Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior is an article by Amy Chua in the Wall Street Journal. The article and her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” have sparked a firestorm of controversy and debate.Â In response to friends and fans, here’s a glimpse of my own Chinese American upbringing in the context of questions around Chua’s book, instead of a specific critique or review of her writing.
I’m biased, of course, but I think my mom (and dad) did an exceptional job of gleaning and teaching us the best of both worlds, East and West, with a touch of the South!
Watch Natalie Keng TV interview, 11Alive Weekend Morning News with Valerie Hoff, 1/29/11
Read Natalie’s follow up post on Defining the Hyphen: Tiger Mother Reflections, cont’d
Do both “styles” have merit? Yes. My parents stressed the importance of getting A’s in school, gave us rewards, incentives and support, but didn’t threaten to burn my dolls or torture us. The personal disappointment and not getting a bonus allowance were adequate penalty and motivation enough to study harder (or get tutoring help, which I did).
Were my parents strict? Yes and no. They drew a circle that was big enough for us to be creative, independent and adventurous but with a very clear line that if we crossed, we would be in trouble.
What are examples of crossing or walking the line?
- I could wear my hair any way, any color but I better keep up my grades.
- I could stay out late Friday night but 1) had to tell them my location and 2) arrive work on time the next day (family restaurant).
How did your parents balance or blend Eastern and Western values?
We enjoyed some liberties and indulgences within limits. I could request my favorite food or toy but not demand or expect it. Being a teacher, Mom played games with us a lot, encouraging creativity and competition. With Dad, we took risks, learned new things (fishing, shooting, driving), made mistakes, but also took responsibility and endured consequences if we messed up.Â My parents definitely set the boundaries and rules in our house and we knew who got the last word (mom). They tried to help us balance happiness, responsibility, discipline and achievement.
What impact did the South have on your two worlds?
- Social life or relationships: There were no other Asians at our school to date and 99% of their friends were non-Asian, so my parents couldn’t demand that we date Asians!
- Food: We were introduced to Chinese dishes, Chinese-Southern Fusion (e.g. Pepper Steak and Rice-a-Roni, no Asian markets nearby) and American food at school and restaurants.
- Hobbies: My sister played piano but we had no violins in the school band or orchestra. Smyrna was a nice but small town.
Did they set high expectations? Yes- A’s were expected, B’s were frowned upon and C’s were unimaginable. Attending a good college was expected. Not going to college was not an option. My dad didn’t think graduating high school was a milestone (he didn’t attend graduation). I was very upset at first. He did attend my college graduation!
What’s an example of more traditional Chinese values in your upbringing?
- Respecting and not talking back to elders, e.g. parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles or school teachers.
- “Saving face” or being ultra-sensitive to family reputation and perception, e.g. I was allowed to sleepover only after my mom got multiple reassurances directly from the other parent that I was NOT a “burden, imposition or inconvenience.”
- Rarely did my parents fault the teacher, school, society or system when there was an “issue.” The first focus was on what we could do to learn, change, improve attitude, etc. There were pro’s and con’s to this approach.
- “Clean Plate Club” – may be Asian or not but my mom was a stickler about not being picky and finishing our plate! I do remember sitting at the dinner table by myself an extra hour to finish every last black-eyed pea.
Did you ever rebel or cross the line? Once I refused to talk to my grandmother because she called me a dummy. My dad explained that she had seniority,Â could say what she wanted about me and I would have to accept it–non-negotiable. We also had the Chinese-only language house rule. We got fined a nickel for every English word spoken! We protested loudly, but now I am grateful that I can speak Chinese.
Did we have extracurricular activities? Yes! At different times, I had dance, gymnastics, track, ice skating…but I was also expected to help out at the restaurant. One stark difference from Chua is that my parents gave me the chance to try a variety of activities. I was more athletic while my sister had an ear for music. If forced, I might have been able to play Mozart after practicing 1000 times. It all depends on the goal. We excelled in our own areas.
Did I do stuff I didn’t like? Yes! I had to work when I would’ve rather been at football games. I played clarinet in band because it was a hand-me-down instrument from my older sister even though I would’ve preferred a brass. Also wore lots of hand-me-down clothes as the third girl. I struggled through AP classes because I was told it would help me get into a top-notch college.
One concern I have from the fallout on this topic is the assumption and further stereotyping of Chinese people, or for that matter, all Asians–as math whiz kids, musical prodigies, Ivy-Leaguers or Asian mothers as Dragon Ladies. Unfortunately, positive stereotypes are just as harmful because they mask real, but overlooked problems in a growing and diverse community ranging from diabetes to domestic violence. Whether you agree with Chua’s opinions or not, the Tiger Mom headlines and debate so far are making broad assumptions about Chinese/Asian culture and Western culture, pitting them against each other, mirroring the political and economic tension between the two countries.
As with any stereotype, there are grains of truth (that’s why stereotypes are so convenient and powerful). I know Asian (and non-Asian) parents that sound like Amy Chua.Â But significantly, more families don’t fall under the extreme ends and the bigger picture encompasses a spectrum of variables and layers of complexity, depending on age, generation, home province, when you came to and how long you’ve lived in America, education, background, residence and level of “acculturation,” to mention a few.
I hope that the conversation sparked by her writing is a constructive one. Rather than debating which “style” is better or whether the author is right or wrong, I would focus on ways to boost the overall health, happiness, fairness and sustainability of our children and society.Â Are we raising and teaching kids to be wise, responsible, caring, healthy, happy adults?Â Â To no surprise, I bet there are lessons to be learned all around–the world and in our own diverse backyard.