Notes of a Native Tiger Son, Part 1

More thoughts on Amy Chua's controversial book—and reflections on the Asian-American experience

Niranjan Shrestha / AP
This post was written by Oliver Wang, who was guest-blogging for Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Don't worry. This isn't a post about Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother ... not exactly. For one thing, Julianne Hing thoughtfully explored that ground last week and I have no interest in revisiting the arguments of the book.

For another, like most of you, I'm completely over debating the parental philosophies espoused in Chua's book and at this point, but more interested in exploring the overwhelming reception that's followed it.

Before I get there, let me lead with this:

It's a weird time to be Asian-American.1

Up until recently, we've had to contend with being a relatively invisible part of American mass media and popular culture. One could argue that there's a demographic logic to that—we're a fairly small minority—but the problem is that what "visibility" we did attain, was almost never on our terms.2 As a result, throughout my childhood—and most of my adulthood—we mostly contended with a slim parade of different, sometimes contradictory, caricatures: lotus blossoms and dragon ladies, math nerds and martial artists, refugees and gang-bangers. Ad nauseum.

The most pervasive—and arguably pernicious—of these stereotypes was the Model Minority Myth. Forgive the brief history lesson here but it's relevant to where I'm trying to go:

The MMM basically suggests that Asian Americans are the ideal, assimilation-focused, education-geared, upwardly mobile, ethnic group. There is a historical basis for this gross over-generalization: the Immigration Act of 1965, partially responding to the pressures of the Cold War/Space Race, didn't just abolish racial quotas, it also created preference categories for science, math and engineering-trained immigrants to come over. That included my parents—especially my father, then pursuing graduate work in mathematics and statistics—as well as tens of thousands of other well-educated immigrants from places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, the Philippines and India ... countries which were producing a surplus of college-educated adults but lacked a sufficiently developed domestic economy to adequately absorb them.3 The 1965 Immigration Act, in trying to bolster America's own domestic needs, inadvertently helped absorb that surplus.

Not only did this massive wave of post-1965 immigrants change the demographic composition of Asian America, it also influenced the American perception that Asians were somehow naturally gifted in math and science because there was a disproportionate number of immigrants coming from Asia with those skills. What was lost was the knowledge of the specific social/legislative/political forces that gave science-minded immigrants a fast lane to a green card. If, instead, the U.S. had built in preference categories for dancers and sculptors, I'd wager the long-standing American stereotype of Asians might be that we're all good on our feet and with our hands.

The Myth worsened when it reverberated back into parts of our community. Since being good in math and science proved a boon to our parents, they, in turn, figured it'd be good for their kids. Combine that with a middle class immigrant's aspirational drive and those are some of the forces that resulted in what seemed like a generation of Asian "whiz kids" popping up by the 1980s.

You could call it a case of a "self-fulfilling stereotype" except that it hardly applied to Asians across the board. "Model Minority Asians" always were a narrow band in a larger spectrum and the contrast could be quite stark: different Asian American ethnic groups are among both the most likely to go to college and the least likely, for example. Moreover, those expectations have exacted a heavy toll on my generation, including high rates of suicide, particular amongst college-aged women.

Ok ... so this all provides some context for what it's been like to be young (under 40) and Asian-American over the course of the '90s and 20-aughts. For those of us disinterested in fulfilling the MMM's precepts, it meant trying to fight off the perception of both society-at-large and often times, our own families, that our predestined path was to be over-educated, over-achieving robots. And lo and behold, over the course of the '00s, you began to see the striking emergence of Asian Americans into pop culture who've begun to reshape "who we are" and "who we can be."

I don't know how to write this without making it sound like I'm spreading things a bit thick but seriously, it's been a big frickin' deal to see such changes as the Asian American casting for network hits like Lost , Glee or Hawaii 5-04, the breakout musical success of Bruno Mars or Far East Movement, our domination of [Asian] America's Best Dance Crew or how we're running the YouTube game. Heck, we might even get our very own Jersey Shore.5

It's not like we've attained some kind of equality or have fully taken the reins of our representations but I imagine the media world that my daughter will grow up in vs. my own experience and the potential differences are staggering.

And then, last week, came Amy %()#@! Chua.6

For second-generation, American-born/raised folks like myself, author Lac Su totally nailed it: we first felt a collective wave of PTSD—Parental Trauma Stress Disorder—sweep over us as we recognized slivers from our childhood reflected in parts of Chua's now-infamous WSJ excerpt. I won't regale you with stories of my own tiger mother issues but suffice to say, shards of Chua's proscriptions hit home closer than I'd care to admit.

What further pours salt in the wounds is that the intense interest in Chua-gate is like a massive fall backwards in the attempt to shed the legacy of the MMM. It'd be one thing if it was someone from our parents' cohort at the author's helm but Chua's "one of us"—a 2nd gen-er. Instead of pushing back against the MMM as so many of us have tried, her excerpt went beyond embracing the Myth and seemed to proselytize on its behalf.7

My initial thought was, "everyone else must see through this bullshit, right?" except the book is now topping out on Amazon and I can't assume all those angry commenters on endless blogs and news sites are rushing out to buy something they hate. God knows the pathetic depths of the hyper-anxious, aspirational American parent are these days (and if God didn't know, that's what the New York Times is apparently for); it's sickening to consider that maybe the book is attracting readers who think some of her suggestions are, in fact, good. It's like we're back in 1987 again.8

But check it … I'm now 1,000 words into this screed and I haven't even gotten to my main point for writing this post to begin with. What's above was meant to be the "lead in." Oops.

Let me do this: I think I've thrown enough stuff out there for one day. I'll take a pause here and then come back tomorrow to tackle the main reason I even opened this can o' worms.

  1. Well, more than usual.
  2. This notion—"media visibility but without control of the means of production"—is perhaps most starkly seen and understood within the African American community.
  3. The one obvious exception was Japan, which was enjoying tremendous economic growth at home and not surprisingly, the rate of immigration of Japanese to the U.S. post-1965 was behind that of other Asians.
  4. How Hawaii 5-0 gets renewed but Terriers doesn't will annoy me for years to come.
  5. Any of my people who claim they're scared of the upcoming K-Town show are probably also eagerly anticipating this trainwreck. It's a sign we've "made it" though it's not clear where exactly "it" is.
  6. That's right, she's Asian America's Bucky Dent.
  7. I say "seemingly" because Chua is now insisting the excerpt was a variation on being "quoted out of context"; it's not supposed to be a fabrication but it is assembled in such a way to present her perspective in the harshest light possible. As a friend
  8. What we'd need is for, say, Jeremy Lin to come out of the D-league, take the Warriors to their first championship since 1975, then write a memoir that gets into Oprah's book club, is made into a hit biopic starring John Cho and Angelina Jolie, who then leave their respective spouses for one another and become branded by US Weekly as Cholie. This might undo some of the damage of Chua-gate.