January 13, 2011

Are Chinese Mothers Superior To American Mothers?

chines mothers.jpg
oops... a simple oversight, I'm sure

"A lot of people," writes Professor Amy Chua of Yale, in the Wall Street Journal,

wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.  Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

It's hard to argue with success-- one of her daughters is pictured playing piano at Carnegie Hall-- and the kids seem at least ISO 400 happy.  So is making them practice 3 hours a day, etc, so terrible?

If you're trying to figure out if her method works or if it is harmful some other way, you're missing the real disease in her thinking.  She's not unique. the disease is powerful and prevalent, it is American, but a disease nonetheless.  (No, this time it's not narcissism.)

I'll explain what's wrong with her thinking by asking you one simple question, and when I ask it you will know the answer immediately.  Then, if you are a parent, in the very next instant  your mind will rebel against this answer, it will defend itself against it-- "well, no, it's not so simple--" but I want to you to ignore this counterattack and focus on how readily, reflexively, instinctively you knew the answer to my question.  Are you ready to test your soul?  Here's the question: what is the point of all this?  Making the kids play violin, of being an A student, all the discipline, all of this?  Why is she working her kids so hard?  You know the answer: college.

She is raising future college students.

Oh, I know that these things will make them better people in the long run, but silently agree that her singular purpose is to get the kids into college.  Afterwards she'll want other things for them, sure, but for 18 years she has exactly one goal for them: early decision.

Before you argue the merits of that goal, let's ask ourselves why that is the pivot point in America?  I don't know any parents who are desperate to raise better parents or better spouses or even better software engineers, we don't think like that.  The few times someone  thinks out of the box-- "I want my kid to be a basketball star" "I want my kid to be a Senator" the parent is identified as an unrealistic nut.  And while a stated goal might be to raise a future doctor, in truth that's really only an abstract promise-- the 18 year goal is explicitly college.  You don't teach your 6 year old to assess acute abdominal pain, do you?  Nowhere to put that on an application.  No, you teach him piano. 

I certainly am not saying forcing them to learn piano is bad, or bad for the kid, or that despite the disease that has infected you it won't benefit the child-- I'm not saying Chua isn't right in her techniques.  I am saying that what Chua is advocating is ultimately pointless because it is for a meaningless endeavor.  The piano isn't for itself, it's for the "right" college, and for 99% of America the precise college you went to is as irrelevant as the beer you used to lose your virginity.  Was it Bud Light or Stella Artois?  Same bank account.

I feel you resisting my thesis, but no moment in time, at that moment, seems as important as getting into college, both to the parents and the kids.  No one anymore celebrates getting a job even though that really represents your future lifestyle, limitations, experiences, everything.

You want your kid to go to a good college, of course I get it.  But that monomania for college has to occur at the expense of something else.  How much better/worse off are you that you went to your college and not your friend's college? In this hypothetical you don't play football.

And is that average class at an Ivy really better than the average class at a state school?  I've taught at both: no.  NB that in my example both the state students and the Ivy students had the same teacher-- me.  I know there are differences between schools, I'm not naive, but most of those are social/political/sexual and not educational.  An Ivy is "better" because its brand is better, like a car.  No I don't mean "hey, they all get you there" I mean that the engine of a Toyota and a Lexus is the same, the difference is the leather seats.  You want to pay for brand, go ahead; but the people in the know aren't fooled by your fancy car and windshield sticker and the people who aren't in the know can only praise or envy you, but they're in no position to help you attain your goals.

Don't think I've forgotten how important college is to a high school kid.  I remember that despite terrible grades I was, inexplicably, put on the wait list to the University of Chicago.  And all I could think was, "I'm going to be Phaedrus!"  I didn't give a damn about the education, I was hoping/believing that that college was going to define me, make me into someone I was not.  I should have been drafted into an infantry battalion just for that.


"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.

"You can't make me."

"Oh yes, I can."

