Amy Chua Has Hurt Our Feelings

Today we are officially out of the tumultuous Year of the Tiger and into the Year of the Rabbit.

Today we are officially out of the tumultuous Year of the Tiger and into the Year of the Rabbit. Funny then that the big news across the Internet before Egypt exploded was a simple little book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. If you haven’t been following the battle over “Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by Amy Chua (a Yale Law professor), she wrote a memoir about parenting—the Chinese way.

Chua’s book was first excerpted in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, under the title, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” You could hear the blinking from wide-eyed western mothers across the interwebs—it set off a firestorm. Not only did Chua’s memoir bring western parenting, and motherhood into question but also our own American Exeptionalism. Critics raged, slinging thinly guised Asian stereotypes across the media. Oh, if only everyone cared as much about at the suicide rates of Asian daughters as they do about LGBT kids. That is to say, they don’t care about either, really.

This topic brings up a lot of issues for us Asians (or part Asians). We didn’t have a civil rights movement, marching en mass on Washington. We don’t face the same kinds of discrimination that black folks have/do. We don’t scare anyone—no one crosses the street when they see a Chinaman approaching. We deal with discrimination with stoic resolve (i.e Japanese internment camps), and we quietly integrated ourselves into white society trying hard to blend in while succeeding… We are the silent minority.

So when one of us speaks up? Oh no you din’t.

Let me say, I was brought up by a Chinese/Korean mother who was definitely not a Tiger mom. (in fact she was born the year of the Rabbit). I grew up in Hawaii where I saw various generations and iterations of Asian parents and interracial parents, rearing their 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation American off-spring.

My mother was 2nd generation born American, and according to Chua (and I agree), that intense drive for success and integration gets largely watered down the more access and privilege each successive generation enjoys. My mother went to an Ivy League college and was one of two Asians in her graduating class. I went to art school and became a professional lesbian.

It was my mother’s grandmothers, the immigrants to Hawaii, who were the Tiger Matriarchs. My Chinese great grandmother, PoPo, used to make her son clean the newspaper before bringing it into the house! My Korean great grandmother, Halmoni, ruled her children with an iron rod. They resented her bitterly for it, but all of them became high achievers. Halmoni died at home under the care of her children, grandchildren and great-grand children. This is the loyalty and devotion in an Asian home, and that is how we roll.

One of Chua’s biggest critics, David Brooks, contends that tiger mothers are raising uncreative kids who do not know how to work in groups. Not sure were Brooks got his theory from, but my Korean grand uncle was an effective union organizer in Honolulu. My Korean grandfather ran a family business for several decades, employed all of his family at one point or anther as well as workers in both Hong Kong and Honolulu who stayed loyal to him for their entire lives (and the life of the business).

So lets get real here, the problem with Chua’s book has to do with our mounting insecurities over American un-exceptionalism. Obama not so subtly hinted at this during the SOTU iterating how Korean, and Chinese kids are out learning us, and how the Chinese now have the worlds fastest train and super computer. And, unfortunately for Brooks’ theory, its not just in the realm of technology and academics, its in the arts too.

If anyone has been visiting the international art fairs in the last five years, you are struck by the numbers of Chinese artists (and galleries) in the market place. I wrote about this at Art Basel Miami in 2007.

China’s re-emergence as an economic and artistic super power has been in the making for the last 35 years, when China emerged from the Cultural Revolution. This was a very dark period in modern China; Mao went nuts, the gang of four took control—it was a period cultural de-evolution.

There is a fantastic 1993 movie, Farewell My Concubine, that chronicles the Cultural Revolution, by the way, it also centers around a gay love affair between the central characters. The filmmaker, Chen Kaige, lived through the Cultural Revolution and was the first wave of artists emerging out of China’s artistic renaissance.

I’m not saying that contemporary China doesn’t have draconian laws against human rights, freedom of expression and speech, but its in spite of all that, the culture is thriving. Its easy to forgot China has 5,000 year history, imagine all those tiger mothers!

So our egos shouldn’t get into a snit when one little Chinese lady calls out western parents for raising a nation of entitled wimps, and that sleepovers are a lame way to socialize our children. What Americans so often overlook with our meager 240-year history is that we haven’t been around long enough to have cycled through the whole 64 hexagrams of the I-Ching. If Yin then Yang, if Yang then Yin. Get it?

Malcolm Gladwelll has an interesting segment in his book Outliers, in which he advances a theory as to why kids in Asia are excelling in the maths and sciences. They come from generations of rice growers (the staple grain of 70% of the world). Apparently rice, unlike potatoes or wheat, requires dawn to dusk year round back breaking labor. Basically, Galdwell’s bottom line about Asian kids is their excellence has to do with tenacity, not necessarily a superior brain.

I get why people got offended at Chua’s take on parenting, its unforgiving. And like I say I had a rabbit mother. Had I had a tiger mother I probably would have crumbled under the pressure or succeeded supremely. But the point is, if you take out the histrionics in Chua’s memoir, she is saying something important here about work ethic and education at a time America needs to wake up and smell the tear gas on a Cairo street.

Our world is going through a revolution, our points of reference are no longer valid, America is being over taken by Asian exceptionalism, and brown people don’t want to be bullied by us any more. Ironically, I heard a segment on NPR that climate change is leading us into a wheat shortage. Wheat, the staple food source of the western world! Looks like we may all have to learn how to tend the rice paddies whether we like it or not.