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
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.
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