When I was 11, my mother made me write an essay about the benefits of the “no pain, no gain” mentality. Chinese people love their proverbs. It was summertime, and while all my (white) friends were playing outside at the pool or going to Old Orchard, my mom wanted me to write a freakin’ essay. After vocalizing some resistance (which was met with stern Chinese glares) I gave in and wrote a three page double-spaced essay in Comic Sans about why it is important to work hard, because success is a result of a good work ethic. After looking it over, my mother solemnly gave me an A-. She said my ideas were good, but my language could use some work. Figures.
A lot more of these essays were produced that summer until normal, American school started again. Of course, my mom never gave me a solid A because there was always something wrong with my grammar and vocabulary. But at school — at normal, American school — I got A’s, and was often praised for my excellent grammar and vocabulary. I smugly brought these papers home to show to my mother that I did indeed excel in the areas that she criticized me in. But she only responded by saying, It’s because you practiced all summer, obviously.
As a child raised by a Chinese mother, I understand that being a Chinese daughter is not always fun. I recall fighting with my mom, demanding to know why she wasn’t more like my friends’ parents who were fine with B’s and C’s, and didn’t insist on ten o’clock curfews. She would always respond by saying, It’s in your own best interest. Then I would scoff and run sobbing to my room.
Fast forward to a college. A couple weeks ago, when my mom sent me the link to Amy Chua’s article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” as a joke, I read it with great interest. I was very much put off by some of Chua’s methods, but I also recognized that such methods are deeply ingrained in Asian culture, perhaps beginning with Confucian filial piety or the intense exam systems that began in Han Dynasty China, both of which have resulted in the belief that hard work paves the way for all opportunity. No pain, no gain.
But the public reaction to Chua’s article got me thinking. Chua’s article currently has some 7000 online comments and counting, most of which are negative. People called her a deranged woman, a child abuser, and even a female Adolf Hitler. One lady wrote, “Please stop abusing your children!!! May God forgive you!” Chua has even received death threats.
Yes, I was disturbed by some of Chua’s mothering techniques. And no, just because I’m Chinese does not mean I’m going to raise my own kids like she did. But these people, the people who are calling her “nuts” and a “monster,” are paying zero attention to the cultural context of this so-called Chinese mothering. The Chinese immigrants of Chua’s parents’, as well as my parents’ generation, had to be the best of the best in their fields in order to leave the country. Then after they got here, they had to deal with enormous amounts of pressure in order to overcome language barriers, racist employers and serious culture shock.
My own parents came to America with just a suitcase each, and they now live affluently and have Ph.D’s to their name. Bottom line: They had to bust their asses to get where they are. And if they want me to achieve even more success than they (which, in so many ways, is doubtful) then obviously they are going to apply the same work-hard-or-fail logic to my upbringing. It makes sense. Even though I might’ve been barred from attending high school basement keg parties, and temporarily hated my mom for it, I’m so happy where I am now that it doesn’t matter.
It comes down to the classic apples to oranges comparison. As overused as this analogy may be, its logic stands: It is unfair for people here to impose their own value judgments on Chua’s parenting without acknowledging the circumstances that lead to such cultural differences. It is unfair to call Chua a malicious child abuser since she was raised on strict parenting, especially since she knows it works. Chua is just being logical; she achieved enormous success by following the rules that her parents put into place, and so it makes sense to believe that her kids would follow the same successful route with the same method of parenting. Like my own mother, Chua pushes her kids in order to see them achieve. And like my own mother, she is proud of her children for they what have accomplished.
As a general trend, kids only achieve what they are expected to achieve. And if parents set their sights high, kids will feel compelled to try harder. Upon entering high school, I became convinced that a lot of my friends were much smarter than me, since they had tested into advanced math classes while I only tested into regular geometry classes. (I know, I’m a horrible Asian). I told my mom about my insecurities and, instead of encouraging me or telling me that I was just as smart as my friends, she said, That means that you have to work three times as hard as all your friends, because you’re just not as naturally smart as they are. She also told me that I shouldn’t hang out with my friends as much so I could spend more time with school work. That was not the kind of solace I was looking for, but it got me where I needed to be, and I can’t criticize my Chinese mother for that.
So please don’t insult the tiger mother unless you understand the cultural context behind her methods. And for those of you that say Chua is a crazy Chinese woman, a child abuser or Adolf Hitler, once you have kids you just might see where she’s coming from.