I'm not trying to excuse the book's own rhetoric for contributing to the furor but I do think it's worth pointing out how neatly it lands into a social/cultural space—especially amongst mid/highbrow publications—in which mothers have become frequent and easy targets for self-righteousness. When the aforementioned perception of smugness is added into the mix...woohah.
But wait, there's more. If we're going to bring class and gender into it, we can't leave out race. After all, part of how Chua couched her book was a battle between "Chinese vs. Western" parenting philosophies, and that means pretty much set the stakes out early, more or less suggesting that Western parents are butter-soft and so are their kids. Which brings us to...
3) Fear the Chinese/Be the Chinese During the run up to last fall's midterm elections (don't those feel like years ago now?), some of you might have seen this make the meme circuit: the evil Chinese professor ad. Overbaked and plainly xenophobic as it was, it still served as a good distillation for some of America's anxiety towards China.
Our nation has always had a variety of bogeymen to haunt its nation psyche. There's, of course, African-Americans; reminder of this nation's original sin and ever-convenient scapegoat for social ills. There's Latinos, the latest immigrants to get treated as "invading, non-assimilating hordes" (Irish, don't sweat it, we like you now). Post-9/11, Muslims and people from the Middle East (not the same thing but it's not clear how many Americans realize this) have become a two-fer phantom: scary for both their religious and racial difference.9
How China figures in is especially complicated because, for one, they used to occupy the same space as Latinos, back in the 19th century, resulting in Chinese-specific exclusion laws. But by WWII, we needed China as an ally...until 1949, upon which the Yellow Peril and Red Scare mixed.10 Even if relations have thawed post-1970s, China still seems unique insofar as it always represented the threat of race-based difference but levels up substantially as a nuclear-equipped nation-state, global economic competitor and mass spectacle pwners.
For all this—or maybe because of it—China also invites a high degree of fascination.11 Maybe it's the ancientness of their civilization, maybe it's the potential of their explosive economy, maybe it's the dim sum (or the orange chicken).12 Whatever the case, "Chinese culture" (an ill-defined notion to be sure) has its fair share of adherents in the U.S. For example, as NPR just reported yesterday, a growing number of American kids are taking Jin's advice to "Learn Chinese."13
Given this, I've had to begrudging admit that part of why Chua's book has been so successful is because people are genuinely open to the idea that...maybe she's right. Maybe they think she's mastered a better way to raise kids than being a neurotic helicopter parent. No parent likes to think someone else is doing a better job than they are...yet we're often worried about such a reality. In that light, Chua's book stirs a pot of anxiety not only around a rising China but also a recession-dented U.S. that coincides with the belief that American kids are losing their edge.14
Plus, throw in the fact that Chua isn't just Chinese15, but she's also young-ish, attractive-ish, affluent, and an Ivy League law professor. Any one of those things can tap into any number of fascinations/resentments people have: with/against the young and successful, with/against "East Coast elites," with/against Asians, etc. Chua just assembles them into a single, seemingly unrelenting package (like the Michelle Rhee of parenting).
I'm having trouble properly forming this but I think Chua invites envy and resentment simultaneously in such a way that wouldn't have happened if she were a 65-year-old grandmother or a seamstress. Or Swedish.16 And as I'm delicately dancing towards, I do feel like there's a distinctly racial component to the backlash, just not one that overtly raises its head. It's more that Battle Hymn taps into a conflicted tension between looking down on the Chinese for their racial/cultural differences, yet envying/fearing their "success." The need to obsess about her book is a way to expel the discomfort over what her book represents. Or perhaps, better said, what we project onto it.17
Notes moved here.