A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reflections on Tiger Mother Part 2

Jonathan Swift, reknowned for his fantastical, satirical scifi fantasy epic, Gulliver's Travels, also wrote a farcical essay, "A Modest Proposal" -- a rich, ironic hyperbolic piece counselling the impoverished Irish of his day to sell their children to the wealthy class as food. In it he writes:

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.[...]

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Swift's object in this was to ridicule attitudes to the poor and protest British hegemony over Ireland.

While reading the WSJ article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", I thought that I had crossed over into a Swiftian universe. All the extracts from Tiger Mother that were published on that occasion gave me pause... and the strong impression that somebody was doing a Swiftian turn. Quite bizarre, I thought.
Call me intolerant or what you will, but I was astonished that anybody in the 21st century with the ability to reason could seriously hold such radical views about authoritarian parenting based on such egregious stereotyping. And pontificate about it with so much relish.  In chapter 10 of the book, she claims for instance that:
Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't. Once when I was young -- maybe more than once -- when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in our native Hokkien dialect. [...]
As an adult, I once did the same to Sophia, calling her garbage in Englsh... When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized.

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable -- even legally actionable -- to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty, lose some weight."

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you."

There's a part of me that's still waiting for Chua to announce that she had penned a Swiftian diatribe against aspects of modern parenting , the self-esteem movement and reasons behind the decline in American education.

*crickets chirping* *toads croaking*

In another universe perhaps.

Make no mistake, I'm no fan of the nobody-loses-and-everybody-wins-so-we-don't-damage-self-esteem type of nonsense that's been propagated in certain circles the last couple of decades.
But I draw the line at verbal abuse... there's nothing superior about that.

I'm the last person to decry a traditional conservative upbringing. Old fashioned things like:

1) A strong work ethic
2) Respect for one's elders
3) Thinking for oneself

Virtues that have been adopted by different cultures at one point or another in history.

But manipulating and bullying children into doing what you want them to may yield short-term benefits but at what cost to character and relationships? It's also odd to me that a woman of such intellectual calibre can't see that children don't come out of a factory production line from the same mould. Perhaps it is that self-certainty that blinds her to the realities of raising a family.

I found Chua's definition of success narrow... and troubling. It is materially driven and leaves no place for failure. Still one has to admire her tenacity to go to the ends of the earth for her children. Amy Chua paints herself as a woman with a mission. Even then, one wonders  (despite her protestations to the contrary) what's really in it for Amy Chua.

Chua's children are still young... there's no way there won't be another book especially because this one's been such an undisputed publishing success.
Portions of it are entertaining but one doesn't have to look to hard to see it's a puff piece. (Frankly, it reads like a series of blog posts) This is not say that there aren't any good things about the book, such as sister Katrin's battle with leukemia or "Popo" (mother-in-law) Florence's relationship with the family. My favourite bits in the book are of younger daughter, Lulu, the central character in an old fashion family melodrama, rebelling against her villainous Tiger Mother. After suffering vicariously through all the bald manipulation and pigheaded parenting, my sympathies were with Lulu entirely.

Fun stuff aside, the self-justification and preachiness does sour one's appreciation of the entire project. In the end, after having to battle it out with a strong-willed child, Amy Chua does acknowledge some of the short-comings of "the Chinese Way":

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 clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen year old.

(I apologize for not providing page numbers but the book was read on my iPhone Kindle app.)

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