At issue | Various commentaries about controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has sparked much controversy since The Wall Street Journal first published a polarizing excerpt.
A memoir of raising two daughters the "Chinese way," it has created a media storm and has even been linked to American fears of the rise of China.
Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, argues that her brand of Chinese parenting — a relentless regimen that demands the best — has much we can learn from.
As a Chinese American, I have some things in common with Chua. My parents were immigrants from Hong Kong, and my siblings and I grew up in suburban California, did well in school, played the piano and violin, speak foreign languages, and are still in the process of collecting degrees from Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
But despite this shared identity in the Chinese diaspora, I have experiences Chua does not: I have been a professional educator in both China and America, and history is my vocation. Understanding history, I suggest, might help us see how our perceptions of what Chua terms the "Chinese way" are actually historically constructed.
Let's start with Chinese culture. While Chua speaks with authority on "Chinese mothers," these mothers in her story are immigrants of Chinese extraction who have an imagined idea of what Chinese culture is. Any student of immigration history will tell you that the diaspora often idealizes its culture, diminishing diversity and complexity in favor of a rigid cultural stereotype that they can cling to when they feel embattled by the American host culture.
It is true that in China, parents are often quite demanding and learning is respected. But where does this come from?
Some of the emphasis on education in China is cultural, but much of it is also historically driven. The traditional route to success was through education; passing civil-service examinations in imperial times was the way to better the position of one's family.
Today, education remains a scarce resource; and in a society where one's grasp on the future is so difficult to ascertain, of course one would invest in education.
History would also help us understand the high expectations of Chua's "Chinese mothers." The first thing is that they are immigrants, expecting hard work and sacrifice from themselves and their children. While Chua admits that anyone can be a "Chinese mother," she doesn't acknowledge that this work ethic can also be an immigrant one.
The second is that Chua's parents and mine came to the United States during a time when America was bringing in students from overseas to study science and technology. So the Chinese-Americans born of that generation were not culturally predisposed to be academic overachievers; they were the sons and daughters of highly motivated scientists.
There are serious problems with attributing Chua's brand of parenting to "Chinese parenting." This is not to deny that culture has significant influence on human relationships or expectations for one's children. But it is dangerous to reduce everything to culture. The main failing of Chua's memoir is that it makes claims about the "Chinese way" that are gross misstatements, and these stereotypes loom so large that we miss what the memoir is about — a mother and her two children.
The second problem is that its humor falls flat, and this is related to the cultural stereotyping. It's hard to find something funny when you've just been offended. Chua's relationship with her dogs is a case in point. She means to be funny, to show how her own neuroses as a parent have overflowed into her training her family's two dogs. She researches the intelligence of the breed, she compares the two, and she worries that they are not accomplished enough.
This is Chua's attempt at humor, to laugh at herself and to invite the reader to laugh with her. But she has alienated her readers by stereotyping them, and she can never invite us into her reflections as a parent because she has stereotyped herself.
The themes that Chua speaks to could have wider resonance: She is a mother who wants the best for her children, she worries that her daughters will not appreciate their privileges, and she thinks about whether and how to pass on the cultural values of her parents.
But her cultural stereotypes make people bristle, and we are seldom allowed to see her vulnerability or self-doubt. How much richer Chua's memoir could have been if it was just about a mother who loved her daughters, and who happened to be Chinese-American.