Amy Chua is Not Superior

I read a frightening article this past weekend entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.  The author, Amy Chua, justifies her stereotypically tough “Asian” parenting style as the proven way to raise tough and successful children.  For example:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

Chua’s argument might sound enticing, but she sounds more like a GE manager or a Malcolm Gladwell wannabe than a mother.  We get it – it takes a lot to be skilled at something.  In this day and age of post-American Idol instant “success” for essentially doing nothing, it’s refreshing to hear – and it seems like Americans are trying to get back to a model of hard work (i.e. Protestant work ethic?).  Part of me also wonders if this might be a well timed article to promote a well timed book to capitalize on/assuage people’s fear of China “catching up”.  Can’t this be construed as a “Take it from me, an insider who is now one of you!” coming from an overachieving Chinese-American Yale Law professor married to a guy named Jed?

Someone please get her a gong.

Packaging this “Chinese” parenting as a guarantee for raising successful children is like selling “Pearl Cream” as the ancient Chinese remedy for great skin.  It’s mumbo jumbo.  It’s Tiger Balm.  It might address some superficial issues and smell like it’s working, but doesn’t cure anything in the long run.

Having been raised myself in this “Chinese” way (i.e. piano lessons, no sleepovers, etc.) I do think that there were some benefits to being protected and pushed a certain way.  I didn’t realize it was love at the time, but my parents were certainly trying to prepare me with the tools to be successful and live a happy life.  I did get ahead of my peers.  However, being forced to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you have learned it, and developing a model of being driven by the outside world is a gateway drug to unhappiness.

For one thing, this model puts almost all the emphasis on external measures of success:  parental approval, high grades and being better than other people.  Amy Chua claims that her daughter had higher self esteem after figuring out how to play cross-rhythms (something I struggled with myself as a young pianist, so kudos to her at age seven!).  However, the pattern I see is a young girl being forced to do something that is not her own personal goal or desire.  That’s the opposite of discipline.  After she is finally able to do it, it is worthwhile to her because it pleases her mother.   That’s the opposite of self esteem.  Discipline and self esteem come from within.  How can you teach that by only using external measures?

Let’s talk about Asian women and depression.  A few months ago, PBS ran this article about the the high rates of suicide and depression among Asian women.  One of the responses to the article on this discussion board about Chua’s article is from a woman whose sister committed suicide despite having all the material and career achievements and being “every Asian parents wet dream come true”.

These two articles remind me of this monologue from Young Jean Lee‘s play, “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”:

Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status. Most of us hate these monkeys from an early age and try to learn how to be human from school or television, but the result is always tainted by this subtle or not-so-subtle retardation. Asian people from Asia are even more brain-damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey. Anyway, some white men who like Asian women seem to like this retarded quality as well, and sometimes the more retarded the better.

I think that sums up a lot.  It’s an angry portrait of an Asian-American, but I think there is a lot of truth to it, and I think a lot of people would at least have an inkling of agreement with it.   My parents came to this country as immigrants, and they had to deal with living in their culture within American culture.  My fellow first generation Asian-Americans and I are trying to figure out how to merge and reconcile the two even further.  You win some, you lose some.

I wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers until after high school (i.e. after everyone stopped having them), but I got to be in student council and organize the homecoming parade.  I had so many community college credits while attending classes in high school that I qualified as a college junior even though I was technically a freshmen, but I also went CRAZY partying because I never got to do so until I left home.  I studied classical piano through college, but now I play ukulele.  I studied management and spent as long as I could stomach it (8 months) at a Big Four accounting firm, but now I am a writer/actress/musician/comedian.

Many lessons I learned from my parents – the hard way.  Many I had to learn myself – the harder way.  There is only so much parenting you can do.  Someday I hope to learn that myself.

I don’t agree with Amy Chua’s views, but I appreciate that she appreciates our culture – as damaging as it can be.  However, it’s time for a change.  As corny as it sounds, East can and should meet West.  There’s got to be some sort of balance.

When I went home for the holidays this past year, my mother taught me how to crochet.  There were no books, no diagrams – just her crocheting at barely half speed as demonstration. If I had a question, she would “explain” by showing me the entire step again and following it up with “This is so easy.  If you can’t get it, there’s nothing I can do for you.”  You bet this tough love made my 28-year-old self determined to “get” crocheting, lest I be shamed for not being able to do something grandmas do in their sleep.  However, it stirred in me something I hadn’t felt for a long time.  I needed that approval from my mom.  But deep down, beneath all the lessons I learned from myself, I buried it.  And all that was left was love.

