Battling the Tiger Mom: What’s at Stake in Amy Chua’s Parenting Philosophy??

Let us admit at the outset that I have not always spoken in my inside voice to my child. And let us also admit that people have commented on certain similarities between Amy Chua’s ideas about parenting and mine. And now gentle reader, those of you who have fought the urge to call Child Services, read on.

A cursory reading of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother seems to   brings to focus a parent who instinctively understood what constituted real “education” for one’s child. Only my passing acquaintance with the social sciences interrupted this braided Asian sisterhood between Chua and I.

This started out as a “review” of Amy Chua. But the term “review” has a scholarly distance that is unable to grasp the visceral density of the text. Chua is engaged in a primeval struggle and it is not simply with her daughters, it is with a far more intimidating enemy: “American Culture”. Every parenting decision Chua takes in the book (no sleepovers, a B is an unacceptable grade) is fraught precisely because, she claims, there is an overwhelming endorsement in mainstream society of exactly the opposite values. Against odds, against peer pressure, against the culture we breathe and which shapes us, against sometimes her own family and often against her daughters, Chua wages this relentless battle to better her children’s lives. The lukewarm, disengaged, bloodless word “review” cannot fathom the stakes of such a battle.

Michelle Foucault once made a very perceptive remark about commentary as a form of review. He argued that the task of commentary was to reveal what is unspoken in the text. Commentary, according to Foucault, strove to “uncover the deeper meaning of speech” and thus in “stating what has been said…[a commentary] has to re-state what has never been said”. Since I rejected the term “review”, this piece on Chua’s text, then, is a commentary, for the actual roots of Chua’s parenting style do not lie along the grids simply of ethnicity as Chua claims. It is undergirded by a far more intricate latticing: that of social class and race, and it is this relationship that is scrupulously absent from Chua’s analysis.

Down and Out in Berkeley and Yale
Social class is the hidden subscript of Chua’s book, as well as of her parenting. That the catch-all category of Asian-ness is an insufficient predicator is indirectly acknowledged by Chua at the very start of the book. A “supersuccessful white guy from Dakota” Chua states had been raised by his working class father who according to Chua had “definitely been a Chinese mother”. Similarly, she could think of “Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanian parents” who qualified as “Chinese mothers” (p. 4). All of these parents, irrespective of gender, have two things in common: two things that remain completely unacknowledged in Chua’s analysis. First, that they are united in their lack of social privilege. The working class father, despite his race and gender, is referred to through the lens of his only lack (his class), while the social disadvantages of the other ethnic minority parents are clearly marked by their race. Second, that they are all grooming their children for “success” in the most pedestrian sense of the “American Dream”.

The term American Dream was first popularized by the historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 best seller: The Epic of America. In this Adams defined America as a land “with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” (1931, 404). More recently sociologists have identified four basis ideas framing this concept:

(1) who—everyone regardless of origin or station (2) what—reasonable anticipation or the hopefulness of success (3) how—through actions under ones individual control, and (4) why—because of the association of true success with virtue in various ways.

This seems to be the (again) unspoken framework into which Amy Chua inserts her “Chinese” parenting style. The ever-present backdrop is that hard work is rewarded, irrespective of your socio-economic history.
I am not going to rehearse here the arguments about how this meritocratic model is actually an ideological screen for disguising real social inequalities and unfair distribution of resources. Let us just think of one implication of this argument about hard work winning you success. Loved by all shades of conservatives this model implies that you are poor/unsuccessful because you have not worked hard enough. The extension of this model to the realm of policymaking is that all public/government social programs are “handouts” to the poor, because they are too lazy to get a job and work hard enough. This is why I would like to place this model of “hard work” so poignantly advocated by Chua within the murky and unacknowledged terrain of social privilege.

First, Chua’s entire parenting model is about Education. It is not about the coffee-table parenting issues of breast milk versus formula or co-sleeping versus crib-sleeping. Indeed, we do not even meet the children till they are well past toddlerhood in the narrative.

