A Chinese mother explains why being a hard-ass Asian parent is better for your kids than Western coddling

My mom, brother and me at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, eayly 1960sWow, the WSJ has a book excerpt today, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” written by Amy Chua, a Yale law school professor that boggles my mind and sends a chill down my spine. It’s her blunt declaration that the values of Chinese (and I’m telescoping it out to include all Asian) mothers are better for raising kids than “Western” parenting style.

She acknowledges the stereotype that Asian moms are hard-asses and then goes on to say that being tough on your kids is a Chinese mom’s way of showing they know the kids can a) get an A in the class, b) learn that difficult piece on the piano c) excel at everything the Chinese mom says is important. It’s just a different way of showing your children you love them, she says. She states her case so emphatically that this essay really just fortifies those American stereotypes. I can hear parents in conservative households murmuring their agreement: “See Martha, I knew there’s a reason why those Chinese are always so damned good at math and science!”

Here’s how the article starts:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• have a playdate
• attend a sleepover
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.

This has to be a joke, I thought, except the Wall Street Journal probably doesn’t have a sense of humor and doesn’t run satire pieces. Take this line, for instance: “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.”

Nope, Chua, who was born in 1962 a year after her parents immigrated to the US, is serious. In fact, this essay is an excerpt from a book being published this week, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

She explains that Asian culture and Western culture have completely different approaches to child-rearing. She proudly recounts how she yelled at her daughter and didn’t let her eat, drink or even go to the bathroom until she got the complicated syncopation between her hands on one difficult piece correct, even though her daughter fought back. Then her daughter found it easy to play the piece, and they snuggled and laughed together in bed that night. Sounds like the mom from hell to me.

I’d be the first to agree that Asian and Western societies aren’t the same. In one study, she points out:

In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.”

Well duh. I grew up with a strict Asian mom (shown above with me and my older brother Gary, when my family lived in Japan). I know all about being yelled at over a B instead of an A. God forbid my brothers and I should ever get a C or lower. I got a “D” on handwriting in 3rd grade, the only grade lower than a B that I ever got. I concocted a scam to get my dad’s signature on the report card and when the scam unraveled I was punished at a level that’s illegal today, though it was as much for the scam as the grade.

Chua blithely proffers that the Chinese moms’ approach is more effective, and that Western parents spend too much time worrying about their kids’ self-esteem and nurturing them at every step, and ultimately, “seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.”

As an Asian American kid who was born in Japan and raised very much with the values Chua extolls, I have to say that I’m glad my mom wasn’t quite as hard-assed as Chua. I was allowed to pursue my passions, including music and art, and though it disappointed my parents when I turned down studying journalism at Columbia, they let me go to art school (and reminded me afterwards, when I became a journalist after all). I have no doubt Chua’s daughters are destined for Yale or Harvard, and will go into law like their mom, or engineering, medicine or accounting, the career paths approved by all Asian immigrant parents.

I have to wonder how much trauma her kids have swallowed during their young lives, and if they’ll grow up really — really — appreciating their mom’s tough love when they raise their own kids.

I hope not. I rebelled against my upbringing, and I’d like to think I turned out all right.

(Thanks to Dean Dauphinais for forwarding the URL to the essay!)

UPDATES: There’s been a lot of chatter in the AAPI community about Chua’s book. Here’s a terrific response from blogger Betty Ming Liu, who says “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian Americans like me are in therapy.”

More related links worth checking out:

Jen Kwok’s response, “Amy Chua Is Not Superior

WSJ article, “Not All Practice Tough Love

Blogger Byron Wong: Amy Chua: Chinese Conceit, Chinese Ignorance, and the $24,000 question

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang’s older piece about raising Asian American daughters: APA Girl Power! (Updated): Raising Strong and Confident Asian Pacific American Daughters

Response from the Contrapuntal Platypus (it’s worth reading her About page): Asian vs. Western Education: A Third Way? (My response to Amy Chua, Part 1)

(Please note the comments below; there are a couple of Asian Americans who agree with Amy Chua.)