My first scarf.

16 thoughts on “Amy Chua is Not Superior

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Amy Chua is Not Superior | a certain jen ne sais kwok --

  2. Pingback: “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” or rather.. | Four Peas

  3. Does she qualify as Chinese or as an elitist? Chinese in the PHillipines? What exactly is that ethnicity? Well alot of people who are very filipino/a in outlook and even book claim to be Chinese while living in the Phillipines. They have changed their last names to Spanish derived ones but still claim to be Chinese even while having only one grandparent or one great grandparent who was Chinese.

    Why? It is an elitist moniker? A lot of filipino’s don’t have pride in the country and the Chinese community there have more of a go-get-em capitalist energy, international business ties ( to Malaysia, Indonesia, HK, China and Singapore ) so it cool while in the PHillipines to claim Chinese-ness in order to move among the elite circles in Filipino banking, arts, media, film and business.

    Amy Chua is an Asian American who has never ever wanted to be part of the Asian American community when she was growing up. But has found a convenient niche for her books, writing –East Asia of which she has never spent time in ( outside of conferences, vacation etc ) by virtue of being Chinese but from the Phillipines.

    Most of these women mimick that of Connie Chung and Maxing Hong Kingston. Married to white men typically connected to fields that they are interested in making break throughs in. They don’t represent the Asian community at all. As a matter of fact, they have a lot of prejudice towards Asian American men. Connie Chung Povich=Amy Chua ….. ( I don’t know what this last name is) but their last names are more reprsentative of their aspirations and the majority community which they aspired to all their lives.

    Besides, how many times have we seen couples where it was Asian women and or white-upper class guy, rich private school, Ivy league whatever– and almost always the white guy courts the Asian woman saying not in words but adroitly the message is, I offer you the freedom(s) that your community cannot, that an Asian man cannot, I am in a sense liberating you from this burden.

    Then the same Asian Amer ‘proud sister’ I am being sarcastic here, always comes back to represent this community because in the end, it is very hard to escape ethnic perceptions and the glass ceiling. But they at least through outmarriage start out at the top.

    I haven’t seen out of white male-asian female couples where the male didn’t offer the women whether explicit or implicity–he seems to put it that through him, he offers to free her from the limits of her community.

    Then she always comes back ( artificially however imposed by the establishment ) as a representative of the said community that she wanted no part of all her life.

    Sad but true

  4. Also check the wikipedia entry on Amy Chua. See one previous interview, Chua states that both daughters consider themselves Jewish and not Chinese. “Mom’s Chinese but we’re Jewish.”

    Wow, what great lessons did Ms. Tiger Balm impart on her own kids about this thousand(s) of years old culture and its discipline? I could have taught them that from reading any book from Ethnic studies–White Makes Right and Shake that money maker!

    I love this bc I see this all the time among especially Chinese and Filipino American’s the ones who marry out. That includes the extreme right wing TV , Fox was it personality, Malkin but she never uses her maiden last name because well Phillipines in its current geopolitical position situation is not a looming giant in any shape or form.

    Oh but that’s where Ms. Chua’s parents are from ( both ). Whoops. ” But hey I am Chinese, thus I write books about East Asian, yada, yada, yada.”

    I think I saw it somewhere where someone mentioned the outmarriage rate among Asian Ams. is 40% and 2.5 to 3.2 ( depending on the study ) to one–Asian female with white male vs. Asian male with white female, that is two and a half to three times as many wm-aF couples as AM-WF couples. This figure counts the total of all marriages which have at least one member who is listed in census info as Asian American.

    Sorry but that outmarriage rate is far more skewered than what you think. 60-65% of the Asian American population were born overseas. Many such as the parents of most of my asian american friends are first generation immigrants from Asia. Hence, Asian father-Asian mother. But if you want to know the real statistics for Asian Americans who are American not only by passport but also culturally (they don’t have to have been born in the US but were raised in the US and consider themselves without a doubt, American ), then you must take out the data from 1st gen. immigrant marriages.

    That figure of the outmarriage imbalance would have to exclude the marriages of the Asian-Asians 1st generation immigrants from Asia because 1.Asia in the past was very very homogenous in population(s) and 2. data from these marriages is not relevant for Asian American ( not just passport but culturally American ) outmarriage ratios.

    Therefore the true outmarriage rate among Asian Americans who are culturally Americans would be something on the order to 5 or 6-1 Asian female-white male for every Asian male-White female couple.