It is also Education with a capital E. You will notice that Chua’s text is not concerned with the narrow definition of education that commonly equates education with formal schooling. Not only do we learn little about the children’s formal school, except that it is a private school, we are given the clear impression that Chua is more than willing to extract her daughters from the clasps of this small e-education in order for them to serve the higher purpose of Education.

What are the constituent parts of this Education? Music (classical), Travel (international) and what we can call: Exposure To Culture (or etc.–since the term Culture can both hide and signify social class in so many myriad ways). Her children Chua hopes will have fond memories of “playing the first movement of the Bruch Violin concerto beautifully in Agra” (p. 91).

The real difference between education, one which most children acquire, and Education, which is the preserve of the few, is the matter of access. Access to this polite world of Education and Culture, is determined by access to this crass and very practical item: money.

If you are looking you will find several indications in Battle Hymn to this crass product. The children go to private school. They have privately paid for music lessons, including some that involve driving nine hours and paying someone three thousand dollars to come with on the trip. In one memorable (and very humorously portrayed) occasion this Education also required Chua to cash in her pension fund from her old Wall Street firm to buy a violin for one of the girls. Dear reader, needless for me to point out, not all Asian mothers have pensions funds with Wall Street law firms. “There was no getting round the fact”, admits Chua, “that we lived in a large old house, owned two decent cars, and stayed in nice hotels when we vacationed” (p. 22).

There is then, a direct and strong relationship between money and Education/Culture throughout Chua’s narrative. It is one of concealment. We never sense that this gentle world of international travel, literature and Carnegie Halls may be undergirded by something as common as money. This superior Education with a capital E, it appears, is simply a matter of hard work and dedication. If Asian-ness is the magic category that brings with it a naturalized work-ethic then surely all Asian-Americans irrespective of social location end up in this rarefied universe of Culture. What is the history of these successful people called Asian Americans?

Who is Afraid of the Asian American Activist?
A fact largely forgotten but important to remember is that the very term “Asian American” was a product of the Civil Rights movement. Developed by mostly Chinese and Japanese college students, it was a political term used to organize against racism and other forms of discrimination. Born in the struggle against all forms of hierarchy, the category of Asian ethnicity was also used as a tool to forge solidarities across other ethnic communities such as African American. In other words, the awareness and solidification of Asian Americans as a distinct identity has its history in the inspirational struggle against racism and in solidarity with other oppressed peoples and their movements. Richard Aoki, for instance was a Japanese born leader of the Black Panthers. Similarly, we need to remember the legendary Yuri Kochiyama one of the first woman leaders to come out of the Civil Rights era. People such as Aoki and Kochiyama were instrumental in forging links with Latino and Native American organizations such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), the Brown Berets and the Native American Student Association. The term “Asian American” thus, was born in the streets of American cities, protesting the Vietnam War and ethnic violence, not in the drawing rooms of high-paid Academics and Lawyers.

As the wave of mass movements to win rights receded in the seventies and faced the Reaganite backlash in the eighties the politics of ethnic struggles receded into institutional safety. The collective action from the street had helped establish ethnic studies programs in several universities in the sixties. The first of such, not unsurprisingly, being in San Francisco State College, at the heart of Black Panther territory. It is to these campuses that discussions and activism around ethnicities now sought refuge. It is perhaps not co-incidental that it is against the backdrop of this ebbing tide of political struggles that the image of the “model minority” was constructed by mainstream media.

Those Who Don’t Make it to Carnegie Hall
Although the term “model minority” was first used in the New York Times magazine in 1966, it is in the 1980s that the mainstream media picked up on this concept and began printing “success” stories about Asian Americans. The hallmark of being a “model” in this rhetoric was of course not to organize collectively against social wrongs (aka Aoki and Kochiyama) but to work the system of American capitalism to ones maximum individual advantage.

