Dear Asian America: Forget Chua's Book, This is Our "It Gets Better" Moment

Dear Asian America,

As so many have pointed out through gut-wrenching personal testimony and the horrible statistics surrounding high suicide rates among young APA women–and a high rate of untreated mental illness in our community overall–Amy Chua‘s book hit a nerve. Big time.

But, let’s make this flood of commentary and outrage NOT about Chua’s book, but about the damage a certain kind of patriarchal, homophobic, and authoritarian, high-stakes parenting can do.

Yes, I said homophobic. The narrowness and rigidity of what makes for the Right School, the Right (Ethnicity) Mate, the Right Job…you don’t think it ends there, do you?

Let’s face it, if a parent feels no limits on yelling, belittling, and coercing a kid into high achievement because the ends justify the means, what’s to stop that parent from issuing beatings in the name of the greater good? Because many who harshly discipline their kids say they use corporal punishment for the same reasons–out of love. I’m not saying everyone who experienced corporal punishment is permanently psychically damaged. No. But I am saying that as with any parenting method that is harsh to begin with, extremes of emotional and physical abuse cannot be far behind.

And let’s also face this fact: many in our community may be book smart, but many also have a low Emotional Intelligence Quotient. This ranges from a lack of expressiveness, to parenting that is bullying and insensitive, to social awkwardness and a failure to know how to shmooze.

There’s a dark side to Asian Pacific America. The intensity of immigrant aspiration can feed it just as much as it feeds our other sides.

And there’s also a highly functional, balanced, warm, demanding, and nurturing kind of enlightened APA parenting. One that focuses on each child as a unique person and that is lovingly demanding of that’s child’s best, whether it’s at school, at a sport, in the arts, or as an ethical, caring human being.

Many of us, having had tough adolescences or periods in college where it took a while to sort things out, are now parents. And we’re resolved to improve upon the good and the bad that we inherited. So what does that enlightened APA parenting look like?

I’ll tell you a secret: I agree with Amy Chua on a couple of things. We don’t watch tv in our household. (Dvds, yes, but no tv.) Homework comes first. Pay attention to what the teacher asks for, because you will have to deliver according to the standards they set. You WILL learn a second language. But otherwise? Have fun. Read for pleasure. Go outside and climb a tree, or something. Enjoy traveling when we go to new places, because whiny kids can just as easily sit at home. Don’t you want to draw or paint? Stick with the guitar for at least a year–you’ll thank me when you’re 15. Pick something and excel at it. Pick something you love, and do it regardless of how good you are at it.

If Amy Chua’s failed experiment in implementing 1960s Confucian parenting methods isn’t the way, what is?

I’ve been blogging about this since 2003, when my son was born. At that time, after lots of discussion with my spouse, also Asian Pacific American, we decided that we would try non-violent parenting. So far, it’s worked out well for us. Our son is extremely close to the both of us. There’s a tremendous sense of trust. All our physical contact (including my husband with my son, of course) is hugging, kissing, and other warm expressions of affection. And I really like this. Hands are for Hugging, don’t you know? (Granted, he’s 7 and the teen years are ahead of us yet, so I’ll let you know how that goes.)

But I’m asking you–affluent parents plotting how to get your kindergartener into Stanford, working class parents wondering how to get your kid into Bronx Science–how will we all encourage our kids to excel at being themselves? And do it without breaking them?

We’ve all heard President Obama’s warning that the country that out-educates us tomorrow will out-perform us tomorrow. (I’ve always maintained he’s the first Asian American president, much in the same way that Bill Clinton was the first black president.)

But let’s not go nuts trying to respond to President Obama’s observation.

Here’s our chance to raise our Emotional Intelligence Quotients. This is our “It Gets Better” moment, so to speak. How can we widen what we understand as excellence? Achievement? And happiness? And still equip our kids with whatever skills they need to not only survive, but thrive in an unpredictable and fast-changing world?

