Dissecting Amy Chua’s Assumption about Chinese Motherhood
by yifan zhang
See, Amy, I can use hyperboles too! For those who don’t know, Professor Amy Chua wrote a book which prompted an inflammatory article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal. Yes I heard, those were just excerpts of the most controversial quotes from her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Even though I may question the accuracy of the “excerpt,” it was one scary window into the mind of a scary person.
Her book describes the narrative of her own personal absurdist/sadistic mothering techniques. Her caring, motherly behavior obviously stems from a “foundation of love and compassion.” I mean if she doesn’t make you play violin and piano for six hours a day, then she really does not love you. Of course, threatening to burn stuffed animals, name-calling, and not letting your kids in partake in a phenomenon called “fun” doesn’t cause depression; it builds character. *bs*. From strict parenting, she implies that parents can have total, conscious control over the futures of their children.
Even more disturbing is how this article spread like wildfire across the internet! The New York Times, the Atlantic, Times Magazine, and every bloody Chinese American with a blog from Lena Chen to Vienna Teng commented on the topic . . . and so will hardboiled. Most of mainstream media has focused on how Amy Chua is some sort of cure to docile, “Western” parenting. The “Mommy Wars,” they decried. The Mommy Wars doesn’t describe the totality of the discourse. We must always remain vigilant about what those articles are actually implying.
Mainstream commentaries on Amy Chua parallel the classic depictions of Yellow Peril. Time Magazine cites standardized tests scores and economic growth in China in the same cover article as Amy Chua’s parenting to describe the impeding takeover by the Chinese overlords. There is a difference between a Chinese American and Chinese national; one salutes the stars and stripes while the other salutes the hammer and sickle. Why can’t people get this right?! “Are we the losers [Amy Chua] is talking about?” commented Time Magazine. Who the hell is “we?” Can I join? To continue the implicit fear-mongering, Time quoted former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. He commented, as a response to a postponed Philadelphia Eagles game: “The Chinese are kicking our butts in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium. They would have walked, and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.” I called my cousins in China: they can’t do calculus. If you wanted a proper sports riot, go to England, not China. So to Ed Rendell: fu/du.
However, Amy Chua and mainstream commentary both steam from the assumption that parenting techniques influence a child’s future, or at least parenting techniques correlates with offspring success. Although in the end Amy Chua “moderated” her parenting, she still maintains the assumption that she can have control over her children’s future. To the shock of all parents, there is no correlation between parenting techniques and a child’s academic success. There is no “optimum” parenting technique for Amy Chua or any other overbearing parent to obtain.
According to Freakonomics by Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner, parental behavior is negligible. Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Levitt concluded that parental behaviors such as spanking a child, moving to a new neighborhood, limiting television use, or even reading to a child has no effect on standardized test scores. Thus, the quest for the best parenting technique is analogous to the search for El Dorado and unicorns. It may be true parents cannot be too lax. Yet according to Levitt’s research, most modifications in parental behavior have minimal consequence on academics success. Obsessive parents a la Amy Chua are no better than their more moderate, “declawed” counterparts. Thus, the so-called “parenting techniques” preached by Amy Chua is inconclusive at best, heresy at worst. If she believes Asians value mathematics so much, why didn’t she analyze government data to obtain an optimal parenting strategy? I expect more from a Harvard educated economics major.
What does influence success for children then? According to Levitt and his research, socioeconomic status is more of an influence on academic success than anything a parent does. Moreover, parental education, English as a household language, and having books all influence a child’s success. Having books demonstrates both an emphasis on learning and purchasing power. Non-English speaking households are less well off socioeconomically, and thus their children are generally less successful in school. A child’s success “isn’t a matter of what you do as a parent; it’s who you are.” In short, indelible social class is the main determinant of intelligence and future success.
Time Magazine cites the school success in China and other East Asian countries is because of an intensively rigorous academic environment. They used the standardized testing scores from Shanghai to backup their arguments. However, that data must be
taken with a grain of salt. Urbane Shanghai students are not a fair representation of China’s population, as they are wealthier and more educated than their rural and migrant brethren. Remember, socioeconomic status correlates with high test scores. Round up a bunch of prep school kids from Philip Exeter, and I’ll bet these American students can rival the teens from
Shanghai. Additionally, China is known for “saving face” to the international community (watch the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony if you don’t believe me). The Chinese government often tries to portray the People’s Republic as modern
and developed as possible, no matter how biased this portrait might be. Who says the government did not specially select a group of high achieving students? Plus, the students were probably given a speech about how the honor of the Motherland depended on this international test. “Traditional” Chinese culture has nothing to do with selection bias.
The same concept of selection bias explains why Chinese American students are doing well academically. The bias stems from the Immigration Act of 1965 and its seven point preference system. One of these preferences was reserved for educated,
skilled professionals. Educated ethnic Chinese like Amy Chua’s parents (one of whom taught electrical engineering here at UC Berkeley) came into the country through this preference. These aren’t the “wretched refuse” but the sons and daughters of aristocracy. Because of their high socioeconomic status, education, wealth, and often an emphasis in technical fields, their children (like Amy Chua) entered the school system and succeeded academically. The success of this portion of the Chinese American community is not solely due to “Asian values” as Amy Chua would like us to believe but their relatively high
Most frightening, Amy Chua’s narrative illustrates that the Chinese American community has internalized the “model minority” stereotype. We think our “values” somehow gives us a competitive advantage academically and economically. The belief of these “values” gives many Chinese Americans the excuse to perpetuate often mentally scarring parenting techniques. Furthermore, our internalization of the stereotype perpetuates the “model minority” stereotype in the mainstream media. We let ourselves become the “Yellow Peril.” We dug our own graves. We drank the Kool-Aid; now we need to pump our stomachs.