Chinese and North American parents, upon discovering what passes for good parenting practices in the others’ countries, are usually mutually appalled — often with good reason. In the realm of parenting, or lack-thereof, there’s so much to criticize on either side of the Pacific that arguing about who does it better seems rather beside the point, much like arguing who’s the cleaner mud-wrestler.
But people do argue about this; Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Canadians can swing either way, as evidenced by a provocative article shared on Facebook recently by a Chinese-American friend, and two Chinese-American (very) negative responses to it.
This week, an articulate, hard-core Chinese-American mother and apologist for traditional Chinese parenting* is promoting her forthcoming memoir with an article in the WSJ in which she explains, among other things, why kids sometimes need to be told they’re “garbage.” I won’t comment on the article, other than to point out that much hinges on how one defines “success” and understands purpose in life, and that a mother flaunting her kid’s achievements in public in order to show off the mother’s superiority is a Chinese cliché. Yes, that’s a biased introduction, but, well, there it is. :)
Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior
Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?
By Amy Chua
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.
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. … 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.
Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.
As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.
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…
Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
And this is not the most shocking, or challenging, section of the article. I really suggest you read the whole thing.
Another Chinese-American friend shared this response over Facebook:
Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy
By Betty Ming Liu
Chua is a narrow-minded, joyless bigot. Don’t waste your money on the book. [...]
The self-congratulatory essay goes on and on… Chua buys into the hardcore, traditional Chinese approach to tough love.
This is so sad because we’re talking about values that have nearly ruined so many of us.
Of course, what’s really sad is that Chua is perpetuating very dangerous ideas:
- Haven’t we had enough of over-pressured, guilt-ridden Asian immigrant and Asian-American college students committing suicide and acting out???
- Who gave her the right to define what is means to be “real” Chinese? Do all Chinese people have to behave like this to be authentic?
[...] Well, there’s a dirty little secret about these lunatic, prestige-whoring Chinese parents that Chua represents. For all their lusting after the elitism of Ivy League degrees, what they admire more than anything is financial success.
But getting back to Chua’s essay. In it, she writes: “I’m happy to be the one hated.”
Poor thing. It’s the only time the word “happy” appears in this excerpt from her book.
As for me, I’m happy to be the one…who is finally happy. I sucked at piano, which my mother made me study because she had been a child too poor for lessons… Screwing up academically was the only power I had over my dad, a tyrant who wouldn’t let me take art or English courses.
A second Chinese-American response, which I think is much more compelling and sobering, can be found here, along with many additional responses in the comment section:
Is Amy Chua right when she explains “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal?
The article puts forward a very strong view on behalf of Chinese/Chinese-American mothers who hold their children to rigorous and demanding standards even if that requires using abusive language as “motivation”.
By Christine Lu
There’s a culture clash you can’t overlook here. The “superior” Chinese mother in my life had a strictly results driven, merit based mindset and a heavy emphasis on test scores, achievements and report cards being able to show that her daughter was better than everyone else in the class — which in turn was a reflection on her success as a parent. However, the environment in which she raised us in was a different country. One that she has honestly never gotten used to or felt comfortable in living in. To her, the idea of having her children become “Americanized” was looked down upon as failure. The idea of allowing a more flexible stance, a softer tone or an expression of individualism was out of the question. This duality of living in a very “Chinese” household and going to school where our American teachers taught us to be free thinking and creative were constantly at odds with each other growing up.
Drawing from personal experience, the reason why I don’t feel this works is because I’ve seen an outcome that Amy Chua, the author fails to address or perhaps has yet to experience.
My big sister was what I used to jealously call “every Asian parents wet dream come true” (excuse the crassness, but it really does sum up the resentment I used to feel towards her). She got straight As. Skipped 5th grade. Perfect SAT score. Varsity swim team. Student council. Advanced level piano. Harvard early admission. An international post with the Boston Consulting Group in Hong Kong before returning to the U.S. for her Harvard MBA. Six figure salary. Oracle. Peoplesoft. Got engaged to a PhD. Bought a home. Got married.
Her life summed up in one paragraph above.
Her death summed up in one paragraph below.
Committed suicide a month after her wedding at the age of 30 after hiding her depression for 2 years. She ran a plastic tube from the tailpipe of her car into the window. Sat there and died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her new home in San Francisco. Her husband found her after coming home from work. A post-it note stuck on the dashboard as her suicide note saying sorry and that she loved everyone.
Mine is an extreme example of course. But 6 years since her passing, I can tell you that the notion of the “superior Chinese mother” that my mom carried with her also died with my sister on October 28, 2004. If you were to ask my mom today if this style of parenting worked for her, she’ll point to a few boxes of report cards, trophies, piano books, photo albums and Harvard degrees and gladly trade it all to have my sister back.
For every success story that has resulted from the “Chinese mothers” style of parenting, there are chapters that have yet to unfold. The author can speak to her example of how it’s worked for her but it’ll be interesting to see how long you can keep that gig up and pass it down until something gives.
As a responsibility to herself as a “superior Chinese mother”, I think Amy Chua should do a bit of research outside her comfort zone and help readers understand why Asian-American females have one of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S. — I bet many of you didn’t know that. I didn’t until after the fact. It’d make a good follow up book to this one she’s currently profiting from.
These remind me of two other articles, one about a Chinese book titled “100 Sentences Parents Shouldn’t Say to their Children” (父母不该对孩子说的100句话), and a Time Asia article that reflects our own experiences with Chinese cultures’ highly-pressured kids:
What Not to Say to Your Kid:
…Some of its content is easy to anticipate, but at times also offers tidbits of social insight or even some cultural humor. I’ll share a few of the ones I found interesting…
1. 你是从垃圾堆里捡的 (We found you in a trash heap.)
15. 那个人真不是东西 (That person is nothing.)
16. 没事，反正没人看见 (Don’t worry, no one saw us.)
20. 别问这些不要脸的事情 (Don’t ask about such shameful things.) Is he asking about the garbage heap, maybe?
22. 早知道这样，当初就不该生你 (If I had known you’d turn out like this, I never would have given birth to you.)
The future looks… dysfunctional?
…many [parents] also quietly fear the impact of the ferocious pressure imposed on their children in service of these aspirations — how could they not, when tales of emotionally broken prepubescents and student suicides are a media cliché? But however ambivalent they may feel, most parents conclude that the goals are worth the risks…
Honestly, the longer I live here the more I find to both appreciate (and possibly imitate), and despise in Chinese parenting. And critiquing typical North American notions of good parenting would be shooting fish in a barrel. Just thought I’d add this since everything else above taken together certainly leans to the pro-Western side. I would love to read a smart, thoughtful, non-nationalistic Chinese critique of North American parenting ideals.
*P.S. – As mentioned, the article is part of the author’s book promotion, and may have been deliberately written over-the-top just to drum up publicity. One commenter in the discussion thread on the third article explains:
The title of her WSJ column is tongue-in-cheek. This is evident in the (long) subtitle of her upcoming book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” The column and the book are not meant to be dissertations on the empirically proven triumph of “Chinese” parenting over “Western” parenting; they’re personal narratives that attempt to humanize an alternative style of parenting that can be and has been easily misunderstood.
Update: For a thoughtful critique from a Chinese-American pursuing psychology with a focus on Asian-Americans, see Amy Chua’s Chinese “Tiger Mother” and the Myth of the Model Minority.
Update 2: This looks like it might be a Chinese translation: 華人父母有啥不同 by Amy Chua