Amy Chua's Book on "Model Minority" Parenting, A Tempest in a Green-Tea Pot?

Guide, yes. Push to the breaking point? No.

This piece was first published on Technorati Women. The bigger story, though less commodifiable and not at all oriented toward mainstream society, is the legacy of abusive parenting that so many Asian Pacific Americans grew up with. The harsh, high-stakes parenting approach ranges from corporal punishment to extremes of emotional, physical, and psychological abuse. APAs may feel in their bones that it’s wrong, but how many have committed to nonviolent, positive parenting? It’s this that I’d like to see change as a result of all this coverage.

There are two major reactions in the Asian Pacific American blogosphere to the Wall Street Journal piece that teased power-mom Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: emotional triggering left and right from APAs who grew up under a severe, demanding, authoritarian kind of immigrant Asian parenting; and reactions like mine — puzzlement that a Chinese American mom would want to recreate wholesale the kind of parenting that she herself experienced. Is that even possible? It’d be like trying to visit your immigrant parent’s childhood hometown as they knew it — a fantastical place that exists only in recollection.

The Price of Achievement: High

Emotional triggers for many APAs include personal testimonies of how mentally unhealthy high-pressure parenting was for Asian Pacific Americans as children. Too many people have a story about someone who attempted (or sadly, succeeded at committing) suicide because of parental pressure to succeed. This is supported by research showing disproportionately high rates of suicide among APA women; there’s also a higher tendency to long-term depression. Girls are given lesser bites of the apple because a son is “more important”; girls in a family (like tv’s The Biggest Loser Ada Wong) are irrationally blamed for the boys’ missed opportunities. There are anxiety attacks or other difficulties that have to be held at bay by medication or therapy or both. There’s even the trigger of a certain kind of aggrieved Asian American masculinity that blames APA women for speaking aloud about patriarchal Chinese culture and measures cultural nationalist “allegiance” by the ethnicity of one’s partner, despite the fact that many APA men are themselves harmed by that same patriarchal culture.

(The feminist in me also wondered why a busy woman would want to take on all the parenting if her partner seemed willing and able to do some also. To parent in the “old-school” way that Chua’s mom did and she tried to repeat is hugely time-intensive.)

“Cultural” Parenting as a Cover For Corporal Punishment
What never gets spoken about is the dark underbelly of high-stakes immigrant Asian parenting: corporal punishment, beatings, and other kinds of tools that include psychological and emotional abuse. Case points out that Chua’s Wall Street Journal piece already contains plenty of emotionally abusive and coercive strategies that she used on her younger daughter to make her learn a certain piano piece. My worry is that someone (and there always is) will read Chua’s book not as memoir ultimately rejecting those tactics, but as a how-to manual instead, and decide it’s possible to create prodigies through techniques of coercion usually found in the most fundamentalist religious families in America.

We don’t need the same old lack of emotional intelligence that mars hidebound ideas of culture, parenting, and proper goals for life. Rigidity and narrowness seldom prevail; evolution demands that we retool what we inherited.

In reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve found that corporal punishment taught me nothing but resentment of my punisher. I can remember that I was thwacked on the hand with a ruler but not WHY. And as a result, I’ve resolved not to raise my son that way.

“Chinese” Parenting as a Function of History and Sociology

Periodically the “Model Minority” myth surfaces during periods of mainstream America’s fears of inferiority, as with recent mediocre international test scores compared to East Asian nations whose fifteen year olds scored well. Yet, as Tina Case mentioned in her piece for Technorati, even parents in China are starting to realize that high-pressure parenting isn’t worth the broken lives of sons and daughters who buckle under a parent’s expectations. Here in America, we see so many who spun out and lost their way, or lead lives of quiet desperation in a compromise career that’s “close” to “what they really wanted to do.” I saw a lot of this among my APA friends in college, and later, when I taught undergrads as part of my own apprenticeship to becoming a professor of literature.

Chua’s youngest daughter Lulu fought her, unlike the older daughter. But what if Lulu hadn’t been so strong? Many aren’t. One woman I know, consigned to no woman’s land in between a cultural emphasis on the firstborn (a daughter) and a lastborn son, got so lost she ended up a meth addict married to a dissolute trust-funder-turned-extortionist and felon. And she still maintains that her family wronged her, preferring to stick by her ex-felon spouse.

