20 January 2011

The Amy Chua controversy and Chinese culture

The book and the excerpt

Amy Chua, a Yale law school professor and Chinese-American, recently published a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The subtitle on the cover summarizes the work:
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. 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 thirteen-year-old.
Ordinarily, this kind of book would only appeal to Asian Americans and parents interested in raising prodigies. However, the Wall Street Journal chose to publish an "excerpt" titled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" -- depicting Prof. Chua as a megalomaniac mom who relentlessly criticizes and pushes her children. It describes how she forces her children to practice music three hours a day and refuses to allow them to have playdates. One vivid incident recounts how Chua denied her daughter food, water, and toilet facilities until she mastered a piano piece. The Wall Street Journal excerpt currently has 7000+ comments and 301K Facebook likes. Supposedly the author has received death threats. Why the attention? The book is a memoir written by a law school professor with no expertise in child psychology, not a manifesto on burning Korans or a literary masterpiece like The Woman Warrior.

I was born to a Taiwanese father and a Cantonese mother who immigrated to America at the age of ten. My sister and I were high achieving children and attended Ivy League caliber universities. I went to Friday night Chinese school for twelve years. I played piano for eight years. When I was 8, my dad told me that I hadn't played a very good soccer game. During my childhood summers, my mom drilled me in speed-Chinese-dictionary-lookup competitions until I won first place in the state (it took three tries) and had me translate classical Chinese stories about Mencius.

The similarities I share with Prof. Chua and her family inspire me to share some thoughts.

Why the book is controversial

Anyone who reads the book quickly realizes that the Wall Street Journal excerpt is mostly taken from the first chapter, which Prof. Chua has publicly stated is a version of herself 18 years ago when she was "overconfident." The purpose of the first chapter is to provide a humorous, entertaining introduction to Chinese stereotypes.

The comments on the WSJ article roughly fell into the following categories:
  1. "Amy Chua is a child abuser. She might be gloating about her daughters' accomplishments now, but wait until ten years from now when her kids spend the rest of their lives in therapy."
  2. "Thank you, Amy Chua. Americans have become lazy. Let's return to strict, traditional parenting."
  3. "What have the Chinese done? They don't have any Nobel Laureates. The great American innovators like Steve Jobs are creative and independent thinkers, unlike those Asian robots."
  4. "I am Chinese and I hated my strict parents. I'm stuck in therapy."
  5. "I am Chinese and I did not raise my children like this at all. Amy Chua is stereotyping us."
The memoir is starter fuel for many touchy issues in contemporary American society. Let me address those WSJ comments in the same order:
  1. Parenting is a naturally controversial topic. Everyone has an opinion. You don't have to raise your children like Amy Chua.

    There are a couple more reasons to hate her. People probably aren't happy about being "lectured" about parenting by some "arrogant" Yale law school professor. Despite growing up in a liberal American society, Chua chose to use Draconian methods on her children.

  2. People are disgusted with the decline of America since World War II. Last month, following the cancellation of a professional football game in Philadelphia, the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell said,
    We've become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.
  3. There is clearly a lot of jealousy toward China's economic success and resentment about American jobs moving overseas. Throwing barbs at China doesn't help international relations. There are plenty of Mainland Chinese who dislike America already. In fact, there are still Chinese (even Chinese in America) who resent the West for starting the Opium Wars.

    Some Americans need to brush up on their history. China is considered one of the greatest civilizations, up there with the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. The Chinese had gunpowder and printing presses long before any European civilization. Their society was culturally and technologically ahead of Europe for hundreds of years. Due to complicated economic reasons (which I won't discuss since I have no expertise) and cultural isolation, China fell behind between the 16th and 19th century. Then World War II, civil war, and the cultural revolution happened. The country has only had roughly 50 years to catch up.

    More seriously, are Asian-Americans trained to chase economic success at the cost of ignoring creative pursuits? Anecdotally, I think this has some truth to it. Part of it has to due with the fact that most Asian-Americans are only a few generations removed from immigrants. Consequently, their families are extremely risk-averse and push their children to obtain safe, white-collar jobs like doctor and engineer. Professor and classical musician are extremely difficult careers and don't pay that well, but they seem exempt. Chinese culture has always revered scholarship and music as great art forms. A "robot" can't possibly be a great scholar or musician. It is a shame that many Asian parents are resistant to their children trying other types of art.

