"Tiger Mothers" Aren't The Whole Story


Confession: I have no idea how to respond to Amy Chua’s now infamous article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” published to immediate and then sustained cries of disgust, trauma, ridicule, and debate on the blogosphere and the comment-o-sphere.

What can I add when Asian American bloggers have already responded with posts like “Parents Like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy,” and as of today, more than 4,000 comments have been posted in response to Chua, mostly vitriolic and genuine horror at her proposed parenting techniques, (which include calling her eldest daughter “garbage” in front of party guests, and standing over seven-year-old daughter Lulu, excoriating her and threatening to throw out her dollhouse, starve her, and put an end to all birthday and holiday celebrations until she learned how play Jacques Ibert’s “The Little White Donkey” on the piano.

So here goes — I’m going to try my hardest at sincerity, because in what other manner can we have a dialogue about parenting, childhood, and adolescence, the main movers and shakers behind conversations that begin with, “The reason I’m so fucked up is probably because of…” On that topic, I have my own reasons, many which have a lot to do with how my parents raised me, and some that overlap so neatly with Chua’s article that there’s a deep part of me that wants to keep these reasons to myself in order to protect my family from outside scrutiny, the kind of shaming and unsolicited offerings of pity that can happen when you summarize your life inchoately, imperfectly, and publicly for others.

Like Chua’s daughters, I wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers, and when I asked my father if I could go to the movies, he would respond, “Didn’t you just ask seven months ago?” and when I had to do a school assignment with my friend Chris, my mother was dead afraid that in the middle of discussing my global history project with him I might accidentally be persuaded to turn to a life of rampant drug-use and sexual depravity, despite my oh-so-eloquent teenage protest at the time: “Ew, but I don’t even find him good-looking,” (sorry Chris), that she made my father drive me to my friend’s house and stand outside of his living room window, staring at us through the window the entire time until I got fed up and decided that I’d rather fail the assignment than complete it under my father’s watch.

I can go on, but what’s the point if the story is incomplete? If I don’t tell you that my father himself studied English literature for more than ten years, there was a time when he could recite Shakespeare by heart, Melville, Faulkner, Frost, Fitzgerald, Keats, Yeats, Milton, that he came to the United States in the late 1980’s as part of the first wave of students, after China opened its door, to pursue a PhD in linguistics at NYU, and he supported himself (and my mom and I) by working menial restaurant jobs and delivering horrible Chinese food (kung-pao my ass) on his bike to fancy apartment-dwellers on the Upper East Side who tipped him quarters, and when it came time to look for jobs in academia, he quickly realized that even though he had once memorized entire sections of the Miriam-Webster dictionary, that there still plenty of people who only heard his accent, who assumed he wasn’t very smart or capable because he pronounced clams “claims” and tunnel “turnol.”

Is it any wonder that my desire to pursue literature dropped heavy stones of dread into my parents’ hearts when my father’s own trajectory in the humanities and higher education ended when he decided he didn’t want our family to be dirt-poor anymore, and dropped out of the PhD program a month before he was due to defend his dissertation, and started all over again, enrolling in computer science courses at Brooklyn Community College when he was thirty five years old?

I can tell you about the time I insisted to my mother that no matter what, I was going to follow my dreams of becoming a writer, and she responded by telling me that even though I believed I was special, I was, in fact, normal, ordinary, unexceptional, and there was no point in struggling against that. I don’t intend to defend my mother’s words, but I do want to understand why she thought I needed to hear that. Was there a part of her that was reacting to her own experience of being treated as alien in a country that won’t let people of color forget they are different? I currently live in the south of France, and no matter how unexceptional and unremarkable I think I am, I know every single day, at least once, if not several times, I will encounter someone on the street who will perform a kung-fu move for me, or shout NEE-HAW-MA or ARRIGATO, or sometimes both, often not even viciously or with the intent to embarrass me, but always I am embarrassed, and always I am aware of how lovely it would be if the world didn’t take notice of me.

Or did my mother believe this because she was so exceptionally beautiful when she was younger that producers from Hong Kong came knocking on my mother’s doorstep to try to cast her in movies, and no matter how much my mother begged, my grandmother refused and even went so far as to literally dead-bolt the door shut to keep them out? Even though I am not a parent and have only ever been a daughter, is it true that when we become parents, there is a part of us that wants to say: But look, I gave up on my dreams and I’m still happy, so why won’t you? Or a part of us that want to say: But look, I gave up this dream, so now I won’t let you. And if both impulses are potentially harmful, then how shall we best raise our children?

