The Wall Street Journal Explains “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”

by Latoya Peterson

Hardass Asian Parents have hit the mainstream – and they came with a healthy heap of stale stereotypes:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too.

That’s Amy Chua, writing for the Wall Street Journal‘s Life section. Her article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” garnered over 1000 comments – and countless discussions over the nature of the model minority stereotype.

Chua tries to broaden the umbrella early on in the piece:

I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

But it is passages like this that push Chua’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of cultural differences in parenting too far:

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.

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her “beautiful and incredibly competent.” She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

While I recoiled from some of Chua’s ends-justify-the-means tactics, some applauded her stance. More than a few of my 1.5 gen, black identified friends shared links, pointing to this passage in particular:

Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

And Terry Hong, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, paints a broader picture of Chua, using her forthcoming book to fill in the gaps left by her article:

“This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs,” the book’s cover declares. “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” [...]

With two gifted daughters, Chua is determined to reverse the predictable “family decline” she sees as a “remarkably common pattern among Chinese immigrants fortunate enough to come to the United States as graduate students or skilled workers over the last fifty years”: The immigrant first generation sacrifices all (never scrimping on strictness) for the children’s education and expected future success; the second generation will “typically be high-achieving” but less draconian with the children; the privileged third generation “will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” leading to disrespect and disobedience … and guaranteed generational decline.

“Well, not on my watch,” Chua decides.

But that’s the nicest of the responses -others start to take Chua to the woodshed.

Many of the commenters at the WSJ were horrified at both the premise of the article and the description of coercion Chua proudly positions as normal. One commenter snarkily said something along the lines of “Asia Carrera [the former adult film star] was playing Carnegie Hall at age 15 – look at how she turned out.”

Interestingly enough, Carrera does talk about her life and experiences – and mentions fleeing from a household similar to the one Chua describes. On her blog, she reveals:

OK, we all know I was an academically gifted little girl. What I don’t publicize, is that I was not an especially motivated one. I was an overachiever only through a)genetic luck, and b)incredible pressure from my parents. My parents wanted me to go to Harvard and be a doctor or a lawyer, and I wanted to play piano and hang out with friends.

Needless to say, my parents and I butted heads. My father was born in Japan, and my mother was born in Germany. They were from the “old school”, strong on discipline, and overachievers themselves, so they were in no way being hypocritical with their demands on me. (My dad went to Caltech on full academic scholarship for math and physics. He’s the biggest nerd I know)

I was grounded for every “B” I got, and beaten for getting anything lower than that. I was not allowed to socialize at all, or go to parties, because they said there’d be time for that after I got into a good college. Well, I did what any red-blooded American kid would do, I’d sneak out. And get caught. And get beaten. And get grounded again. Without launching into too much detail, let’s just say I was unhappy. (I tried to kill myself a lot) (Asian kids everywhere have e-mailed me to verify that this is standard practice in Asian households – what a relief to find out I’m normal, huh!)

Shortly before my seventeenth birthday, I ran away from home. I stayed where I could, with a rock’n’roll band, with friends, with strangers, in hotels, at one point in a tent. I worked when I could, but I couldn’t do much at seventeen, so I had no money. I had friends drive me to school every day, and I begged people to bring me Doritos so I’d have something to eat. Everything I owned fit in two garbage bags. Sometimes I fucked people I didn’t want to, so I could have a place to sleep, or a good meal. I gritted my teeth a lot, and did what I had to, rather than crawl back home and grovel for my folks’ forgiveness.

But it isn’t just Asia Carrera speaking out.

Both Arturo and I have been amazed, dismayed, and impressed with the level of candor exhibited Hyphen Magazine’s “Ask a Model Minority Suicide” series.

Sam, the writer, pulls powerful stats:

To save communal face, we don’t allow each other to admit publicly that sometimes the pressure is too much. The options are too narrow. Standards are too high and the demands to meet them, too lonely.

We can’t so much as talk about it?

Meanwhile, Asian American women have achieved the highest rate of suicide of any race/ethnicity between the ages of 15 to 24.

You do the math.

The CNN article Sam links to specifically notes:

First and foremost, they say “model minority” pressure — the pressure some Asian-American families put on children to be high achievers at school and professionally — helps explain the problem.

“In my study, the model minority pressure is a huge factor,” says Noh, who studied 41 Asian-American women who’d attempted or contemplated suicide. “Sometimes it’s very overt — parents say, ‘You must choose this major or this type of job’ or ‘You should not bring home As and Bs, only As,” she says. “And girls have to be the perfect mother and daughter and wife as well.”

Clearly, this type of pressure isn’t just brushed off, the way Chua suggests. And there are even more nefarious issues at play. But thank goodness for Resistance, who put up the most eloquent, Cee-lo Green style takedown we’ve seen yet:

So fuck you, Amy Chua, for reinforcing that tired old model minority stereotype. For speaking for an entire group of people and ascribing your abusive parenting to your culture. [...]

And fuck you again, Amy Chua, when I think about the high rates of suicides among Asian Americans, especially young women. Fuck you for the fifty percent of crisis calls at the university from Asian American students.

Fuck you for every person who expresses surprise at my chosen profession. Because we don’t do that. [...]

Fuck you for the kids who are made to feel like idiots because they are not geniuses. Or musical prodigies. Or the kids who are told that our people don’t speak out, don’t protest, aren’t politically active, aren’t activists. [...]

Fuck you for perpetuating racism. And fuck the Wall Street Journal for promoting your majority view voice.


(Thanks to readers Elton, Elaine, and Emjaybee for the tip!)