselves, something honest but still tongue-in-cheek. Of course there would be some non-Asians, aspirational parents in particular, who would buy the book for parenting tips and take it seriously...suckas!

Only we never wrote it. We started it as a blog, set to private, but didn't get beyond a couple of entries. In hindsight, our lack of follow-through shines a light on two rather important details: 1) why we weren't prodigies in the first place and 2) why we weren't qualified at all to write the book. During that time, we did manage to bang out a long list of child-rearing ideas, ideas we'd been exposed to personally that we planned to explore in our little parenting guide. A selection of those ideas appears below, from a document dated March 2008:

  • Don't talk to your children. Lecture.

  • Liberally use words like "unacceptable," "disappointed," and "failure" while lecturing.
  • Love means never having to say you're sorry. Especially to your own flesh and blood.
  • While their schoolmates are signing up for soccer and cheerleading, enroll your children in piano, violin, cello, ballet, tennis, golf, math lessons, and Chinese school on the weekends. While they practice and/or study, complain about how poorly they're doing and sigh loudly that their training is a waste of money.
  • Instead of saying "Good job," try "Do better" or "Next time, be perfect."
  • "You got an A on your math test? Why not an A plus?"
  • Complain that their valedictory speech is "clunky and rambling."
  • Remind them that being the best is the same as being happy.
  • Play your children against each other. Disown one and tell the other(s), "You're now my only hope."
  • Don't just threaten disownment.
  • Compare your children unfavorably to your Hardass Asian Friends' children, who are always more successful.
  • Know that you're always right. Even when you're wrong. Oh wait, you're never wrong.
  • Insist that your children become brain surgeons, astronauts, Supreme Court justices, Olympians, Nobel Laureates or Saints.
  • If your children don't become brain surgeons, astronauts, Supreme Court justices, Olympians, Nobel Laureates or Saints, tell them that this is unacceptable, disappointing, and a total failure. If your child is indeed canonized as a Saint, admit that you hoped it would happen much sooner.
  • Try not to let your children's constant ingratitude, selfishness, and laziness get you down.
  • Sound familiar? It will to those of you who have been following the fallout from the publication of Amy Chua's memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the book's excerpt, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few days before the book's debut. In the excerpt, which was called "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," Chua outlined her own strict rules of parenting, revealing a list of things her two daughters -- who are, in fact, musical prodigies -- were never allowed to do:

    • 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 an 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

    So, yes, basically Amy Chua wrote the book we didn't. Which means, FUCK, my own Tiger Mother was right: my laziness was going to be my "downfall" one day.

    Well, not exactly -- at least, not the first part anyway (my laziness, however, is an ongoing issue). If you've actually read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, as I have, you know by now the book isn't a parenting guide or a how-to, as the WSJ excerpt would have you believe. The excerpt is misleading in a number of ways; it isn't even an excerpt in the conventional sense, one passage taken from one part of the book, but rather a number of passages taken from different parts of the book cobbled together to appear coherent, to give the impression that Chua's book is some kind of how-to. If anything, the book is a how-not-to -- Chua ends up retreating from her parenting style because it threatens to destroy her relationship with her younger daughter, Lulu -- and I imagine more than a few of its readers will come away from it feeling that their own parenting approach is, in fact, "the right one," if they are parents, or they will come away feeling that their own parents' parenting approach was "not so bad," if they do not have children themselves.

    The cut-and-paste job that became the book's widely-hated excerpt also makes Chua seem more smug and unlikeable than she appears in the full work. Our friend Jeff Yang interviewed Chua for his SF Chronicle column, in which she revealed she had no hand in putting together the excerpt -- for which she's received hate mail and death threats -- nor did she see it before it went to press. She didn't make up the incendiary title either. Then again, this mislead goes a long way toward explaining why Chua's book sits at #4 on Amazon's Top 100 books list and #1 in all subcategories at the time of this writing. So I'm not exactly feeling sorry for her. (Except... death threats? Really, people? Have you learned nothing from Tucson?)

    Not that the book is without its blind spots or that Chua doesn't have moments where she ought to be subjecting herself to some serious self-examination but, instead, stubbornly bullies through.

    Take, for example, what she writes about her older daughter Sophia, who's positioned in the book as the obedient one, as opposed to younger Lulu, who is the rebel:

    I love being able to count on Sophia. She has wells of inner strength. Even more than me, she can take anything: exclusion, excoriation, humiliation, loneliness.

    And get a load of this guilt trip, thinly-disguised as selflessness:

    ...everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me. It's not easy to make your kids work when they don't want to, to put in grueling hours when your own youth is slipping away, to convince your kids they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can't. "Do you know how many years you've taken off my life?" I'm constantly asking my girls.

    (My mom's line was always that old standby, "You'll be sorry when I'm dead." Though sometimes she'd just clutch the left side of her chest and moan, "My heart, my heart.")

    And then there are times when Chua overreaches entirely, acting the expert in areas where she is clearly not, using flimsy anecdotal evidence, if any at all, to justify what she's doing:

    There are all kinds of psychological disorders in the West that don't exist in Asia.

    But here's one thing I'm sure of: Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese ones.

