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Chua on This: Busting the “Tiger Mother”’s Model-Minority Stereotype

Chua and her daughters

We're all familiar with "Tiger Mother" Amy Chua by now, yes? If not, a quick recap: On January 8, the Wall Street Journal published a book excerpt so inflammatory it sparked thousands of comments within hours. The piece, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," was excerpted from Chua's brand-new memoir, Battle Hynm of the Tiger Mother. In it, Chua mocked "Western parenting" as being too soft and held up "Chinese parenting" as the paragon of success.

How does that parenting go, exactly? Well, according to Chua, in shaping two superhumanly successful daughters (now 15 and 18), it was important to not allow sleepovers, school plays, TV or free will in choosing extracurriculars. She recalls rejecting her childrens' homemade birthday-card offerings, demanding better ones. (Sadly enough, in a recent open letter to her mother, published in the New York Post, Chua's elder daughter agrees that the ones they made were second-rate and quickly made). The most horrifying part of the excerpt is the scene in which Chua describes using force and threats similar to military brainwashing on her younger daughter Lulu, when, at age 7, she had trouble perfecting a certain piano piece.

"I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years," Chua recalls. She denied Lulu water and use of the bathroom for hours ("right through dinner into the night"). She also issued the following threat to older daughter Sophia: "If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!"

Perhaps it's not surprising that, as we learn, six years later Lulu freaks out in a restaurant, smashing glasses and screaming, "I hate my life! I hate you!" at her mother. Also not surprising: In the weeks since Chua's article excerpt appeared, some Asian-American bloggers have come out to say that they are in therapy in part as a result of their own experience of such parenting techniques.

Parents of many different ethnicities, of course, are strict with their children, and as many people have pointed out, Chua's attitude toward childrearing has as much—if not more—to do with class as it does with race and culture. And, as Chua has been pointing out everywhere from the Today show to the Colbert Report in a kind of Tiger Mother goodwill mission over the past two weeks, the WSJ excerpt elides much of the point of the book—namely, that Lulu's eventual rebellion caused Chua to reevaluate her parenting style. And indeed, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother may become a bestseller, but the excerpt (arguably the most sensational part of the book), and the controversy around it, will be what people likely remember.

The problem with both Chua's article and the publicity that it's netting her is that it perpetuates a model-minority stereotype that does actual young Asian women no favors. She may be a Yale law professor, but Chua seems unaware that, according the Department of Health and Human Services, Asian-American women ages 15 to 24 have an extremely high suicide rate compared to other ethnicities. Model minority striving also masks school harassment and bullying, eating disorders, mental illness (especially depression), potential college admissions discrimination, prescription drug abuse, and intercommunity and intracommunity racism.

Furthermore, the model-minority stereotype downplays the need for Asian-American government assistance. Many government offices, for instance, do not offer welfare materials or translators for Asian languages—according to a Wisconsin study of Hmong people seeking welfare, 90 percent couldn't read the materials they got, and 70 percent couldn't communicate with their caseworker.

And, of course, it pigeonholes Asian-Americans into certain roles and careers.

Chua may claim success with her daughters, but they are, after all, still teenagers. It's too early to say how they will evolve. Sure, they may remain on the track their mother denied them stuffed animals and slumber parties to build, but they may also become binge-drinking, motorcycle-riding, coke-sniffing college bad girls who eventually major in Buddhist philosophy with a minor in existentialism, grow dreadlocks, and move to a shack in Montana to homestead with their lesbian lovers.

Would she still be happy for them? Or would she only see how their lives reflect on her own parenting? In a much worse scenario that I would never wish upon anyone, children under high pressure could become super high-achieving CEOs who mask their problems of prescription pill addictions and depression, like this commenter's high-achieving sister.

