'Modern Family' Weighs in on the Asian Mother Debate



It's as if the Modern Family producers were in cahoots with the Wall Street Journal, knowing full well that they'd print Amy Chua's "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" this week (which Julianne Hing responded to beautifully on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog on Monday). Like Chua, this week's episode weighs in on the Western vs. Asian parenting debate, questioning (and stereotyping) these cultural parenting styles.

The episode begins with Dunphy misfit middle child Alex being her nerd self, studying hard for an upcoming exam, hoping to best her rival, Sanjay Patel. While Alex studies, Claire and Phil react to her habits—worrying that she's studying too much, or perhaps being too hard on herself—falling right into Chua's "Western" stereotype. As Chua explains, Western parents care more about their kids' self-esteem than Asian parents, who care about performance:

Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital... Chinese parents aren't.

Alex receives the second highest score on her test, beat only by her Asian nemesis, Sanjay, and as Chua predicts, Claire and Phil swoop in to coddle Alex's self-esteem, praising their daughter, reassuring her less-than-perfect performance. While we do not see the Patel family's reaction to Sanjay's superior score, Alex reinforces our expectations (and stereotypes) of the Patel family, as she justifies her score to her parents saying, "Sanjay's dad's a surgeon and his mom's a professor. I'll just have to do the best I can with what I was given."

In other words, Sanjay has stereotypical intellectual Indian parents, and is therefore the stereotypical high performing Indian son. Alex, on the other hand, can only get so far with her mediocre mom and dad. And even if the Patels aren't what we expect, Alex's comment causes Claire and Phil to develop an inferiority complex about the Intellectual Indian power parents.

To make matters worse, on their way to see "what would happen if the greatest scientists on earth got together to mate nature's two most violent predators?"—aka Croctopus 3-D—Claire and Phil bump into the Patels at the theatre. They're on the way to see a critically acclaimed French film. (More stereotypes!)

In an effort to be more like the Patels, the Dunphys ditch Croctopus for the more cerebral offering. Phil leaves. Claire falls asleep. And we're almost ready to accept Chua's thesis and acknowledge Patel (and Asian) superiority. But then we see the other side of the argument. Unlike the Western Dunphys, the Asian Mr. Patel lacks some street smarts—he can't hole punch his ticket. Claire helps Mr. Patel with the simple task, and bam, the Americans are back in the game.

Ultimately, Modern Family doesn't quite make a judgment call on the Western parenting debate, never declaring one set of parents better than the other. Instead they say: be yourself. The Patels are Indian intellectuals; they have a kid genius for a son. The Dunphys are regular old Americans; they have a kid genius for a daughter.

The episode ends with the Dunphy's accepting their ordinary existence. And as they walk into and then out a door, we're led to believe that this is what's best for the Dunphy family. If only all families could come to the same conclusion.

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Rebecca Greenfield is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was formerly on staff at The Atlantic Wire.

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