INTO THE NEXT STAGE: ‘Crazy Asian Moms’ in the News, Thanks to Amy Chua

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on February 3, 2011.)

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Crazy Asian moms. That was the first thing that came to my mind when I started hearing about the “tiger mom” meme that began trending in the zeitgeist, thanks to media coverage of Amy Chua’s new memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.”

It’s her story about raising two daughters in America “Chinese style” — high academic expectations, lots of studying, some mental bullying, hours of homework each night, discipline and strict rules. In America these days, that qualifies as crazy. (The same phenomenon exists in Japan, but there it’s called being a kyōiku mama.)

Without “crazy Asian moms,” we wouldn’t have author Amy Tan,  comedic actress Amy Hill or comedians Margaret Cho and Dat Phan — and they would not have had the mother lode of maternal material to help them with their careers. Need inspiration and stories for a novel, standup act or one-person show? Crazy Asian mom is the gift that keeps on giving! Therapists from across the country thank you!

Now, we can add another Amy to the list with Chua, the smug-mugged Chinese American Harvard law professor, mother and author who has gained notoriety for her hardball tactics in raising her two daughters (now 15 and 18) the way her parents raised her, by pushing them hard academically, limiting their options for fun and distraction, and calling them uplifting names like “garbage.”

For the record, her husband — also a Harvard prof — is Jed Rubenfeld, meaning their daughters got the double-whammy of ethnic stereotyping — the “smart Jew” and the “smart Asian.”

For its Jan. 31 issue, Time Magazine made the “tiger mom” its cover story; Time is, of course, the same publication that in 1987 gave us that “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids” cover story. Now we get the presumed backstory behind those whiz kids.

In 2011, Time looks to the parents, particularly “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua.

Not having yet had the opportunity to read Chua’s book, I’m betting that she’s probably been misrepresented in her media coverage to some degree, but at the same time, she’s probably given her critics the ammo needed to shoot herself in the foot, if the example of calling her elder daughter “garbage” is any indication.

The Time story points out that the timing of Chua’s Jan. 11 book release comes when China’s president has just visited the White House, the Chinese economy is roaring while ours is whining and test scores show kids in America are continuing the decades-old trend of scoring behind kids in Asia in math, science and literacy.
Maybe, some folks are thinking, a little “tiger” love is what’s needed for their little indulged princess or prince whose every bowel movement since birth has been touted for greatness.

I attended schools with an abundance of “Asian whiz kids” of all stripes and backgrounds. Some were, I think, just naturally inclined to excel academically, while others were diligent students who worked hard, with varying degrees of parental pressure. There were also some really smart yet naïve kids with no sense of street smarts; also, there were some kids of Asian background who were not only not whiz kids, they were outright hellions, rebellious troublemakers. No cover story in Time Magazine for them!

In 1987, Time Magazine devoted a cover story to Asian American whiz kids.

Iheard cautionary tales about some of those “smart kids” getting physically beaten when bringing home report cards with “B’s.” There were also tales of some repressed kids leaving for college and, like a spring that’s been keep coiled for too long, making up for lost time by hitting hard with the booze and drugs once out of their parents’ reach. Were the stories true? I don’t know. Probably.

Now, as a parent, I also want good things for my kids. I want them to be smart, well-adjusted, creative, curious, athletic and so on. I want both of them to be better at reading, writing and speaking Japanese than me. I want them to get better grades than I did. I want them to have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. But I also want them to enjoy childhood. Rather than the negative reinforcement that Chua supposedly meted out, I prefer positive reinforcement. So far, so good — ask me in another 15 years if it worked!

Being an involved parent who pushes his or her child to excel is not limited to academics. Sometimes it’s musical or athletic talent that gets pushed, er, nurtured by the parents. When a parent recognizes a child’s gift and that child gets the right nurturing, the results can be astonishing. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, was a musical prodigy who got the right nurturing from his musical family, and he’s still remembered centuries after his death.