Go. (You don’t have to be Asian American to leave a comment.)

Other APA blogs on this subject:

Betty Ming Liu

Rice Daddies: Keith Chow

Big WoWo

Ray Kwong

Christine Lu

Shanghaiist and here

Resist Racism

Racialicious

ChinaHearsay

Jen Kwok

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Contrapuntal Platypus

Tina Case

Related Posts

Science Grrl: Why I'm Not Worried About China

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

Amy Chua's "Model Minority" Parenting Designed to Stir the Pot

28 Comments

  1. Tweets that mention Dear Asian America: Forget Chua’s Book, This is Our -- Topsy.com - January 11, 2011, 9:16 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stefania P. Butler, cyn3matic, originalspin, Angela and others. Angela said: Lots of ppl talk about Amy Chau's op-ed in @WSJ a few days ago. Here's a worthy response: http://bit.ly/eXq05g […]

  2. rpnorton - January 11, 2011, 9:36 pm

    Great post, Cynthia – I think we widen what we think of as excellence by widening our definition of a successful life. Is material success the goal? Is happiness the goal? Are the two complementary or mutually exclusive? Is a PhD (or an MBA or a J.D. or an M.D.) a more worthwhile life objective than learning how to fix things or build things with your hands? Every parent (and child) will have different answers to these questions but having these discussions is an important exercise.

    • cynematic - January 11, 2011, 10:18 pm

      Beautiful, and I absolutely agree, Rachel. The trick is to find joy in excelling at whatever your strengths are.

      And I think what our forefathers meant by the "pursuit of happiness" is ensuring that America is a place where everyone can find their niche–prosperity that sustains diversity in work, and diverse kinds of work sustaining our prosperity, hand in hand.

      Narrow definitions of success, and extreme poles of 'success' or 'failure' make our society less fluid, less accepting. Unfortunately I think that's where we are now.

  3. Ren - January 11, 2011, 11:58 pm

    Really great post on the subject… it's funny, when the article first came out, I received the link from many Asian Americans as sort of a matter of pride. A wink and a nod to a rite of passage without really knowing what the article's purpose was. I'm not sure how many of them actually read it–or the book for that matter. Most of the people who sent me the link hardly raise their kids or would raise their kids that way.

    I'm glad there has been such balanced analysis as this post (not just blind agreement or reactionary contradiction) following the article's release. I haven't had the chance to read the book either but reports from those who have, seem to indicate that it is not quite as harsh as the WSJ excerpt made it out to be.

    I hope that is the case because like it or not, with this level of publicity, it seems like the book may very well become a sort of manual for raising children. There's just no such thing.

    • cynematic - January 12, 2011, 12:57 am

      That's why I think it's really important to speak out about firm, demanding, nurturing, high-expectations parenting that is *non-violent.* Verbal abuse and physical abuse can easily escalate from someone who adopts a harsh approach to begin with.

      It verges on irresponsible to advocate for high-pressure parenting otherwise.

      Let's make a distinction between occasionally losing one's temper, mean words, and other flaws we as parents have, versus systematic, long-term abuse.

  4. Amy Chua: Chinese Conceit, Chinese Ignorance, and the $24,000 question | bigWOWO - January 12, 2011, 7:48 am

    […] k12newsnetwork by Cynthia Liu (“It Gets Better moment”) […]

  5. steph - January 12, 2011, 9:55 pm

    Hi Cynthia,
    Perhaps it is more a testimony to how depressed I am, but your post brought me to tears…
    I am actually a family friend of Amy Chua’s and her sisters, although I had always found them generally to be warm and funny, Amy definitely lacked emotional IQ. She and her sisters were defintely the daughters to whom me and my sisters were compared. But, what I took away from the piece is really how difficult parenting is. She is one of the most classically successful people I know, and she had to resort to completely “cut and paste” type of parenting. I think parenting is really terrifying, and if you are a results type of person, or if you are an immigrant (like most of our parents) in a completely foreign society, it is much EASIER to just do what your forebearers have done…ie a cop out.
    The thing I loved about your post, and what I have tried to work on in my own life is to acknowledge how hard being a parent is and just to stay present in parenting duties. How to think about what and how you are teaching your child about the world, rather than a burying your head in an absolute, “rule” bound formula.
    Thanks for your post!