Here’s Shangahiist’s take, “Tales of a Chinese daughter: On the superiority or not of Amy Chua’s Chinese mothers.”

And here’s Hyphen’s response: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior: We’ll See.”

Jan. 11: Amy Chua appeared on the “Today” show and mellowed out her message a bit.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang also wrote a piece in AnnArbor.com about Amy Chua’s book. (And here’s another older piece she wrote for Asian American Village about education and Asian kids.)

Cynthia Liu on the K12 News Network: “Dear Asian America: Forget Chua’s Book, This is Our “It Gets Better” Moment

Anderson on YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily: “xxx

Philip on YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily: “In Defense of Amy Chua a.k.a. MILF-y, Angry, Overachieving Chinese Mother

Other voices to check out on this topic:

Angry Asian Man

Racialicious

Users on Quora (an up-and-coming Q&A site)

Keith Chow on the Rice Daddies blog

Zahira, guest-blogging on 8Asians

FlipFob.com

Model Minority

Channel APA

Why no one is calling child protective services on Amy Chua” is an interesting take on the Sotah blog that raises the question, “what if Chua wasn’t a Yale law professor but a woman on public assistance?” Instead of just race, Sotah questions the privileges of social rank and class that play into Chua’s parenting.

Awesome: James Fallows on Atlantic.com comments briefly on the WSJ piece (saying he think Chua wrote it as a joke, because if so, “the author comes across as slyly Swiftian rather than as an incredible asshole”) and then embeds the requisite Taiwanese computer animated take on Western moms vs. Chinese moms. Here’s the video:

Jeff Yang’s Asian Pop column: “Mother, superior?

Betty Ming Liu: “Forget Amy Chua. Bigger fish to stir-fry: 4 ways I’ve been conned by Confucius

Bao Phi’s response on his Facebook page: “My late and messy reaction to this whole Chinese Mothers Are Superior Hubbub

The Associated Press interviewed some AAPI bloggers (and Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos) on their reaction to the WSJ piece, and Chua gives more context. So is the WSJ at fault for running the excerpt without the context of the rest of the book? Or were we all duped by a brilliant PR campaign? At the least, I think this conversation has been a good one to air out publicly: “Tiger mom’s memoir meets ferocious roar

The final word: And the best and most well-rounded look at the book and the WSJ excerpt, as well as a talk with Chua comes from Jeff Yang in his SF Chronicle “Asian Pop” column. He points out the good stuff in the essay (the fundamental Asian values) and the bad (the implementation of those values), speaks with people who both agree and disagree with Chua, then gets the larger context from Cha herself: That her book is about she evolves away from the hard-ass Asian mom at the end of the book, thanks to her rebellious 13-year-old daughter; that she did allow playdates for her daughters; that she herself rebelled against her parents (by marrying a white guy, which I thought was notable in her original essay; and most notably, that the WSJ edited passages together and presented the whole as an “excerpt” that became more inflammatory than the parts in the book, and slapped on a confrontational title. Here’s Jeff’s take: “Mother, superior?

OK, one postscript, a cartoon by Gene Luen Yang, in… WSJ.com: “Are You Tiger Dad Material?

PS #2: On bigWOWO, Byron posted a response from a reader who thinks Chua is right and who idolizes her father: “Battle Hymn of the Kitten Daughter.”

PS #3: The Good Chinese Mother appears to be a brand-new blog that was created as a response to Chua’s book. See her comment below….

PS #4: OK, OK, I know this is ridiculous. But I’ve been waiting for Disgrasian — the originator of the phrase “hard-ass Asian parent” — to jump in the fray, and Jen Wang has written a thoughtful essay, “‘Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother’: You Hated The Excerpt, Now Read The Book,” after reading the entire book. It’s looking more and more like the Wall Street Journal (or the publisher’s PR flack) is to blame for this week’s crazy level of conversation about Chua’s book, by publishing an “excerpt” that isn’t an excerpt in the traditional sense.

