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.