    • cynematic - January 12, 2011, 10:30 pm

      Steph,
      Thank you for writing. I'm glad I moved you in some way. If nothing else, the provocative WSJ piece loosened the tongues of a lot of people who grew up under those harsh, authoritarian conditions. I was amazed by the tsunami of personal testimony that many felt compelled to record in order to say that they had huge misgivings about these methods.

      It sounds like you have some hard-won wisdom from having been compared to the Chuas when you were all younger. Many of us have cursed the Model Minorities of the Model Minority, so to speak! I think implanting a deep sense of inadequacy is an effective tactic to extort performance, but a parenting tool that can have unintended and unhealthy consequences. This is a father who said, 'Don't you ever disgrace me like that again' when Amy was a child and came in second in a contest.

      I read as a side fact to an article on Chua that in addition to the high-achieving sisters, there is also a sibling in the family who has Down Syndrome. If that was the father's response to a cognitively-abled daughter who was "only" number two in an intellectual pursuit, I have to wonder what his response was to the genetically cognitively-disabled daughter?

      I really wish Chua had written more about that, because I think in a very traditional immigrant Chinese family concerned with perfection, a member of the family with cognitive deficiencies would be the ultimate test of your beliefs about "achievement," "perfection," "success," and "worthiness."

      And somehow I suspect a story about how an immigrant Chinese family comes to embrace the Down Syndrome sister would've required a totally different path–for the family, for the writer, and for us, the readers. Don't Down Syndrome people also have love to give, and value to their lives as they are? Not so provocative or lucrative as the book Chua did write, but perhaps far more redemptive and transformative.

      –C

  6. Guest - January 12, 2011, 11:42 pm

    My (non-APA) parents treated me and my brother approximately how Amy Chua treats her children, if her book excerpt/article can be accepted as roughly akin to reality in their household – and while I was and am successful, I had a rather miserable childhood and spent all of my adolescence suicidally depressed.

    I would not wish the misery I went through on any other child, and I am certainly not raising my children that way. Do I have high expectations, including academics, music and behavior/work ethic? Absolutely. However, I will never be cruel to my children (in my opinion, it is completely unnecessary in creating successful, happy, well-adjusted adults) and I hope that Amy Chau's abusive parenting will be recognized for what it is. You cannot redeem cruelty to a child through that child's later success in life, and you cannot assume that the child would have failed but for such abuse.

    I think what her daughters said about the book speaks volumes. To paraphrase, the younger daughter (15) said something about the book being "all about you" (i.e. Amy Chau, as it clearly is) and the older daughter said something along the lines of the whole story not being told and thus not being understood. Interpreting the latter as someone who grew up in that kind of home, my best guess is that she's saying her mother won't relate the unflattering episodes and does not and will not share her daughters' fear of her and their pain (you can't tell me 7 year old Lulu didn't spend that night mostly in terror of her mother as she was screamed at, berated, and threatened . . . I've been in exactly the same situation, except for me it was violin, up all hours of the night, etc. – for a child it is terrifying).

  7. “Chinese Parenting” continued… « ParentingInTheLoop's Blog - January 13, 2011, 2:18 pm

    […] Dear Asian America: Forget Chua’s Book, This is Our. […]

  8. Guest - January 13, 2011, 4:17 pm

    I was so glad to see this post. I teach math at a prestigious university, and people outside academia comment that I must find my Asian students easy. I find SOME of my Asian(rather than Asian American) students the most difficult, because so many of them are in mental anguish because of home situations. I try to make it clear that while I do hold high academic standards, I will not think less of them as a person if they are not as talented as professional mathematicians. The relief they feel is heartbreaking.
    I am not trying to say that all of my Asian students are in this situation–many of them are well adjusted and many have supportive parents–but the ones who are suffer enormously. Unfortunately, several colleagues and I have noticed a high rate of cheating(always caught and dealt with) within this subset of pressured Asian students.

