Why Chinese Mothers are Crazy

BY GEORGE DING
Jan 18, 2011

The WSJ spin aside, there is some truth to Amy Chua’s account of Chinese parenting. George Ding, a “survivor” of Chinese parents and a teacher in Beijing, lives to tell the tale.

DISCLAIMER: I have not read Amy Chua’s book and do not want to. In recent days, evidence has come to light that suggests Chua is not completely insane and that her article in the Wall Street Journal was edited to be incendiary. Please understand that I am responding to the ideas expressed in the article and not to her book.

 

352 Amy Chua with her daughters, Louisa and Sophia, at their home in New Haven, Conn. (WSJ)

 

Amy Chua’s provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal, an excerpt from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has stirred up considerable debate, and rightly so. Her strict, even draconian, method of parenting is one that many parents will recognize, though perhaps in diluted form. She outlines the steps that she, a proud Chinese mother, took to ensure her children’s success. She doesn’t allow her children to attend sleepovers or playdates, to watch TV or play computer games. In a tautological flourish she says they are not allowed to “play any instrument other than the piano or violin” or “not play the piano or violin.” The article contrasts the parenting styles of so-called “Chinese mothers” and “Western parents,” clearly favoring the former. But while she presents her regimen with confidence and pride, she neglects to examine the drawbacks of such austere parenting. How would I know? Because I am a product, or should I say survivor, of Chinese parents.

I had straight As until the 6th grade. I played the violin, though it was my choice. I was forced to attend Chinese school for ten years to learn Mandarin. I was not tall enough or strong enough. I was not allowed to get any grade lower than a B. I was pressured to major in computer science or medicine, any major that made money. I was forced to retake the SAT until I scored higher than 1500 out of 1600. For a while my mom outlawed television, but she got this idea from white parents whose children were smarter than me.

Still, my mother drove me to sleepovers and birthday parties. I chose my electives. I acted in plays. I got into fights with kids from my neighborhood. And in the end, I majored in film production. I thought it was bad growing up, but compared to Amy Chua my mother was Mary Poppins.

Today, I am thankful that my mom made me study Mandarin. I live and work in Beijing and my language skills have helped me immensely. But I haven’t touched an instrument in years. I remember fighting with my parents over college. I remember that they didn’t care what I was interested in. Though we are on great terms now, I have to live with the fact that when I needed my parents the most, they weren’t there for me, or they didn’t know how to be there for me.

Achievement is easily visible, even flaunted – but pain, less so.

Achievement is easily visible, even flaunted – but pain, less so. Underneath achievement and success lies a foundation of failure and struggle, hidden like the base of an iceberg. The question for a parent is, should a child choose this path himself, or should it be chosen for him?

As a teacher here in Beijing, Chinese parent ground zero, I have seen the beneficiaries of so-called “Chinese parenting”: brilliant young minds, accomplished and driven, fluent in English and on the fast track to a “top school.” Yet I have also seen its victims: students with no dreams to call their own and no idea why they are studying or pursuing something; children who have their passions stomped out or are barred from pursuing them. “My parents told me to,” is their mantra. Unlike the author, I am not so foolish as to believe that all children turn out alike if you raise them the same way and teach them the same things. Some will be thankful and happy, content in their ability to be a computer programmer or violin virtuoso. But others will live with untold emotional and psychological scars.

I have seen its victims: students with no dreams to call their own and no idea why they are studying or pursuing something.

This forceful parenting style pervades in China partly due to beliefs about filial piety (you must obey your parents) and education (education equals social mobility and a greater chance at success) and partly because the large population and the one-child policy create immense competition. In current Chinese society, if a child wants to get into a good school – more precisely, if a parent wants their child to get into a good school – he must study nonstop. There is no time to make mistakes or “find yourself” or get a part-time job. There is only rote memorization and repetition.

But America is a different country with different rules. Ideally, America’s strength lies in individuals with varied talents and a society that nurtures them. Western education is predicated on the notion that children are unique and parents should tailor themselves to their children. Eastern methods are more about filing down square pegs to fit round holes: children must conform to societal standards or face ostracism and failure. This pedagogical gap was formed by thousands of years of history, society, and culture and it’s impossible to say which is “right” or “better.”

Chua says Chinese parents believe “the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future.” If a parent’s duty is to prepare their child for the future, then preparing a child for a hostile society by being hostile is forgivable. But it seems the author is preparing her children for the wrong future. Many immigrant parents share Chua’s inflexibility: having grown up in a different culture they cannot, in mid-life, understand another so they raise their children the way they were raised. Indeed, Chua recounts how her parents called her “garbage” when she was young, how it “worked really well,” and how she did the same thing to her daughter. It doesn’t occur to her that maybe not everyone is like her and that her ideas about parenting might actually undermine her children’s ability to succeed in the future by restricting their social interactions.