PS #4.5: In case you just can’t get enough Chua-ness, here’s Angry Asian Man’s list of links to blog posts, including this one (thanks, Phil!). There are some that I haven’t added here, so go for it….

PS #5: “Guest Offender” Teresa Wu, the author of her own recent book about Asian parenting, “My Mom Is a Fob: Earnest Advice in Broken English from Your Asian American Mom” writes “I can’t Eat In-N-Out anymore.”

PS #6: Also on You Offend Me, You Offend My Family, Elaine’s post “Double Happiness: Why Amy Chua is The Panda Express of Chinese Moms

PS #7: Follow-up by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, “So what’s the big deal about sleepovers, anyhow? It is in the nuances – more on Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother

Geez, going on a week and a half, and there’s more:

Via Angry Asian Man, “Tiger Mom Says” is a clever new Tumblr blog worth chuckling over.

Also via Angry Asian Man, “Tiger Cub Speaks!” — Amy Chua’s 18-year-old daughter Sophia in the New York Post.

The Economist’s “Banyan” column looks at how views on parenting aren’t so uniform even in China.

Erin K. Ninh’s on both Hyphen and HuffPost with “Amy Chua and the Externalized Cost of Book Sales,” about the ripple effect of the bogus “excerpt” as it spreads without the context of all this discussion.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang wraps it up on New American Media with “Hey Amy Chua—There Are Other Ways of Being a Chinese Mother.”

May Lee Chai puts it all in a larger context on her blog post, “Mother Tiger Trope Masks Class Privilege

Lac Su addresses the issue in a powerful, undeniable AOL News opinion essay, “Opinion: My Life as the Child of a Tiger Mother

Frances posts yet another (final, I hope) piece.

And a last word from 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors:

OK, last laugh: via Angry Asian Man, comedian/musician Jen Kwok’s “Tiger Mom Rap” MP3.

Are we done now?

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59 Responses to A Chinese mother explains why being a hard-ass Asian parent is better for your kids than Western coddling

  1. Andre M. Smith says:

    Further on Chua as a Chinese surname . . .

    My wife, a gyn surgeon, hails from a family of intellectuals and professionals in Shanghai. She has four sisters and three brothers. Among those eight are six of their children between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six. Chua as a Chinese surname is unknown to them all.

    Bilingual speakers at the consulates in New York for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all have told me the word chùa – with a grave – (= temple) is Vietnamese. A trilingual speaker at the City Campus Mahayana Temple at 133 Canal St in Manhattan has told me that the word chùa is common in Buddhist use but is not Chinese. In the illustration of the attachment hereto, the word for “temple” emblazoned is transliterated into pinyin as si or shu. http://www.mahayana.us/ But, again, I have it on the authority of my Chinese family that “chua” – at least as it’s pronounced in the nations subjoined to China and in English – is definitely not a Chinese word or name.

    Perhaps Chinese speakers of languages other than Wu or Mandarin, from elsewhere on the Mainland, may have an informed knowledge on this point of nomenclature countering what I’ve sent to you here.

    The faces of both father Leon Chua http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~chua/ and daughter Amy Chua http://www.leighbureau.com/speaker.asp?id=268 are textured similarly to reflect a family origin, at least within the previous handful of Chua generations as likely more south than Mainland China; although within fluid populations, this is speculative. Honestly, though, that part of the world is such a mixed bag of all its ingredients that . . .
    _______________

    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
    Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
    Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
    Formerly Bass Trombonist
    The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
    Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
    The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks Andre, although I don’t think anyone has questioned Amy Chua’s credentials as being of Chinese descent. Her parents are described as being ethnic Chinese from the Philippines, and her ethnicity’s not been questioned.

  3. Andre M. Smith says:

    Some words penned in response to the thoughts of a student writing elsewhere . . .

    I would not normally lock horns and try to best a junior in high school; I’m hoping you do not read my words here as such, for they are meant for you only as a provocation to further thought to your ideas well-presented.

