This is from a Chinese American friend pursuing a career in psychology with a focus on Asian Americans, and is among the more thoughtful responses to Amy Chua’s now infamous book marketing ploy in which she is stridently advocating harsh, hard-core traditional Chinese parenting practices. Even for those not interested in the Amy Chua brouhaha, this is an insightful reflection on growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants.
Thoughts on Amy Chua’s “Chinese Mother” Article
Some of you have recently read a Wall Street Journal piece penned by a Yale Law School professor named Amy Chua. It’s an excerpt from her latest book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” (If you haven’t read it, it can be found here.) In it, she talks about her parenting style (shortened as the “Chinese Mother”) and how she managed to raise “successful” children.
First, a few comments. This piece has caused quite the media ruckus, landing her on talk shows and radio. It has been responded to via countless blogs, many of which state things more eloquently than I. Some are in support, and many others (Asians included) are rather appalled at her shameless bragging of authoritarian “Chinese” parenting methods. Having given this a few days and read some responses, as well as follow-ups from Chua herself, she says that if you read the book, it’s much more nuanced and actually talks about how this method failed with one of her daughters. Whatever you think of the content, this has been brilliant marketing by Penguin books; post something controversial, then watch the free marketing happen and count the benjamins from book sales as a result.
However, despite knowing these things, I still had strong visceral reactions on a multitude of levels. (I would recommend reading the article before continuing, as I refer to it frequently.)
There is so much to say I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve broken it down the section titles. Every issue brought up in the article and this response has deep cultural and psychological roots and implications. Each can be an entire book in itself. But perhaps I’ll start with a little bit of personal connection to what I read, and a disclaimer.
I grew up in the States. My peer groups consisted of mostly Caucasians for most of my life until college, and I was a psychology major in school with the intention of pursuing a doctorate in Counseling/Clinical Psych with an emphasis on Asian Americans. My training is decidedly Western (as is the discipline of Psychology in general), and my career path is motivated in large part by my experiences as a minority and child in an immigrant family. I recognize that none of us are without bias, as everything is necessarily viewed through a cultural lens. Thus, in trying to understand my own life experiences and what Amy Chua proposes as a parenting method, I have to view them in light of culture, both in its original context (China/Asia) and transplanted in America. I am also shaped heavily by Western Christianity, with deference towards what I believe are “Biblical” values such as love, albeit one that does not sit comfortably with cultural Evangelicalism. With my cards on the table, let’s continue.
Really, I believe that many many Asians can at least in some way relate to Amy Chua’s parenting style. If we had first generation parents, many of these parenting tactics would seem familiar to some degree. Shaming, comparison to a neighbor or sibling, forced learning of piano or violin, high academic expectations, and restriction of social interactions and activities are probably shared experiences. I was compared to “successful” Chinese peers, questioned when I got less than a 100 on tests or lower than an A, forced to learn piano and take Tae Kwon Do, spent my Saturday mornings in Chinese school, and forbidden to date in high school (and discouraged in college). Sadly, even though my parents were not as intense, none of situations Chua detailed actually seemed that out of the ordinary to me.
A few things have happened as a result, both immediately to myself and in my relationship with my parents. I currently appreciate music and my ability to play it. I still recite my multiplication tables in Chinese after being drilled in them during the 1st grade. I speak Chinese conversationally and can pick at reading characters. I graduated Magna Cum Laude (albeit far from Valedictorian) from the “Evangelical Harvard” of America. I [God willing] will be a doctoral student in psychology come Fall. I would, by most accounts, be included in the ranks (but not top ranks) of the “Model Minority” stereotype.
However, the relationship with my parents is not as rosy. At an early age, I stopped sharing my own thoughts with my parents, feeling that I had to raise myself emotionally. Due to their potential disapproval of my peer groups, I lied about where I was going or who I spent time with. Our house was either a battleground of yelling and tears, or it was a field of silence and avoidance. Due to many factors grounded in cultural and relational issues, I suffered depression in silence during my last two years of high school.
