Amy Chua Update: Enter The Daughter

By Arturo R. García

The controversy over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother spread out this week online, when her oldest daughter shared her own story with The New York Post.

Written as a letter to her “Tiger Mom,” Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld (pictured above, on the right) defends her mother’s sense of humor and her parenting (“No outsider can know what our family is really like”) but also, unnervingly, seems to cast aspersions on critics:

A lot of people have accused you of producing robot kids who can’t think for themselves. Well, that’s funny, because I think those people are . . . oh well, it doesn’t matter. At any rate, I was thinking about this, and I came to the opposite conclusion: I think your strict parenting forced me to be more independent. Early on, I decided to be an easy child to raise. Maybe I got it from Daddy — he taught me not to care what people think and to make my own choices — but I also decided to be who I want to be. I didn’t rebel, but I didn’t suffer all the slings and arrows of a Tiger Mom, either. I pretty much do my own thing these days — like building greenhouses downtown, blasting Daft Punk in the car with Lulu and forcing my boyfriend to watch “Lord of the Rings” with me over and over — as long as I get my piano done first.

Everybody’s talking about the birthday cards we once made for you, which you rejected because they weren’t good enough. Funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: The card was feeble, and I was busted. It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.

Based on the comments many have left on articles regarding both the book and the excerpt posted by the Wall Street Journal – which Chua has rejected – what many of “those people” are are hurt, a point Disgrasian’s Jen Wang raised late last week, while recommending the book:

I mean, okay, Dr. Chua, self-proclaimed self-esteem guru. I guess while you were busy berating your daughters and forcing them to play piano and violin, you didn’t have time to read this research study about how Asian American women are more likely to attempt suicide than the rest of the general population or come across these Department of Health and Human Services statistics identifying Asian American women ages 15-24 as having the highest suicide rate of any race or ethnic group in that age group and how being pushed to achieve most likely plays an important role in this.  But by all means, keep exhorting those little pieces of garbage to play on!

Red flags notwithstanding, I encourage those of you who found yourselves hating Chua after reading the WSJ excerpt–as I did–to read the book itself. I say this because I think it might make you feel better. I believe there are a number of you experiencing PTSD–as Lac Su, author of the memoir I Love Yous Are for White People, described feeling–after reading that excerpt. It didn’t just hit close to home, it hit home like a heat-seeking missile. It brought up a lot of bitterness. Shit was too real. It was a reminder of why so many of us will spend the rest of our lives talking almost exclusively about our mothers in therapy.  Yet, after reading the book, and realizing that Amy Chua is less of a monster and more of a deeply flawed human being who just isn’t all that introspective–which is sort of how we strive to see our parents when we have complicated relationships with them, no?–I felt a genuine sense of relief. It took a lot of energy hating her, in the same way it takes a lot of energy hating your own mother, more energy than forgiving her does, in most cases.

Wang also raises a key question – why did Chua feel the need to raise her kids as she was raised? As Wang points out, Chua calls this style “immigrant parenting,” yet she herself was born in the U.S.:

By the time she becomes a parent, Chua’s done very well for herself, as children parented “the Chinese way” often do, at least on paper. She has an undergraduate and law degree from Harvard, she’s on her way to getting a law professorship, her husband, whom she met at Harvard Law, is already a professor at Yale Law, and they have enough money to hire a Chinese nanny to teach Mandarin to the children. Eventually, Chua also gets a teaching job at Yale Law–where she and her husband both still teach and are tenured–and publishes two non-fiction books. By her own admission, Chua and her family have a comfortable life.

I’m not saying that people like Chua, who are successful, upper middle-class, and lead comfortable lives should be soft on their children, but I do think there’s less urgency and imperative to raise them the way Chua has chosen to raise her daughters. And without urgency and imperative, the Chinese parenting method–which Chua describes accurately as intolerant to failure–makes much less sense. At times it even seems cruelly unnecessary. When there isn’t a safety net, it’s easy for a child to grasp that one misstep has grave consequences. When there is a safety net, but someone’s insisting that even with one, a misstep has the same grave consequences, it’s confusing and breaks down trust.

A New York Times story we linked to on Tuesday also points out the lack of a key perspective in Chua’s story: that of her children’s father.

Ms. Chua’s husband appears only peripherally in “Tiger Mother” — though there is one battle in which she lashes out at him after he worries that she is pushing their daughters to the point that there is “no breathing room” in their home.

“All you do is think about writing your own books and your own future,” she says to him. “What dreams do you have for Sophia or for Lulu? Do you ever think about that? What dreams do you have for Coco?” He bursts out laughing — Coco is their dog.

She concludes, “I didn’t understand what was so funny, but I was glad our fight was over.”

Initially, Ms. Chua said, she wrote large chunks about her husband and their conflicts over child rearing. But she gave him approval on every page, and when he kept insisting she was putting words in his mouth, it became easier to leave him out.

“It’s more my story,” she said. “I was the one that in a very overconfident immigrant way thought I knew exactly how to raise my kids. My husband was much more typical. He had a lot of anxiety, he didn’t think he knew all the right choices.” And, she said, “I was the one willing to put in the hours.”

It’s not unreasonable at this point to suggest that highlighting more scenes like that – either in the finished product or that allegedly ill-prepared WSJ excerpt – might have helped “those people” see a more complete picture of the environment Chua-Rubenfeld took to The Post to defend. But neither is it unreasonable (though perhaps a bit cynical) to suggest that the ensuing controversy has helped Battle Hymn climb the sales charts. Still, it’s possible that none of this is good enough for somebody Angry Asian Man posted about this week. What do you say, Tiger Mom?

Top image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal