The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow: In Defense of "Tiger Mother" Amy Chua

Okay, I made that last one up.  Amy Chua is NOT hiding under some bridge waiting to pounce upon the next innocent child who happens to walk by.  But good golly, if you catch any of the buzz and reactions about her this past week, you would think that she is the worst thing to happen to parenting since the old lady in Hansel and Gretel.

Now, if you have not heard about the recent hubbub surrounding the WSJ excerpt from Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, that means you have a life.  Or then you might have been like me, you are Asian American, you read the piece and thought . . . "Oh sister . . . you gonna get in troooooouble!" But then in the same movement, you made the next showing of "The Green Hornet" in order to see if that flick did any real harm to  the Asian American community.*  The excerpt was titled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior and it has resulted a good deal of media buzz and strong reactions from many.

If you are one of those folks who can't resist a good intellectual/sociological wrestling match, you have entered the fray and have heard a myriad of reactions to the excerpt.  Some have been appalled by what was written while others have felt deep connections to all or part of the story.  To tell you the truth, I have not done much reading about the topic and have really only chimed in when I have received a tweet asking me what I thought about it.  I have, however, followed some interesting conversations on twitter and facebook, heard people talking about it and this morning listened to the interview with Amy Chua on KQED's Forum.

So what the heck, let me stick my nose into the mess and see if I can add anything to the conversation.  But first, a few initial reactions:

  • Please do not be so naive as to think that this excerpt - especially the title - was anything more than a well planned and thought out PR strategy by the publisher and author.  It was meant to be provacative and draw interest about her book.  And, yep, . . .  it worked. Penguin Press PR department, well done.  Contrary to what she says, I can't imagine that she is surprised that the piece did create such strong reactions, though I suspect that it has happened to this extent is probably a shocker.  I think I'll start sub-titling my posts, "Why I am perfect and everything you do sucks."

  • Please read the book or at least listen to her interview on Forum to get a fuller understanding of the book and her life story.  She has "my story" disclaimers all over the place and I deeply appreciate the care with which she does this.  This was a memoir, not a scientific study or a "How to Parent Your Child Into Being Chinese" book. I have not read the book yet, but from what I gather, this is a story of one mother's transformation of her understandings and actions as a parent.

  • Even if you have not read the book or plan to, I think the issues that have been raised by the excerpt alone are worth the conversations that are being had.  Parental questions around expectations, achievement, excellence, happiness are all ones that society must confront as we try to raise our children to the best of our ability.  I hope this is a good nudge at continuing conversations about parenting.

Okay now to onto my biggest defense of Amy Chua and observation about the dust-up:

My reaction is all rolled into the question, 'Why has the reaction been so strong . . . and unsettling?"  I suspect that the unique nature of this type of book being written by an Asian American has huge implications.  I can't help but to notice the subtle and blatant issues of race that are coloring the conversations. Yes, there are obvious questions of race and culture involved by the nature of the book and subject, but how we react is where I think there are some unexamined assumptions. From her topic, tone and, from what I can tell, where she eventually lands in her understanding of parenting, Amy Chua has blasted away many of our commonly held beliefs about what it means to be Asian in the United States. 

_ Asians are not funny  - As she talks about in her interview and as I read the excerpt, I laughed to myself because of the nuanced understanding she has about Asian American culture as well as a very dry sense of humor.  Even before I heard the interview, I thought to myself, damn, she is totally making fun of herself and challenging some of the cultural values that CAN be harmful.  Whether she actually did these things or not - some were true and others hyperbole - she masters the survival/coping practice that many people who live in a "minority" world posses, the ability to "laugh to keep from crying."  Now she does give the benefit of the doubt that others may get this subtlety - and the excerpt does NOT help_ - but she is giving a view into one Asian American life that does resonate with much of the Asian American experience.

_ Asians are one-dimensional Model Minorities  - As she points out even in the excerpt, but more in the interview, she sees much of what she talks about in terms of parenting as an immigrant mindset and that there are a variety of parenting styles in both Asian and Western cultures.  Seems to me that this acknowledgement of a breadth of parenting perspectives is lost to most folks as there tends to be an acceptance of one style of being an Asian American in the US.  The Model Minority Myth is alive and well and our reaction is, on one hand it to romanticize the Asian American student, but on the other hand to vilify its perceived origin. Sure, there are a high number of Asian American students that do well in school - I for the record was not one of them. _- but to allow ourselves to paint these extreme strokes about communities, based on one memoir, to the point that our language and reactions to individuals is change is neither nuanced or helpful to truly deepening our understandings of one another.

Asian values are only Asian values.  Now I could write multiple posts about about Asian American culture, the good and the bad, but one of the things that I picked up from this excerpt were some of those broad Asian American cultural realities that can be helpful for others to know and, gasp, possibly integrate into their own culture as appropriate.  Her sharing about her understandings of commitment to family over the individual, having high expectations and how we expose our children to making choices are all valuable insights for the larger conversations about race, community and parenting in today's world.  As folks react, we should be careful not to engage in the whole "baby with the bathwater" mentality.  Again, I have not read the book yet, but I suspect that these get even more nuanced and fleshed out through the breadth of the book. 

Okay . . . so there are my seven cents worth of opinion on the matter.  In the end, I think we have been drawn into a firestorm that was set-up to do just that and well-meaning folks everywhere have expressed some deeply held beliefs and assumptions.  I hope that if folks are REALLY interested in the conversation they'll read the book, listen to the interview and/or challenge themselves to look at this whole thing with nuanced eyes.

So, I would love to hear what you think as always. 

* Yes, I do realize that Jay Chou is not from the United States, but I have been confronted with enough karate and accent jokes enough to know that most folks actually do not make that nuanced distinction.  And I didn't really rush out to see the movie . . . yet.

[Taken with permission from the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow's blog, originally posted 1/20/2011. Follow Bruce on Twitter @breyeschow]