It was a peculiar feeling last week to lean on my unremarkable upbringing while Amy Chua’s parenting memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” became a national pseudo-controversy. I grew up the youngest of three Chinese-American kids to two U.S.-born parents in San Francisco, where Chinese Americans are the largest ethnic community in a city that’s more than a third Asian American. There was never anything special about being forced to play the violin where I grew up. But now, thanks to Chua, everyone wants to weigh in on the differences in “Eastern vs. Western” parenting—Orientalism has come to the suburbs.
The book is Chua’s account of her experience as a second-generation Chinese American mother who decided to raise her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, the “Chinese way,” and eschew the squishy, indulgent Western parenting that ruins children’s academic focus. The Chinese way includes a long list of harsh-sounding rules—nothing less than straight-As, three-hour music practice sessions even on vacations, and forget sleepovers or playdates.
When the Wall Street Journal printed an excerpt recently with the inflammatory headline, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” the piece exploded over blogs and in TV. Among Asian Americans in particular, that piece clogged up folks’ Facebook feeds with debates over Chua’s parenting style. My friends either laughed at the piece in knowing recognition or scoffed at Chua’s arrogant tone. No one defended it sincerely.
I’ve been taken aback by the as-yet unstoppable outpouring of criticism that has greeted the book; it has drawn a thundering, viscous response, to which I’ve contributed. Everyone from two-bit bloggers to the “Today” show weighed in. The Daily Beast called Chua “America’s most controversial mom,” and the original Wall Street Journal excerpt now has more than 7,000 comments. But “Chua-gate”, as cultural critic and Cal State Long Beach professor Oliver Wang called it, is about something much deeper than the debate over how to raise high-acheiving kids.
My own “tiger mother” was a much softer version of Chua, though they worked from the same strict rule book of no-sleepovers, no-playdates and mandatory music lessons. While I had a joyous, easy childhood, there is much in Chua’s story that rings true to me.
Like Chua and her husband, my parents are U.S.-born, college-educated professionals who were able to give my siblings and I extra education in the form of things like Chinese school, ballet and art classes, and summer school every year. Not remedial summer courses, mind you, but rather previews of the next school year’s material. They practiced a form of childrearing that is simply out of reach for the majority of families, who don’t have our resources.
That’s a perspective lost in the conversation Chua’s book has stirred. Many observers fail to distinguish which elements of the strict parenting style she describes can be traced to Chinese culture and which are driven more by the cultural and economic realities that greet poor immigrants when they arrive in the U.S.
When I’m with Chinese friends, we sometimes compare adolescent battle scars. We’ll spiral into a contest of who-had-it-the-worst as we reminisce about our strict, academics-driven childhoods. I have a friend whose parents transferred him out of a second grade teacher’s class because he wasn’t getting enough homework.
But here’s the story I’ve thought about most often during Chua-gate: I have a friend whose father was an engineer in his home country. Once he arrived in California, he couldn’t surmount the language barriers and education costs to break into his field in the U.S. There was no going home and, with a family to take care of, soon there was no more time to pursue his professional dreams. So for the past 17 years my friend’s father has run a corner store with his wife, seven days a week.
The world is tough; it’s even tougher for immigrants of color. Sometimes trying your best and having multiple advanced degrees in your back pocket still isn’t good enough. My friend’s father generously pushed his kids to live out their dreams even though he couldn’t pursue his own. But he was a strict parent who forced his daughters to put their academics first. He considered it one of the only things in their new American life they could truly control.
All the debate about Eastern vs. Western parenting eclipses the real-world forces that compel many Asian immigrants—indeed, people of color of all sorts—to raise their kids the way they do. Strict Asian parenting is often borne of struggle and exclusion and hardship, a reaction to learning that the American dream can remain elusive no matter how hard people work. When mixed with actual Chinese cultural values like filial piety, the combination can be potent enough to last for generations. It can be hard to let go of that strict philosophy even after the specter of poverty and imminent deportation and possible homelessness have disappeared. My well-established, fourth-generation mother raised me in the same way as my friend’s first-generation, engineer-turned-grocer father.
So I am coming around to Amy Chua, I think. Since the book’s Wall Street Journal excerpt ran recently, launching Chua-gate, I’ve swapped an initial terrified fascination with Chua and the heated debate she’s stirred for several other emotions: first bewilderment and resentment, then more like exhaustion—some straight-up Amy Chua fatigue. Most surprising to me, however, is that my attitude towards Chua is inching toward reluctant respect. Chua, it turns out, is a parent who took to heart her daughters’ challenges to her parenting style, and had the guts to recognize it as what she calls her “comeuppance.”
We know now that the inflammatory Journal excerpt was not an excerpt in the traditional sense. The paper cherry-picked the most controversial portions of her book and stitched them together into a piece that presented Chua as an imperious mother with a grating self-confidence about her ultra-strict parenting methods. We know now that the rest of the book is about her journey from where she started—imperious, ultra-strict—to something a tad gentler. She reconsiders her methods when she sees what she’s put her daughters through. She eases up on the violin training. She even, brace yourselves, lets one host a birthday sleepover.
Most striking to me though, is that for a woman so committed to upholding purportedly traditional Chinese values, her transformation requires her to violate one of the central tenets of that philosophy: filial devotion. I for one was raised to believe that a child’s parents (and teachers and elders) are never wrong, and I suspect that one of the ways Chua is able to extend so much control over her daughters’ lives is because she’s instilled the same in them. The idea stems from the Confucian idea that children repay their parents for a lifetime of sacrifice by respecting them fully and taking care of them forever.
That Chua’s daughters eventually challenged her does not surprise me. That Chua was then able to adjust her parenting style, and be rewarded for the book she wrote from it with a #5 spot on Amazon’s Top 100, will, I suspect, always baffle me.
This article was first published in ColorLines and is reprinted with permission.