[Most of the AA Blogosphere has been angry and incensed at Amy Chua’s article about Chinese-style parenting. I got hold of someone with a different take on the whole debate. Printed with permission; read it below, and feel free to comment. –B]
Initially I was incensed at the audacity of Professor Chua’s article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and what seemed to be the proposition: exercise totalitarianism over your children if you want them to become high-achieving good Samaritans; use negative reinforcement as the primary instrument in aforesaid method of parenting. Because that in a nutshell was my childhood and adolescence, an aspect of my past that brings up less than idyllic memories, and reminds me of the parental governance I viciously defied. In fact, Chua’s article brought up stories of trauma I don’t even remember.
My mother and I were talking the other day about Chua’s article, which my mother describes as “brave.” She further describes Chua’s demeanor during all the interviews she’s been doing these past few days as “full of grace.” Then she asked me if I remembered that time in Kindergarten when my father forced me to play 6 straight hours of piano on a Saturday and after 2 hours, I rebelled and fought back, and my father lost his temper and went to hit me in the arm but I struggled, he missed and instead hit me square across the face, leaving a huge welt. She said I started bawling, he stumbled backward in fright, and then upped and left the house and didn’t come back until evening. He avoided me for days thereafter.
In school the next week I was asked to draw a picture, perhaps by the school child psychologist, and I drew myself holding a sword on a unicorn with a sharp, giant horn. The psychologist asked me why all the sharp points and I allegedly responded, “To protect me, so no one can ever hurt me.” Needless to say, a phone call was placed to my home.
I have zero recollection of this. None. Zippo. I can’t even attempt to picture any piece of the story. Nada. I don’t remember a welt on my face, I don’t remember talking to a child psychologist, I certainly don’t remember drawing anything of that sort, and I don’t remember how big and dramatic of an incident it was. Mother claims, “Oh, it was huge! I was so scared! You know how those Americans are. I was afraid they’d drag your father to jail! It was terrible. One of the scariest times in my whole life.” She said. Wow. That major? And I can’t remember one iota of it?
However, I do remember that my father had always been neurotically strict about my music lessons, about everything, so Mom’s story is plausible. Back then my father and I constantly fought, because he thought every day of my childhood should be like a day at West Point. My room had to be cleaned a certain way. I had to eat at the dinner table a certain way. I had to speak a certain way, sit a certain way, dress a certain way. I even had to write my personal diary a certain way. (He once read my journal and marked up the margins to point out the flaws in critical reasoning splayed all over the pages.)
In many of the responses to Chua’s article, people who lived through that same totalitarian “Chinese-style” upbringing have said that they remember being hit, being verbally assaulted, but not why. Interesting. Because I remember.
I remember how one simple, softly-spoken response from my father had shed light on the years of countless instances of indescribable insanity. My father had said, “I sit with you every night while you do homework and I watch you solve the problems and I listen to the type of questions you ask me when I give lessons. I know better than anybody what you are capable of, and you are capable of more. That is the only reason ‘B’ is not good enough.”
See, he never intended to assault my self-esteem when he yelled things like “How could you be so stupid as to get a B in AP Calculus, I don’t care you’re only 12!?” And I believe other totalitarian parents felt the same way about their children, but perhaps those words were never expressed. Asian kids jokingly use the example “If I won the Nobel, my parents would shake their heads and say ‘Not good enough.’” That’s because their parents, like my father, had trouble communicating what they were really thinking: The Nobel Prize is not good enough for my son/daughter; he/she deserves even better. How can you not be touched by that intensity of faith?
In later years when my younger siblings were born, and when my parents had been better assimilated into this country, my father forebeared from corporal punishment. He continued to be strict and demanding though… or at least he did until one of my sisters attempted suicide in junior high by popping a bottle of pills.
