My late and messy reaction to this whole ‘Chinese Mothers Are Superior’ Hubbub

by Guest Contributor Bao Phi

Father and Child

I was going to work on an essay in response to Ms. Chua’s article. I had several pages of notes, and was going to take the two or three hours it took to condense those notes into some type of narrative. Since I have a guest spot on the Strib’s blog, I was thinking about posting it there, just because I think alternative perspectives from Asian Americans need to exist – but I was also a bit wary about the energy it would take to endure the hateful comments that were sure to be leveled at me. As a parent, these days I have little time and even less patience for stupidity.

Part of me was trying to talk myself out of it. Plenty of Asian American bloggers have responded, covering such issues as whether or not the controversial Wall Street Journal excerpt really did justice to her book (see Jeff Yang’s excellent article on that subject), to whether or not raising a child in this fashion is really a good idea.

So, why should I write anything at all? This is not my fight, I said to myself. Even though there seems to be some conflation of Chinese with Asian American, and you have some Chinese blood in you besides, why throw down and risk a flame war over this? It has nothing to do with you. It’s not like Ms. Chua cares what you think – after all, it’s clear that people like me are not her target audience.

But then, don’t Asian Americans like Ms. Chua, who have a large mass market platform to express themselves, have some power over how the perceptions of me, and my family, are shaped? And if so, shouldn’t I use my own platforms to express an alternative perspective?

Damn, it’s recycling night though. It just snowed and I still gotta shovel the walk. And tonight is my partner’s night to have writing time while I watch baby…

Okay, let’s do this.

In this essay, I was going to be careful to point out that my feelings and opinions were not an attack on Ms. Chua, as she has the right to write about whatever she wants. As I have the right not to read her book, a right I fully intend to exercise.

I was going to be careful to say that my critiques had more to do with representation, rather than a debate on parenting. Ms. Chua’s reality is her reality – this is not an attack on her authenticity. I am more interested in the reaction, from Asians and non-Asians alike. There seems to be an acceptance that there is some true essential “Chinese” (and “Asian”) way to raise your kids and some “Western” way, and by “Western” it seems the author means straight upper middle class white male, and no one seems to be talking about the problematics of such assumptions. That no one is talking about how these assumptions play into very specific consumptions of Asian Americans – culture without politics, as if we live in a vacuum devoid of things like race, class, gender, sexuality. At this point in my essay, I’d take my partner’s advice and say that the idea that there is an essential, Western (male) and Eastern (female) way to raise children, and the idea that the melding of the individualist male West and the feminine East as some sort of liberating, uplifting redemption narrative is a colonialist social construct straight out of Said’s book Orientalism

Aw man, I really don’t want to write this.

Then I was going to talk about my own upbringing. How my parents literally saved my life, as a baby, as they shielded me from harm in their arms, bombs shaking the shelter we hid in with other Vietnamese families as the Communist Party tried to kill us and prevent our escape. How I grew up in America trying to understand contradiction: that people said this was the greatest country to live in, while as refugees we lived in a neighborhood made up of mostly impoverished and disenfranchised Native Americans, African Americans, Southeast Asians, and Chicano/as. How my parents wanted me to know my culture but lie about my ethnicity and tell everyone I was Chinese because they felt Americans would blame us for the war and hated Vietnamese people.

These struggles that my mom and dad (YES, my dad, America! Asian men and Asian fathers DO EXIST) faced. How my father sewed designer labels onto handmade clothes so we could pretend we were more well-off than we really were. How a group of kids stood on one end of a block for an entire hour and relentlessly shouted racial slurs and taunts at my mother as she worked outside of our house, knowing she could do nothing to them, knowing she did not have the words to shout back. How my father had to deal with the contradictions of being a war veteran invisible because of his race, and see two of his sons enlist in the American military.

And yes, those dynamics, combined with my parents’ own personalities, effected how we were raised. There were days I was scared of my parents, days I felt guilty that I disappointed them, days when I had no idea what they wanted from me, days I tried to run away from home and days I wanted to kill myself.

I’d also write about joy – how my parents would take me to work and I would sit in their break room, drawing pictures and reading books for hours while waiting for their 15 minute break so they could come hang out with me. How my mom would bike around town with me clinging to her, how my dad would sew stuffed animals out of bargain bin fabric for me. I was going to write about the magic of going to a friend’s birthday party and playing his Atari, how my dad taught me to ride a bicycle in an empty parking lot, how a Black Panther saw me get bullied on my block and offered to teach me martial arts. And how our poverty led to my love of books and stories, because loaning books from the library was free.

In this essay, I’d own up to my own privilege – both as a male and as the youngest son, and while I went through struggles of race and class, I’ll admit that expectations were less for me than for my sisters and my older brothers. I will not dismiss patriarchy or make excuses for it – at the same time I’d assert that patriarchy and male privilege is far from just an Asian problem, it’s a problem and has been a problem in many cultures the world over. And the expectations and gender roles for Asian men are also limiting and damaging, albeit in a different way than for women.

I’d also write how, as I got older, I came to understand that a lot of the pressure I felt to pursue a white collar career came from my parents wanting me to escape the life of poverty and violence that they lived through. Around us was gang warfare, drugs, injustice, genocide – and all this to a family who just lost their country to war. I can understand why they would want me to pursue anything that would get me out of there.

I’d write about how my parents have come to understand that I can survive while working at something called a “nonprofit.” Though sometimes my dad does suggest to me that it’s still not too late for me to go to nursing school.

