What Kind of Chinese Mother is Amy Chua?

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 12 2011 4:07 PM

What Kind of Chinese Mother is Amy Chua?

Ever since an excerpt of Amy Chua's new book BattleHymn of the Tiger Mother appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the provocative title " WhyChinese Mothers Are Superior " people have been asking lots of questions: IsChua insane? Are her kids going to be insane? And should I be trying hermethods in my own home?

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But as the daughter of a Chinese mother myself and, likeChua, the first American-born child of two Asian immigrants I've got anotherquestion.

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Just what kind of Chinese mother is Amy Chua?

Asian-Americans may be perceived by many as the modelminority, but we're also, in many ways, an invisible community. I can't thinkof the last time our family lives were thrust into the national spotlight like this,with all kinds of people Asian and non-Asian passionately discussing whathappens inside our homes. ( The Joy LuckClub , maybe?) This is one of those key moments that helps establish acultural framework, and cements a way of thinking about a people. So it's worthtaking a moment to stress a few, potentially obvious points.

Not all Chinese mothers even ones who have academicallyexcellent, successful children operate like Amy Chua. Okay, so she isn't purportingto be writing an ethnography. And she does display some self-awareness of the limitations of her chosen term. She writes :

I'm using the term "Chinese mother"loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents whoqualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost alwaysborn in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I'm alsousing the term "Western parents" loosely. Western parents come in allvarieties.

But at some point in the book,you start to lose sight of those air quotes. Tiger Mother is full of broad, sweeping overgeneralizations andbinaries: Chinese people are like this,Western people are like that . And when you consider how the specter of Asian-Americankids outperforming their white peers has been a source of curiosity and unease for years now, it's naïve to think that people aren't going to look to Chua'sbook to provide an interpretive key to the community as a whole.

More personally, I bristle at theimplication that mothers who don't parent in the way Chua chose to "are notChinese mothers" as if they're inauthentic or some kind of anomaly. "Chinese-ness"is a big tent, and why you'd want to take the most clichéd, horrific part of itand slap a brand name on it is beyond me. (To sell books? I kid. Sort of. Notreally.)

On the other hand, Amy Chua is one kind of Chinese mother to sayotherwise would be disingenuous. I grew up in a town where Asian immigrantfamilies were in the majority, and I know that parents this strict, thisfocused, and this unyielding do exist. And like some other Asian-Americans who'veweighed in on the topic, I'm aware of thedamage that can be caused by such "authoritarian, high-stakes parenting" highsuicide rates being just one example. As one of my Korean-American friends wroteto me in an email: "The constant conflict between what feels like unconditionalsupport (why else would a parent invest so much energy and focus so entirely ona child?) and entirely conditional love (if you don't perform, I won't reallylove you) can be soul-destroying." Let's not lose sight of these consequencesjust because we're blinded by Chua's shiny, beautiful, ridiculouslysuccessful and seemingly well-adjusted kids. One family case study does not a largercultural point make.

What makes reacting to this bookso complicated is that many Chinese-Americans will, I think, recognize aspectsof Chua's story from their own childhoods: The importance of academicachievement, the expectation of a certain level of self-discipline, thecloseness (if not always warmth) between parents and children. Even if I findher cultural analysis eye-roll-worthy, I can't deny that. Nor would I wantto shared experiences and frames of reference are what make a community acommunity. I just hope that people realize that Chua's personal account is justthat one Chinese woman's individual story.

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