    Why doesn’t somone talk about that and why the Asian American community is so weak politically? Let’s study that please.

    • I checked wikipedia and I dont see where the Chua daughters say they’re Jewish. & if they are so what, chinese is their ethnicity, jewish os their religion. They keep kosher and celebrate new moons/lunr festivals/hinese new years.

      The rest of your post with the pseudo stats about asian wife-anglo husb vs anglo wife asian husb, why did you include that? What did that sentence explain? What does it have to do w Chua’s parenting style?

  5. You know, I think the WSJ engendered a lot of misunderstanding and defensiveness by entitling the article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Amy Chua did not title it that, and it is actually an excerpt from her memoir in which she supposedly comes to learn that authoritative parenting is not the be-all, end-all.

    Even so, I find a lot of her criticism of Western parenting is true. I am Asian-American, but adopted by white parents. I was fantastically academically successful, even though my parents never demanded that I be. I was always told how smart I was, how gifted, and I never had to work for it. If I didn’t do well at something, it was okay because I should just be the best I could be, which was apparently not very good at whatever I just tried. Now, I never do things I think I won’t be good at. And if I do fail in an arena that is important, such as a job performance review, or a criticism of a brief I’ve written, it immediately triggers a reaction of, “Oh my god, I failed! I am not as smart as everyone said! I am valueless as a person!” rather than the response of, “I need to keep trying; I need to try harder.”

    Seeing the value of persevering through setbacks, particularly where even YOU think you can’t, is a vastly important life lesson that I don’t think Western parents impart to their children nearly as well.

    Each style seems to have its strengths and weaknesses.

  6. Like Chua, I am Chinese, born in Manila from Chinese parents like hers, raised like her…

    Unlike Chua, I vowed not to parent like my parents. I continue to resent them.

    I encouraged my daughter to enjoy all the things my parents prohibited, sleepovers and play dates, and school plays.

    I let my daughter miss school to watch the Oscars, and we bonded by playing Nintendo.

    I never said, “I am right because I am your mother”.

    I taught myself to say, “Mother does not know,” and “I am sorry. Mother is wrong.”

    My daughter can only play The Carpenters on the piano, but she can do it really well!

    And she is still one heck of an academic superstar! Near-perfect SAT scores and admission to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. No doubt in my mind about good fortune playing a major role in that. I am no “oya baka” as they say in Japanese.

    I did not push. I encouraged. And I loved unconditionally.

  7. based on the comments of many an enlightened westerner to the article, i suppose east asia’s emergence is akin to a pleasant dorm room bong hit or a windy evangelical fart on sabbath sunday bloody sunday. oh, i get it. inflame mediocre american readership to expose its domestic hypocrisy. yurika!

    Look, Larry compared two distinct works, each with a totally different take on parenting. He even added, “I jest”, for those unfamiliar with irony.

    @jonny @bobby interracial marriage is not a crime (it was outlawed a few generations ago, but no longer), and you sound like cute fascist nazis. typical of poor academic trash, you err in misunderstanding two things: 1. the initial stereotype was perpetuated, the second defied by two different authors Larry contrasted (who both, as I apparently need to add, are not Larry in any shape or form). 2. both your ignorance is palpable ego-centricity: entirely missing the basic fact that Jews are NOT a race. You cannot compare Jews to whites or Jews to Asians, no matter how much you want to deep inside. See, whites aka Europeans and their descendants and Asians are races. A Mestizo cannot convert to “white” regardless of how much Pearl Cream ur moms used. That’s what makes racism so pernicious in The West – the attribution of innate traits to a person based solely on congenital attributes like skin color. Or penis size. These attributes or lack thereof cannot be changed or altered (outside of circumsizion: ever come across an uncircumsized euro guido? talk about grrrossssss), got that? I can never be african, and neither can Far East Movement (Far West Movement is more like it) for that matter or a majority of privileged Asian-American hip hop acts no matter how much eminem albums i burn illegally or ghetto euphemisms i misappropriate or black soap i purchase. But anyone who is persistent and formally converts can be Jewish and vilified (not highly recommended for the majority of closeted homosexual in the u.s., which, if you’re into espn stats, includes 80% of 309,549,821 underachieving, nominally christian united snakes):

    Y’all are comparing apples and oranges. Sorry. Ya know, Christianizer Hitler thought Jews were a race. That’s only one of the things that was funny ’bout him. And his ‘stache, jesus, sheeple can be so fucking gullible.