Then I’d write about my own struggles, and joys, of being a father to an amazing, hilarious daughter. That if Ms. Chua’s book, or any book, could contain the answers on being a good parent, I’d have read it 10 times over by now. I would write about how this process has been difficult, challenging, amazing. That I fear how my past, both as a child and as an adult, may have negative consequences on how I parent. And how nothing scares me more than the things I want to protect our child from, in this world. Sure, my partner and I have a say and choices to make, we have a duty to make informed choices about how to raise our child.

But there are some things we can only try to prepare her for. Homophobia, classism, sexism, racism. How can we, as Asian American parents, prepare her adequately for these things? How do we teach her about tragedies like the recent death of young father Jason Yang, and young son Fong Lee, both to police brutality – how can I teach her about these things when I barely know how to deal with them myself, how these things effect me on an emotional level so intense that I want to retreat entirely from the world when I think about them? Jason Yang’s kids will never see their father again. Or how it seems trivial to me to think about piano lessons and sleepovers when I try to imagine what it’s like to be Fong Lee’s parents, dealing with indescribable loss as well as continued systematic injustice. Then I’d apologize for making references to piano lessons.

I was going to stress that I offer these things not as some type of authentic substitute for Ms. Chua’s experience, but rather to question if there are certain Asian American stories and voices are privileged and consumed, more than others. If certain perspectives and stories from Asian Americans that carry specific racial, gendered, class-based assumptions keep getting reinforced time and again, within our communities and outside of them.

My story and opinion are not meant to replace Ms. Chua’s, but to question perception and consumption of Asian American identity – an identity that we are often powerless to shape ourselves in the mainstream. And my story is not the only one being neglected: what about Asian American Adoptee parents and children, Queer parents, parents who have to deal with deportation of their sons and daughters? I’m not insinuating it is Ms. Chua’s responsibility to tell these stories – I am saying that these stories exist, and it is worth asking whether certain perspectives and stereotypes are constantly being reinforced and consumed.

And in the end, I came to a compromise. It would have taken me hours to write the essay I aimed to write. Instead I wrote this messy, and perhaps poorly written, essay, so that it exists. That my parents exist, that I exist. That many different stories exist.

And I plan on spending the time I saved by hanging out with my baby daughter and my smart, lovely partner. I don’t pretend to have the answers and for damn sure I’m not going to write a book about it. But my family and my people are worth fighting for, in the way we raise our child, the way I struggle to maintain my relationship with my parents, and at the very least throw down with some messy words on an essay. Because my family is worth it. They are absolutely worth it.

p.s. I should also probably go visit my parent’s house and see how that whole ceiling-falling-down-because-of-ice thing is working out. My parents are worth it, too.

(Image Credit: Matsoc01)

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  • Audacityseven

    I loved this article! Please keep writing!!


    This is truly an honest and thoughtful assessment of the whole Chinese Mother hubbub…one of the first things I noticed too was how much Amy Chua’s Chinese mother characterization lived up to successful middle-class Asian-American stereotypes so commonly shown in mainstream American media. It didn’t matter that she claimed later to be representing not just Chinese mothers but all first-gen immigrants-people reacted most to her portrayal of what “Chinese culture” regards as proper parental behavior.

    A little off-topic but I just wanted to mention that Amy Chua also hit a raw nerve within mainstream American society, which has to do with the confusion surrounding raising successful students at school. A teacher from a predominantly middle-class suburban school has also come under fire recently for daring to write in her blog about all her “lazy unmotivated students”. Here’s the link:

    There’s alot of apprehension around whether America can maintain first-world status; the fact that Chua is Asian-American and talked about a “superior foreign parenting method” cuts right to the core of this anxiety.

  • Corey L.

    Thank you for your honesty and openness. It trumps polish every time in my book. As a gay white man in a 13 year relationship, I feel more kinship with you after reading this than with the dominant “western” culture in which we both exist. I’m not trying to downplay our differences — I prefer to savor them, and I read avidly to help me develop new lenses through which to glimpse the world. But I have also come to believe that there is a culture we both share – the culture of the margins. It is defined by absences and blank lines. No real voice in dominant culture concerns. No real representations in media. At best we can point to caricatures and say, “It’s not great, but at least we are not completely absent!” It is the culture of the unconsidered, and in this culture I call you my brother, and share my food with you, and love your children as my own. Keep writing. Thank you. -Corey

  • sarasa

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I love this. Thanks for introducing a gray but worthy shade to the whole la la.

  • Kazekage

    This is a good article. Don’t worry, it’s more than just a messy article. It’s a piece of yourself. :)

  • Ollie South

    This is a fantastic write-up; leaving it as messy as you did gives it more impact, not less.

    I grew up in Hong Kong among the upper-middle-class white expat community, and I recall lots of debates about the way the Asian (meaning “Chinese”, or course) parents at my private school treated their kids versus the way the Western parents did, and yes, it was all about one privileged groups methods against the other.

    There were few conversations about the parenting practices of the working class Chinese families, or the children of the Vietnamese refugees who were locked up in camps at the time, or the children of the Filipino workers and amahs who lived off their parent’s remittances. The only time we talked about people like this was with some vague sense of pity, like, “Oh, those terrible people and their hopeless lives.”

    I love that the Internet – and sites like this one – have finally allowed more voices to speak other than the privileged ones. Thanks for posting this story.