Amy Chua does not hold the patent on prejudice. There are lots of ways to spin a stereotype, and that she calls herself a “Chinese” mother in her hotly debated book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, plays well against cultural anxieties about American economic status. But for heaven’s sake—the woman was born in Illinois!
No doubt that Chua and her daughters have put in the requisite 10,000 hours it takes to be fluent in any subject, but the Ivy League is chock-full of accomplished people who put in such hours. They come from all over the United States and all over the world. Some growing percentage of them are the products of yuppie, buppie, narcissistic helicopter parents—hockey dads, stage moms, the kind of people who would rather see their child drop dead of heatstroke while running a race than see that child give up. Like Chua, they do so in the name of all sorts of higher values—family honor, Catholic guilt, team spirit, Texan bragging rights, Jamaican superiority, Jewish destiny, women’s equality, Norwegian sang-froid, black pride, Hindu nationalism, immigrant striving, Protestant ethic, true grit. The world is a queasy, uncertain place right now, and what it takes to compete in the rat race exposes our kids to ever-increasing rates of depression, mental illness and substance abuse.
That said, the Ivy League is also home to a much larger group of people who work hard, who love their chosen pursuits, who are happily well-adjusted, yet who did not acquire their highly effective study habits by being turned out into the snow when they were 2 years old—a form of “discipline” Chua brags about. Some of them are even Chinese. Likewise, there are many Ivy Leaguers who do not believe that their accomplishment makes them less “American” or “Western.” They don’t spend time worrying, as Chua does, that if they “feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the US Constitution” they will be “much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice.”
So let’s not spend too much time wondering why Chua assigns her neurosis to her Chinese-ness rather than to her aspirational American upper-middle-class-ness. What I find more intriguing is not so much her obsession with academic success but her pathological yearning for dominance, control, standing and respect. Chua does not just want perfect scores; she is desperately afraid that she and her daughters will be drowned in the cold goop of what she endlessly refers to as “decline.”
Chua’s fears are not confined by race, ethnicity or personal effort alone. After all, in Greece and France students have been rioting because of the rising costs of a good education and the paucity of jobs. In Akron, Ohio, an African-American tiger mother named Kelley Williams-Bolar was recently prosecuted for lying about where she lived so she could get her children into a decent school district. In California, immigrant kids of Mexican parents are battling for the right to pay in-state tuition at public universities. In Memphis there are fights about whether integrating a poor school district with a wealthier suburban one would constitute a “theft” of education. In London, a woman named Mrinal Patel was accused of fraud for misrepresenting her address so as to qualify her child for a better school. There are few places, in other words, where people are not worried about the quality of life and distribution of resources on a crowded planet.
At the same time, if Singapore, China and Hong Kong are producing a greater number of students with musical proficiency and excellent test scores, it’s because they have made huge public investments in education. They make musical instruments available to students—as the United States once did in the first part of the twentieth century. They have teachers certified in the subjects they teach—as was the case in Russian schools during the Sputnik era. “Westerners” are not nearly as lacking in work ethic as Chua maintains; but you don’t get to Yale if your elementary school has no books. You don’t rank first in the world in science if, as in the United States, 60 percent of your biology teachers are reluctant to teach evolution—and 13 percent teach creationism instead.
It would be so deliciously convenient if calling your kids “garbage”—another parenting trick Chua boasts about—actually turned them into little engines that could. But our larger educational crisis will involve a public investment that simply does not correlate with shooting down the self-esteem of children or disrespecting the “Western-ness” of the parents who struggle to raise them.
Finally, Amy Chua exhibits an excruciating self-consciousness about how she is seen in a racialized public imagination. She is riddled with angst about not betraying her status as a “model minority” who’s “supposed” to be smart in music, math and science. She even “disciplines” one of her daughters by threatening to adopt a “real” Chinese kid. Even as her narrative is swaddled in Dragon Lady analogies, every line is inflected by very American prejudices and divisive ethnic generalizations. Indeed, if you take away the peculiarly manic quality that is Chua’s alone, her anxieties are no different from a lot of “buffer” groups whose inroads on the edges of assimilation mark them, and whose successes are watched reproachfully, jealously by the larger society. The Kennedys walked this walk for the Irish. Fiorello La Guardia complained of it when he was the “breakthrough” Italian. Condoleezza Rice’s and Michelle Obama’s parents toiled and pushed for them in ways typical of a generation of civil rights babies. In other words, this tensely, needily overachieving mentality is hardly unique. It is not necessarily or even probably generated from Chua’s romanticized motherland. Our collective dilemma, and the most poignant challenge presented by her book, is how to survive in a world where the slightest nonconformity risks landing you outside—of a home, of a job, of a life—and left to stand by yourself, alone in the freezing cold.