She was rushed to the ER, had her stomach pumped. That same evening, I overheard my parents arguing while my sister was staying overnight at the hospital. My mother yelled at my father, “I’d rather have a stupid daughter than a dead one.” Although I cannot remember the welt-on-face-unicorn-child-psychologist incident, this one with my sister I remember crystal clearly. That time I remember speaking with a psychologist, who asked me leading questions (which infuriated me because even at that young age I could see right through her) to find out whether my parents were abusing us, and I had stood up for my father even though inside I was still angry at him for being a totalitarian.
As testament to my father’s profound love, he changed. He let the suicidal sister socialize, hang out late with friends, go to slumber parties, and get Cs on her report card. When she got a C in Physics, he’d ask calmly, “Well did you try your best?” She’d say, “Yeah, of course I did.” And he’d say, “As long as you tried your best.”
What I want to say to that is counterintuitive to Western attitudes. I want to say that Chua is right and my father was wrong for changing. That sister under-achieved. By leaps and bounds. And then where I and my other siblings excelled in both academics and extracurriculars, this sister’s self-confidence drained, and she ultimately turned to drugs, alcohol, and partying until the falling out between my father and her, and of all the siblings, she is the most emotionally distant from our parents. My parents gave her everything she ever wanted; they spoiled her rotten; they put her happiness as the #1 priority. And this emotional distance and her utter underachievement was the outcome. Meanwhile I have acquired a deep respect for my father’s intellect, and will call him up for advice on my cases at work (I am a corporate lawyer, and this is where you roll your eyes and think to yourself “of course you are”) and will have robust debates over politics, political theory, and philosophy with him.
After my parents, in my view, gave up on the suicidal sister (this is a terrible choice of reference, I know), as the eldest in the family, I had continued to be strict on her. While my parents thought the best goal for her was happiness, I expected more, mostly because I already knew by then that when your only goal is happiness, happiness cannot be attained. I wanted her to have ambitions. I didn’t care what those ambitions were, poetry, modern dance, flying to the moon, but I expected her to have at least one and then to follow through with it. Her problem was two-fold, problems that will resonate with our perceptions of America’s Generation Y: (1) she had no idea what she wanted out of life, and (2) even when she casually decided on a direction, she lacked execution.
At one point my sister wanted to go to design school and become a graphic designer. I did copious amounts of research on schools, matched it with her credentials, started pushing her to prepare her portfolio, helped her get her works on microfiche (this was back in the day when art school apps required you to submit portfolios on microfiche slides), and printed out the applications, organized them in manila file folders clearly labeled, and put them on her desk. In the end she said the work was overwhelming, too much for her, and in any case she doesn’t want to be a designer anymore.
Then she wanted to become a nurse. We went full-throttle for that too and I learned more about the nursing profession than I ever wanted to know because of the research I did. In the end, she didn’t want to pursue that either because “it sounded like way too much work.” She never even got past the “declaring a major” step.
There are at least 5 other vocations she wanted to pursue, each one of which I took seriously and did everything I could to support. Finally she settled on waitress. In a few years’ time, she moved up to bartender. Bartender at a very, very posh restaurant, I will have you know.
My mother, if one can believe it, once berated me for my approach toward my sister. She told me I was too pushy. “Why do you expect her to be like you?” she asked. “She is her own person and you need to let her blossom as her own person.”
My response to her regarding my sister is the same rationale Chua gave about why she pushed her daughters so hard and what my father had said to me: I love my sister deeply, unconditionally, and I know better than anybody what she is capable of.
Maybe my mother would rather have a stupid daughter than a dead one, but she doesn’t have a stupid daughter. My sister is incredibly intelligent, quick-witted, and charming. She lights up a room. She flourishes under the spotlight. She’s funny. Stand-up-comedian-level funny. You need to be way above-average in intelligence to be funny. And she is a phenomenal bartender. With the kind of natural, untaught charisma she possesses, that you cannot even learn if you wanted to, she could do great things. And all I have ever tried to do was to get her to do something great. Why would anyone vilify me for that? Why should people vilify Chua for wanting the same?
