By J. Lisa Oyama
She’s a nut job … and, she’s a genius, because she is making a lot more money off of this book than she is from being a law professor! That’s how a friend of mine summed up her take on Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, and I would have to say I agree with her.
I was surprised at how much attention this topic got from the mainstream media, but I was even more surprised by the reaction of Asian Americans. There seemed to be two camps: those who were immediately enamored with Chua and treated her like a celebrity, and those of us who just groaned and muttered, Here we go again. Since Asian American celebrities are relatively few and far between, I understand Chua’s taking on this rock star status for some. She was getting all kinds of press, and she didn’t even have to do any martial arts moves! She did, however, resort to the usual mystical Oriental lingo that is so plentiful in stereotypes of Asian Americans. Chua although born in Illinois and raised in Berkeley, California decided to call herself a Tiger Mother. I guess Dragon Lady was already taken, but seriously, do we need any more stereotyping than we already have? Couldn’t we be content with simply being overachieving and studious, without also being overbearing and crazy?
Unfortunately, you can’t unring a gong. We had been other-fied, once again, and by one of us, no less. Decades of civil rights activism fighting for Asian Americans to be recognized as Just Americans poof! Decimated, like so many tiny fluttering cherry blossoms flying into a tsunami. One racially charged Wall Street Journal headline, and we were, once again, reduced to foreign freaks, something other than American. Other-fied.
Ironically, all of this Tiger Mother hype was happening right around January 30, 2011, which marked the first Fred Korematsu Day in California. Korematsu was a Bay Area native who defied Executive Order 3066 and refused to report to be placed in an internment camp during WWII. Korematsu’s legacy was to stand up for his rights as an American citizen, regardless of his Japanese ancestry. One of my favorite photos of Korematsu shows him with Rosa Parks, both aged and smiling, two regular folks who became heroes in their communities. I thought of my Chinese American mother-in-law, who used to wear a button that read I am Chinese so that she would not be mistaken for Japanese or Japanese American during the war. And now, here we were in 2011, with a Chinese American emphasizing that she is so un-Western and so very different and Chinese. And in today’s political and economic climate, being considered Chinese is not necessarily a good thing. Chua’s book release seemed perfectly timed to coincide with Obama’s reference to our country’s current Sputnik moment “ and, based on Chua’s terminology, all of the Western parents’ kids will be competing right here at home with the kids of all those crazy Chinese parents.
Before all of this Tiger Mother business, I had convinced myself that we were doing pretty well, finally getting some mainstream TV facetime on Lost, Glee, Hawaii-Five 0 and the AT&T commercials. I hadn’t heard ching chong ching chong uttered by some little white boy in my carpool in, oh, four years now. Maybe we were finally being viewed as Just Americans. And then, out of nowhere … the Tiger Mother! All of those old fears that my kids would be stereotyped and not recognized as individuals have risen to the surface again. I worry that my Chinese-surnamed children will be viewed as Chinese and not real Americans. Just Chinese. Chua’s book has given birth to a new stereotype that would impact all of our children, and it would last far longer than one media cycle. In the world of college admissions, there is already an Asian tax, where Asian American students appear to have a tougher admissions standard to meet, and this perception that a student’s achievements were because of Tiger parents and not the student’s own drive and intellect will serve only to create yet another reason to justify non-admission in higher education. Hurray.
When I talked with my like-minded Asian American mom and dad friends, we made sure to have our conversations in private. Our town is predominantly white, and Chua’s article caused quite a buzz. It was even mentioned in our local paper, in a column written by the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates. By the end of the column, she conveyed that she felt both validated and threatened by Tiger Mothers and their kids, and had confirmed my theory that Chua’s article had other-fied us, stating in her closing that this was clear evidence of a cultural divide. I also confirmed that others assumed that I am a Tiger Mother — or, maybe there was some other reason that the moms sitting behind me at a school function who starting talking about the article decided it was best to quickly hush each other when they realized I was sitting right in front of them. I found myself relieved, not really wanting to overhear what they thought about this topic; after all, regardless of what they thought, it would not change the fact that I would be interacting with them in the future, since our kids are the same age in a small community.
In private, we talked about the Tiger Mother setback for our kids and Asian Americans, in general. We discussed how this would impact our kids’ futures, and how — ironically — they would now have to work even harder to overcome the stereotype that they are “just” hard workers. Coincidentally, my Asian American friends and their kids are all academically high achievers. Also, coincidentally, none of us thinks of ourselves as Tiger parents, nor did we have overbearing, micromanaging parents ourselves. Our parents were too busy working to hover over us. We were all self-motivated — the unspoken expectation of our parents’ generation being enough to make us strive for good grades and assume we could get them. As a parent, I struggled to find a way to pass this on to my kids. They were growing up in a different kind of community, with different community standards than I grew up with, and peers whose families complained about the schools giving grades at all. I was finally confronted with the issue when my son made the observation, You know, Mom, a ˜B’ is a perfectly good grade, too. I agreed, and then asked, But why would you not want to at least try get an ˜A?’ We know not all kids can get ˜A”s “ but we know you are capable of getting an ˜A.’ He pondered for a split second, and replied, Good point. Then he went back to his room to study. After that, he seemed to get it. He wanted the A’s, and he would do what was needed to at least try to get them.
If there is a style of parenting that I subscribe to, I suppose I would sum it up as Parenting Based on Expectations and Having Standards. That doesn’t have a very good ring to it, though, so maybe we should call it Bamboo Parenting Style since we expect to build up our kids to have strength, being able to bend and not break. Or, even better, Turtle-Dragon Style because we assume quiet diligence unless there is injustice and the dragon is awakened! I am just kidding, of course. I am sure there are plenty of non-Asian American families who parent the same way. Instead of labeling it as something mystical and foreign, let’s just say it is one style of American parenting.
I did get one major bonus out of this Tiger Mother business, for which I owe Chua my gratitude. Her article showed my kids that I am totally reasonable, even though they had previously commented that I was strict compared to other parents. Now, I look like a complete lightweight! And, I will confess, I have gotten some validation out of that. I’m not crazy. At least, not compared to that Tiger Mother. Hear me roar.
J. Lisa Oyama lives in the Bay Area, and is embracing life as a freckled, salt-and-peppered forty-something. She spends her time caring for her two children, her husband, and the family dog, volunteering for the kids’ schools and writing at OyamaMama.com.
Flick credit: Helga’s Lobster Stew
Korematsu/Parks photo by Shirley Nakao, Courtesy of the Korematsu Institute
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.