Recently, a Yale professor and “Superior Chinese mother” published a wildly controversial opinion piece on the Wall Street Journal espousing just how much better the “Chinese” method of parenting is – no playdates, ultimate discipline and a complete disregard for your children’s feelings because really, what do they know? I thought it was some kind of satirical joke at first. But no – it was a terrible tragedy of a piece that probably only got published thanks to those recent Shanghai PISA test scores demonstrating (to those not looking close enough) some sort of amazing educational secret Asian people have that others MUST KNOW. Having lived through a version of the Chinese Parenting Experience, and having been surrounded since birth with hundreds of CPE graduates, I couldn’t not say something. The article actually made me feel physically ill and, judging from the comments section of Amy Chua’s piece, garnered similar reactions from others who’d gone through what she’s espousing.
My biggest complaint: this piece is so fucking dangerous. I’ve seen and known firsthand the kind of people who’ve come out of Amy Chua’s method of parenting and while some have turned into happy, successful people later on, it was usually because they managed to sort through the trauma of their childhood… not because of it. There are too many who go through this and turn out to be socially inept and emotionally stunted, and who end up burning out in spectacularly violent ways.
While I have a whole host of anecdotes to counter the stories of Sophia and Louisa, I don’t really even need to resort to them. There have been enough studies done on how damaging the Asian American experience is to point out why the thought that people might actually be convinced of Chua’s superiority is so very, very frightening.
For instance, yes, you could call your kids “fatty,” but don’t think that just because you don’t tiptoe around the issue like “Western parents” do, your kids have higher self esteem or better body images. Sure, I could talk about how my friends in college casually tossed around throwing up, ingesting parasites and/or spending days only drinking lemon water as acceptable weight loss methods. Or I could just link you to this and this and this – all articles dealing with the problem of Asian Americans with eating disorders.
You may think it’s totally fine to beat your child (and no, she doesn’t mention it in the article, but I can guarantee that’s how she did it) into playing piano – that if your child does finally learn that song, it was all worth it and they’ll learn an important lesson about hard work. I could respond with stories of the numerous friends I have who are estranged from their parents – how one of my relatives chose specifically not to go to her father’s funeral. But whatever, his strictness just brought out her potential, right? Oh wait, here’s a study on how pressure actually negatively affects prior ability for Asian students. And here’s a bonus one about the difference between parental “pressure” and parental “guidance” in determining psychosocial problems amongst Korean youth. Guess which one leads to more problems?
You could think it’s okay to tell your kids that the only reason they aren’t getting straight As is because they’re “lazy,” or that celebrating their achievements means you don’t believe they can do better… but don’t think that Western parents’ conflicted feelings have no merit. I don’t need to have stories about all the friends I had who hid their depression from their parents until it was too late – how many friends I’ve nearly lost, and a couple that I did – to say fuck you, Amy Chua, it’s not okay. There’s a reason why Asian Americans – and especially Asian American girls – have the highest depression and suicide rates out of any ethnic/gender combination in the United States. There’s a reason why “28% of Asian American high school students reported depressed feelings serious enough to disrupt their usual activities, 19% reported making a suicide plan, and 11% reported making at least one suicide attempt.” It’s got a lot to do with mothers like Chua thinking their methods are golden.
Christine Lu, CEO of Affinity China, answered the question of whether “Chinese Mothers” like the one Chua presents are actually superior with a story that hit close to home for me:
My big sister was what I used to jealously call “every Asian parents wet dream come true” (excuse the crassness, but it really does sum up the resentment I used to feel towards her). She got straight As. Skipped 5th grade. Perfect SAT score. Varsity swim team. Student council. Advanced level piano. Harvard early admission. An international post with the Boston Consulting Group in Hong Kong before returning to the U.S. for her Harvard MBA. Six figure salary. Oracle. Peoplesoft. Got engaged to a PhD. Bought a home. Got married.
Her life summed up in one paragraph above.
Her death summed up in one paragraph below.
Committed suicide a month after her wedding at the age of 30 after hiding her depression for 2 years. She ran a plastic tube from the tailpipe of her car into the window. Sat there and died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her new home in San Francisco. Her husband found her after coming home from work. A post-it note stuck on the dashboard as her suicide note saying sorry and that she loved everyone.
Mine is an extreme example of course. But 6 years since her passing, I can tell you that the notion of the “superior Chinese mother” that my mom carried with her also died with my sister on October 28, 2004. If you were to ask my mom today if this style of parenting worked for her, she’ll point to a few boxes of report cards, trophies, piano books, photo albums and Harvard degrees and gladly trade it all to have my sister back.
There are some things that I would agree with that Chua only briefly touches upon while she smarmily denounces her Western friends’ parenting methods: All the time you spend with your child on their homework is helping them get better at doing homework. Your job is setting boundaries and enforcing them, not being their friend. You ought to teach your children the value of hard work and self-discipline, and sometimes that means not giving in when they refuse to study. But there are limits that shouldn’t be crossed and that Chua seems to think don’t matter. They do.
I was lucky that my parents saw through the bullshit of the Chinese Parenting Experience early on. While some of my youth was spent being smacked for not listening, kneeling for hours for complaining about playing piano, and being berated for mediocre grades, there was a noticeable difference in their parenting style after I went into 6th grade.
Maybe they just ran out of the energy for it. Maybe they decided I was too stubborn for those methods to work anyhow – nothing they tried yet had done much to improve my outlook on homework. Or maybe they heard through the door of my room when, during a sleep over, I begged and cajoled my best friend – subject to a much stricter regimen they probably had considered – from killing herself the one night she was free from her own parents (my first thought when I saw the no sleepovers rule was “Is this why?”). Eventually, I talked her down from outside my window.
That year, my parents finally let me drop piano and tennis. They cheered me on when I turned out to have a decent talent for public speaking. They stopped screaming at me over every B (though my dad did have me write up a couple of “5 Year Plans” in an attempt to get me more motivated about academics). It took another suicide attempt in college – one particularly bloody and violent – before my best friend’s mom finally realized her daughter’s problems.
After reading Chua’s article, my greatest fear is that some other parents elsewhere won’t be able to see through the crap. And that those poor kids will in fact be subjected to something as dangerous as Chua’s Chinese Parenting Experience.
Previously on Shanghaiist
A Shanghai mom’s view of “Chinese Mothers” in the U.S.