    You’ve written that you “used to get frustrated when I had to practice violin and I really didn’t want to . . .” Do I read correctly that you no longer “get frustrated?” If so, that’s a remarkable advancement. As a musician myself I want to ask you, Why do you practice violin and not another instrument of your choosing less frustrating, for examples, flute, harpsichord, tuba, or tabla. There is a vast – and I do mean vast! – repertoire for each of those, and many other, instruments that could challenge you unendingly for the remainder of your life. Instead of spending hours at your chosen instrument (whichever it may be) in the drudgery of isolated practice, why not spend more of your time in practice with music ensembles of various kinds. This can yield a discipline and advancement of a uniquely different kind. If you are studying formally with a violin teacher I’m quite sure he will confirm the well-founded idea that, as a performer, playing an instrument is one kind of challenge but playing an instrument WITH PEOPLE is significantly more so. A musician in isolation is a musician limited. And herein lays one, only one, of the transparent contradictions of the way Professor Chua has taught her two daughters to approach their instruments; opportunistically solely for unartistic purposes.

    A fundamental flaw in the approach to music of Amy Chua – an amusical hack with no known talent for an art of any kind! – is that she has decided it’s perfectly acceptable to pervert one of the greater of the fine arts for use in ulterior purposes. In the example of the Chua family, so-so slogging through masterpieces of music was used to impress others when applying for admission to university. (Would Professor Chua dare to advocate this openly with religion, physics, good grammar, or issues of national interest?) The whole idea that her elder daughter, Sophia, played a debut recital in Carnegie Hall is an early example of the pervasive blight of résumé bloat on which social climbers like Amy Chua have advanced themselves; a blight to which the Chua daughters were introduced early by two parents who know well how to tweak the system to gain unearned personal advantage.

    Carnegie Hall, http://www.carnegiehall.org/history/, includes three auditoria in its building: Stern Auditorium http://www.carnegiehall.org/information/stern-auditorium-perelman-stage/, Zankel Hall http://www.gotickets.com/venues/ny/zankel_hall_at_carnegie_hall.php, and Weill Recital Hall http://www.carnegiehall.org/Information/Weill-Recital-Hall/. It was in Weill that Sophia performed as only one among a cattle-call string of young pianists that day. Do you doubt what I write here? Compare the architectural design,
    http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/RV-AB160_chau_i_G_20110107132345.jpg, behind Sophia with that of the architectural design at the rear of the stage in http://www.carnegiehall.org/information/stern-auditorium-perelman-stage/. Having been a performer, myself, in both Stern and Weill over many years you have my assurance that Sophia performed her piece in Weill. Debut recital in Carnegie Hall! Indeed!

    You have written about your parents that they are “less extreme than Chua I’ll admit, but a lot of her memoir is satire and exaggeration.” Don’t be deceived by quick-change artist Professor Chua. She has spent more than one year trying to convince readers of her text that she is some kind of nouveau belles-lettrist who did no more than exercise a writer’s license to engage her readers. In truth she meant what she wrote until her hypocritical posturing as an authentic Chinese mother — born in Illinois to a Filipino father, neither speaks Chinese nor writes Chinese script — came back to haunt her with a ferocity that caused this self-styled Tiger Mother to recoil into improvised doublespeak. Amy Chua is a complete fake!

    All young musicians should be given only two music instrument choices to pursue in life, Violin or Piano. All else is useless waste. Any adult giving such advice is one woefully ill-informed. As a bass trombonist, my instrument has been my first class ticket from person-to-person, school-to-school, city-to-city, studio-to-studio, and stage-to-stage. With the kinds of preparations the Chua daughters were given will they ever perform, as I have, with Richard Tucker, Birgit Nilsson, Roberta Peters, Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski, and the two-thirds of The New York Philharmonic who were my schoolmates for five years in Juilliard? Forget it!

