Amy Chua: A memoir, not a how-to

4 Mar

Amy Chau with daughters Louisa (Lulu) and Sophia

For those who haven’t been keeping up with the Amy Chua controversy, I’d suggest turning to any woman around you who looks like a mother, mentioning either that Chinese mothers are superior, or that Yale professor who published the essay about parenting, and watching said woman explode. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

If you really don’t know what it’s all about, I’ll explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up: Amy Chua wrote a book called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ta da!

Okay, not quite, I know.

Amy Chua wrote a memoir. That memoir had an excerpt published. Now people are losing their minds. Although, I must admit, quite a few are keeping them. Just in the wrong places. One blogger who hadn’t even read the book yet decided to make some serious assumptions by creating a parallel between herself and Chua’s children. The tone of the post quickly reveals that the author hadn’t even read an interview with Chua or her children, never mind the actual book she was blasting. However, I need to get off my horse on that one as my first/gut reaction wasn’t much different. I just showed restraint in blogging. I believe this is where the word “neener” gets repeated once or twice.

Growing up and moving on.

All right, let’s start by not forgetting that Chua was already an internationally acclaimed author by the time she printed this, her third book. Her first, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, was praised by both the Economist and the Guardian in 2003. This woman can write. I may not agree with all her ideas–and others would agree with me–but she is talented, gutsy, and, you know, a professor. I’ve only got Wikipedia to back me up. She’s got a piece of paper with the word “Harvard” on it. Actually, she’s got two pieces of paper with that word.

She even goes as far as to use the term “Confucian filial piety” in her writing, which just about blew my mind. Now, for those who are not familiar with Chinese, there is a word–孝顺 (xiàoshùn)–for which the closest English translation is “filial piety”. This is a word that is pervasive in the Chinese language and, by parallel, Chinese culture. I know it intimately as it comes up again and again when teaching English to Chinese students, and the confusion I see after explaining to them that there isn’t a regular-usage word for that in English is frustratingly repetitive.

Wikipedia gives a pretty good definition of filial piety:

“In somewhat general terms, filial piety means to be good to one’s parents; to take care of one’s parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors; to perform the duties of one’s job well so as to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors; not be rebellious; show love, respect and support; display courtesy; ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one’s parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness; display sorrow for their sickness and death; and carry out sacrifices after their death.”

If anyone can give me a one-word adjective that explains all of that, and which we use in our daily conversations, I’ll bake them a cookie.

But moving back to Chua. When I first heard about the book (and before reading it), I was outraged. Here was this woman, basically abusing her kids as they grew up, ripping away their childhood, and claiming that it was in THEIR interest? How dare she! The outrage, the injustice! The opinions of a 25-year-old, childless Westerner were not only offended, they were accusatory. How dare she.

And yet, they were opinions fuelled by media bias, my own misgivings about Chinese parenting (don’t even start on me unless you’ve lived here), and the media. Oh wait, did I say the media twice? Let’s leave my horror at Chinese parenting aside for the moment as, a) I’m just as horrified by Western parents, and b) I’m childless and therefore not technically allowed to comment on parenting skills without sounding like a complete idiot. So that leaves me with the overstressed point of The Media. Because, let’s face it, the media lost its shit when the Wall Street Journal published its article, controversially entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”. Just imagine the explosion my poor expat mind had over that one.

And that’s exactly what happened to everyone else. The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt. The excerpt was a selection made, as claimed by Chua herself, without prior approval and with the mind to cause upheaval. As Chua states:

“The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

Some people even seem to have failed to read the subtitle:

“This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

Does that really sound like a how-to-book on raising the perfect child?

I’ll admit some parts of the book scare me. The no-drink, no-bathroom, no-food piano/violin practices. The lack of fun. The screaming. The abusive nature of some of the criticisms towards her children. But this book reads as a coming of age story, not for the kids, but for the mother herself. Hell, even the kids support her. Sophia (the eldest) went so far as to publish an open letter to her mother in the New York Post, and both kids spoke with the Guardian about how much they appreciate and support their mum.

And let’s face it folks: her kids are successful. And happy. And balanced. Well, so it seems. We should probably check back in a few years, but for now, they seem to be sailing just fine. Chua has a very good point when she says that children are happy when they succeed, when they excel, and when they have confidence in their ability to face and overcome adversity. I may not agree with some of her methods, but her results and her motivations are hard to argue with.

More importantly, and the thing that people keep forgetting, is that this book is a memoir. Chua in no way claims that the “Chinese mother” is any better than the “Western mother” (both of which are terms Chua admits she’s loosely defined). This isn’t an “I’m right, you’re wrong, be like me” manifesto. This is the story of a woman who changed, a woman who saw her life crumbling around her, got the crap scared out of her, questioned everything she had done, and then went ahead and did one of the most Western things possible–she exposed herself and all her flaws to the world.

Personally, I thinks she’s bloody brave. She made a lot of mistakes, like everyone does, but was willing to look at herself and question whether or not she was the one that needed to change. In doing so, she became an even bigger role model for her children.

I prefer my mom, but I think Amy Chua did okay.


2 Responses to “Amy Chua: A memoir, not a how-to”

  1. Mom March 4, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    I don’t even know where to begin… or how to get out all that is racing through my mind so I will start by saying…
    I have read all your blogs Kidlet.
    Then I will add…
    Truly you score beyond measure at being a very clever, successful, balanced young adult with a sense of humour that most would drool over.(then again some may say your sense of humour may tilt you to one side on occasion –lol)
    As for the rest of my thoughts, comments, and queries I may have – I will save them for when we are on one of our unique ‘Road Trips’ – to delve into them with much gusto & passion! Well, with the exception of this one:
    In your last comment of this awesome blog, in my opinion, you captivated the meaning of ‘filial piety’ perfectly by proclaiming you preferred your own Mom. Thank You. With all my heart. With all my love.

    • Angie Pants March 6, 2011 at 6:46 am #

      Haha, you’re so sweet Mom, of course I wouldn’t delete this! At least I got my mom on my side.

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