    • cynematic - January 13, 2011, 5:50 pm

      Interesting comment. (BTW, my dad was also a math professor. He's now retired from the SUNY system. W00t for math profs!)

      The international students from Asia must be under all the more pressure given the need to keep a certain GPA to retain scholarships and fellowships. Plus they've left everything they know and are familiar with to "make it big" in America, with little social support.

      It may be a sweeping generalization, but in this case I think it's more true than not–Chinese culture has some really unenlightened attitudes toward mental and emotional health. (America has its own issues and stigmas, but at least there is a culture of therapy, for better or worse.)

      Hopefully this is easing somewhat. And I think that if middle class folks in China are trying to ease back on the high-pressure parenting with their kids, maybe they'll be more open to pushing back on cram school and teach-to-the-test culture. Maybe by the time you see the next crop of international students from China, they'll be better adjusted.

    • Brandon - August 6, 2012, 10:25 pm

      Your Asian students are probably not experiencing harsh enough parenting. They need to be treated with even more strictness and even more harshness until their mental illness disappears.

  9. “Chinese Parenting”….the discussion continues | onedayatatime - January 15, 2011, 8:22 am

    […] Dear Asian America: Forget Chua’s Book, This is Our. […]

  10. haha - January 15, 2011, 9:44 am

    Like Chua, I am Chinese, born in Manila from Chinese parents like hers, raised like her…

    Unlike Chua, I vowed not to parent like my parents. I continue to resent them. My father passed away recently, and I wept because I could not feel any loss.

    I encouraged my daughter to enjoy all the things my parents prohibited, sleepovers and play dates, and school plays.

    I let my daughter miss school to watch the Oscars, and we bonded by playing Nintendo.

    I never said, "I am right because I am your mother".

    I taught myself to say, "Mother does not know," and "I am sorry. Mother is wrong."

    My daughter can only play The Carpenters on the piano, but she can do it really well!

    And she is still one heck of an academic superstar! Near-perfect SAT scores and admission to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. No doubt in my mind about good fortune playing a major role in that.

    I did not push. I encouraged. And I loved unconditionally.
    http://www.thegoodchinesemother.wordpress.com

    • Brandon - August 6, 2012, 10:23 pm

      The difference is that Chua’s daughters will go to Harvard or another prestigious university, while your children will be flipping burgers at fast food restaurants and failing at community colleges.

      Very strict parenting with very harsh and frequent punishments like beatings for the smallest of mistakes is essential to the child’s well-being.

      If your child ends up being less successful than Chua’s children, then it will only vindicate Amy Chua’s methods.

  11. Susan Weissman - January 15, 2011, 9:08 pm

    I think this is a very fair post. I agree with the substance of your previous comments but feel compelled to question why (IF the book is not quite as harsh as the WSJ excerpt implied) she would want to use that tactic to sell books. Sure, she wouldn't be the first author to do so but it could seem to contradict the high standards of excellence in all pursuits that Amy Chua assumes for her children.

  12. Sue - January 16, 2011, 9:50 pm

    I'm just wondering where the father is in all of this? Is he totally uninvolved? Does he care at all that his girls, in my view, were verbally and emotionally abused for years? What is up with him???

    • cynematic - January 20, 2011, 12:08 am

      Good question, Sue! He seems to have taken the back seat. Personally, I would've gone for a more shared arrangement myself, because who has the time to write, teach law, do extreme parenting, and be a spouse/clean the house/cook/shop? Unless, of course, you hire help. Even so, I find it surprising that Chua held onto so much of the parenting responsibilities herself.

