Are Chinese Mothers Superior?

Last week saw the rise of a new contender for most reviled woman in America. A Chinese-American Yale professor, author, and mom proved once again that Americans have little patience with self-confident, achievement-oriented mothers, especially those that express themselves with authenticity, humor, and conviction.

Amy Chua proved also that multiculturalism and diversity were never intended to help us set the bar higher, but only to validate underachievers.

For decades now, we’ve stood by in denial as affirmative action programs have dumbed down our university/college system and work environments. We’ve been vaguely aware that the drive to include more blacks and Hispanics has been at the sacrifice of better-qualified Asians (see "Do colleges redline Asian-Americans?").

Most of us have worked alongside, gone to school with, or lived next door to Asians. We know their grades, SAT scores, and need to succeed are typically higher. There truly is something about Asians -- as an adoptive mother of a Taiwanese son, I see it every day.

Consider the spine-tingling 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and the incredible self-discipline required of each individual to produce such unity and precision. This is incomprehensible to Americans, whose religious devotion to individualism -- and the modern Have It Your Way mentality -- is producing signs of strain on our social fabric, transforming our universities into places where many undisciplined girls and boys party hearty on their parents’ dime.

These were not my first reflections on reading Chua’s now-infamous piece -- at least the piece presented/misrepresented in the Wall Street Journal. Book sales aside, the Journal certainly did the author no favors when they wove together segments from her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to present a skewed and provocative essay with Chua’s byline and the Journal’s heavy-handed title: "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."

Unlike many of those in the nearly 7000 comments to date, I was not threatened or deeply disturbed by Chua’s well-written and humorous narrative. First of all, much of it rang true. As a San Francisco Montessori teacher, my class was 50% Asian. And for seven years our family was neighbors with a wonderful Chinese family in Marin. So I’ve seen strict and bossy up close and personal. I’ve seen the drills, the Kumon classes, the piano practice, the push for perfection.

It might not have been my style of parenting, but I felt comfortable living alongside it. In fact, I felt like my kids would probably be a little better off if a little of that Chinese mother stuff would rub off on me.

I never felt the need to judge or condemn my dear friend (and her mother-in-law) because their tone of voice was harsher than mine. Isn’t that what multiculturalism and diversity are all about?

In the immediate aftermath of the Journal's piece -- as every mother with a keyboard registered her alarm -- my first thought was that this was yet another media-created MommyWar. After all, as a blogger who happens to be a mom, I’ve seen several of those in the past six years.

But when the backlash and tone grew worse, beyond any MommyWar to date -- to vicious personal attacks, mockery, and even death threats -- I knew that there was more afoot.

You see, someone can write a book or make a movie about a girl named Precious and we don’t attack the indigent, neglectful, and monstrously selfish mother because we accept she just can’t do any better. Since she makes a normal mother look like Mother Teresa, she actually is useful. She poses no threat.

But a mother determined to produce exceptional children with a skill level developed only with discipline -- why, how dare she share how she encourages her children to meet their potential? What an outrage that she chose a path different than we American moms!

Lost in all the noise was Chua’s quiet assertion that though her parents were strict and harsh -- and yes, her dad once called her garbage and she once reflexively called her daughter that -- she never doubted her parents’ love for her. And obviously she is pleased enough with her own outcome to follow in their steps. This is actually a culturally appropriate thing for her to do.

Alas for Chua, the American mantra of multiculturalism and diversity must not extend to Asians -- particularly as we find ourselves in the midst of almost incomprehensible global changes, with a president seemingly determined to hand over the reins of world leadership and finance to China.

This is all by way of saying that, with 290,00 Google results for amy+chua+chinese+mothers, there’s surely a lot more going on in the American psyche than meets the eye. And note, since Chua’s 18-year-old daughter published a defense of her mother on January 17th, she too has been mocked and ridiculed.

As in the case of Palin Hatin', only fear can evoke this kind of response. And that fear may be well warranted. Tom Wilkinson commented at the WSJ:

This is a wake up call. The Chinese are eating our lunch by ignoring the feel good fake social science that US/Western academics have been manufacturing for years. For years we sloughed off the superior performance of the Chinese by saying that they were stifling creativity and later in life they burn out, fail to achieve because they only know how to work [...].

Tough love and hard work works. Get over it. Our thinking only works in Walt Disney animated movies. The Chinese are preparing themselves to win in the real world -- where there is another Chinese kid around every corner trying to outwork you. But I am sure Yale would prefer a more creative and flexible person on staff to teach their kids -- oops, maybe not.

For Chua, the misogynistic backlash is, I believe, mixed with subconscious but growing fear that maybe our relaxed parenting standards, academic expectations, and work protocols have placed us in a position where we may well have not only become inferior, but are stupidly and stubbornly determined to celebrate our inferiority.

Whatever you do, don’t make us have to rethink our positions and parenting/education styles. You see, the real secret of what sets Amy Chua apart is something every parent knows deep inside: it’s easier to be nice, and much more difficult to be a demanding but loving parent. Chua’s high sense of purpose and her own self-discipline in pushing her kids towards a brighter future show a kind of love lost several decades ago when parents decided it was more fun to be cool.