If the Wall Street Journal hadn’t titled its January 8 interview with Amy Chua “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” the Yale professor’s book (“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“) might have never hit a nerve.
But such a Murdochian headline was bound to get attention — pricklish, divisive, and heated attention. That supercilious claim of cultural superiority came at a time when war-weary superpower America was battered from economic implosion. It didn’t help that China owned $1.154 trillion of our debt (incidentally, that number has dropped since January). Compared to other developed countries, the U.S. scored below average in international standardized tests. (Shanghai kids took the tests for the first time in 2010 and stomped into global first place in science, reading, and math.) Then there was the broader tiger theme that would develop in 2011, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Anyone can be a tiger mom
Chua unveiled the militant expectations of filial piety as interpreted by Asian Americans. She said that the Chinese mother was just one trope that could be substituted with the Irish blue-collar dad, the Polish mother, or Stephen Colbert. Still, playing the race card had an effect: Thousands of comments poured in from Wall Street Journal readers — not necessarily readers of Chua’s book — who praised and condemned the audacity, the stereotyping, the humor, the obsessive-compulsiveness. Reaction was also divided in the Asian diaspora, from PTSD flashbacks to bristling resistance to yet another dragon lady stereotype.
The publicity launched a thousand memes. But all good books jump-start thoughtful, impassioned discussions. “The Help” — the book and the movie — inspired similar reactions about race, parenting, and domestic servitude in the American household. The tiger mom was a flash point that led us to talk openly about “our fears about losing ground to China” (Time magazine), and how American kids could be tough if parents let them be (per Atlantic magazine’s “How the Culture of Self-Esteem Is Ruining Our Kids“).
As one NPR book critic put it, “Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t.” A London Telegraph columnist went further: “Amy Chua’s philosophy of child-rearing may be harsh … but ask yourself this: Is it really more cruel than the laissez-faire indifference and babysitting-by-TV which too often passes for parenting these days?”
Immigrant experiences, universal issues
Chua outlines the many times her mothering instinct has been wrong: Her book’s long subtitle ends with “How I Was Humbled By a Thirteen-Year-Old.” Notwithstanding her Jewish husband, Chua selectively retained what she considered to be Chinese parenting traits. However, a model scholar in China is one who masters calligraphy, poetry, song, painting, perhaps even martial arts — potentially frivolous pursuits in Chua’s Americanized eyes.
Chua’s book turned out to be about the American immigrant experience — looking from the outside in. As Chua wrote about growing up, “[My family] started off as outsiders together, and we discovered America together, becoming Americans in the process.”
China is grappling with similar questions about what success means for its “little emperors.” A “wolf dad” in China, who says that wielding a feather duster got his three kids into Peking University, garnered public outrage in November and a condemnation from the Ministry of Education about how “absolute obedience” leads to “slavishness.” By comparison, Chua looked like a pussycat.
The kids are all right
For all the uproar, though, Chua’s kids seem fine (a Facebook executive calls them “phenomenal“). Her eldest daughter started a blog to defend her mother. Not that Chua needed it; she made Time’s Most Influential list and charmed crowds at book appearances. But maybe instead of evoking the founding fathers, she could have avoided all the fuss — and still retained meme leadership — by partnering up with “$h*! My Dad Says.”
The Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running, Vera H-C Chan dissects news events, pop-culture idiosyncrasies, and online behavior to probe the “why” behind what’s hot online. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.