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On 'Tiger Moms' and other clichés

By Ken Chen, Special to CNN
  • Ken Chen: "Tiger Mom" book, saying Chinese moms are better, upset U.S. parents
  • Myth portrays Chinese-American kids as hypercompetitive robots, he says
  • Chen: Success due to an immigration policy favoring educated and wealthy Chinese
  • Chinese would be surprised to hear about a Chinese style of parenting, he writes

Editor's note: Ken Chen is the executive director of The Asian American Writers' Workshop, a literary arts nonprofit group for Asian-American stories and ideas. He is the 2009 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the oldest annual literary award in the country, for his debut poetry collection "Juvenilia."

(CNN) -- Millions of American parents who happen not to be Chinese woke up January 8 to an amazing discovery: They were awful parents. This came as a shock. They naively believed they'd treated their children as lovingly as they could.

But not according to Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua in her article published two weeks ago under the inflammatory headline: "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." The polemic, which spread through the internet like wildfire, was an excerpt from Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," a paean to hard-ass success-oriented Chinese immigrant parenting. Chua suggests that "white" American parents irrevocably ruin their kids' lives by allowing them to attend sleepovers, have play dates and, worst of all, enjoy life.

Obviously, one should be wary of any dichotomies that sound like weary stand-up comedy routines from the late 1980s: "White people parent like this. ... Chinese people parent like that." There is no one way to be Chinese and no one way to be American. In fact, the joyous promise of American democracy is that it offers the liberty of transcending these divisions -- of being both Chinese and American.

Certainly, the idea of a traditional Chinese parenting style would surprise the billion inhabitants of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, few of whom attended Harvard, became a doctor, lawyer, or banker, or ever completed a Scantron.

What I find more threatening than Chua's parenting style is the typical reader's response to Chua's piece, seeing her and her children as hypercompetitive robots instead of people who have their own joys and sorrows.

This reaction leads to withholding empathy from teenagers often driven to suicide because of pressures and expectations, and to colleges rejecting Asian-Americans for being uncreative "grinds." This dehumanization extends as far back as the 1800s, when Mark Twain referred to coolie laborers as "The Gentle, Inoffensive Chinese," and is as contemporaneous as our current insecurities about a rising China, which is often characterized as an authoritarian parent overseeing brainwashed children.

When Amy Chua calls Western parenting weak and permissive, it's not hard to hear Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who recently called America "a nation of wusses" that is getting its "butt" kicked by the Chinese, whom he apparently imagines marching together while doing calculus. We're accustomed to hearing about the threat of a rising China, where students placed first in international exams the same month Chua's book came out, but we're just as used to ignoring it.

The success of Chinese American students is not some ancient secret, but can be traced back to American immigration policy, which until recently encouraged the immigration of Chinese who either valued education, possessed wealth, or both. As Peter Kwong writes in "Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community," Chinese-Americans in the 1800s worked not as elite intellectuals but as laborers, comprising 58.5% of miners in Idaho and 60% in California. These Chinese workers were viewed similarly to the way Americans view Mexican immigrants now, as a threatening source of cheap labor.

Starting in the 1950s, U.S. immigration policy went from excluding Chinese nationals completely to selecting for skilled professionals from Taiwan and Hong Kong as conscripts in the technological race against the Soviets. And from the 1980s to the 2000s, the United States tripled its quota for skilled workers and granted temporary work status to highly trained professionals and immigrant investors.

'I love yous are for white people'
Certainly, the idea of a traditional Chinese parenting style would surprise the billion inhabitants of mainland China
--Ken Chen
  • China
  • Parenting
  • Immigration

Combine this with political uncertainty in Hong Kong and Taiwan and you get the creation of a Chinese-American bourgeois class, one that transferred $1.5 billion to Los Angeles alone each year between 1985 and 1990.

While this does not exhaustively explain the success of first and second generation Chinese-Americans, it's not surprising that these wealthy, well-educated immigrants would end up producing -- like their wealthy, well-educated white counterparts -- children who are conventionally successful.

Yet more than 50 years ago, Americans talked about this new class of "Uptown Chinese" the same way we talk about the Chinese Americans in Chua's milieu, in what Kwong calls "popular pseudo-academic" explanations regarding Chinese "hard work and respect for education," and Confucian values, which Kwong says "is nothing short of comical, considering that until very recently Asian scholars argued that the very same feudal values ... were the cause of China's stagnation."

What Chua has done is inadvertently taken an international political competition and injected it into something intrinsically personal: the vexed and intimate relationship between a child and his or her mother and father.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ken Chen.