    Mercifully, I was never besieged with a Tiger Mother or Tiger Anything to motivate me. Yes, I too sometimes was bored with scales and chords. Yes, sometimes my imagined future seemed an unattainable fantasy. Yes, I did sometimes fall flat on my face in public performance (as did my teachers before me and also their teachers before them). Life went on and continues to do so.

    You’ve written that “At this point (as a Junior in high school) about 35% of the pressure to do well comes from my parents and the other 65% is complete self-motivation.” From the subtlety of your writing I suspect you’re cutting yourself short with that 65%. You appear to be much more highly motivated than your objective perspective about yourself can show you at this early time.

    The violin? I advise you to seriously reëvaluate what you believe is your relationship to any instrument of your choice; if, indeed, the violin has been your choice and not that of someone else. If the violin has been your choice, stay with it through all the coming stormy weather of doubt and seeming incompetence. If it is not, drop it in preference to another more to your liking and its fitness for your physicality. (If it’s the tuba, tell your parents that someone other than I recommended it!)

    Good Luck!

    Cordially,
    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
    Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
    Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
    Formerly Bass Trombonist
    The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
    Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
    The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

  4. Min Yi Su says:

    It was the challenges my mother presented me that allowed me to grow and learn what kind of mother I want to be. Here are some of my stories as a daughter: http://www.minyisu.com/category/daughter/ and specifically this one http://www.minyisu.com/2010/06/nyc-2010-mom/ it always brings me to tears.
    You can also read my stories of me being a mother to three boys. They go to a school where there are no grades. Their primary work in life is laugh, play and help out around the house. We live a truly blessed life… and I wouldn’t be the person I was without my story… without my tiger mom.

  5. Andre M. Smith says:

    I checked Asian. I had heard it was harder to apply as an Asian, so as a point of pride, I had to say I was Asian. http://jadeluckclub.com/true-picture-asian-americans/

    In almost every list, pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris (Greek), is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others. It is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins#Pride

    1) Tiger Sophia, you may have checked Asian which does have a “tax,” however you also got big bonus points for being a legacy many times over. The upshot is that you had help getting in unlike these Asian Americans below who live at the poverty line and don’t have Ivy League parents with deep pockets.

    2) By checking Asian when, actually, you are of mixed race, you have taken a spot away from those who don’t have the benefit of applying to a less competitive race slot. Thanks to you, someone who[se] life could be completely changed did not get a spot. http://jadeluckclub.com/true-picture-asian-americans/

    For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Matthew 25:29

    Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, the daughter of a mother of mixed Asian ethnicity of no known religious involvement and a secular — whatever that means — American Jewish father ostensibly has been raised as a Jewess in an atheistic family positing itself as . . . ? When she applied for admission to Harvard she descended into a pride of Asianness to avail herself of an ethnic quota advantage.

    This duplicitous young woman is, indeed, her mother’s daughter! http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=230907266920263&set=o.134679449938486&type=1&theater
    __________________________

    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
    Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
    Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
    Formerly Bass Trombonist
    The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
    Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
    The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

  6. Pingback: I did not come to this country for you to go to a community college~~ | So Long, Ching Chong

  7. kc says:

    Now she’s written a new book. She’s married to a jew and she says the Chinese and jews are destined to rule. no Chinese or jews signed the declaration of independence, only groups she calls losers. she’s a narcissist. she’s willing to sacrifice her personal life, childhood and all fun for material success. but it pays off in the end- she gets to go on TV and be despised by millions of people. she’s campaigning for a personal visit from the Klan.

  8. jo says:

    I grew up with a tiger mom, I have issues with self esteem, since all my mom ever did was tell me I am never good enough. Not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough to be her daughter Unless I was a doctor. Then all is forgiven. Wow. Screw her and her thoughts. Thank god I grew up in America.

  9. Wow, I kind of agree with your thought on this issue. I grew up with quite a hard-ass father, as my mother is a little bit soft. For example, when my grades are low, I’ll be punished, and that’ll be really hurt so I need to maintain my grades. But, such situation shape the current me. I’m glad that my father is my father.

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