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have [the piece] perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner... no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

Take a step outside the article.  This is a woman explaining why Chinese mothers are superior.  The thing is, I don't know any Chinese mothers who would ever talk about their families this way, publicly,  describe their parenting, brag about it.  Never.  And then you see it:  Amy Chua isn't a Chinese mother, she's an American mother.  She had a Chinese mother, but now she's a first generation American, which means she has more in common with Natalie Portman than she does with any recent Chinese immigrant.   As an American, she was raised by the same forces: MTV, Reagan, Clinton, John Hughes movies.  She may have reacted differently to those, but they were her experiences.

And what do Americans do? They brand themselves.  I have no idea if Amy Chua cares about Viking stoves or Lexus automobiles but clearly her brand is SuperSinoMom and her bling are her kids.  When Jay-Z wants to front he makes a video, and when Amy Chua represents she writes a WSJ article.  Because that's her demo, you feel me?

Which means this self-serving piece has nothing to do with "how Chinese mothers are superior" but is really a summary of her episode of MTV Cribs.  "Welcome to my home, yo, let me show you my gold toilet.  It's for peeing and flushing the coke down when the heat comes in the back way."


She meant this next passage to be self-congratulatory, let me know if she succeeded:

"You just don't believe in her [the daughter]," I accused.

"That's ridiculous," Jed said scornfully. "Of course I do."

"Sophia could play the piece when she was this age."

"But Lulu and Sophia are different people," Jed pointed out.

"Oh no, not this," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone is special in their special own way," I mimicked sarcastically. "Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."

Who talks like this?  This isn't a 3rd person account, it's her autobiography, these are her words, she chose these words, these are how she saw it all go down: "accused," "scornfully", "rolling my eyes," "sarcastically."  That's her impression of the world.  She's writing this about her husband

She can't resist getting in a few jabs at her husband.  I cringe when I hear a spouse criticising another spouse in public.  Lesson 1: you should never, ever, ever, demean your spouse in front of a commoner, and that's a much more powerful lesson to teach your kids than a decade and a half of Minuet in G.

minuet in g.png(sotto voce): my husband is a piece of crap my husband needs his face bitch slapped

And while we're on the subject of her husband, when I Google Earth this guy "Jed" what Chinese province is he going to be from?   Oh, Jed isn't Chinese, he's a Jewish American Yale law professor.  Now I can't tell if this woman is a racist or insane.  Its ommission can only be deliberate, right?   It's almost as if she is trying too hard to convince us not that she's a good mother or a successful woman but Chinese, that's the focus for her, so important is this that she needed to make it public-- which makes me want to bet ten million dollars that her children are being raised Jewish.   Is she publicly broadcasting that she's the Chinese mother stereotype to make up for the SinoSems she's created?

You/she'll say that the Chinese discipline is what makes the kids successful, but that's silly.  Given that her husband is a Jewish American equivalent to her Chinese Americanness, why isn't their daughters' successes the result of Jewish fathering?  Chua would say that she's the one who made her practice, but she's at work all day just like he is, right?  I get that she yells more, ok, mission accomplished, but as a technical matter she's not there all the time, the kids have to be self-motivated, and that self-motivation came not just from the mother, but from growing up in with those parents.  Unless she's arguing that the father is pretty much irrelevant?  Oh, that is what she's arguing.   Sigh.

What Chua believes has made her kids succeed isn't just that she makes them work hard, but that she is allowed to yell at them.

As an adult, I once did the same to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized.  One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.

Look, I totally get how sometimes a parent will threaten their kid with piranhas or downed electrical wires, but why on earth would you brag about it?  Seriously, think about this woman's mind.  Either she is totally oblivious to what people would find appalling, or else she actually thinks that she is going to convince an entire room of what I assume are also baby making professionals that what she is doing isn't crazy, but awesome.


Amy Chua wants us to believe she is a "Chinese mother," and my contention is she's not. I'm not saying she's a bad mother at all, only that what she thinks is and what she actually is aren't the same.

