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The Tantrum, Part 3: Should Your Babymama Be a “Chinese Mother”?

January 14th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in The Tantrum  |  8 Comments

A Chinese mother terrorizes her child.

A Chinese mother terrorizes her child.

There has been so much written about Amy Chua’s preposterous, boastful Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” that I am loathe to simply pile on top of the discussion.

What I’d rather do is point to another Wall Street Journal article, this one from 1991, dateline San Francisco:

At age 17, Kio T. Konno seemed to fit the stereotype perfectly. Hard-charging, industrious and bright, she was destined for stardom, like so many of her Asian-American “whiz kid” peers.

A senior at this city’s prestigious Lowell High School, she pulled a B-plus average, spoke fluent Japanese and snagged national swimming awards. Her Japanese parents cared so much about her education that they moved closer to the school to ease her commute. Brown University was actively recruiting her.

But last October, a week before her 18th birthday, Miss Konno walked into her closet and hanged herself.

I still remember the day when “Miss Konno”, as the Journal put it, didn’t come to school. I didn’t know her–she was two or three years older than me and our high school was huge. But I knew people who knew her. And I remember her friends, huddled and distraught, in the hallways. I remember teachers hustling around, animated by some sort of bitter electrical current that the news of her death brought to the building. And I remember realizing that this was part of life at Lowell, a majority-Asian magnet public high school that was in many ways a laboratory for Amy Chua’s parenting style.

As my friend Grant reminded me on Facebook this week, he and his friends used to hang out near a plaque for another Asian-American student who had killed herself. And there were other such memorials on campus. As an article about a more recent Lowell suicide–that of a well-liked football player named Thomas Hoo–pointed out, Lowell was chosen to participate in a nationwide study of “suicide schools”.

The Journal article got one thing wrong about Kio. It listed her B-average as yet another sign of her success. But that B-average was itself a problem, not good enough, from what I remember. We can never know what went on in her home, but I remember the whispers: that she felt trapped under the constant pressure, not just to succeed, but to succeed on exactly her parents’ terms.

I briefly dated a girl at Lowell whose father had recently committed suicide. Her mother, already angry at her daughter for getting poor grades and for dating white boys, actively and aggressively blamed the daughter for the suicide. I remember sitting in their dining room in the Western Addition and listening to the mother scream at this girl for having killed her father. This, as much as the Confucian rigor that Ms. Chua boasts about, is also the true face of Asian pressure-parenting: vindictive, searing, selfish, broken. The flip side of the parent who sacrifices everything so their child can succeed in the United States is a raging egotism, a parental martyr complex in which parents heap their unhappiness on their children and call it traditional values.

This is not intended to call out Asian parents. I know from my wife’s family that Asian-Americans come in every flavor of overloving, permissiveness, overstrictness, gentle rigor. We are all just people. There is no model minority, no model majority, just different ways of being extraordinarily fucked up to ourselves and to our children.

Chua has feebly attempted to simultaneously defend her excesses and to claim that the Journal excerpt misrepresented her book. Time reminded us that she didn’t write the Journal headline about “superior” mothers. In a Globe and Mail interview she copped to having regrets and says that people may misunderstand her “deadpan” style. But she can’t have it both ways. She is accountable for the unretractable chauvinism of her claims that American children are a bunch of a slothful Wii-addicted whose biggest ambition is to be an extra in some crappy school play.

Indicting all non-immigrants is not just inflammatory, it’s misleading. There hasn’t been an immigrant in my family since the early 1900’s, but I didn’t wilt or whine or mope at Lowell. My father went to Lowell with his sisters back when it was the Jews, not the Asians, who were working their way up the ladder. And I’d like to think that as a parent, he had a better approach than Chua could even imagine. Success in school was non-negotiable for me, but as long as I got A’s, my free time was my own. Sometimes I used it go to seminars at the World Affairs Council. Sometimes I volunteered at the Holocaust Library (more fun than it sounds). I used to spend some afternoons sitting on the grass near Justin Herman Plaza with a homeless guy named Chef who told better stories than anyone I knew. Sometimes I used my free time to go sit in parks at night with friends and get drunk and try to get laid. Above all, I worked my ass off because that’s what it took to compete. I got a scholarship to study in Germany my senior year, and I left Lowell with a bucket of college credits and a 4.0+ GPA.

The beauty of my father’s approach is that he didn’t confuse one thing for another. He never confused a poorly-executed birthday card for a harbinger of academic doom (Chua has repeatedly defended the awesomeness of the time she rejected her young daughter’s birthday card because it wasn’t crafted with sufficient care). Not that he was a perfect parent–if my father was Amy Chua he’d have to write a bestseller saying how great it was that he beat me*. But he isn’t Chua. I like to think that he is  humbled by his mistakes as a father, as I am already by mine.

I know Chua’s article has caused a lot of pain and outrage among Asian-Americans, who know better than I what a perversion the model minority stereotype can be. For a much better description of the costs of the Asian drive to perfection, buy a book (recommended in Jeff Yang’s excellent SfGate.com take on Chua) called I Love Yous are for White People by Lac Su. But it’s important for those of us who aren’t Asians or immigrants to not be cowed or misled by Chua’s braggadocio. The Asian drive for success can have a terrible price. And the good parts of that drive are universal. Yang describes them well:

The desire for excellence. The need for delayed gratification. The direct connection between hard work and positive results.

Good old-fashioned Asian values. And American ones, too.