Chua could be using her sudden, broad pulpit to expose the model-minority stereotype and its limitations, particularly for young Asian-American women. Instead, she's put up an unrealistic, at times even cruel, paradigm of childrearing. Amid the media circus, many—including Chua herself—have argued that she wrote a memoir, not a parenting guide. But both Chua and her publishers are savvy enough to know that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother would be viewed as a parenting guide—especially given that she writes that she can tell others how to raise a prodigy,

It's disappointing that Chua is now one of the most well-known Asian parents in popular culture. But perhaps the shock waves that have been the result of her book excerpt do have positive resonance, in that they've resulted in crucial examinations of our community, causing many to come forth and discuss in online forums.

All I have to say is, I can't wait until my child brings home a B. I'm going to pat her on the back and ask her to tell me about more important things, like the beautiful poetry she wrote that didn't make it into the literary journal, the science experiment where the plant died but it taught her about photosynthesis, standing up to the bully at school, and the lemonade stand that made only 3 bucks, but brought her into conversation with her neighbors and made her a friend—with whom I will allow her to have sleepovers.

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Thank you

I love this level-headed, honest response. Bravo!

I agree with the gist of this

I agree with the gist of this article, but I'd like to note two things.

First, as the article itself basically notes, the Asian-American stereotype is true and thus, by definition, not actually a stereotype. (A stereotype is an inaccurate judgment based on lack of evidence

, although social scientists have warped this definition a little.) If you use "stereotype" to denote all generalizations about groups, then you end up with a situation where further research ends up showing that a majority of stereotypes are accurate. See "The Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes" by Lee Jussim, et al

Second, the article states that model-minority striving masks school harassment and bullying, ... and potential college admissions discrimination. Are you suggesting that Asian-Americans should achieve less to combat these two problems?

Just a nitpicky thing

A stereotype doesn't necessarily have to be inaccurate to be a stereotype. Stereotypes are simplified conceptions of other people based on commonly held assumptions. It has more to do with categorizing ingroups and outgroups than any concept of accuracy.

The point, essentially, is that not all Asian Americans or African Americans or white people are the same within their groups. There really isn't such a thing as an "accurate stereotype," because people are just not that simple. Stereotyping occurs because humans have a strong desire to solidify our own group, and so we simplify outgroup members in order to define our own group as against the other.

Anyone remember Drop Dead

Anyone remember Drop Dead Fred where the mother was so domineering on her grown daughter that the daughter was infantilized and needed her imaginary friend to rebel against the "megabitch" mother? That photo above is creepy as all get out and reminds me of that funny, yet disturbing film about a mother's hold on a daughter.

Wow, the photo just reads as smug and pretty sad.

I want to frame the last

I want to frame the last paragraph.

so glad to read this post

thank you for putting the discussion in its larger context. and thank you for linking to my blog post about being in therapy because of my chinese immigrant parents! there's so much material for all of us to explore here -- opportunities for healing, growth and creating greater awareness of the issues.

great article!

At the very least Amy Chau's piece started up an interesting conversation about strictness and the boundaries of it, and what exactly does it take to push our children to reach their potential? At what cost?

This is a great response to

This is a great response to what is obviously such a radically dangerous parenting technique.

'lesbian lover'

you make this statement as if her daughter's becoming lesbians would be 'falling off track' and equate it with binge drinking and i personally take offence to this!

Dear Anonymous, I did not

Dear Anonymous,

I did not write the lesbian comment. It was an editorial insertion. My original copy reads as this:

"Chua may claim success with her daughters, but the oldest is 18. Too early to say yet whether they will party like wild freshman year, date bad boys, buy motorcycles, then ... become ascetics, major in Buddhist philosophy with a minor in existentialism, and become dreadlocked green anarchist activists who move to a shack in Montana, I joked to my friend."

I did not notice in my review of the copy when I approved it that that insertion regarding lesbians had been made. I did not intend for such a comparison, but even in regard to "dreadlocked green anarchist activists," I am not saying that that is bad, but that Amy Chua would probably consider it unacceptable, and not within her conventional vision of success. I was imagining her idea of unsuccessful, not mine.

Best,
Dakota Kim

Lesbian Says: No hard feelings

No hard feelings Dakota, I know what you mean ; )