I’m white. I was born to two white parents in Southeastern Long Island in 1977. My mother was born to two white parents in the same place, in 1944. My father to two white parents also in Southeastern Long Island in 1939. My grandparents were born there. We are, at least three generations back, firmly rooted Southeastern Long Islanders. I think my father’s grandparents may have come from Germany, or maybe it was a great-grandparent. My grandfather’s mother was from Ireland; my grandmother’s people were French-Canadian and, on some branch of the tree, British. I think. It all gets muddle for me when you bring in the Robertses and LaFaves (both of which strike me as French names, but what do I know?).
French, German, Irish, British. We are as white as they come, my cousins and I. And yet, for my whole life I’ve had this strange umbilical pull toward China.
I’m a fan of Chinese medicine. I believe acupuncture works (though, like anything in life worthwhile, it’s a slow process). I love anything in a dumpling. I’m a dim sum fanatic. When I first moved to Asheville, the absence of good Chinese food and dim sum struck me as a possible deal-breaker. My adoration of Chinese food, medicine, and cultural practice aside, it’s the ties Chinese people have to their ancestry which dazzles me the most. This isn’t true across the entire culture but there is an umbrella sense that what they’re doing in the world is the result of what generations before them did. Perhaps its the traditional belief in reincarnation – the continuity of life, which implies a deep and richly intertwined connectivity. Similar to how indigenous cultures operate on a spiritual continuum. There’s beauty to that, evident in Chinese folk music, the whistle of an erhu, the bent ankles and curved arms and upward-turning eyes of a Chinese ballet. Their relationship with the natural elements seems almost otherworldly.
I’m familiar with the phenomenon of “Chinese parenting”, of course, and have always wondered if it’s something as prevalent on the Chinese mainland as it is among immigrant communities in the United States. Is it truly the way Chinese people parent no matter where they are in the world, or is it the result of the immigrant coming to the US, where wealth and power are legitimate goals, and excellence pays money? Is it a result of what a foreign culture thinks is important in their adopted home, for the preservation of respect for their culture…because they want Chinese people to be regarded highly and understand that mainstream white America tends to be racist and oppressive against other cultures that don’t far exceed arbitrary expectations?
In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua tackles some of these questions. The daughter of immigrants, her parents were raised in a Chinese community in the Philippines. They came to America with Chua when she was an infant (if I recall correctly) and she grew up under the gaze of expectation.
I understand this a little bit because my ex was born in Manila and moved to the States with her mother when she was barely in the double digits. I only witnessed the relationship for four years, but the personalities of the individuals aside, there was a markedly different parent-child relationship than the one I experienced growing up. It doesn’t take much analysis to understand that, when a parent moves across the world to provide a better future for their child, there’s some pressure on that offspring to…you know, have a better future. The best future imaginable, and more. In the case of my ex, she was valedictorian and went to Princeton for engineering (before switching to geology and ultimately becoming a yoga instructor).
Looking back, I can see the lack of understanding I had for the pressure she put on herself to exceed expectations, make a ton of money, be proficient in business and technology, was not some weird obsession with exceptionalism. It was a sort of allegiance to the life her mother dreamed up for her when she got on the plane in Manila, tearing her child away from the extraordinary landscapes and culture of the Philippines – the mango trees, the beaches, the halo halo – and moved thousands of miles away to San Francisco where the ice cream comes one flavor at a time and the mangoes are imported from Mexico.
But, Philippine culture and Chinese culture are not the same. The Philippines were under Chinese rule for quite a long time, but the colonial American influence has had some fierce staying power. It seems many Asians agree that there are more similarities with Asian parent-child relationships than there are between Asian and American parent-child relationships. Having grown up in a white-people house surrounded by people who had been in the States for several generations, I can’t attest to any of this. It’s all just guessing and going off the comments made by friends and my ex.
All that said, Chua’s book is stressing me the hell out. I don’t know if I’ll even bother to finish it. Her parenting methods strike me as a little bit over-the-line, beyond what I’ve seen and heard from Asian friends. I know the expectations of Chinese parents, particularly, are high and strict. I probably won’t ever call my children fat and lazy, but I don’t think doing so is verbally abusive if that’s the personality of your parenting style. Somehow I understand that. But the all-out wars with her children that Chua describes in this book – the hours upon hours of cracking the whip on her daughter Lulu especially – strike me as a little over-the-top. Perhaps that’s because I’m an American who values happiness and quality of life over exceptionalism and monetary rewards.
I don’t feel like I need my children to outperform every other child in the world, in order to feel like I’ve succeeded as a parent. Who knows, that could change once there are actual children living here. I don’t want them to become drug addicts or thugs or – worse – violently enraged adolescents who shoot up schools. But I could count at least a dozen things which are higher priorities than exceptional performance on a musical instrument and Straight A’s. Don’t get me wrong – I’d like for my children to study a musical instrument (or some method of artistic expression) and do well in school. But I trust performance and the internalization/application of information (i.e. performance on an assignment or essay) more than tests. Our public schools haven’t figured out the right way to measure that, so there won’t be any flipping-the-hell-out if our child comes home with a B on a test. I could see encouraging additional study and situational quizzing to gauge whether or not they actually grasp the concept. But focusing on the letter grade strikes me a little bit like assigning colors to terror threat level. It’s mostly symbolic (which makes sense considering Chinese culture). But it’s also correlation rather than causation, in my opinion.
So, I’ll never be a Chinese parent, nor do I want to be. Maybe I would have gotten more of what I was looking for if I’d read The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Maybe I’ll read that in the future, though it’ll likely have a completely different effect than a parenting-focused book.
Even though many of the vignettes she shares strike me as harsh-well-beyond-tough-love (even her parents chide her for going too far) I’m not sure I’d exactly call Chua’s methods abusive. Her daughters have defended her, but they’re still under her roof. And, as she makes clear early in the book, children owe their parents everything, so for either of those children to dissent publicly would be a declaration of adamant disloyalty. So, it depends how they truly feel, as they grow and evolve and make their own ways in the world. That’s for them to decide among themselves and it’s none of our business, but there’s not a chance I’ll employ any of her methods in my own family. My values are different, and that’s fine. At best, Tiger Mother is an interesting study on how one family figured out how to function. Maybe at the end of the book, she realizes she was being a little obsessive all along and lightens up a bit, relaxes, and realizes life isn’t just about being the best [fill in the blank]; that there’s value to stillness, acceptance, and embracing imperfection. That “perfection” is subjective and inhuman anyway.
But I doubt it.
If you want to read it, though, you can pick up a copy from our favorite local bookseller, Malaprop’s, or a similar store in your own area.