    Again, you did not understand vital elements of structural prose embedded in the article(s). And i can’t wait until spoiled americans like y’all are summarily drafted into the unjust military, just like former Rep. Rangel recommended in the bill, before he was ousted frum cumgress, but i digress.

    Sometimes the way in which text is perceived says more about the reader than the author.

    just go home, respectively, as bill clinton kindly suggested to the Asian diaspora recently while on a diplomatic vaca in Manila, which, if you really face up to your ghastly americaca fetish, isn’t such a bad idea, considering how The Far East is soundly kicking The West’s ass in every sphere imaginable.

    • So, you’re comment proved what? Before you even try to be little someone please make sure everything you write actually is understandable. A real educated person does not need to throw insults at people just because they are unhappy with what was said or said.

  8. Just go home, who here is the racist. Jews might not be a race, they are semitic, that is a race, dumb-dumb.

    But in the US there are sure an ethnicity. If they weren’t why are there so many Jews for Jesus groups as every university. You can be a convert but you will always be a convert and not eligible for a lot of the scholarships given to Jews to return and study in the homeland for a summer or whatnot.

    Elian, you’re the racist here with how you put down Asians, just go home. Home is here. There are no real Americans ( including every single white and black ethnicity ) except for the American Indians, only they did not migrate here on some sort of time line, time frame.

    I merely pointed out the different hierarchies in America, white hierarchies, everyone knows they exist but they have to dance around it. Maybe because some groups claim insider status and at the same time, claim minority status.

    Just an observation but you are the typical white racist Elian


  9. Hi, Jen.

    Thank you for letting me post. I read the book, and here is my book report…

    The Tiger Mother Club

    I am Chinese, and I am a mother. Now, that makes me a Chinese mother, right? The local chapter of the Tiger Mother Club was looking for more Chinese members, and since I was new in town, and was eager to make new friends, I sent in my application.

    And they turned me down! Apparently I was not qualified. I found that baffling since I am a Chinese mother.

    Reading Chua’s book explained everything. It was all about the piano.

    Despite years of lessons, my beloved daughter has no hopes of playing Chopin in Carnegie Hall. She can barely read music notes, and her repertoire is limited to The Carpenters. Oh well, it is a good thing I like Karen and Richard.

  10. I found it surprising that Amy Chua made no mention of Filipinos in her list of ethnicities that push children to succeed academically. Amy Chua does seem to distance herself from the Filipino culture. In fact, her anti-Filipino bias is clearly apparent in this article:

    While there were a number of things in the article that bothered me. First was the seemingly anti-Filipino stance her family takes (i.e. equating the “bad luck” associated with having a birth defect to marrying a Filipino). Second was the poor treatment of the house servants (I have family members with less money who are able to provide more respect and humane living conditions). Third was comparing violence against the Chinese in the Philippines to that of the genocide in Rwanda.

    Finally, what really angered me was her aunt’s comment referring to the Filipino servants as “lazy and uneducated”. If her aunt had spent any time outside her exclusive living community, she would have discovered the importance of education in the Philippines. Many parents sacrifice their life savings to send their kids to school (and many do so without employing Amy Chua’s “Tiger Parenting” methods). I wouldn’t be surprised some of these “lazy and uneducated” servants were merely putting up with Chua’s aunt so they could feed and educate their own children.

    Amy Chua already irked with her her sweeping dichotomies regarding Western and Chinese parents. Not all Western families are as liberated as she portrays them. Not all Chinese families are as authoritarian as she is. After her close-minded portrayal of the Filipino people in “World on Fire”, I don’t think I can take “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” seriously. She may be a Yale lawyer, but she needs to step out of her bubble and experience firsthand what really happens in the less affluent parts of China and the Philippines.

    As for the parenting style she advocates, please see my blog for a personal take on how “Tiger Parenting” has shaped me into the person I am today.

    • I was surprised at that too, @cheapsocialworker. But I think this is a situation where a writer could have gone on and on listing different examples and people would still argue the ones you did or did not mention. That’s the main issue that arises when you bring up these stereotypes in the first place. For example: chicken. Black people get flack for eating chicken (for better or worse), but seriously: what culture DOESN’T eat chicken?!

  11. Pingback: Tiger Mom Rap! | a certain jen ne sais kwok

  12. oh weird. I went home over the holidays and my mom taught me how to crochet without patterns or anything either. Just showed me the steps. I can now crochet doilies creatively. Jealous of your scarf.

    The one nice thing about the Tiger Mother thing is that it stirred up a lot of cross publicity. Came over here because of your Tiger Mother rap. Hilarious.

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