Adrienne Mong / NBC News
BEIJING – As if the Western media’s predilection for pitting a rising China against a declining America in the political, diplomatic, economic, and military realms weren't enough, now we have to contend with the culture wars.
Over the weekend, Yale Law School professor Amy Chua fired the first salvo in what someone on Twitter dubbed “the global mommy wars.”
“Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best,” Chua wrote in her essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” in The Wall Street Journal Saturday. The essay was an excerpt from her new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which will be released Tuesday in the United States. (Chua appears on NBC's Today Show on Tuesday morning.)
In the article, Chua tries to address what it is about Chinese parenting that produces a plethora of wunderkind math geniuses, violin virtuosos or piano prodigies who ace their way into Ivy League colleges and other top educational institutions.
The essay quickly became the most popular article on the Journal’s website over the weekend: it had over 1,770 comments by Monday and 85,000 people had “liked” it on Facebook. All the attention bewildered Twitter users: “Chinese Mothers is a trending topic?? LOL”
‘Mommie Dearest’ with Chinese characteristics
In the excerpt – which reads alternately like a how-to guide, a satire or a lament – Chua identified three key qualities in Chinese parents that enable “success”: a lack of fussing over their children’s self-esteem; a belief that kids owe their parents everything; and an unshakeable belief that the parents know what’s best.
“The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable – even legally actionable – to Westerners,” wrote Chua. “Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
o attend a sleepover
o have a playdate
o be in a school play
o complain about not being in a school play
o watch TV or play computer games
o choose their own extracurricular activities
o get any grade less than A
o not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
o play any instrument other than the piano or violin
o not play the piano or violin.”
The article sounds so incredible to Western readers – and many Asian ones, too – that many people thought the whole thing was satire.
But drawing on personal experience and after an informal canvassing of Chinese friends, acquaintances, and family, I would argue that it’s no joke. If anything, aspects of her essay resonated profoundly with many people, especially Chinese Americans – not necessarily in a good way.
“I can’t speak for every parent in China, but I’ve seen enough strict parenting and I’ve been through it,” said one friend, B., a mainland Chinese native. (For privacy reasons, I've identified some friends just by their initials.) “My mom would make me kneel down or smack me in the head if I didn’t make an A.”
I, for one, remember being berated – at 6 or 7 years old – for bringing home a report card that showed I’d scored only a three out of 10 in arithmetic. That tattered document still bears the marks of a rolling pin that my mother used to bang on the document in anger and frustration. And that was just one of innumerable instances of feeling like a complete failure.
As Chua wrote, “Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe their child can get them.” There is no such thing as mediocrity or failure – unless it’s deliberate.
“When I think about my teenage years, all I can remember is constant fear, fear that she would find out I had a crush on a boy, fear that I would fail in a test, fear that she would find out I had lied to her,” said B.
L., an American-born Chinese woman whose mother died when she was only 10 years old, said, “I was raised that same way, relentlessly for 10 years,” and she recalled similar fights over how much to practice piano.
Adrienne Mong / NBC News File
Chinese children participate in a salsa class in Shanghai.
Where is the love?
The three qualities that Chua describes as defining Chinese parenting might make for a certain kind of success story, but, again, many of the friends and family I spoke to thought otherwise.
One of my uncles, Ping Mong, used to work at a big American company where he helped to hire employees from Taiwan. The graduates came typically from the best universities, he said, and “they do well in individual study and research.” Problems arose, however, whenever they were expected to work on team projects. “They’re so good at focusing on the academic background … that they lack presentation skills, negotiating skills, interpersonal skills.”
Education, he continued, is of course important, but so is developing as a human being.
And that, many people have argued, is the flaw with the Chinese parenting style – at least the one described by Chua.
Though she continues to feel the loss of her mother decades later, L. said, “My mother never touched us, never embraced us or said she loved us. She clothed us, put food in my rice bowl nightly, put me in a bath and peeled and cut fruit for me nightly. That was her way of expressing love, and many Chinese are no different.”
In Chinese society, especially when older generations are included, parents just don’t express much affection. (Although that trend seems to be changing for young urban middle class families in China who can only have one child. J., a mainland Chinese friend, noticed that most of her friends “do not want or do not raise their kids in the same way their parents did.”)
But try growing up in a society like America where people hug even when they just say hello, and you start noticing the fact that your parents never hug or kiss you. Try growing up in a society which places a high value on positive reinforcement and you might start wondering why it is that your parents only ever notice your faults and your inability to be the best student in your entire class.
When it comes to guilt, high expectations and an emphasis on success, especially academic success, “Jewish mothers are just as bad,” joked A., another American-born Chinese friend. “But at least therapy is acceptable in Jewish society.”
Therapy, like failure, is considered by many Chinese to be an expression of weakness – which often leads to tragic consequences. It’s been widely reported that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, Asian American women aged 15-24 have the highest suicide rates amongst all ethnic groups. One of the chief culprits cited is the pressure to achieve academic success.
Adrienne Mong / NBC News File
NBC News cameraman Maurice Roper films a news story about Chinese children enjoying their extra-curricular activities.
Balancing instead of clashing cultures
Of course, with every generalization or cultural stereotype, there are numerous exceptions. L.Q. said she feels lucky that she “was not subjected to the pressure and guilt” described in Chua’s article. “However, I know my father must have gone through some of her angst. He was forced to play the violin to such a degree … that to this day he can’t listen to any music with the violin in it,” she said.
In fact, despite the snappy headline in Saturday’s newspaper, it turns out Chua isn’t necessarily arguing that her form of parenting is really superior. “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old,” she wrote.
Instead of pitting one against the other, friends and family say parents could use a bit of both.
L.Q., a third-generation Chinese-American, is married to a Colombian. Theirs was a relaxed household – at least until she read Chua’s excerpt to her husband. “Afterwards, [he] was inspired to call a family meeting later that day to create a calendar and schedule in time for the girls to practice the piano five days a week for 30 minutes a day,” she told me.
And, of course, there was that final arbiter – at least in my life:
“I think [Chinese parenting] is different, but I wouldn’t necessarily say better,” said my mother after she read the article. “I have seen kids brought up and do well and perform well and not necessarily have Chinese parents. They’re from Western families.”
She thought a bit more and then added, “Maybe it’s a better way to discipline the children. But it doesn’t mean you make better parents.”
More on the parenting debate on the Today Moms blog:
The 'Tiger Mother' defends her harsh parenting
Behind the scenes with the 'Tiger Mother' and daughters