Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I'm glad I have a Chinese Mom

There's been a lot of hubbub in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere about the Wall Street Journal article that came out about a week ago. If the title of my post isn't a tip off, then let me give you the link here and tell you the title: "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" by Yale Law School professor, Amy Chua. This essay is, apparently, an amalgamation from various parts of Chua's latest book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, with the very log subtitle -- which you can read on the book jacket below:

Various friends and family members have sent me the link to the original WSJ essay and have asked my opinion about the whole fracas. I've seen New York Times pieces decrying Chua and her style of parenting (including this thoughtful piece by David Brooks--a commentator I don't normally agree with), comments in various forums that call Chua's mothering child abuse. I've seen Chua interviewed on CNN and other news outlets telling us that she's received death threats and that the piece in the WSJ didn't accurately represent the book and her perspective--that it was never meant to be a handbook or an ethnic nationalist treatise; rather, it was a memoir about the trials and tribulations of her parenting, particularly the conflicts she faced with her younger daughter. I've read blog posts by Asian American women recounting the trauma of their own childhood experiences with a Chinese (or Asian) parent and two very thoughtful pieces by erin Khue Ninh (lit professor at my alma mater) and Jeff Yang (SF Chronicle) about the fallout in the Asian American community on Amy Chua.

So what do I think about Chua, specifically about her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and whether the WSJ piece accurately reflected her parenting ideology?

The first disclaimer is that I haven't read the book, and I'm not sure that I'll get around to reading it anytime soon. I do think that she was mis-represented in the WSJ piece--that they crafted an essay that was designed to provoke and push buttons (and boy did it!). However, I also think that in a million years I wouldn't parent the way Chua parents. Mostly because I don't think that training your kids to be #1 is necessarily a path to happiness. Greatness, sure--but I value happiness over greatness. Yet I also agree with parts of the WSJ article that there does seem to be a sense of entitlement and indulgence in certain kids and you have to wonder if this is a result of a laxity in parenting.

[Aside: As one currently child-less, I recognize that any remarks I make about parenting will be potentially discounted right off the bat, but I've been teaching for a while now and this is my opinion about some of the freshman I see coming into the classroom--especially the ones whose parents contact me on behalf of their student to talk about academic issues--which in my line of work is a big NO NO]

So I'm not really going to comment on the book so much as the firestorm that has happened in the wake of the WSJ article. And one thing that strikes me about all of the comments is the disturbing return to Asian invasion rhetoric, one that renders China and all things Chinese as mechanical, robotic, unimaginative, repetitive, in terms suggestive of a horde (or for you Sci-fi fans, the borg) versus American exceptionalism which emphasizes creativity, individuality, and most of all, the pursuit of happiness, as granted to us in our Declaration of Independence. In other words, stereotypes of model minority, Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, yellow peril, geeky Asian violin players are reinforced in the WSJ piece.

And while my colleague in academia has spoken about the dangers of the WSJ piece and Chua's emphasis on overachievement (even if she has learned a lesson from it) on the Asian immigrant parents who may see her book as an endorsement for strict parenting and excellence and achievement at all costs, what I think is truly sad and insidious about the fallout from Chua are all the Chinese and Chinese American moms, immigrant and American born, who are not the stereotype of the strict Asian parent.

Case in point: my own mother.

My mom (and my Dad) never pushed me to get straight A's. I was allowed and encouraged to go to sleepovers and to have sleepovers at my home. I was allowed and encouraged to pursue extracurricular activities like tennis and badminton and track (and I even dabbled in being a bluebird--but it didn't take). On my own initiative I played the violin for 7 years and piano for 3 years, and my parents didn't complain when I stopped playing both instruments in high school once I became more involved in student body politics. I watched plenty of t.v. (and also read plenty of books, largely fiction), and my parents didn't pressure me to attend an ivy league or tier 1 school or to major in something "practical" or to become an M.D.

In short, what Chua's article and book do is to obscure women like my mother who aren't the stereotype of the Asian mother who insists on excellence at all costs and who creates pressure-cooker tension in the home for her children. My mother never berated or insulted me--never threw homemade birthday cards back at me--she allowed me to make my own decisions and choices while still giving me structure and guidance.