Currently, I still have to fight desperately to keep from rejecting my parents’ suggestions simply because they are the ones suggesting it. I have a lack of emotional connection with them and have very little desire to visit them. Communication is being rebuilt, but very very slowly and not without deeply ingrained obstacles and episodes of recidivism. I used to be ashamed of all things Chinese/Asian, refused to associate with Asians, and hated the fact that I was Chinese.
But I turned out ok, didn’t I? I’m not [that] socially awkward. I’m hanging out with Asians and have embraced the culture while simultaneously being able to navigate the majority culture, I have a bright future, etc etc. Perhaps all these things are true, but at the end of the day, I attribute a lot of that to the grace of God in *spite* of my parents and experiences. In many ways, I departed greatly from the model minority stereotype to learn and experience things that have given my life greater color.
I love my parents dearly and hold no grudges. I can do this because I realize that they did the best they could with what they had, and no child can ask for more. Plenty of other Asian children have not come to the same conclusion as I have. But the fact that they are raising my little brother differently says that they too wish they could have raised me in another way.
The Myth of the Model Minority
Asians have been touted as a “model minority,” used to pit minorities against each other with ideas like, “If they can be successful, why can’t you?” Asian students are assumed to be geniuses at math and science and are expected to be smart and hardworking. I could go on and on, but I want to touch on why this myth is misleading, why it is negative, and the effects that it has on children.
To start, a quote from a summary of some research:
Orenzo et al. found that Asian American students had higher grade point averages, fewer expulsions and suspensions, and more academic awards than White students… However, Lorenzo and her colleagues found that these same Asian American students compared to White students were also reporting higher levels of depression, social isolation, as well as social and interpersonal problems such as being teased by peers. To exacerbate matters, these students also described having lower levels of social support in their lives, such as having a confidant. Moreover, Asian American students had significantly more negative perceptions of themselves relative to White students as indicated by lower levels of self-esteem, higher anxiety, and a stronger sense of being unpopular.
Furthermore, here are some statistics on high performing Asian American students:
- Asian American women ages 15-24 have the HIGHEST rate of both contemplating and committing suicide among ALL populations.
- In top tier universities like Cornell, 62% of the suicides between 1996-2006 were committed by Asians, despite the fact that they only made up 14% of the student body.
A response to Chua’s article on another blog paints a very unfortunate story to those statistics. The writer’s sister, after obtaining basically anything that could be considered successful, ends up committing suicide. Summarizing her mother, the writer says,
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.
In addition to that, the myth of the model minority ignores diversity within the Asian communities. Certain populations (such as Southeast Asians and Hmong) have disproportionally higher levels of poverty and lower academic achievement. Multiple other problems arise from this myth. Students who are struggling psychologically are not given help because of their high academic achievement. Students who need academic help feel ashamed to ask for it for fear of not meeting parental/teacher/stereotypical expectations.
My biggest beef with this article is not that it is arrogant (because it can be understood as being tongue-in-cheek). It is not that it is un-nuanced (because apparently her book does a better job). My biggest gripe is that it perpetuates the myth of the model minority. It paints a one-dimensional and culturally transplanted idea of success that leaves much to be desired. It supports an idea that masks undercurrents of very real struggles with painful and significant consequences.
Understanding the Chinese Parents’ Perspective
What is this one-dimensional idea of success, and why do Chinese parents hold it? I believe that many immigrant parents define success as that which they were never able to have or achieve. This oftentimes means musical endeavors, higher education, and high-paying/high-status jobs. Status and respect hold an important place in Confucian cultures. Shame and pride have become primary motivators. Combine this with a communal (as opposed to individualistic) orientation, and we have a concept of shame and pride of the family, of which the children are a part.
If Chinese pride is happiness, then the happiness of the parent is tied into the performance of the children. Therefore, not only do the parents want the children to succeed for the child’s sake, but for the parents’ sake as well. Why do Chinese parents [annoyingly] brag to their peers about the success of their children (or make them perform their latest piano piece to practical strangers)? Because it affirms them as successful parents in their social circles, thereby bringing them pride and happiness. Conversely, because the aversion to shame is such a potent motivator as well, shaming the family by one’s lack of “success” is to be avoided by any means possible. Additionally, shame frequently prevents significant issues like psychological illness from being dealt with in a supportive and healthy way. Again, if the child is struggling and the community finds out, it brings shame to the parents.
