Notes of a Native Tiger Son, Part 2

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by Oliver Wang

As I began to describe yesterday, my first reaction to Chua-gate was quite personal and premised in a specifically Asian-American context. But after I tampered down my inner mommy issues, I started to notice: hey ... I get why I care about this...and why other Asian-Americans care...but why does everyone else seem to give a damn?

Seriously, it's been stunning to see how much coverage this book has gotten. When's the last time anyone can remember this much interest in a parenting memoir not written by a celebrity?1 It's not like Sarah Palin decided to pen Raising Real Americans: Lessons From a Mama Grizzly or anything.2

The intention of my first post, before I sidetracked myself, was to probe how Chua's book (and to be more precise, that WSJ "extract"3 has become such a flashpoint in mainstream media (not to mention #4 and rising on Amazon.com). What I'm trying to break down here isn't any single answer, but rather, I'd surmise what we have is heady potpourri of different forces.

Let's start with some of the obvious parts:

1) No one likes a smug parent.

Smugness is bad by its damn self4 but it grows infinitely worse when linked with parenting. For one, everyone already thinks they're an expert on parenting by virtue of either having parents and/or being one. However, parenting is also the locus of tremendous anxiety, especially within the American middle class, for whom the raising of children can be tied into a host of other neuroses around social status, self-image, etc.

Put all this together and you have a toxic cocktail of under-acknowledged insecurity masked by authoritative pretense. Which is to say, everyone has an opinion of parenting philosophy and usually, that opinion is to shit all over those philosophies that don't sync up with your own.

Give someone at the Wall St. Journal credit: coming up with a headline like "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" was genius since it's guaranteed to piss off everyone (except for Chinese mothers) with just five words.5

In any case, smugness in parents is truly unbearable because, implicit in that self-satisfaction is the unspoken accusation that, "if you're not like me, you must be a shitty parent and your child is going to grow up to a loser." Speaking from personal experience, there's been a few playground encounters with other parents where a sideways question such as, "Your daughter's not in music classes yet?" comes dripping with a kind of judgmental condescension that inspires retorts like, "It's so nice to see you instead of your nanny," or, "I'm sure your son will outgrow this awkward phase eventually."6

However, it's not just Chua's perceived smugness that seems to be at issue. There's also this:

2) The Mom Factor.

For my generation of Asian Americans, we frequently joke about our crazy moms. But we also joke about our crazy dads too. "Tiger parenting," for many of us, isn't specific to the gender of the parent.

However, I was imagining what if an Andrew Chua had written Battle Hymn of a Chinese Father and if anyone (outside of my peeps) would care and my gut says: hell no.

This is, I imagine, a rather obvious observation but amongst the American middle class, there is a lucrative cottage industry that feeds off of parental anxiety and it has focused much of its attention on the roles and responsibilities of mothers, in particular. They are the default bearer of all responsibility (read: blame) when it comes to how children are being raised and the cacophonous echo chamber of debates around parenting is really about moms. This is what's become known as the Mommy Wars, a term which takes on various meanings, not just wars between moms but also a general war on mothers themselves.7 The main result seems to be a constant escalation in vitriol (and page views) towards moms for doing anything that seems un-mom-like (which is to say, mostly things men get to do without judgment).

That is the volatile space in which Chua's book landed and as noted, the WSJ played this to perfection, hitting all the relevant pressure points to ensure a maximum amount of outrage. I don't think, for a moment, that other publications aren't simultaneously breathing in that same anti-mom catnip while sprinkling it around for their readers.8

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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