  4. My response to Chinese and Chinese-American readers who don't like the WSJ excerpt is that over the course of the book, Chua realizes her methods are too extreme and pulls back. Regardless of what other people think, the most important thing is that she admitted her mistakes and admitted them directly to her children when they are still young and able to truly appreciate it (her daughters were 13 and 16 when Chua stopped being so strict).

    I find this act incredibly courageous.

    Most parents don't want to tell their children they were wrong. The idea of a Chinese parent doing so seems as likely as an emperor bowing to his subjects. I thought the way in which Chua pushed her daughter to become a concert violinist was extreme, misguided, and sometimes disturbing, but in the end, I could forgive these actions because she admitted her mistakes. There's still plenty of time for the children to enjoy some freedom and grow as individuals. 

  5. I'm still a bit shocked that Prof. Chua wrote such a brutally honest account of Chinese parenting. Not all Chinese parents follow the strict, traditional model, but it is very un-Chinese to publicly air our parenting methods in Western society. I hope the book encourages insightful discussions about East vs West, informs people about Asian culture, and raises the profile of the Chinese in America. I hope people don't hate us.
What I find controversial: Chinese-Americans... aren't American?

I personally find most of the WSJ comments either meaningless or baseless in their accusations. Yet I personally find the book controversial in one way: Chinese-Americans are still outsiders and some even like it that way. Prof. Chua clearly thinks she is culturally different than mainstream Americans. In the book, she constantly refers to herself as Chinese -- not Chinese-American. She tells her daughters they are "Chinese" and not like all those other American kids. This is a common sentiment among immigrant families. The parents want to keep their culture and children close to them. But constantly talking about "Chinese" versus "Western" ways makes Prof. Chua appear un-American. Her writing sounds like the sort of conversations Asian-American kids have at school when they facetiously compare how "tyrannical" their parents behave. Asian-Americans like myself will get the inside joke, but non-Asians will not find it funny.

I don't see anything wrong with upholding cultural traditions. America was founded on the principles of religious freedom, so I would think that cultural freedom should be included. Still, I don't believe Chinese-American parents should tell their children to be more "Chinese" and less like their "lazy American" friends. There are much better ways to teach discipline, and it is possible to instill traditions in children, while keeping them open to other cultures. First, calling American children "lazy" or "rebellious" is racist and encourages the kind of divisiveness that blocks political progress. Second, the truth is that any Chinese person who spends 20+ years in America will be culturally different from the Chinese who spent their entire lives in the PRC, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. We all have a bi-cultural identity and it would be foolish to deny our American part. Finally, children who are constantly berated to be more "Chinese" will grow up to become adults who feel like outsiders in their own country. Amy Chua likes it, but I don't think everyone does. Asians are still a tiny minority in America, unless you move to an Asian enclave like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, or Rockville.

There is a very good reason why Chinese-Americans are not well-integrated into American society. Because of risk-aversion, because of cultural boundaries, Chinese-Americans discouraged from entering fields like art, theatre, and most significantly, politics. African-Americans have the NAACP; the Jewish have great influence over Israeli relations despite their being a small minority. I have a distant cousin who is a journalist, but other than that, I don't personally know any Chinese-Americans who are in the public eye. Recently, I was asked to support a petition protesting the lack of Asian actors in the film "The Last Airbender," based on the successful animated series. This is our own doing. Asian-Americans are taught to be frugal. If they went to the movie theater in droves instead of borrowing DVDs from the library or downloading films from the internet, Hollywood would make films for Asians. A family friend, who is Chinese-American, told me that she has gone to countless talks by Asian-American authors and there are no Asians in the audience. The sad truth is that famous writers like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston are only able to achieve fame and success with the support of their Caucasian fan base. I attended Amy Chua's book signing for Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother last week, and I was one of 5 Asians in the audience.

This post is becoming rather lengthy, but I want to continue my examination of Chinese culture after using Amy Chua's book as a starting point. I will discuss the pros and cons of growing up with Chinese values.

