There’s so much I’d like to say in response to Amy Chua’s widely discussed WSJ essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” but I need some time to gather my thoughts. (I’m busy right now practicing Chopsticks on piano, trying to make up for all the time I spent slacking off as a kid.) Before I formulate my own momifesto, I thought I’d share instead my friend Jen Kwok’s take on Chua’s charge.
Kwok is a comedian who gained notoriety with her hilarious (NSFW) music video “Date an Asian,” and she and I have appeared on Comedy Central together in our video “Take You Home,” which also features my brilliantly talented Western daughter. Kwok knows a thing or two about “Chinese” mothers – because she was raised by one.
In her response to Chua, Kwok is quick to criticize Chua’s intentions as a parent, noting that while Chua’s “effectiveness” may seem enticing to some, “she sounds more like a GE manager or a Malcolm Gladwell wannabe than a mother.” Kwok adds, “Packaging this Chinese parenting as a guarantee for raising successful children is like selling Pearl Cream as the ancient Chinese remedy for great skin. It’s mumbo jumbo. It’s Tiger Balm. It might address some superficial issues and smell like it’s working, but doesn’t cure anything in the long run.”
Which begs the question, what exactly is Chua trying to “cure” anyway? Laziness? Maybe. But it seems to me you can’t call a kid lazy until or unless you’ve given them an opportunity to prove their slothiness. According to Chua, Chinese mothers don’t ever give their kids that kind of break, even when respite is called for.
Having been raised by a “Chinese” mother who, like Chua, never allowed her daughter to attend sleepovers and forced her to study piano, Kwok is in a much better position than I to comment on the effectiveness of such a goal-driven parenting style. Kwok’s reflections on having been raised East in the West are very telling and reveal precisely why Chua’s daughter Lulu is resentful of her mother’s parenting method. Kwok writes:
For one thing, this model puts almost all the emphasis on external measures of success: parental approval, high grades and being better than other people. Amy Chua claims that her daughter had higher self esteem after figuring out how to play cross-rhythms (something I struggled with myself as a young pianist, so kudos to her at age seven!). However, the pattern I see is a young girl being forced to do something that is not her own personal goal or desire. That’s the opposite of discipline. After she is finally able to do it, it is worthwhile to her because it pleases her mother. That’s the opposite of self esteem.
As an adult, Kwok has a more thorough understanding of her mother’s motives and admits to loving her deeply, but she concedes that her need for her mother’s approval hasn’t waned, something that’s common in even non-Chinese mother-daughter relationships. In an anecdote about Kwok’s mother teaching her how to crochet, she says:
There were no books, no diagrams – just her crocheting at barely half speed as demonstration. If I had a question, she would “explain” by showing me the entire step again and following it up with, “This is so easy. If you can’t get it, there’s nothing I can do for you.” You bet this tough love made my 28-year-old self determined to “get” crocheting, lest I be shamed for not being able to do something grandmas do in their sleep. However, it stirred in me something I hadn’t felt for a long time. I needed that approval from my mom.
“Chinese” mothers may develop obedient children, but obedience is not necessarily a sign of respect. It can often be a symptom of fear, which I’ve learned is the opposite of love.
Photo: Eric Michael Pearson