Jan 28, 2011 09:09 PM

Amy Chua's Paper Tiger

Recently, Amy Chua's article titled, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," in the Wall Street Journal, ignited a sociological fire across parenting circles. A professor at Yale Law School, Chua's article was an excerpt from her book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" – in which she claims through a strict parenting culture, Chinese children are able to perform exceptionally well in the United States, while western parents abandon their due responsibilities out of "respecting individuality." According to Time Magazine, within a few days, news related to the article attracted over a million views and more than 5,000 comments worldwide.

I went to the bookstore to try to buy a copy but there were no books on the shelves. A man working at the store said to me, "This woman is persecuting children! Although she did not spank her children, the spiritual persecution shouldn't be taken lightly either!" He told me he had a quarter of Chinese descent and was familiar to Chinese-style parenting. As he was apparently contrasting the pain of Chinese discipline with the sweetness of American indulgence, I changed the subject, pointing to his badge and asked: "Where do you get such a Jewish name like Aaron?" He told me his mother was Jewish. I told him the husband of Chua is also Jewish. We then went on to compare similarities and differences of Chinese and Jewish parenting styles for a while. He went on to the warehouse and dug out the only remaining copy of the book.

In 2007, Chua published a book titled "Day of Empire Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall," where she asserted that dominant powers in history, from ancient Rome to the United States today, as well as the prosperous rule of the Tang Dynasty from Emperor Taizong to Emperor Xuanzong in China, have all adopted the policy of tolerance and developed the country by attracting intelligent and talented people of different cultural backgrounds. From this perspective, Chua concludes that China won't become a dominant global power like the United States. Her new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" may be her domestic application of her studies on world powers: How to combine the strengths of different cultures to forge outstanding talents.

The new book, however, uses simple, summarized slogans so that those who are either busy or lazy can flip to a simple answer from the perspective of Chinese parenting. But her account misses countless details. The book is ultimately more about a conversation on the differences between traditional and non-traditional parenting techniques, rather than the contrasts between Chinese and western styles of raising children.

Chua's laws of parenting are based on long-standing traditions that have been used in every society. She claims that one of her early ancestors served as a central government official in charge of the Chinese traditional calendar system during Emperor Shenzong's rule in the Ming Dynasty. It's possible her ancestors might have argued with Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary, about the Chinese and western calendar. Chua's father, Leon Ong Chua, is a respected professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at University of California, Berkeley while Chua herself serves on the faculty of a renowned university. Chua cites an old Chinese saying, "Great men's sons seldom do well," to justify that she can't let her children to become spoiled despite their affluent background. It is not the Chinese custom for daughters to extend the glories of the family lineage. But Chua's father only had four daughters and Amy Chua, as the eldest of them, must be attempting to validate this need. Chua has a bilingual household and says she has given her children Chinese names. But her daughters are surnamed Rubenfeld, which will be the family line that is extended.

This is one of the remarkable characteristics of the overseas Chinese. Their sense of cultural traditions stays intact from their transitions and yet they retain a missionary-like responsibility of passing down Chinese traditions. Motivated by Chinese traditions, Chua is very confident of what her children must be driven to do. This kind of certainty is what the American parents don't have. They are not sure whether they choose the right path for their children so they only uphold the banner of "respect for children" to leave the right of choice in the hands of the children. They simply cannot learn anything from Chua.

Not long ago, Hubert Dreyfus, a professor in Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley with Sean Dorrance Kelly, a professor at Harvard University, jointly published a book titled, "All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age," a book discussing western philosophy. They came up with a conclusion that, in the past 100 years, the western world took a path from religious to the secular age and no longer has a unified tradition to guide the daily life for the people. Western people don't have the moral basis when they have important choices to make and each person must discover for themselves the meaning of life. Unfortunately, most people are not good at making important choices by themselves and it leads to a widespread anxiety.

Shakespeare made this clear in his writing 400 years ago. Prince Hamlet was studying philosophy at Wittenberg University, where Martin Luther set off waves of religious reform as theologian. In the play, Prince Hamlet repeatedly questions a wide range of social phenomena and ideological controversies. He becomes a humanist questioning theology, the price of which is the loss of tradition. He cannot even make up his mind whether he should take a revenge for his father.

According to Dreyfuss and Kelly, Americans can only make up for it by seizing upon immediate events, such as the uproar of the spectators watching a sudden goal. When Chua's younger daughter was finally given the opportunity to make a decision for herself, she actually chose tennis – a very pushy sport for female players.

But since her children have been raised in the United States, the only way they will ever truly know is the American way.

The author is a scholar studying in the U.S.

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