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