Monday, January 24, 2011

A tiger of another stripe

Ken Lum, A Tale of Two Children, 2005

In recent weeks there has been much debate in "the blogosphere" (so the kids call it) about Amy Chua's controversial article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" published in The Wall Street Journal. I know, I know, we are so over it already (I, too, am surprised at how long a politically sensitive person such as myself took to respond to this), but considering our readership here at WWS is up to maybe 5 individuals, I thought I would move past the shame of tardiness.

How does one begin to respond to such a contentious article with an even more unfortunate title? To start, it should be noted that the article is mostly composed of excerpts from Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), in which Chua recounts her childhood experiences while expounding a method of parenting that mirrors the strict child-rearing regime she was raised under. This includes not allowing her daughters to attend sleepovers, have playdates, be in school plays, watch television, or play any instrument that was not a piano or a violin. Academic grades below an A are also unacceptable. Chua acknowledges that she uses the term "Chinese mother" loosely, recognizing that this form of disciplinarian parenting is common in many other immigrant households.

Without surprise, the article has incited numerous heated debates, with many individuals taking immediate offense to Chua's open admission that once at a dinner party she angrily called her daughter "garbage". While some minority bloggers have had more hostile responses to the article ("So, fuck you Amy Chua..."), others have been more favourable, with Chua's own 18 year-old daughter Sophia coming to her defense in a letter to the New York Post (despite being the recipient of the garbage comment, no less).

The difficulty in locating my position within this debate speaks to my own complicated relationship with my mother, and to a past that I can make amends with but obviously am unable to change. In this situation I would avoid disclosing too much information about my own childhood (who wants to open up that whole can of worms), but can say without discretion that some of Chua's parenting tactics were reminiscent of my mother's, and it is one shared by many immigrant parents. I was allowed to attend sleepovers, but often begrudgingly. I played the piano for 8 years. Any remote interaction with a boy, almost always harmless in nature, indicated I was headed for a life of sexual depravity and corruption (I was barely allowed to play cards). My creative pursuits were eventually accepted, but again, begrudgingly, and after several years of anxiety, frustration, anger, and dry heaving in the bathroom. Those years, they were not easy.

Would I have preferred otherwise? Yes and no. Growing up I was incredibly jealous of my friends for having parents that subscribed to what I viewed as liberal parenting methods, but in retrospect it is also challenging to directly place fault on my parents for my own psychological trauma from that time period (oh, woe is me). Am I permanently damaged from the severity of their parenting? Probably, in the way we all are. But I have also received immense benefit from their rigour - I gained a desire to always want more, to improve, to progress, and to do so through organization, control, and persistence. The process is the purpose, and the achievement is merely the brief encouragement to continue on.

One of the most complex issues Chua raises is that Non-Western parents are given a certain levity when it comes to the extreme and horrific things they can do to their children in comparison to Western parents (back to the garbage again). Her reasoning for this inconsistency in perception is in part due to the sensitivity and concern Western parents have towards the psychological well-being of their offspring, and the fact that immigrant parents feel their children are permanently indebted to them beyond reason. Whether intended or not, Chua's article sparks an important conversation about second-generation immigrant children and the complexities of being raised in a place with conflicting cultural practices.

So where does that situate myself? Somewhere in between, I imagine.