What I like about Chinese culture

I'm one of those Asian kids whose parents were very strict but I ended up really liking Chinese values. In that sense, Prof. Chua and I have a lot in common. I would like to make a small clarification. The Koreans and Japanese share many values with the Chinese due to the influence of Confucianism. (I'm a little disappointed that Chua doesn't discuss Confucianism in her book. Non-Asians readers don't know much about Chinese history; knowing a little about Confucianism would help them understand where these "crazy" Chinese values come from.) Nowadays, I like to call myself a Confucianist, but for the sake of consistentency, I'll just stick with "Chinese culture" and "Chinese values."

So what do I like about being Chinese? The work ethic and the belief that perseverance trumps talent in Chinese culture is fantastic. I hope it is never lost.

I also like the idea of tight families and respecting one's elders. Contemporary global culture seems to be moving towards young people, probably because from a marketing perspective, they are demographically the best consumers. Age-discrimination in employment, the rise in cosmetic surgery, all lead me to conclude that life isn't worth living after 50. Okay, I exaggerated, but I feel that American society is extremely unkind to the old. Even in modern Asian societies (e.g. South Korea), family ties are loosening. The elderly used to live with their children and grandchildren. Now everyone disperses across the country or even the globe to advance their careers.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't move to New York to pursue their dreams of becoming a world-renowned artist, but the I don't think everyone should do that. There has to be someone to hold the family together in an age where there are fewer and fewer common social institutions. I don't consider day care or nursing homes to be real social institutions. American society should be more grateful for stay-at-home parents, instead of making them feel socially inferior. There should be more legal protections to help parents resume their careers if they choose to stay at home.

The emphasis on family and elders ties into a larger strength of Chinese culture: stability and continuity.

Beating Confucianism into kids is harsh sometimes, even to me, but the result is a society where people share the same philosophy and values. I am continually amazed at how Chinese people can immigrate to the far corners of the globe, succeed, and maintain their culture. There are Chinese all over Southeast Asia, South America, you name it. When I was in Paris, I met an Algerian immigrant. He asked me if I was Chinese and told me that he was extremely impressed by the Chinese people. They had come to Paris with nothing, and in just a few decades (?), they had carved out an entire section of Paris with their own bakeries and shops. I am proud to be part of the world's longest unbroken civilization (5000 years!!) Individuality is sometimes overhyped, particularly in America. I think most people yearn to be part of something greater than themselves.

Non-Asians can behave like Chinese parents -- be strict, emphasize family ties, stress the importance of education -- but it's not the same. In Chinese culture, these values are not local to a single family; they are woven into the fabric of society. Confucianism is a self-reinforcing philosophy. In Asian society, even if you don't believe in Confucianism, it affects your life, just like Americans who live in Southern church-going communities.

How Chinese/Chinese-American parenting can be improved

I would, however, like to point out some problems with Chinese parenting and culture in America, based partly on personal experience.

Chinese culture trains their people to be hardy in a way that is almost like surving in the woods. It works great for getting from having nothing to become a respectable member of society. But you have to be careful when applying the "survivalist" Chinese parenting technique in relatively affluent, democratic countries like America. Parents who deny their children choice are doing their family a huge disservice. America is a forgiving society; the risk of making a few mistakes is worth the benefit of becoming a whole, healthy individual.

Another problem with insisting on Chinese values in a Western society is that the values are completely out of context. I would take my children to visit China/Taiwan/Japan/Korea and have them study Confucianism so they could understand where their culture comes from; I don't want them to grow up thinking that Chinese values are simply "study, study, obey parents, study." My parents never took me to Asia until I was long graduated from college, and I regret that very much.

A glaring weakness of Chinese parenting is that it doesn't teach people how to be happy or how to deal with failure. Perhaps Western culture can provide some insight on how to deal with these issues.

To this day, I'm not very good at enjoying anything. I've been doing some photography, but sometimes I worry too much about getting becoming a better artist, rather than having fun. I tend to eat for nutritional value, not pleasure. When I go on vacations, I try to cram in as many sights as possible because every good Chinese tries to get their money's worth. The only relaxing thing I ever do is watch television. If I wanted to teach my children about happiness, I would have to rely on others.

