Thoughts From the Daughter of a Chinese Mother

A new book about parenting rings true for immigrant children—but also perpetuates some troubling stereotypes

by Julianne Hing

My Asian-American friends and I shared the Wall Street Journal's weekend excerpt from Amy Chua's from her parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, with a mixture of incredulity and survivor's pride. One friend jokingly said the article had triggered flashbacks of traumatic, long-blocked memories.

The piece has an unfortunate headline: "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." In it, Chua recounts her decision to raise her two daughters Sophia and Louisa the "Chinese way," and not give in to the inevitable "family decline" that befalls immigrant families. Here's how it usually goes: immigrant parents arrive in America and work tireless lives of sacrifice to open up every educational opportunity to their children, who repay their debt to their parents by becoming high-achieving attorneys and physicians and engineers. But the next generation of kids grow up spoiled by Western notions of self-actualization, and throw away generations of hard work to become idealistic artists, and organizers, and reporters. It's a familiar storyline for those acquainted with tired model minority stereotypes.

Chua's method included strict rules--no sleepovers, no television, only straight As, mandatory musical instruments--and a sick mixture of threats and taunts. Chua wrote:

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't. Once when I was young--maybe more than once--when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn't actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.

Extreme to say the least. Chua's tone is arrogant but filled just the same with bullseye observations, and I spent a long time trying to untangle the sincere from the deadpan. So much of the piece is an accurate reflection of a specific brand of hard-ass Asian parenting. But would other people be able to sense the gleeful embellishments in her piece, the way she seems to relish insulting and threatening her kids to get them to perform? And then I doubled back: was I being too charitable to read it as exaggeration?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Internet, one of my aunties sent the piece around to other women in my family last night. "Thought you might enjoy this," my auntie wrote to other mothers. "Were you raised by a Chinese mother ... or are you perhaps one yourself?"

My mother was horrified at the piece, called it embarrassing and terrible and outrageous, said that she resented the fact that Chua used the term "Chinese mother," even with the disclaimers at the opening that not all Chinese mothers deserve the title, and some non-Chinese mothers could be admitted to the club of harsh, ultra-strict parenting.

Like Chua, my parents sacrificed a great deal to raise me and my siblings--they make for great stories now that we're all adults. My mom would hand us math workbooks to occupy us during car rides the way other parents hand their kids Pop Tarts or carrot sticks. She, like Chua, packed our violins in the trunk of the minivan so we could practice even while we were on vacation and forbade sleepovers and weeknight television well into my high school years. I struggled mightily with math and science and my mother would wake me up at 6 am on weekends so we could go over math drills together for hours. Letting me fail was not an option to her, though I occasionally wished she would have. Thanks to her, I didn't.

All of this I recognize as love.

When I told my mom I might write about the piece here she started choosing her words very carefully, like an elected official issuing a public statement after having a mic thrust in their face. She was not just responding to Chua, she was speaking in defense of all sensible, rational, compassionate Chinese mothers.

She called Chua's description of filial devotion "twisted," but didn't totally disagree with her either. My mom and I agreed that Chua's plainly abusive treatment of her daughters was nothing to be proud of, but my mother in particular didn't want people thinking that such behavior came with the Chinese parenting package.

I don't know anyone who doesn't carry around one scar or another from childhood, who wasn't wounded in some way in the course of their upbringing. But I grew up around lot of other Chinese-American kids who were pushed to succeed and had parents that were various shades of Chua. Not every kid holds up to that kind of parental pressure. Asian-American females in particular are especially prone to depression and suicide; scientists have linked that in part to cultural pressures to succeed. And herein lies one of the most salient perils of buying into the model minority myth, a theory that posits that Asian-Americans owe their relative economic successes to cultural values prioritizing academic rigor, hard work, individual responsibility, and family cohesion. The stereotype has been foisted upon Asian-Americans and used to divide communities of color while obscuring the realities of the Asian-American experience. Some, like Chua, seem to have internalized it.

Chua might scoff at my wonderful parents' crumbling resolve. I was allowed to stop playing the violin and piano before high school, I had far from a 4.0 GPA and was still allowed to celebrate birthdays and Christmas. I was allowed to play in my middle school's jazz band and run on its track and field team, I've been allowed to pursue the career of my own choosing. My parents never had a problem praising us or offering encouragement when we failed. Chua might see these mercies as indulgences, I'm thankful my parents saw them as a matter of course.

You can be a Chinese mother without being Chua's brand of Chinese mother, my mother wanted me to know. Read it as one extreme woman's memoir, she seemed to say, not as a parenting manual. Except for the parts where Chua talks about how important it is for children to respect and honor their parents and take care of them. And the sections where she points out that rote repetition and dogged perseverance are your only sure ticket to success.