Where is My Inner Chinese Mother?


I am not Asian enough with my children. This is not a new feeling for me. I felt this way long before Amy Chua and the WSJ decided to run her article, the one with the regrettably inflammatory headline about “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and just piss everybody off.  Nope, I felt not Asian enough long before that, but until I read her article I wasn’t really able to quantify why my parenting actions didn’t match up the standard of excellence that I thought I’d have.

When I embarked on my efforts to become with child, I completely expected that said child would be as carefully tended and enriched as any of the other children appeared to be around him. I would be paving the way, laying the genetic path for a new generation, who would go on to save the planet and reinvent world cuisine in a way that would make Ferran Adrià weep bitter tears.  Dreams of second language immersion classes, piano lessons, readings of poetry and the classics danced in my head. Then I had the actual kids.

There were piano lessons, which should have come with combat pay and they do indeed attend Japanese language school every Saturday morning but since those 3 and a half hours only the only exposure they get to the language I’ll be as shocked as anyone if they retain any of it (although I don’t necessarily believe their exposure to a second language is wasted and I absolutely haven’t given up on Spanish since we live in California).  We had Asian intentions, but they were married up to Western follow-through.

Like the rest of America, the WSJ excerpt from her book got the girlfriends and I talking. As a group, we tend to be less interested in fielding emotional responses than understanding what about the article produced the furor and what, if anything could be taken away from it all.  My girlfriends and I run the gamut of expectations and actual achievement among our children and we have a great acceptance of this. Parenting is about as personal an endeavor as there is, tailored so individually to suit each different family that right answers are very difficult to come by. Advice and collaboration trumps judgment in all ways when it comes to how we parent.

Our resident Chinese parenting expert, who just happens, conveniently, to be a Chinese parent herself and no slouch in the areas of high self-esteem, self-confidence and academic success, gave her opinion. “She’s a Chinese mother with no soul,” she explained amidst bringing up points about Confucianism and Legalist origins in Chinese parenting, issues of biracial identity and the different value system immigrant parents place on things

We have long noted that our Chinese friend comes to parenting her twin girls with very different expectations and attitudes than we do. This is the same girlfriend who once told me and another girlfriend to “channel our inner Chinese female”. We both shuffled uncomfortably, exchanged baffled glances and were forced to announce, “We don’t have one.”  And it was as true as can be. We don’t. But there are plenty of moments in parenting our kids that we both admit we wish we had one.

A very large part of the reason that I was interested and open to Ms. Chua’s very candid and intimate invitation into her home and parenting dynamics was that I has recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book “Outliers: the Story of Success”.  One chapter in particular discussed Asians and math.  Along with discussing certain cultural advantages he felt were inherent in the language and number systems, he chiefly identified an attitude and ethic stemming from, of all things, the agricultural history of rice farming in Asian societies.

The understanding of success being equated to effort is very different in Chinese culture…“throughout history…the people who grow rice have always worker harder than almost any other kind of farmer.” Rice production is more intensive and grueling and requiring of skill than the history of Western farming and this cultural legacy has meaning.

Most of, if not all of my friends, approach things like talent at math or science to be innate in some way. It is still requiring of effort to be successful, but Gladwell argues we fundamentally believe that you’re either born good at something or not.  The Chinese believe that such success and achievement has everything to do with how much effort you are willing to put into mastering a subject in a way that we excuse ourselves from because we want to see skill to begin with before we deem the effort worthwhile.  This might be where the chief difference lies.

Gladwell argues with clarity that cultural legacies matter deeply and I think that in our need to apply the whitewash of equality as rapidly and as liberally as possible, we loose sight of this.  I’m not saying that it should be emulated. Ms. Chua is an extreme example, and she knows it. But I can see in myself that very Western belief that talent is a matter of birth and that perhaps if I were more ready to put in some of the kind of efforts at the kitchen table over homework achievement that she does that we would see better results.

I am sure that there are plenty of Chinese children for whom this style of parenting is less than efficient, and I’m still a fan of trying your best to parent to the temperament of the child, but why discount such an extreme and extremely candid view of this other culture of parenting? What I’m saying is that there was so much more to Amy Chua’s story of her family and it’s foolish to let the trumped up title claiming “superiority” get in the way of a really interesting and important cultural exchange.

In the meantime, I will take her honesty and extremity as fuel into the furnace of my own parenting, I will continue to question why I feel stressed about asking my children to do even the most basic chores, and I’ll stress about being able to give them more effort than I do while my father’s voice continues to ring in my head when I look at report cards that are less than straight A’s “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.” I will worry, as I always have, that I am raising a house full of under-achieving little slack-asses, who will end up working for my Chinese girlfriends kids.

Perhaps that will be the new tagline for my blog from now on, “Raising Hopeless Slack-Asses Since 1999” Perhaps I will just think about challenging my ideas on what my children and I can achieve and try a little harder to do more.

More complete articles about Amy Chua’s book can be found at Slate here and PBS here and at Gawker here.

And a more measured rebuttal was rus in today’s WSJ

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2 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Madilyn

    Well done. But ditch diggers? Recently I’ve tied lessons to my kids (and yours) with a “complete picture”. Not working towards your full potential will mean you live a mediocre life. Your friends, your lifes mission, your adventures… all mediocre. Because you demand nothing more than you’re willing to give.
    This is what your life will look like and if you’re ok with it, then you still don’t see the complete picture.
    Every time they want to slack off, I pick up my box of crayons and start coloring the picture.

    January 17th, 2011

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