If you need any more proof of Chua’s unnecessary divisiveness, look at Chua’s new bedfellows. On the drive to the hotel from Obama’s Wednesday speech in Tucson, I listened to some Michael Savage on the radio. For a sense of Savage’s mindset, consider that he said on that same broadcast that journalists are “vicious little twerps [with] no mental discipline [who] are being laughed at around the country by people with a capacity for Aristotelian logic.”


So Savage, of course, loves Chua. He read some of her excerpt and then interrupted himself. “Who IS this woman?” he asked. “I’m beginning to like her.” He explained that he was raised in the same belittling manner. Self-esteem, he said, is a trope “put out by the government.” Call your child a fatty, he said, because that’s the kind of talk that made him who he is today. “Look how far I’ve come,” he says.

He is, in a way, right: he has become exactly what you get when your parents call you garbage. You become an ambitious, perhaps successful, bag of hate. Hatred for yourself, for liberals, for conservatives, whatever. Those are Chua family values.

The Chua argument reminds me a bit of the story I was reporting on in Tucson. Hate speech didn’t pull the trigger on Gabby Giffords. And Amy Chua is not responsible for the suicides that will surely continue of battered young innocents like Kio Konno. But words do have consequences. And if you write careless, hurtful and misguided words just to sell a memoir, Mrs. Chua, then a pox on your perfect house.

*A footnote from Saturday: my father wishes to remind me (and you) that he doesn’t deserve the moniker of “child beater”, an archetype that has somewhat fallen out of fashion. I agree with him on the basics: unlike his parents, he never used implements or utensils (belts, rolling pins and the like). It was the 70’s and 80’s and spanking was still en vogue. So, in short, he was a hugely loving father who sometimes, particularly when I was younger, had to express himself with his hands (“without leverage” he says). We disagree on some of the environmentals, though, and I do believe there may be a future post about competing father-son narratives. Fun.


  1. Carly says:

    January 14th, 2011at 1:58 pm(#)

    I thought she was funny. Wasn’t she trying to be funny? Her examples and arguments are so extreme as to be clearly and deliberately illogical, unreal, unattainable. Of course not everyone in China gets A’s (and if so, they should all move to Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average).

    Personally, I could care less if my kids are piano and violin stars (though I wouldn’t mind me a Guitar Hero) and don’t see the appeal of haranguing them into practicing. But I took her point–that some valuable things require hard work and that the will to hard work is not always intrinsic–as an interesting counter-balance to the idea that our kids will just ‘take’ to something because they have latent genius in that thing. But maybe I have the leisure of thinking Chua’s article was funny because I’m not personally burdened by the stereotype.

  2. Carly says:

    January 14th, 2011at 2:04 pm(#)

    Or couldn’t care less? Grammar police? Also, as long as I’m back, I don’t really care about my kid doing great at a great school, I sort of do, but think how he is as a person will determine his life success. But we do as Americans harangue our kids incessantly on this point: be a good person, share your toys, don’t throw sand, etc. Visit any Central Park playground and watch the parents browbeat their kids into being nice. So substitute “sweet, perhaps sickeningly so” for “piano, expert” and it may not be that different.

  3. mattmc says:

    January 14th, 2011at 5:28 pm(#)

    You should read the book, it’s really good (if short). I finished it last night. The WSJ journal excerpt can really give you the wrong idea- it doesn’t end like it started. While Dr. Chua does push the idea way too far (and why with musical instruments?), there is something very wrong with the permissive style too. A huge portion of the “failed” education system of the US is simply parents that aren’t making the kids do the work.

    Looking back, I really wish my parents had realized I was coasting by in school with no effort and could have pushed me to be better. Instead they were more concerned about me going to church and congratulating my meager athletic achievements. I didn’t even apply to college, but fortunately one recruited me by virtue of high SAT scores. I would have preferred Dr. Chua’s approach. I never learned to practice…

  4. Lorne Marr says:

    January 18th, 2011at 4:45 am(#)

    I think the approach that she promotes in her book can have a damaging impact on children’s development and the only purpose of promoting this book has been to earn a lot of money. So the strict mother will now become the rich mother.

  5. NJ says:

    January 18th, 2011at 10:00 am(#)

    Dear Nathan,

    I was quite surprised to see Kio’s name mentioned in connection with all of the publicity around Chua’s book. After reading your post, I now see why such a connection would be made.

    However, as a former boyfriend of Kio–if you were 2 to 3 years behind her then you were 3 to 4 years behind me at Lowell–I should note that Kio faced difficulties extending far beyond her home life. Let’s face it, Lowell, for all the educational wonders it provided and still provides, was a very difficult place in terms of academic and social pressure. If life in an Asian American home can sometimes be a pressure cooker due to the incessant demand to “excel” (I’m speaking from personal experience here), just imagine what it was like to come to school and face the same thing all over again from one’s (largely Asian American) friends. In short, our school had something to do with it. It was not just her home life.

    Have said that, I would still agree with your overall point, just with some caveats in between.

    Thanks for keeping Kio’s memory alive. It’s been twenty years since her passing, but I find it impossible to forget.

    PS Send me an email if you want to chat about this.

  6. Nathan says:

    January 18th, 2011at 10:24 am(#)

    Thanks for the note NJ. No doubt, at Lowell it was a unvirtuous-cycle of family pressure, peer pressure, teacher pressure and more. The craziest thing is how young these kids really are when they get thrown into. 13, 14 years old. Too young for all that weight, for the most part.


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