And the statistics follow. Asian Americans make up 30% of the student population of elite colleges.  According to the FBI (always a reliable historical source of ethnic histories!) they have the lowest arrest rates. The real drum-roll-worthy figures are of course the salaries:

Median Household Income: 2009
Indian $97,429
Filipino $78,028
Chinese $69,502
Japanese $64,231
Korean $54,671
Vietnamese $53,025

The lesson here, Dear Reader, is that unlike the mad activism of the sixties hard work and a pathological dedication to success, i.e. Chua’s model, will earn you the approval, the salary and the stability of the American Dream.
Of course like all ideologies spawned by capitalism, this one has major errors.

Myth One: the reason for high participation of Asian Americans in higher education is solely related to individual merit.
Instead, it has to be understood against the larger structural backdrop of recent immigration policies. The blatantly named Preference System, part of the new immigration act of 1990, for instance, made immigration difficult for working class people into the US. Since American capital no longer had any need for heavy infrastructural projects (such as the railways), large-scale immigration of non-US workers was actively discouraged by such Acts. Instead “professionals with advanced degrees” or people with “exceptional abilities” were encouraged as immigrants. Thus Asians who came into the US in the post-1960s period were from an already privileged class of people in their home countries.

Myth Two: The Asian American Success-Story.
Not all Asian Americans go to Yale or head soft ware companies. A significant section of Asian immigrants, especially the post-1965 Indochinese, have a level of education much lower than that of the general U.S. population. According to a recent sociological study Korean immigrants displayed a “significant decline in the percentages of graduate degree holders in the post-1965 period” [my emphasis]. The study also noted that generally Vietnamese immigrants “seemed to be the least educated, with smaller percentages of higher degree holders and large percentages with less than high school education”. Instead of blaming the Vietnamese and Korean mothers for not having taken the Chua line, or pushed their children hard enough, the authors argue that this lack of education was due to the group’s refugee status.

Why are these myths useful?
The myths fulfill an ideological purpose. First, they effectively divide the
anti-racist struggle. If Asian-Americans are touted as the “model minority” then all other minorities are by default not-so-model. Intransigent. Trouble-makers. Secondly, they hide the structural workings of capitalism and the policy decisions that the system engenders. Success and failure of individuals then can be “explained” as parenting styles, individual work ethic or ethnic culture. A person’s socio-economic location, the material roots of her/his community: all these thorny historical issues can be thus waved away.

From “Model Minorities” to Modeling the Next Generation of Minorities
As the rulers of the world from Egypt to Wisconsin try to force austerity packages down the throats of working people while bankers are delivered bail-outs, it is perhaps time to revisit what values we ought to be pushing as parents/educators/concerned citizens on to our next generation. Insubordination and Compliance are two significant themes in Chua’s book. According to her Americans, by which I presume Chua means white Americans, are supposed to be anti-authoritarian while Asians are supposed to have respect for authority. I wonder if Chua had in mind the “subservient” Pat Sumi, the Japanese American woman famous for her anti-Vietnam War organizing with G.I.s at Camp Pendleton and Fort Hood. On the other end of the spectrum, you would have to live in a world completely devoid of McDonalds, Barbie or Fox news to believe the white Americans are questioning mainstream values en masse.

The “authorities” Chua has in mind are not real ones. She focuses on the teachers, the parents, the local wielder of sticks. This is why the consequence of both rebellion and compliance in Chua’s text is the same: it is individual success. Success come through compliance in her daughter Sophia and through insubordination to her husband Jed. Insubordination is simply a better way to be more successful—to think outside the box, to get ahead. Real authorities over people’s fates: economic systems, policy-makers or governments remain absent in Chua’s text. Nowhere does she talk about teaching her children about social justice, about the history of ethnic struggle in this country, about the blatant racism of recent immigrant bills such as SB1070. Perhaps she does in real life, but her text is cleansed of any such inconvenient historicity.

Every case of police brutality or violence against immigrants reminds us, everyday, that capitalism uses race to divide the working class. What Amy Chua draws attention to is the other end of the spectrum: the slow emergence of a multi-ethnic ruling class. Published to such acclaim under the rule of the first Black President, Amy Chua’s book is a battle hymn for that class.

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