If viewed in this way, the child’s own preference, immediate happiness and even psychological well-being is buried deeply under the more important and tangible symbols of success. This measurable success, in the mind of the Chinese parent, will surely make all the immediate suffering both on the part of the child and parent, worth it in the long run.
Lastly, there is research suggesting Asian immigrants believe that education is the only means of upward social mobility. Again, this has a long history in Confucian cultures, where testing (via rote memorization of information) continues to be a way to better jobs. Thus, the individualism, creativity and self-expression so valued in American culture is neglected.
If success is measured by wages, then Asian Americans as a whole (avoiding the inconveniences of “difference”) do have a higher average income than other ethnic groups. However, in a study based in California, Asians made only 63% of the salary Caucasians were making with the same level of education. There has been strong argument for an “Asian glass ceiling” in which very few Asians are found in the ranks of management or executive level positions. The reasons for that is another topic all together, but I don’t doubt some of it has to do with the results of over-emphasizing education at the cost of, oh, say, learning how to function and build relationships in a white-man’s world.
Are we really successful, even by our parents’ standards if we are making 63% of what a Caucasian makes with the same education?
This started as a response to Amy Chua’s article on WSJ, but ended up all over the place. I have no doubt that she loves her kids. Nor do I currently doubt my parents’ love and sacrifice. What I do doubt is the ultimate feasibility of wholesale transplanting strictly Asian parenting methods into a Western culture without apology or accommodation. Apparently, Amy Chua learns this the hard way when one of her kids rebels (detailed in her book). I rebelled, even if it was in silent and not-all-that-devious ways. I simply announced to my parents that I was no longer going to take Tae Kwon Do one test from being a black belt, and there was nothing they could do about it (though I do regret that now). Thankfully, they did not prevent me from going to the bathroom like Amy did to her daughter. Instead of applying to Princeton and Harvard and staying close to home, I insisted on applying to a Christian school. They compromised over Wheaton (and to my dad’s credit, it was his suggestion). I graduated 11th from my high school class and didn’t care that they weren’t thrilled. I did things without asking permission or forgiveness. However insignificant those acts of rebellion seem when compared to someone else’s rebellion, it was my way of establishing my individuality.
My parents deserve a lot of credit. I’m truly thankful for a lot of what they made me do. I do believe that there is value in some of the tenacity and high standards shown by Asian parents. I would actually say that my parents grew increasingly more progressive, and began to see the value of “balance” in social activities (so long as my grades stayed high enough). They have been a proponent of a more holistic approach to education in their Chinese community. But retrospectively, they would say that they wish our relationship were better. Watching them raise my 11 year old brother, I’m actually proud of the way they have changed. He is just as “successful,” playing piano, saxophone, and taking Chinese classes. But he plays ice hockey and watches games with my dad, and I bet that if he wanted to be in a school play, that’d be alright. My brother actually talks with my parents and knows physical affection. My parents have grown to understand that loving a child means more than providing food and opportunities.
Amy Chua sounds like a miserable, miserable woman. You cannot stay as angry and fight as much as she does without getting ulcers. Maybe she would say that it’s worth it. I would say that there are probably better ways of bringing together the best of both worlds.
Maybe there is validity to her statement that Chinese mothers assume strength, not weakness. And that is true for the most part. We humans are tenaciously hardy animals. Humans have survived holocausts and depressions, dictators and oppression… we can certainly survive a Tiger Mother. Though we are strong, we are simultaneously surprisingly fragile. Sometimes those comments shaming us do take deep root, even if they didn’t affect the author as a child. Sometimes, you can’t measure them by judging our salary or degrees. Often, we do not become strong without cost or losing something in the process. What really, is the cost of such parenting and “success” in an American context?
(There are good arguments that the Chinese Mother method isn’t working as well in China either, but, I’ll save that for someone who knows better…)