And what if I tell you that I knew a girl who had piano lessons right before me, who played the piano four hours a day and whose father stood behind her with a yardstick and whacked the back of her head every time she made a mistake, and that was why, my mother told me, she wore turtlenecks even in the summer, and ran away one winter, and what if I tell you I also knew a boy whose mother laid in his bed for half an hour every evening to warm it up for him in preparation, and spooned food into his mouth when he was a full-on teenager so as not to break his concentration when studying. But these people, like my parents, came from highbrow, educated families in China, whose entire livelihood and intellectual property had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, who themselves were deprived of a proper education for years and years of their adolescence. It’s not an excuse for corporal punishment or excessive-maniacal love, but it’s a context.

The problem is that I can come up with so many exceptions to every single story I’ve recounted in this post that it’s just worthless to try and extrapolate any sort of generalization about who Chinese parents are and how they treat their children from what I know and what I’ve seen. I’ll never know if my mom’s obsession with being ‘normal, not special’ has anything to do with intrinsically Chinese values that have been passed on to her, or if these values were idiosyncratic to her, and what’s more, I don’t think I or anyone else should on the burden and responsibility of deciding what about their own particular experience is universal or representative of an entire culture.

And is it because of Chinese parents like Chua, who forbid their children from participating in school plays, that there’s such a dearth of Asian American entertainers and performers? Or might it be possible that there are still exists racial barriers and obstacles for Asian American entertainers and performers? (I’m going to go with yes after; there are so few Asian American actresses that when I take that annoying, “Which Celebrity Do You Look Like,” test my face always end ups encircled by an unholy halo of Jackie Chan, Lisa Ling, Lucy Liu, and Chris Rock.) And if Asians are just drones with no capacity for original thought, then let’s just completely discount the number of Asian Americans who have built successful start-ups in Silicon Valley, the presence of Asians and Asian Americans in fashion design (Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, the Sretsis sisters, Philip Lim, I could go on,) and not to mention I probably don’t exist as a person since I’m currently writing a novel in France, and not, you know, memorizing math equations.

Somehow, despite the ridiculous tone of Chua’s essay, I can’t help but feel a kind of tenderness toward her, especially after learning that she didn’t choose the aggressively provocative article, and that the rest of her book from which the article is excerpted is a lot more self-disparaging and self-searching. But mostly, I feel sorry for her and anxious to see what sort of dialogue arises from this article because as Chimamanda Adichie says so beautifully in her TED speech, “The danger of a single story,” where she proposes, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

And I, and many, many more Asian and Asian American bloggers can assure you that Amy Chua’s story is just that: a single story. And in a strange way, I’m heartened by the response of the Asian American blogging community to this article. The blogger Ricedaddies writes tenderly of growing up in a small rural town, where his parents owned a restaurant and worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, and how he would help them in his spare time, sometimes by watching “Wheel of Fortune in the backroom,” adding:

In fact, the first time I encountered the stereotype of the overbearing Chinese parents—probably in something written by Amy Tan, I couldn’t relate at all. The idea was foreign and exotic to me. Which is probably why people love reading about it so much.

Or the spirited Cee-Lo-esque fugue from Resist Racism:

So fuck you, Amy Chua, for reinforcing that tired old model minority stereotype. For speaking for an entire group of people and ascribing your abusive parenting to your culture.
Fuck you for every person who expresses surprise at my chosen profession. Because we don’t do that. Fuck you for all those people who interviewed me and marveled how they didn’t know any Asian Americans in that line of work. Despite the fact I was sitting right in front of them. Because obviously my parents should not have “allowed” me to enter my field.

Listen, if we want to be the kind of feminists who understand the headscarf debate as more nuanced than simply Muslim women are oppressed because they are forced to cover their faces, then we need to bring that complexity to the table when discussing parenting methods, and certainly we need to bring that complexity to the table before we condemn or elevate an entire population of people, who never consented in the first place to be represented and summarized by one woman’s story and one newspaper editor’s shitty and misleading idea for a title.

Correction: The author wants to note that in fact, it’s Taiwanese actor (and heartthrob!) Jay Chou who plays Seth Rogen’s sidekick in The Green Hornet, not Korean American actor John Chou, and she heartily apologizes for the sloppy error. However, she does want to note that her homeboy Ken Jeong, born and raised in the United States, was cast as the flagrantly flamboyant, broken-English screeching villain in the 2009 movie, The Hangover.

Jenny Zhang is a writer and blogs at Fashion for Writers.

Correction: This article has been revised; the original version stated that actor appearing in The Green Hornet was native English-speaker John Cho, sporting a fake Chinese accent. The actor is in fact Jay Chou, who’s Taiwanese and learned much of his English just before shooting the film.

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