Did we fight? Of course! Was it a perfect mother-daughter relationship? No way! But my mother is certainly a strong-willed woman who helped me become a strong-willed woman -- and she did this through a combination of structure and trust. So I just want everyone to remember that not all of us had overly strict Chinese mothers who made our lives miserable and forced us into doing things we didn't want to do for the same of excellence. I, for one, am very glad and very proud of the Chinese American Mom who raised me and who instilled in me a desire to succeed not by pushing me but by loving me unconditionally.


Anonymous said...

I keep wishing I had the emotional energy to participate in this conversation, because part of me feels like it's really, really important, and there's so much nuance to be said and had and experienced - but the rest of me just wants to stay the hell away from the hot mess it's become, you know? And while part of it is certainly the difficulty of talking about parenting choices - mothering choices - within kyriarchy, that we're now also talking about stereotypes of hardass Asian parenting without necessarily making everyone aware that we're talking about them as stereotypes - again, within kyriarchy - it just seems like a conversation where everyone is pretty much going to lose.

I'm willing to give Chua's book the benefit of the doubt, because whatever her experiences were/are in being mothered, othered, mothering another, they're voices to add to the discourse (not saying that all voices are equal, just that ime talk about mothering tends to be dominated by WASPs) and I value that.

But still ...

david said...

Regarding Chua's book, one has to wonder why she wrote it at all when her parenting styles would bring such a backlash. She must have known that her parenting style is not the overall norm. Now I'm not saying that everyone parents laxly and gives into the child, no. I'm saying that almost no one parents like a tight fisted, iron willed, dictatorial person.

But I can see how that instance can cast a stereotype or stereotypes on an entire community of parents. Is it right? No. Not all Asian parents parent like that. Your parents are a case in point.

Ms. Foodie said...

I read the essay online and loved it! What a fierce love she has for her children. And in every line of the essay you can see her agonizing over her choices to be the disciplinaran. How tempting to take the easy way out and just fall in with the mainstream! But she loves her children too much.

Parenting choices are just that - choices. Brave and wonderful of her to lay herself out in the public like that. We need to hear these differing views of parenting - that's what living in a diverse society is all about. Let us hear the voices of all members of society and then take what we want from it. There are plenty of white parents who parent just like this but because they are a) white and b) white and c) don't write about it, nobody criticizes them. Just chew on that, my friends.

Fabulous blog, by the way!

Ms. Foodie said...

ps. and it was a FUNNY essay! Why can nobody recognize that!? It was in large part deadly serious, but shot through with humour. Sheesh. America lacks humour. It's like that whole fuss about Ke$ha brushing her teeth with JD. It was a SONG, people!

Also check this out -the Tiger Cub's response!

Unknown said...

Great discourse analysis, Jen. I especially like your point, though, about what other kinds of moms Chua's representation obscures. As Homi Bhabha reminds us, the main problem is not that stereotypes might be "positive" or "negative" but that stereotypes limit the range of possibilities.

Unknown said...

Hot chocolate and donuts the next
morning after the sleepover!Those
were some fun days even for me.

Jennifer Park said...

Jennifer, I'm so glad you posted about this (I was going to ask you about your thoughts on this, but I'm glad I checked your blog!). For exactly the reasons you mention, I'd been frustrated about all the media surrounding this--the return of these Asian/Chinese stereotypes and a lot of the divisions it's re-creating. Something also that I noticed made me uncomfortable were responses to Chua's book that were written by white authors because it gave me too much of a sense of a West vs. East kind of discussion, in contrast to other Asians responding to and disagreeing with Chua's book with which I felt more comfortable, and one of which I posted somewhere. I'd love to talk to you more about this, but just wanted to comment as soon as I read it!

Jennifer said...

Hi everyone,
Thanks for leaving a comment--sorry I have been so remiss/lax in responding. A colleague/friend of mine, Tim Yu, actually has what I think is the definitive excellent response to Chua's piece--I'm going to be blogging about it later in the week, but you can check it out here:

Finally, I just want to thank my Mom for chiming in with her own comment! After all, this post was dedicated to her, so Thanks Mom!