A reader sends me a link to this piece that’s getting a fair amount of discussion this week: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. I read it twice, convinced on the first read that it was satire, but on the second, coming to the depressing conclusion that it was anything but. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale, celebrates the relentless inculcation of perfectionism, pushing back against the growing public concern about the damage that the relentless pursuit of the unattainable is doing to our children (particularly our daughters.) Indeed, Chua’s piece is so outrageous, so Swiftian in its defense of the indefensible, that part of me still suspects it’s particularly well-veiled satire.
Chua writes that we (presumably middle and upper-middle class “white” parents of the sort who make up many of her fellow Ivy League faculty) are far too concerned with our children’s self-esteem, and focused too little on what actually gives kids esteem, which is mastery of something. That’s the sort of thing that sounds good when you first read it, but becomes horrifying upon reflection — and upon comparison of Chua’s gleeful celebration of Chinese success with the reality I work with every damn day in my classes.
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)
About one-third of the students at Pasadena City College — a public two-year, open-admission institution — are of Asian ancestry. The plurality, if not the outright majority of those East Asian students are of Chinese ancestry. Some are immigrants themselves, many are children of immigrants, but few are more than second-generation Americans. They came from across the Chinese world and its diaspora (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, as well as the mainland itself.) Most are Mandarin-speakers.
Many of them, particularly in my Humanities and Gender Studies classes, tell me that their mothers were much like Amy Chua. Many were shamed, some were beaten, almost all were made to feel inadequate. Many, particularly from the more affluent areas of the San Gabriel Valley like San Marino, were expected to get straight As and be accepted into prestigious four-year universities. A great many didn’t, and most (despite what Chua claims) got Bs, and more than a few had high school transcripts littered with Cs. Chua peddles (one hopes, how one hopes, with tongue in cheek) the myth of the model minority, the myth in which average grades, depression, drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders and significant learning disabilities simply don’t happen to Chinese children. In her world, Chinese children don’t get rejected from Berkeley and Stanford and Princeton. But I have Chinese-American students who were not only rejected from those schools, they didn’t have the grades to get into Cal State Los Angeles.
Many of these Chinese-American students are at PCC for financial reasons, but the notion that all or even most could have gone to Berkeley if only there’d been a bit more money is also very much a myth. Many of these students were pushed and tutored and browbeaten (and beaten for real), and still couldn’t make the grades. Some marinate at home, they tell me, in the hostile simmer of their parents’ disappointment. A lucky few have parents who have adopted a more tender and compassionate model, encouraging effort rather than insisting rigidly on a perfect outcome. They are a small minority. Far more are shell-shocked, numb from years and years of the very abuse that Chua celebrates. (I not only know this through my students, but from my first wife, who was born to a Chinese mother and a Filipino father. I saw the success — but also the haunting damage — up close.)
The Yale professor may have daughters who play instruments beautifully and got near-perfect scores on their SATS. I had a student in 2008, the daughter of immigrants who owned a dry cleaners, who tried to kill herself by drinking cleaning products when her transfer application was rejected by UCLA. I’ve heard many other stories of suicide and suicide attempts. If we’re gonna get anecdotal, no ethnic group in the multicultural melting pot that is PCC has had as many self-reported incidents of self-harm per capita as have my East Asian students. That’s based on more than 18 years of community college teaching and mentoring, including five years as advisor to the overwhelmingly Asian honor students’ society, but it’s also based on the reality that Chinese-Americans 15-24 are much more likely to kill themselves than are white teens, a statistic that’s remained depressingly consistent since the 1980s. None of my Chinese students have taken their lives while my students, but I hear more stories of attempts — and the deaths of friends and siblings — than I do from any other ethnic group.
Chua’s assumption — that the pressure cooker of perfectionism will cause short-term pain but long-term success — simply isn’t borne out by the evidence. Let her come and meet my queer Chinese-American students who’ve been hit and humiliated and disowned. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students with dyslexia who’ve been called stupid so often the light has faded from their eyes. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students who are overweight, including the young woman whose mother only lets her eat cabbage and water at home and rifles through her room, looking for the sweets she’s convinced her daughter is hiding. I’m not for a minute suggesting that Chinese-American parents have a monopoly on the cruel inculcation of perfectionism; that is, as even Chua admits, a multi-ethnic phenomenon. But to assume, as she does with staggering myopia, that a little adolescent suffering invariably leads to long-term success, simply isn’t backed by the evidence.
Chua knows this, of course. She knows that Chinese-American children don’t all go to Yale or its equivalent. Many have parents who pushed them relentlessly, but for any number of excellent reasons, the straight As did not appear. There are more Chinese and Chinese-American students in community colleges than in the Ivy League, and I’d venture that since I started teaching here in 1993, I’ve taught at least 4000 of them, probably more than she has or even ever will. But she knows, surely, about the higher rate of suicide as well as suicidal ideation and depression — and she probably knows those rates are particularly high among Chinese-American young women. If she does know — and if this isn’t Swiftian satire — then she’s guilty of celebrating not only a falsehood, but a lethal one. Chua deserves not mere polite disagreement, but repudiation and scorn for perpetuating an ideal that is directly and unmistakably linked to suffering and self-harm. I’ve seen too much suffering in my years of teaching and mentoring — and been too convinced of the cause by unmistakable evidence — to let a fear of being labeled culturally insensitive blind me from my obligation to say three words to Chua: Shame. On. You.
Fortunately, the repudiation is coming from many quarters, including some wonderful and important bloggers like Angry Asian Man.
May it continue to come.