Recently, Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua has been whipping the blogosphere into a frenzy with her newly released book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ and provocative promo piece – the WSJ article ‘Why Chinese Moms Are Superior’. (An exception to the rule – my fellow bloggers Anderson and Phil have simply gotten hot and bothered by her MILF-y appeal and tough love modus operandi.) In a nutshell, she proudly divulges the details of her strict disciplinary approach and suggests that this style of parenting is not only typically associated with Chinese parents but also, produces winning results as evidenced by her two musician prodigy daughters. Her article has hit a nerve as she’s been accused of perpetuating and exploiting racial stereotypes, condoning child abuse, and being reductive and elitist in her definition of success. And with all the fervor particularly around her severe parenting methods, you’d think she has everyone convinced that she’s one badass Chinese mom. (Cue 70s exploitation film music).
But, I don’t think Amy Chua is really that tough as far as Chinese parents go – she’s just a perpetrator. Amy is a 2nd generation Chinese American who is Ivy League educated, well-assimilated into American culture and married to an easy going non-Chinese man so, she can’t hold a candle to the original, old-school Chinese mom (hereafter referred to as OSCM). OSCM is hard-core. She doesn’t speak English, is suspicious of anything Western, and still lives like she does in the old country and will make sure that you do as well.
Here are the top reasons why compared to the OSCM, Amy Chua is more like Panda Express – looks like Chinese parenting, smells like Chinese parenting, but is not the real deal – that is, old-school Chinese parenting.
1. NO CONFUCIAN GUILT-TORTURE TACTICS: Amy’s home is like white collar prison. As long as her daughters follow the rules – get straight As, deliver the goods musically, and don’t squander their time with social activities, she’ll pretty much leave them alone if not, actually be pleased with them. Whereas the OSCM is like Guantanamo. You are stuck there, have no idea what you did wrong, but OSCM is never happy. You can deliver the A’s, perform concertos, solve complex math problems in your 5 x 5 cell room to entertain yourself while your peers are partying, but she will continue to find new ways to torture you for not serving your filial duties.
2. YOU CAN DEPEND ON LOGIC AND CONSISTENCY: With Amy, it is straightforward. Every waking hour of your existence while under her roof should be dedicated to excellence. With OSCM, it is not so straightforward. She is a sphinx who screams out riddles everyday that you must solve. You should get into a top ivy league school on the opposite coast, but stay close to home. You must eat everything OSCM cooks but not get fat. You must not date or socialize with anyone outside the family, but find an appropriate mate who you can marry. You must respect your elders even if they are passing gas and burping in public.
3. PRAISE IS GIVEN UPON SUCCESS: Amy approves of praise when kids work hard and succeed. For OSCM praise is a precious resource that cannot be wasted on stroking kids’ egos. OSCM uses praise sparingly and strategically – to embarrass other parents who try to show OSCM up with their overachieving kids’ accomplishments. The stroking ego part is just a by-product of the real goal which is to carpet bomb those gloating Chinese parents until they submit to OSCM’s dominance.
4. AMY KNOWS THE GAME AND CAN BE HANDS-ON. Like the basketball coach in practice, Amy knows the game and can give an educated critique of every shot which allows her kids to benefit from her knowledge and experience. The OSCM on the other hand, is an outsider and doesn’t have the luxury of being hands-on. She’s in the bleachers selling hot dogs and peanuts and then looks up once in awhile to scream “why you miss that shot! So easy, just throw in basket!”.
5. SHAME IS THE LAST RESORT. Amy calls her kids “garbage” when they act out or rebel. But for OSMS’s these colorful euphemisms are part of everyday conversation. If Eskimos do indeed have 100 words for snow, then OSCMs have 100 Chinese words that express the complexity of their love/hate relationship with their spawn. These words are used interchangeably to shame, criticize, or to simply grab their kids’ attention. Unlike Amy, the OSCM will call you what she wants and when she wants. Depending on the mood of the OSCM, these harsh words may pass as cutesy nicknames, not unlike the way tough chicks in prison and rappers may acknowledge their own with a special derogatory term of endearment. The Chinese names for kids range from “fatty”, “slow poke”, “dunderhead”, “little devil”, “ungrateful bastard”, “bamboo pole” (that’s in reference to those who are American-born and stand out like bamboo stalks) to name just a few. And as if puberty wasn’t humiliating enough, there’s also some gems for the daughters who suffer through adolescence for having smaller assets than their peers (eg: “ironing board”, “landing strip”, “soup dumplings”, etc.).
On a personal note, my Shanghainese grandmother and mom would call me “niubi” if I was misbehaving as a child. I never knew what that really meant until it was explained to me years later by cinematographer/filmmaker, Chris Doyle (who is well versed in Chinese dialects). “Niu” means cow and apparently “bi” means – to put it clinically, the vagina. In old, rural China, cows had more value than girls as they could provide milk, meat, and clothing. So the cow’s “bi” which produces offspring that can sustain a village, is revered by the Chinese. Hence, the positive connotation to the expression “niubi”. While “niubi” in the literal sense is unappealing, in the colloquial context it is complimentary – akin to being tough/difficult but in a cool way. Why my grandmother and mom would call me this? I have no idea. I suspect when screaming “niubi” they were probably referring to me as a stubborn, little brat while chasing me around. If there are any Shanghainese readers out there who can deny or confirm this theory on the meaning of “niubi”, I welcome your input.
Ok, language lesson is over. We now return to your regularly scheduled program.