Oh, Amy Chua. What a fervent and cacophonous media whirlwind you have created. Your book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has been, for the most part, panned. But it has also led to some productive—if vitriolic—debates about the meaning of success, whether being a child prodigy is all it’s cracked up to be, and whether it’s more difficult (and important) to learn how to play the piano or how to navigate the treacherous waters of social interaction.
I won’t repeat the criticisms previously levied at Chua. But I would like to bring up a few topics that were absent in the debate. All relate to how Chua has been received, and tell us as much about ourselves and our culture as they do the woman currently occupying the media spotlight.
The Pressure to Assimilate: Be Like Us
In talking with parents about her piece, I heard many reactions which boiled down to this: Chua’s methods would be appropriate for children raised in China, but not for children raised in the US. They are too harsh and extreme to be tolerated in an American context.
The subtext is that there is a unified, unwavering, and culturally sanctioned style of parenting in the US. And indeed, we do have some legally mandated standards (such as those that relate to child abuse). But underneath this reaction lies thinly-veiled racism and xenophobia, for the assumption is that immigrants—in this case, the Chinese—should assimilate when they arrive on “our” shores, leaving behind “their” beliefs and practices, and adopting those of their new homeland. In short: they should become American, which on some level likely means they should become White.
Whereas assimilation is defined as the process by which immigrants leave behind traditional ways and adopt those of their new home, acculturation (a more accurate concept) is a bidirectional process: the new culture transforms immigrants, but the immigrants also transform the new culture.
As most immigrants will tell you, acculturation can be rich and expansive. Yet it can also be painful, for both immigrant parents and their American-born or -raised children. Long-standing cultural values are tested, and Americanized kids (unless they live in a veritable ethnic enclave), will typically grow up amidst opposing pressures from family and peers, with each group entreating, “Be like us; do as we do.”
Chinese parenting, just like Korean or Ukrainian or Mexican parenting, inevitably looks different in the multicultural United States than it looks in its country of origin. But some parents attempt to hold fast to traditional ways, for both symbolic and practical reasons. Chua chose to maintain her parents’ strict methods as a way to avoid the deterioration in performance and achievement that has been identified in the grandchildren of immigrants. She chose to push back against pressure to assimilate, in a way that she felt would benefit her children. Whereas I find her methods objectionable, I do condone her rationale.
Psychologist Christine Carter criticizes Chua for her “focus on achievement and perfection at all costs,” and goes on to say that true happiness is not a product of external success, such as getting straight A’s. While I wholeheartedly agree with Carter, I found myself wondering about the role of ethnicity and culture, and whether there is value in staying connected to one’s traditional roots.
To learn more, I contacted my friend and colleague, Jane Yang, Ph.D., who is a licensed psychologist and Coordinator of Outreach & Consultation Services at Emory University’s Student Counseling Center. Dr. Yang has studied intergenerational conflict among migrant families, and is herself a 2nd generation Korean-American.
As Dr. Yang explained, “There has been significant evidence to support the idea that sense of connectedness to culture-of-origin (e.g., Chinese culture) contributes to an increased sense of self-worth amongst Asian American individuals. Similarly, literature supports that it is not simply acculturation to American culture that serves as protective in the development Asian American individuals but rather acculturation and meaningful understanding of both Asian and American cultures.”
Though the process of acculturation can be fraught and challenging, there is more to the story. “To assume that this journey is a harmful one is a disservice to the resilience of children and to the richness they can experience via their connection to both their American and their (particular) Asian ethnic cultures,” reports Dr. Yang.
Since Chua’s piece came out, there have been many references to the high rate of suicide among Asian American youth. Such statistics are immensely distressing, and indicate both a troubling set of circumstances and an unmet need. Fingers have been pointed at strict, perfection-seeking parents (especially mothers) like Chua, and indeed, it’s easy to understand how a style like hers could lead to potential and profound damage.
Yet if we hastily and unilaterally dismiss Chua, we risk overlooking her commendable efforts to retain a sense of ethnic identity, and in turn oversimplify the issue of how to raise bicultural children. There are those who argue that Chua is not representative of Chinese parenting. But in her mind, she has retained behaviors and attitudes that are consistent with her country-of-origin, even if others would beg to differ.
Additionally, when we say that mothers like Chua are fully or partially responsible for things like depression and suicide, we are engaging in the myopic, age-old phenomenon of mother-blaming. A mother cannot be evaluated as an isolated variable, for she operates within a cultural context; though she is a highly salient factor in the lives of her children, she is but one factor among many.
Chua as a Global and Personal Threat
Chua’s book has come out during a time of profound economic instability in this country. Americans are worried about their next paycheck or whether they will be able to send their kids to college or retire as planned. And many Americans associate this domestic uncertainty with the ascent of China, with concern that this powerful—perhaps menacing—nation will one day eclipse and dwarf America.
Though Chua is a Chinese American (in theory one of “our own”), hegemonic America can easily dismiss her as “other,” largely due to her self-identified association with the Chinese culture of her parents and grandparents. This context cannot be overlooked when we assess Chua’s book, for we are not merely evaluating her as a parent, but as a potential threat: globally, intimately. On some level, we know that our kids will be competing with hers, if not for the stage at Carnegie hall (which is probably not the goal for most parents), then for a spot at college or for a job after graduation.
Most of us would say that we are unwilling to play her game, to demand such sky-high results from our children without attending to their emotional and social needs. And though we’d likely stand by this decision (and use research about self-esteem and happiness and well-being to back it up), we may still worry that our kids will be crowded out by hers. Or, on a less competitive note, that they will be deprived of an essential or at least useful experience. I’ve heard about parents who denounce Chua’s techniques as extreme and punitive, and then turn on their computers to search for a used piano on Craigslist. And on some level, we can all probably relate.
I May Not Be the World’s Best Mother, But At Least I’m Not Amy Chua
Though Chua may not realize it, she does mothers a favor by serving as a barometer, a marker by which we can measure ourselves. It’s hard to tell how we’re performing as mothers, to discern whether our children are actually on track and blossoming. There are, of course, the easily identifiable concrete markers, such as those that relate to academic performance (e.g., grades) and social development (e.g., the presence or absence of friends). But we don’t know whether our kids will be successful—in whatever terms we choose—or happy in the long run. And it’s exactly this unknown that creates anxiety and fear. For what if we fail our children? What if we miss a warning sign?
Enter a polarizing figure like Amy Chua to balm our anxious, wondering souls. Though she cannot answer vexing questions about our children’s future, she serves to quash our anxiety. Because compared to her, we are all superior mothers. (Or so we tell ourselves, as a way to tolerate the unknown and mitigate our fear.)
Our collective need for validation did not propel her into the limelight (her inflammatory words alone can account for this), but her purpose as persona non grata certainly extends her time on stage. Every play needs a villain.
Do you agree with Amy Chua’s methods or her rationale? If you are Chinese, do you believe that her approach is representative? Do you feel like Amy is getting so much attention not just because of her extreme ways, but also because she is being used as a scapegoat, to make the rest of us feel better?