21 January 2011

Amy Chua book signing and Q&A session

My first introduction to Amy Chua was not the infamous "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" Wall Street Journal excerpt. A few weeks before, a friend had posted a link on Facebook to a YouTube video where Prof. Chua was interviewed about her book World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. She seemed like a thoughtful, balanced academic, so I was shocked to read the WSJ article. I searched for some other Internet sources and began to suspect that the excerpt was not representative of the book (which turned out to be correct.) Out of curiosity, I emailed Prof. Chua to introduce myself as a fellow Chinese-American and asked her if she was doing a book signing near me. She responded a few hours later and told me that she was in fact doing a signing the next day!

I went to the book signing after work and found myself in a sea of Caucasians, mostly 50 and older. I definitely stuck out as the "Asian baby." Unfortunately, I had to buy a $35 ticket to attend, but at least it included a book and wine. About fifteen minutes after the scheduled start time, Amy Chua appeared.

She started the talk by saying that she would reserve most of the time for questions. Then she talked about how a family crisis (the rebellion of her 13 year old daughter) compelled her to write the book. She started two days after the incident and wrote like a mad woman. After that, she read four pages from the last chapters of her book, describing the rebellion incident and how to her the violin symbolized strength, beauty, and discipline etc but how it became a symbol of oppression to her daughter and even to herself.

Most of the audience were friends from the Yale and New Haven community, so everyone was very nice. Her husband was there. Chua admitted that she was a very overconfident mother and that she had made mistakes but she thinks she pulled back at the right time. In fact, she allowed her daughter to drop the violin. She said that her last five days had been harrowing due to the WSJ article and that she needed all the friends she could get.

An interesting comment she made was that her Chinese parenting style was less effective on her daughters compared to her own parents because she lacked "authenticity." Her family and everyone around her lived nice, comfortable life styles. Not like her parents who had to work insane hours and save every penny.

Many people have wondered why Chinese kids can only play piano and violin. Prof. Chua addressed that in the questions. Looking back, she said that for some reason, she was fixated on the violin. She says that now, if her kids wanted to do something else, she would probably say yes, as long as they took it seriously and strived to be the best. She mentioned theatre as an example. She said that now, she would have no problem with her daughter doing theatre, but she wouldn't want to drive her daughter back and forth if she was just going to try the drama club as a whim. After dropping the violin, her rebellious daughter is currently playing on the tennis team.

Another reason for the violin, stated in Chua's book, is that in the hierarchy of musical instruments, violin is the most prestigious. It's the hardest to play, in the sense, that it is very hard to stay in tune. A beginner sounds really bad on the violin, whereas a person with no experience can play guitar or drums and sound okay to the untrained ear.

I spent the entire hour long Q&A session trying to think of a good question. After coming up with a few, I realized that they were all of the variety: 'I want to have a personal dialogue with the author that happens to be public. I want to say "me too" and hear the sound of my own voice.' Finally I came up with a good idea and asked the last question: "In your book, you remark that it is difficult to raise a child with Chinese values in America's Western society. Have you thought about what it would be like to raise your child in an Asian country? For instance, in Korea, kids study until midnight every day. It seems like an educational arms race where your status depends on getting into Seoul National University." (Apologies to any Koreans I may have offended, especially those who went to Yonsei University.) Prof. Chua thought I had a "great question" but she hadn't thought much about it. She did say that she probably wouldn't like living in such a society.

A bearded, middle-aged man came up to me after the session was over and praised me for my good question. He thought it would be easier to raise children with Chinese values in a Western society because they had a higher chance of being the best where only 10% of parents push their kids, compared to Asian society where 100% of parents push their kids. I asked him if he was a friend of Amy's and he said that he was a fellow Yale law school professor.

I'm not crazy about autographs but I did pay $35 for my ticket, so I went to the book signing afterwards. I chatted a bit with a woman in line. She asked me if I was a parent, which was quite amusing. When I finally got to the head of the line, I introduce myself by name and told Prof. Chua that I was the same student who emailed her the day before. Chua started signing the book out to me (and misspelled my name), but I told her I wanted to have the autograph made out to my sister. She was very classy about the mistake and simply "bought" me another book, though I didn't tell her about the misspelling. So I got two books that day. My autograph read: "Thank you for your support & kind words. Best Wishes, Amy Chua"

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