What defines a "Chinese mother"-- and any steretoypical immigrant parent situation-- is the  sacrifice.   "We sacrifice everything to give you better opportunity!!" they shriek at dinner.    Look up at her opening list: those are the sacrifices her kids make, but what sacrifices does she make?  Again, I don't mean she's a bad mother, but where is the sacrifice of her own personal happiness, clothing, hopes and dreams?  Note carefully that she may in fact be sacrificing, but in her essay she does not describe those as important (or at all) to the success.  What's important to her is the yelling and the discipline, which she believes is a Chinese technique.

The curse of the second generation, in which they do worse then their parents, isn't about lazy kids but self-absorbed parents.   When you immigrate to America to open a dry cleaning business you don't make it your identity-- it's all for the kids (and boy of boy do the parents never let you forget it.)  Then your kids grow up to become, oh, lawyers, and that does become their identity-- so when these lawyers have kids of their own the lawyering isn't all for their kids, a lot of it is still for the lawyers.  It's not a criticism, it's a comment on the 24 hour day: two lawyer parents aren't home as much as their wife of a dry cleaner mom was, so there's less time for the kids.  There's nothing you can do about that.

Except there is, and what Amy Chua isn't telling you, the real secret of her brand of "Chinese" (read: affluent American) mothering, is that there's likely a brigade of tutors running through the house.  Now it appears on screen that Chua can be both successful and devote all this time to calling her kids fatties, but behind the scenes she has help.  Hey, God bless anyone who can get it/afford it/convince your spouse it isn't because you want college girls around, but if you want to prove that something is associated with success, you have to control for the external variables.


You will observe that she is writing this nonsense not in a peer reviewed journal that could take her to task, e.g. McCall's, but in the WSJ.  Why would the WSJ want to support "the Chinese mother?"  Because if you're reading it, it's for you.
The WSJ doesn't care a lick about her, as evidenced by the fact that they actually published this embarrassment.  What the WSJ does care about is defining "good kids" in the same (but opposite) way The New Yorker wants to be the one to define it.  For the WSJ, good = will generate a positive ROI. 

Let's go back to her crazy list of why her parenting is better.   #9: violin or piano, no other instruments.  If Chua is so Chinese, and has full executive control over her kids, why does she-- and the real Chinese parents out there-- make their kids play violin, play Bach and not Chinese music?  They'd be happy to educate you on the beauty of Chinese music, I'm sure, but they don't make their kids learn that.  Why not?

She wants them learning this because the Western culture deems classical music as high culture, and therefore anyone who can play it is cultured.  Someone said Beethoven is great music so they learn that.  There is no sense of understanding, it is purely a technical accomplishment.  Why Beethoven and not Beethoven's contemporaries? The parents have no idea. Can her kids write new music?  Do they want to write music?  It's all mechanics.  This isn't a slander on Asian musicianship, it is an observation that the parents who push their kids into these instruments are doing it for its significance to other people (e.g. colleges) and not for itself.  Why not guitar?  Why not painting?  Because it doesn't impress admissions counselors.  What if the kid shows some interest in drama?  Well, then the kid can go live with his white friends and see how far he gets in life.

That's why it's in the WSJ.  The Journal has no place for, "How a Fender Strat Changed My Life."  It wants piano and violin, it wants Chua's college-resume worldview.  Sometimes it has no choice but to confront a Mark Zuckerberg but they quickly reframe the story into the corporate narrative.  "The Google boys were on to something, but to make it profitable they had to bring in Eric Schmidt..."  The WSJ is operating well within the establishment, right wing, artists-are-gay and corporations-are-not context.  It wants kids who will conform, who will plug into the machine (albeit at the higher levels), it wants the kind of kids who want the approval of the kinds of people who read the WSJ.

Amy Chua thinks she wrote an essay and published it.  Wrong.  The WSJ wanted this kind of an article and they chose one from the thousands available.  They chose hers-- a woman's-- because if this same article had been written by a man it would have been immediately revealed as an angry, abusive, patriarchal example of capitalism.

Which is where this comes full circle.  Amy Chua thinks she's raising her kids the Chinese way, but she is really raising them to be what the WSJ considers China to be: a pool of highly skilled labor that someone else will profit from. On second thought, that is the Chinese way.


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