Sunday, January 16, 2011

The warpath of the Tiger Mother

This guest blog by new femonomics contributor ENTJ addresses the controversy over Amy Chua's infamous "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" WSJ piece.  ENTJ is an Asian-American woman in the finance industry, with her very own Chinese mother.  ENTJ is passionate about educational policy, film, museums of all kinds, and fashion.

You have to think that Amy Chua won in all of this. Her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is now the #5 book on Amazon. She’s won the kind of instant notoriety that is typically reserved for cast members of Jersey Shore. The original Wall Street Journal article about her book has been the most-read article on the site for more than a week, and has generated more than 6,000 comments, split between admirers of the Asian-American community’s disproportional representation in the Ivy League and those citing the Asian-American community’s disproportional representation in national depression and suicide statistics.

But for me, the most interesting reaction has been among those of Asian-American descent themselves. I am Chinese-American, and was tempted to create a filter in my Gmail account so I wouldn’t have to sort through all the times that people emailed the article to me. Among the first people to email me the article was my younger sister, who sent it to me and my parents, with no comment besides, “I’m not sure how I feel about this.” My parents did not have the same reaction. Apparently, a mailing list of Asian parents in our town had been debating the article since it first appeared. From the sampling of emails that my parents forwarded on, the uniform reaction of the parents was a disavowal of Chua’s techniques; one after another wrote that “If this is what a Chinese parent is, then I am a Western parent!”
Why then, did the children of the parents on the list have a more conflicted reaction to the article? I do not know any member of my generation who read the article and did not feel a shiver of recognition. My mother let me go to the bathroom during my marathon piano practice sessions, but the threats coercing me into enduring three hours in front of an instrument I didn’t care very much about were very real. During school vacations, my parents would unplug our television and lock up the power cord so that I would read and practice algebra instead (I was 10). What happened when I got a B on a paper or if I didn’t excel at one of my extracurricular activities? I’d rather not go into it here.

In the broadest definition of the word, my parents’ approach was a success. My little sister and I attended the same Ivy League school. She is on the road to becoming a doctor, and I am pursuing a career that allows me to pay for a substantial part of her education.

Under the surface, however, it is not Chua’s extreme tactics, but the assumptions her approach to parenting makes about success, child psychology, and parent-child relationships that have caused the most lasting damage to me and my generation. When my parents told me that they and their friends did not think of themselves as Tiger Mothers and Fathers, my first reaction was disbelief. Perhaps they allowed the occasional sleepover or maybe even participation in a school play, but the approach and end goal are the same as Chua’s: the assumption that what every child truly desires is two Harvard degrees, one from the College and one from the Med School, and that the only way to get there is to walk a path of disciplined drills of the “right” things: perfect grades, piano competition trophies, and high standardized test scores. The result is that I see my Asian-American friends struggling with a rash of common problems: many of my generation have no idea what their passions are, no idea how to figure them out, or, most terrifyingly, that they’ve spent so much time on the “right” things that they can’t pursue what they actually care about (in one extreme case that has appeared on the internet, a young Asian-American achieved all of those "right" things, only to decide she did not want them--she suffered from depression for two years before taking her own life).

I recognize that these existential crises are not exclusive to Asian-American youth, but during my time in college, when I was struck with envy by my peers who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives and had a single-minded determination to achieve it, I soon noticed that none of them were Asian. To this day, I have trouble spending any time on activities at which I do not excel. After years of incredible pressure by her Chinese mom to get into a top college, a high school classmate of mine totally imploded after arriving there. She had no idea what was next, didn’t know how to determine her future path, and spent her four years wandering about the school binge drinking. When I arrived at college, I was shocked to realize that most of my classmates willingly spoke to their parents every day. I only called my parents when something was wrong, and if my phone rings and it says “Mom” my first assumption is that she has a friend whose kid needs help with some admissions essays.

So for all the debate and discussion that has emerged as a result of Amy Chua, the two groups that have not been talking to each other at all are the parents and children of the Asian-American tradition. I believe that Chua’s greatest disservice to the Asian-American community was not throwing back the curtain on what causes us to be perceived as the “model minority,” but rather by exaggerating her approach so much that other Asian-American parents do not see the parallels between her methods and theirs. By focusing on her, we are ignoring parents who have less extreme methods but are causing damage nonetheless. Perhaps the greatest condemnation of traditional Asian-American parenting is that I do not have enough of an emotional connection to my parents to point out to them that what they’ve done is more similar to Chua’s approach than not. I hope that someday a backlash will happen, when all of us Asian doctors and lawyers and other “successes” tell our parents that even though our family homes have walls filled with trophies and certificates and medals, we feel empty inside.


  1. Great post ENTJ! I did not feel similar pressure from my parents, but I know that this type of extreme performance-oriented parenting isn't exclusive to Asian households.

    In fact, this type of relationship between child and parents seems to resemble how many American men growing up in the fifties and sixties related to their fathers. Think of Jack on LOST, for example. Have any other readers had experience with this type of parenting, to any degree?

  2. I'm not Asian, but this parenting model appears in many families. My mother taught me to read at age three, and drove me to excel at school even though I was overweight and near-sighted and never did well in gym. She criticized me when I spent more time on art homework than on math. I wasn't allowed to play outside or invite any friends over to play in the house. I had to do homework instead. Though she didn't quite discipline me per se, her method of persuasion was to withhold approval if I didn't do what she wanted. It was devastatingly effective, since I wanted her to love me. I've also suffered from depression for most of my life. I remember when I was younger, every time a boyfriend would exhibit the slightest hint of a "golden fleece arm candy" reaction toward me, it made me absolutely furious. I would sabotage his efforts to show me off and humiliate him completely in front of his friends. I reacted towards him the way I felt I couldn't react towards my mother.


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