One time my sister said to me, “I’m thinking about law school. Do you think I can do it?” Yes, I said, with absolute conviction. But my mother said to her, “You don’t want to be a lawyer. Just focus on being the prettiest bartender you can possibly be.”
At bottom, perhaps the culprit for the Chua controversy is a gap in communication. Her direct, deadpan style of writing, severe honesty, and the tone she took is what incited readers. (Along with what later emerged: The manipulating of the publication in the hands of editors and a Western, Sinophobic press.)
I mean, I could see how if my father wrote a book on parenting, it might not go over so well:
Chapter 5: How to Teach Your Daughter Tennis.
Step 1: Yank her out of bed at 5 AM and make her do drills until she collapses.
Step 2: Do not let her collapse. Instead, set up tennis ball machine and shoot 300 balls at her at 100 miles per hour so she can practice returning.
Step 3: When all 300 tennis balls have been exhausted, give her a basket and make her pick every one of them up by herself, and time it: she must pick up all 300 balls with basket in 15 minutes. For every minute after 15, start taking balls out of the basket and make her pick those up too. This is good exercise and helps train stamina, which is a very important element to competitive sports. Also teaches important lesson on consequences.
Step 4: Once all the balls have been collected, make her practice the first serve 300 times in a row. No need to practice second serve because when you are through with training, she will never need to use a second serve.
Step 5: Identify her weak point. Oh my, it’s her backhand. Okay. No worries. Make her practice backhand returns 900 times until she really, really collapses. Do not let her collapse. Instead, yank her back up and tell her to practice 900 more backhand returns. As both of you will soon learn, the backhand return will become her power shot. Weak point becomes undefeatable strength.
Step 6: Repeat steps 1 through 5 until she tells you she hates you, hates tennis, and never wants to pick up a racquet again.
Can you imagine THAT being a how-to book on parenting? And yet… there it is. My father, my hero. It is true, I hate tennis now. When I step onto a court, I go through PTSD. But when I venture onto the court notwithstanding, because my husband is intrigued about learning tennis and I had once told him I “used to play a little” and he wants me to play with him, I settle into my old performance habits quickly and the proof of parenting from a tiger becomes undeniable.
My husband says, “How can a little girl like you play tennis like a big ass dude?” The velocity at which I can strike a ball takes him aback. He is shocked at how I can catch a fastball with my bare hand (I learned to do this once when my father got mad and started serving fastballs at me and the only way to not get hit and bruised up by the balls was to catch them…with my left hand; I’m right-handed), and the precision of my every movement. He is even more shocked at how after a few hours, he wants to keel over and collapse, but I’m hopping about, ready for the next set.
“Don’t you have asthma?” he asks.
“I do,” I say back, “but my father taught me how to get over it.”
“How the hell does one simply ‘get over’ asthma?” the husband wants to know.
Beyond that, the lessons learned from my father’s parenting (and tennis coaching) are tenacity and ferocity. These are the two most important traits I picked up from him, traits I would fall to my knees in gratitude for. The people in this world can be harsh. Life can be harsh. Yet I have persevered through every obstacle, through every offensive act ever attempted to be perpetrated on me by others because my father taught me tenacity and ferocity. Today I am a woman who is more than the apparent sum of her parts because of my father’s teachings.
Likewise, in spite of all the negativity and hostility hurled at Professor Chua, she weathers all of it with grace, as my mother noted, and the controversy won’t hit deeper than her skin because she possesses tenacity and ferocity, traits that can best be nurtured through my father’s style of parenting.
What’s more, in my heart of hearts I know that if only I had listened to my father more, I would have gone even farther, accomplished a hundred-fold what I accomplished today. I wasted my teenage years rebelling against him and pursuing a so-called elusive ever-changing speculation of happiness, and didn’t concentrate on my academics and extracurriculars as much as I should have.
Chua, I say, is right.
(pic from here)
Edit 1/21/10: Ask a Korean also supports Tiger Parenting. See his excellent blog post here.