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Mama Mee-a

January 16th, 2011 - 1:50 pm

How much of the fascination of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a really a mutation of the earlier idea of the Dragon Lady?

After all, what happens if the beautiful, bead-curtain parting, lacquered-fingernail femme falls in love with and marries Paul? Does she go back with him to American suburbia to shop at Trader Joe’s. No, of course not and Paul would be rather disappointed if she did. Rather she becomes transformed into her married counterpart: the iron-willed, clenched-tooth and inhumanly overachieving Tiger Mother.

Maybe our deepest fears of Chinese economic world dominance running high are rooted in the fear that these creatures, who according to Boston Globe cannot not resist yelling to their kids “if the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!’’ are going to take over the everything and slash prices in half to boot.

Amy Chua started a huge online controversy by claiming that Chinese mothering produced more successful children then the slacker Western mode of upbringing, which presumably filled out the ranks of Dancing with the Stars. All of it relies of course, on what we imagine Chinese women — hence Tiger Mothers — to be like.  The common idea is that they don’t do Oprah or Geraldo. In fact, they don’t do any trivia at all. Their lives are all about gain, gain and gain. The character Ling Woo in Ally McBeal was one of television’s ideas of the Chinese woman. She is calculating, ruthless, irremediably alien and altogether too successful using methods which coldly exploit the willing fatuousness of her largely male, largely credulous legal audience.

In one episode, as she delivers her closing arguments to a jury, she says “There’s a very old expression in China,” and then begins to speak in Chinese. In the subtitles we see her saying, “It really doesn’t matter what I say here, because none of you speak Chinese. But you can see from my sad face I’m sympathetic. You hear from my tone it’s appropriate to feel sorry for me. As I drop to a faint whisper (which she does), you’ll feel the sorrow yourself. I’m going to finish now, pretend to cry”, which she does as she walks off.

I have to confess that I really wanted to meet a woman like that, if only to marry her out of curiosity. But alas, real Chinese women are different. On closer inspection they exhibit disturbing weaknesses, like all humanity, which suggests they cannot be completely alien. Examples of these foibles are a common obsession with shopping, knick-knacks like Iphone protectors, and attraction for exotic pets and eccentricities whose provenance no one can fully understand. One Chinese woman I know who was working for the UN mission in Kosovo deployed to the then war-torn area with two suitcases full of toilet paper out a concern that there would be none available. She wrote to us expressing surprise that her room-mate, a Canadian woman, would bring two suitcases full of canned goods. What the Canadian was saying to her friends about her Chinese room mate God only knows. But strangeness is probably a matter of perspective.

Some Chinese women I’ve spoken to have expressed disappointment in the decline of civic virtue and the work ethic in the West. They say,  “the reason I drove my children to go to Harvard (or MIT or Caltech or Stanford) was because I thought these places were excellent. Why don’t they give them more homework?” If the Dragon Lady is partially the result of the Western Man’s fantasy, the West was also for many Asians,  the product of their own projection. Each sought the idealized other; each wanted to go somewhere free of the imperfections they found around them. The Asian woman’s indecipherable mutterings provided as fertile a ground for projection as the distant, ivy-covered campuses of New England.

Maybe the best course of action for each is to let the other pretend. It’s simpler that way.

In the end I think both the Asian and Western ends of this misunderstanding are going to discover that they are alike human beings. Strange as it may seem to believers in the Dragon Lady, there are some bumbling, loopy Chinese women out there who spend whole mornings looking for a better brand of frozen lasagna for their kids. And who knows? There may actually be some non-Chinese mothers out there yelling “if the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!’’. And they’re not necessarily Korean.


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