Imagine an elementary school-aged girl sitting on a piano bench. Her toes barely scrape the floor beneath her, yet she obediently bangs away at the keys through tears, somehow forcing her little hands to span octaves. Behind her looms a livid woman screaming about how lazy and unmotivated she is and repeatedly yelling that her older sister had learned to play this piece perfectly at her age, so why can’t she?
This mental image will probably remind most people of a recent Wall-Street Journal
column, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,”
in which Yale Law professor Amy Chua nonchalantly describes the strict rules and standards she imposes upon her two young daughters — no sleepovers, no playdates, no hobbies other than violin or piano. Chua’s article (which unsurprisingly earned her a new nickname, “the tiger mother”) has been widely circulated and discussed since its Jan. 8 publication.
But for many people, including myself, the image simply reminds us of our own childhoods — and in several cases, the little girl imagined in this unpleasant daydream isn’t even Chinese. Chua herself also notes in her article, “I’m using the term ‘Chinese mother’ loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanian parents who qualify too.” To reiterate, Chua was simply using “Chinese mother” as a blanket term to refer to a different parenting model from that which most American parents follow.
But was this parenthetical reminder enough to keep readers from buying too much into the generalizations she makes throughout the rest of her article? Apparently not. Readers have taken Chua’s article (which is actually only an excerpt from her novel, described as more of a memoir than a bossy manual) out of context and missed the point entirely — that different approaches may be equally valid — insisting that this type of parenting is a form of child abuse and that her kids will become emotionally traumatized adults.
Chua’s sarcastic tone in the Wall-Street Journal excerpt unintentionally does the rest of her article a great disservice. Much of her writing seems purposefully exaggerated, which becomes distracting. At one point, Chua imagines how a Chinese parent would react if their child asked for daily rides to go rehearse their part as a nameless villager in a school play: “God help any Chinese kid who tried that one,” she says sardonically.
A lot of this playful hyperbole gets misconstrued, and that takes away from the greater point Chua is trying to shed light on with her article. Namely, Chua explores the “quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.” Chua notes that Western parents encourage their children to pursue their own interests while Chinese parents urge their kids to persist at activities considered to be beneficial, though horrifically boring (hello, nine years of Chinese school on Saturdays).
Despite the provocative title of the article (which I doubt she personally chose), Chua’s point simply seems to be that there is a difference — not necessarily that one model is better than the other. Different cultures simply adhere to different frameworks upon which they base their actions and beliefs. An example of this from Chua’s article would be when she notes that Chinese parents rely on a parenting model that assumes strength in their children, while Western parents treat their children as being more fragile.
While Chua recognizes that different cultures can approach the same issue from unique perspectives, others seem unable to do so. This inability to remain open-minded and accepting of unfamiliar approaches is what gives rise to ridiculous judgements and conclusions, like one blog reader who commented “this must be why Asian American women have self-esteem issues.” It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a cultural norm is a universal truth; I would say that all countries and communities are guilty of it at some point or another.
Most of the critics who suggest that the children raised in these households must suffer emotionally fail to recognize that these children also have specific experiences and family histories, which necessarily shapes their understanding of their parents’ actions.
I’m sure most of my friends at the time would have been horrified if I’d told them that, while I was in the third grade, my mother had threatened to burn all of my Beanie Babies if I failed to memorize my multiplication tables. Just like Chua’s children, my initial response was to scream and cry and repeatedly shriek, “but I like them!” My mom ignored the blubbering mess that was my 8-year-old self throwing a tantrum from the kitchen floor, and in the end, I begrudgingly took on the obvious solution: to suck it up and just learn the stupid multiplication tables.
But I never resented my mother for the tactics she used simply because I understood where these actions had their roots. Like many other second-generation Chinese Americans my age, my parents lived in China during the Cultural Revolution and came to America in the late 1980s on student visas. My parents had “chi ku” — a Chinese expression that they always use that means “to eat bitterness” — to achieve their goals, and they wanted to instill the same work ethic and perseverance in their children, even if I wouldn’t face the same challenges as they did.
So a child who does not have this contextual background obviously would be more profoundly affected by harsh criticisms for bad grades if they were supplanted into a family that practices this type of parenting. That’s because no single universally effective model exists. This is what I took from Chua’s article, and as she has personally explained, what works for one family may not work for another. The point is to be embracing and not condemn what is not easily understood.
And now that I’m in college and enjoy slightly more independence (even though my dad still texts me urgent reminders about studying for the MCAT every day — God help whoever taught my dad how to text when I find them), I’ve finally quit playing the piano and going to Chinese school. Although I still wonder whether I would have been a better dancer or a better tennis player or a better Villager Number 6 in the school play, I will always deeply appreciate having experienced lessons of persistence, self-application and endurance, lessons that can only be learned while gritting one’s teeth.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.