The biggest obstacle in my life is failure. I don't mean small things like getting a B in a class; I mean failures that are so significant that your life stops. The old adage of "don't be so hard on yourself" doesn't work. I don't have all the answers, but my personal experience has taught me that you need unconditional support from close friends and family and that you should learn to embrace failure as a normal part of life. Those intrepid people who found startups have great self-confidence. They know that if they fail, they have the skills and discipline to try again. Do things way outside your comfort zone. If you are shy, join an improv class.

Chinese parents need to let their children know that failure, for the right reasons, is okay. Sometimes the reason is that the objective was risky or difficult. Sometimes the reason is unavoidable life circumstances out of one's control. Chinese culture can falsely give the impression that anything is achievable with discipline. Therefore one is personally responsible for failure.

I agree with people who say that a hybrid approach taking elements of "Chinese" and "Western" parenting is best. Either extreme is bad. Overly strict Chinese parenting creates adults who might suffer from low self-esteem, become unhappy perfectionists, and/or hate their parents. Extremely permissive parenting is equivalent to not caring at all.

As a scientist, I prefer structure. If I were to combine Chinese and Western approaches, it makes sense for me to start from the Chinese end and moderate it. Personally, I think it's easier to be strict earlier and permissive later.

One point is clear: Western culture can definitely teach Chinese parents the importance of developing a good relationship with their children based on openness and mutual respect.

Children must respect their parents, but at the same time, parents must respect their children.

This is especially true when they are older. Children should not be abused as status symbols or financial investments. One of the worst aspects of Chinese (Japanese/Korean) culture is this obsession with rankings and "losing face." If a kid is admitted to both Harvard and Yale, all the Chinese elders will tell him/her to go to Harvard because it's ranked higher. And that kid's parents will brag about the child to everyone in their social circle, but never tell the kid to his/her face that they are proud of him/her. When I was named a Westinghouse semi-finalist for excellent science research in high school, I was interviewed by the local Chinese newspaper. The reporter actually asked me if my parents were going to buy me a car to reward me for my accomplishment.

On the flip side, if a child develops depression and has to take time off in college, the parent is embarrassed to talk about the child with other parents. If a child goes to a second-tier university, other Chinese parents will think the child is stupid and lazy. Even worse, a child gets "bad" grades in school, is ashamed to tell the parents, and commits suicide. Of course, I am giving the worst case examples, but these kinds of events happen far more regularly in Asian than Western societies.

The situation is made worse by a cultural preference for suppressing feelings. Asians frequently don't discuss uncomfortable feelings because they are supposed to promote a "harmonious" society and because they are forbidden from questioning their elders.

Chinese and Chinese-American parents, I implore you to hug your children for no reason, to tell them you love them for being your child not because they became a surgeon, to criticize less and listen more, to be sympathetic. Be relentless, in the same way Amy Chua pushed her daughters to practice piano and violin.

If I could only utter one criticism of Chinese culture, it would be:

The Chinese people should never lose sight of the fact that success is not everything.

If so-called Chinese culture produces selfish, ambitious jerks, I want no part of it. We want to raise children to become adults who are both high-achieving and good people. In the end, this is what good parenting, whether Chinese or Western, is all about.


  1. This is very thoughtful, thanks for posting.

  2. You are much more thoughtful and mature than the author of the controversial book. I don't know if you have children of your own yet, but I bet you will be a much better mother then the author of that book. So as an Asian American mother myself, I think the author and the book set back the effort of us struggling to being a better parent. She should have also learned the balance between "Chinese" and "Western" is the best way, especially she has a white husband. So for her to cling to her "Chinese" upbring is only a disguise for her controlling personality. It makes not much sense to me for her to struggle so much with her daughters who are not pure Chinese to end up with the inevitable clash. She is not humbled but thwarted. She reluctantly gave in because her daughter grow up and have more mental power to defy her demand. In the book, I don't sense her showing remorse of what she has done, instead being poignant of her defeat.

  3. What a great read. I agree with the points you've raised. As a Malaysian Chinese Mom bringing up my two girls in Australia, it's sometimes challenging to strike a balance between the "Chinese" and "Western" ways. I also believe that it's important for children to grow respecting their elders. I did read Amy Chua's book and felt the WSJ did not do her justice by only quoting from the 1st chapter. Guess that was the most controversial section.