    The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable -- even legally actionable -- to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty -- lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent." She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

    I mean, okay, Dr. Chua, self-proclaimed self-esteem guru. I guess while you were busy berating your daughters and forcing them to play piano and violin, you didn't have time to read this research study about how Asian American women are more likely to attempt suicide than the rest of the general population or come across these Department of Health and Human Services statistics identifying Asian American women ages 15-24 as having the highest suicide rate of any race or ethnic group in that age group and how being pushed to achieve most likely plays an important role in this. But by all means, keep exhorting those little pieces of garbage to play on!

    Red flags notwithstanding, I encourage those of you who found yourselves hating Chua after reading the WSJ excerpt -- as I did -- to read the book itself. I say this because I think it might make you feel better. I believe there are a number of you experiencing PTSD -- as Lac Su, author of the memoir I Love Yous Are for White People, described feeling -- after reading that excerpt. It didn't just hit close to home, it hit home like a heat-seeking missile. It brought up a lot of bitterness. Shit was too real. It was a reminder of why so many of us will spend the rest of our lives talking almost exclusively about our mothers in therapy. Yet, after reading the book, and realizing that Amy Chua is less of a monster and more of a deeply flawed human being who just isn't all that introspective -- which is sort of how we strive to see our parents when we have complicated relationships with them, no? -- I felt a genuine sense of relief. It took a lot of energy hating her, in the same way it takes a lot of energy hating your own mother, more energy than forgiving her does, in most cases.

    If I have one bone to pick with Chua -- and it's not an insignificant one -- it would be why. Why did she feel the need to strictly adhere to this so-called "Chinese parenting model" in the first place?

    Because I get why my parents raised me that way (to a lesser extreme, I might add). My parents pushed me to be "the best" -- and, uh, I'm not saying it worked, like, at all -- but they pushed me because they knew, from their own experience, that being good, really good, and smart, better-educated than most, and working-harder-than-almost-everybody was very often...not good enough. Because being good and smart and better educated and a hard worker didn't mean that you wouldn't still be poor, treated like a fool, underemployed, shit on, chased off the road by rich white kids in cars while riding your bike, and forced to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door because you had to put day-old bread on the table for you and your kids, even while you held a Ph.D. in Physics. I get now why they raged against our mistakes and poor preparation; mistakes were what made your brother miss the last boat out and left him to fend for himself in a war-torn country at age 14, poor preparation landed your grandmother in a labor camp. After many years, I even understand the rules and punishments that my parents imposed on us as children that seemed so inscrutable then, why my father wouldn't let us watch comedies, or why he wouldn't speak to us sometimes for days when we rented a movie that, for one mysterious reason or another, offended him. Because for years, there was, quite simply, nothing to laugh about.

    But Chua, by her own account, isn't parenting under the same pressure. Although she also calls Chinese parenting "immigrant parenting," she isn't an immigrant. (Her parents were, immigrating to the U.S. in 1960.) Her childhood resembles mine and that of many second-generation kids -- a mix of an Asian upbringing -- speaking the family's native tongue at home, drilling math and piano, report cards with nothing but A's -- and American influences: Girl Scouts, roller skating, and Dairy Queen.

    By the time she becomes a parent, Chua's done very well for herself, as children parented "the Chinese way" often do, at least on paper. She has an undergraduate and law degree from Harvard, she's on her way to getting a law professorship, her husband, whom she met at Harvard Law, is already a professor at Yale Law, and they have enough money to hire a Chinese nanny to teach Mandarin to the children. Eventually, Chua also gets a teaching job at Yale Law -- where she and her husband both still teach and are tenured -- and publishes two non-fiction books. By her own admission, Chua and her family have a comfortable life.

    I'm not saying that people like Chua, who are successful, upper middle-class, and lead comfortable lives, should be soft on their children, but I do think there's less urgency and imperative to raise them the way Chua has chosen to raise her daughters. And without urgency and imperative, the Chinese parenting method -- which Chua describes accurately as intolerant to failure -- makes much less sense. At times it even seems cruelly unnecessary. When there isn't a safety net, it's easy for a child to grasp that one misstep has grave consequences. When there is one, but someone's insisting that even with a safety net, a misstep has the same grave consequences, it's confusing and breaks down trust. The reason Diana and I can have a sense of humor about our Hardass Asian Parents and could come up with a book idea like the one we did, where we're actually poking fun at our strict upbringings, has a lot to do with our ability to comprehend why our parents brought us up the way that they did, why they felt like they had to.

    Will Sophia and Lulu be able to do the same? In a moment of doubt, Chua asks herself that question:

    I don't know how my daughters will look back on all this twenty years from now. Will they tell their own children, 'My mother was a controlling fanatic who even in India made us practice before we could see Bombay and New Delhi'? Or will they have softer memories?

    In other words, will Chua's daughters understand why they had to practice their musical instruments for hours at a time, even on vacation, sometimes spoiling vacation, why they couldn't ever make plans with friends because their free time was booked a year in advance, why their mother excoriated and humiliated instead of extolled and praised? Will they understand that was the only way for their Tiger Mother? Will they believe that she had to?

    Perhaps they will. One day. Stranger things have happened, especially with a shit-ton of therapy. But even after reading Amy Chua's memoir in its entirety, I still can't say that I do.

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