Sometimes pushing works, sometimes it backfires. For Ichiro Suzuki,  having a father who pushed him to excel in baseball worked. (Growing up in Japan probably helped, too; had he grown up here, he might have been relegated to towel boy status.) Then there’s former football standout Todd Marinovich, whose father began grooming him for gridiron greatness at an early age. Unfortunately, he later acquired the nickname Todd Marijuana-vich and is now remembered as a brilliant burnout. Young Tiger Woods was groomed by his dad from an early age to excel at golf and he became a links legend before recently getting derailed in the sand trap of life.

Sometimes, biology is destiny. If a young Lew Alcindor had maxed out at a height of 5 feet 10 inches instead of seven-plus feet, he probably wouldn’t have evolved into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and no one would have cared) and become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Meantime, there are other seven-footers who never came close to achieving what Abdul-Jabbar did, yet still got NBA gigs simply by virtue of being tall. It’s also safe to say that no one was scouting jockey Corey Nakatani to be the starting center for a basketball team.

There are just so many factors that come into play — gender, looks, individual temperament and aptitude, birth order, number of siblings, extended family, age of the parents when the kids are kids, geography, family income and educational level and more—so, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for “success,” however you define it.

To me, the early years of a child’s life are when he or she can absorb knowledge with relative ease, when the foundation for the future is set. Without a doubt, there are times when a child needs to be pushed so he or she can learn not to give up too easily. We all hear about someone whose parents pushed them to play a musical instrument, even though they as children fought it; then, as grown-ups, they are thankful for having been forced to learn violin or piano.

Generally, kids do want to please their parents, for a while a least. But  if you’re born colorblind, all the pushing in the world won’t allow you to see orange if you can’t see orange. What’s the point of all the screaming, yelling and fighting then?

There are all kinds of stories of “success,” and if there is a guaranteed formula for raising successful children, it’s like the fountain of youth — it doesn’t exist. Being a “tiger mom” or “dragon dad” guarantees nothing.

Nevertheless, I think it is true that in order to succeed at something, there is a price to be paid, whether it’s time spent at the gym or memorizing the dictionary. That is where Amy Chua is onto something. The question to me is whose choice it is about paying that price and whether you’re a willing participant — or your parents’ puppet.

Chua will no doubt learn how well her tactics worked if, in the next few years, one of her daughters decides to write a book of her own about bearing the brunt of being raised by a crazy Asian mom. For Amy Chua’s sake, I hope that doesn’t happen.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Past columns can be viewed at www.IntoTheNextStage.com. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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  2. Tiger parenting is an interesting topic worth further discussion. After reading her book, I always feel even coming from an Asian background myself she is overdoing certain things. First she listed a guideline of do & don’ts for the kids including no video games, no TV or sleepover at a friend’s place which may be a bit harsh for some. I find kids should only be allowed to play piano or violin a bit excessive or you wouldn’t have the world-famous Yo-Yo Ma (cello).

    These included no dinner until the piano or violin piece you are working on to perfection. A. Chua would show up at the older daughter Sophie’s school during lunch break to supervise her piano practice and on vacation the same routine. The family missed going to a museum in Istanbul because the kids got caught up in music practice in the hotel (with a piano of course). For goodness sake they’re on vacation!

    In our family there is a lot of “parents knows best” going on. Not just pushing us to excel but also having parents dictating your career choices (what they feel is in your best interest) and your choice of partner for marriage. When we were younger, the weaker in the family were not encouraged to take up guitar because it would be too heavy to carry to class. I know a few skinny people carry cellos on their back for music practice! And then there is 1 tradition that is causing a lot of conflicts in our family which is “birth order”. My parents both came from large families and the eldest male is always favor over the rest. For my brother being older always gets the attention even to the point of being more intelligent than the rest in the family. My brother is intelligent and successful in his career. I see myself as being the creative one in the family. While doing computer design work, I also play 2 music instruments (violin & piano) and kept up being fluent in my mother-tongue both speaking and writing. Not because I have “tiger parents” who had expectations for me to excel, but rather having parents who put more focus on my older siblings that I had to work harder to prove myself.

    Don’t over-stereotype Asian parents and parenting methods. Many follow certain traditions but there are differences from 1 family to the next. In my family for instance my older siblings are still able to speak the mother-tongue but no longer able to write. In a certain respect my parents fit the description of “tiger parents” but in other respects they do not. At least they don’t treat all their kids equally.

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