The wreckage from the lives I’ve seen as a result of this high-stakes parenting outnumbers the glowing “success” stories I’m well aware exist. After all, we can’t all be number one. That’s why I’m puzzled as to why Amy Chua would want to repeat the kind of parenting she experienced with her own children.

Obviously, she considers it successful, but inevitably, changed circumstances make it impossible. Gen Xers, remember playing “fort” in the half-bulldozed fields of your youth in the brand new housing development of your family home? Those fields are gone forever, as is the America of the ’70s and ’80s. APA Gen Xers growing up in the hinterlands of the midwest (or far-removed upstate NY, like I did) lived in a time when little to no multiculturalism challenged the dominant standards of beauty or normalcy.

Becoming a doctor probably seemed like a sure path to an upper middle class life, a safeguard against the “ethnicity tax” that even-native born APA men suffer in earnings compared to their white counterparts of equal education and credentials. “Brain drain” immigrants from China and Taiwan nurtured in the doctoral programs in science at Big Ten universities would of course have class and cultural advantages they wanted to brand onto their kids. I heard my math professor dad and geography professor mom say again and again that science was “objective” and “quantitative,” and a career there would mean less exposure to qualitative measures where racial bias could creep in. (This was obviously long before the highly politicized case of Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese American scientist wrongly framed as a spy.)

But nowadays “digital native” kids live in a super-saturated world of social and video game media. It’s a far from perfect world — overly commercial, loud, somewhat crass — but it is the world that our kids will go out and shape. The criteria of success, at least for APAs on the “Left Coast,” involves new kinds of measures having to do with the high-tech world, fashion, entertainment, and entrepreneurship. It is racially diverse. These kids are growing up with the given of an African American president while so many others wrestle with the difficulty and meaning of it. And in this time of economic uncertainty, young people are figuring out that work needs to be rethought. They’re demanding that business schools change to reflect a growing interest in entrepreneurship that addresses social good. While salaries are nothing to sneeze at, medical doctors don’t make what they used to. There’s really only one Yo-Yo Majourneyman musicians are having to go on strike.

The Price of High-Pressure Parenting for Parents: High

My spouse is also Asian American. Like me, he suffered through math problem sets during summer vacation. He got a completely inappropriate MCAT study book as a high school graduation gift. He also faced a shockingly deaf ear to his brilliant talents at public speaking, joke-telling, and writing. (Seriously. My husband could’ve been Jerry Seinfeld. Or maybe Chris Rock. Regardless, he’s awesome as he is.) Somehow all the trophies in public speaking he won during high school were just another impressive detail to add to his med school application. Isn’t that sad, that his parents couldn’t see what an amazing son they had and nurture the strengths he showed in abundance instead of trying to shoehorn him into their idea of success? He’s very accomplished in his chosen field, but how much further could he have gone had those early inclinations been mentored properly? As a result, he and I have sworn to cultivate whatever abiding passions we see our son pursuing. Even if that’s, gulp, poetry.

So here’s one of the more lasting, damaging things about the kind of “old-school Chinese” parenting Amy Chua attempted to impose on her children: the definition of achievement, and success, is incredibly, rigidly, narrow. First violin and a career as Chief of Neurosurgery is not the shoe that fits every foot.

And contrary to what you might think, that blindness hurts the old-school immigrant parents more than it does the adult child. You leave home, you become your own person–eventually you get a handle on childhood wounds and resentments and if you have kids yourself, you make peace with it. Unhappily, some adult Asian Pacific Americans have had to sever relationships with their aging parents due to bitter childhood power struggles. But even in the relationships that hold together, there are old-school Chinese parents today who’ll NEVER understand their adult children, what their passions are, who their adult children really are at their core. And saddest of all, it’s because under that authoritarian system of beliefs, your children never have anything to teach you.

Article first published as Amy Chua’s Book on “Model Minority” Parenting, a Tempest in a Green-Tea Pot? on Technorati.

Picture credit: CBSzeto’s Flickr stream. CC 2.0 License.

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