  13. haha - January 22, 2011, 6:10 am

    Dear Cynthia,

    Thank you for letting me post. I read the book, and here is my book report…

    The Tiger Mother Club

    I am Chinese, and I am a mother. Now, that makes me a Chinese mother, right? The local chapter of the Tiger Mother Club was looking for more Chinese members, and since I was new in town, and was eager to make new friends, I sent in my application.

    And they turned me down! Apparently I was not qualified. I found that baffling since I am a Chinese mother.

    Reading Chua's book explained everything. It was all about the piano.

    Despite years of lessons, my beloved daughter has no hopes of playing Chopin in Carnegie Hall. She can barely read music notes, and her repertoire is limited to The Carpenters. Oh well, it is a good thing I like Karen and Richard.
    http://www.thegoodchinesemother.wordpress.com

  14. May - March 5, 2011, 11:24 am

    I'm Chinese and I'm a teenager in Asia. But I completely agree with what you say, and I feel that Amy Chua is portraying a negative image of Asians to the whole American community. Not everyone is so extreme. And it doesn't necessarily turn out to be a bad thing. Some of my Chinese friends are overachievers and really happy with their lives but their parents weren't like that, and mine weren't either. So I hope that the world will not be overtly influenced by this article that is really just a reflection on how Amy Chua herself lived her life as a parent, and she is greatly exaggerating a lot of things just for it to do well.

  15. Sandra - August 23, 2011, 1:01 am

    First Amy very clearly indicated that this is not parenting book but memoirs. Second you should have read the letter her daughter wrote. If I get half of the letter like that when my daughter grow up I will consider my self very, very lucky. Amy raised great kids and has wonderful suportive husband. As a friend of mine said: "She spent time with her children – a lot of time with them" that was the point for me. Maybe you can judge that her way was harsh but I would like to know would you like Amy (a) spend your retirement on your children or (b) take her mother in law to live with you and take care of her as long as needed. Her book is honest and truthful and I thank her for that. Although I do would choose softer approach – verbally and allow more freedom to explore nature as part of the education, I like the idea of pushing children to do more. American schools are too easy – and you don't have to be Asian (even European will tell you the same) to realize that too much emphasize is put on sports in US and not enough on educations

  16. Anna - July 21, 2012, 11:47 am

    Hi,

    We are casting a documentary series about parenting and are very interested in speaking with you!

    Here is some information about the casting call:

    http://punchedinthehead.com/casting/

    Please contact us at casting@punchedinthehead.com or call us at 973-943-1652.

    Thank you and I look forward to speaking with you soon.

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  17. Brandon - August 6, 2012, 10:15 pm

    I support the strict parenting style not by Amy Chua, but by Xiao Baiyou “China Wolf Father” that includes beatings. Three of his four children are now in Beijing University. He is a much harsher variant of Amy Chua.

    If you implement extreme strictness along with extreme punishments, it will prevent the child from knowing what depression and suicide is, and it will prevent them from being able to think about it, thus preventing them from becoming depressed and having suicidal thoughts. If children know become depressed or suicidal, it means that the parent is being too lenient on them, to the point that they are able to think about such things.

    • Brandon - August 6, 2012, 10:17 pm

      EDIT: On the second sentence in my second paragraph, I meant to say “”If children BECOME…”

  18. Silicon Valley Living – Amy Chua – Tiger Mom - January 22, 2013, 1:10 pm

    […] “There’s a dark side to Asian Pacific America. The intensity of immigrant aspiration can feed it just as much as it feeds our other sides.”read article. […]

  19. admin - January 21, 2014, 11:51 am

    I was just re-reading these comments and wanted to publicly say that I disagree with everything Brandon has said. “Wolf dads” are awful!

  20. admin - January 21, 2014, 11:59 am

    PS< that was Cynthia, CEO/Founder of K12NN, responding!

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