Sunday, January 9, 2011

day emotional : connecting and separating from stereotypes

When Boyfriend read me part of this article from the Wall Street Journal, I wasn't really sure what to think or feel. Amy Chua, a professor from Yale Law School, extemporizes on a model of parenting she attributes Chinese culture and lauds herself on a job well done with her two daughters, one of which had the opportunity to play piano at Carnegie Hall. As if she were the single most important factor for her daughters' so-called success. As if this "success" encompasses all aspects of their wellbeing - financial, intellectual, emotional.

Here's an excerpt from her article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior":
Here's a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called "The Little White Donkey" by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it's also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.
Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.
"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.
"You can't make me."
"Oh yes, I can."
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn't think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn't do the technique—perhaps she didn't have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?
"You just don't believe in her," I accused.
"That's ridiculous," Jed said scornfully. "Of course I do."
"Sophia could play the piece when she was this age."
"But Lulu and Sophia are different people," Jed pointed out.
"Oh no, not this," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone is special in their special own way," I mimicked sarcastically. "Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."
In the end, Chua makes it a happily-ever-after when her daughter miraculously begins to coordinate her hands and put the piece together. Lulu says, "Look, Mommy--it's so easy!" As if this realization - this little triumph - somehow justifies the insults and abuse.

Perhaps I don't have the right to make any claims on behalf of the Chinese-American culture as a whole, but this story resonates very personally with me. I've been at that piano, forced to play for three hours straight. I've sat on that bench and cried angry, hurt tears onto my beautiful, Steinway baby grand. And I can say honestly to anyone that those kind of experiences didn't come with a redemptive end - with a "Look, Mommy--it's so easy!".

When Chua says that Chinese parents assume "strength" rather than fragility, I think she's right. There is a lot of potential for verbal abuse in the household, and no matter how Chua wants to spin it, it is not motivation. It is what I've always called brainwashing. It takes a very specific role-play of praise and insult to instill the appropriate sense of self-shame in the child. Done right, the parent(s) need not say anything in the face of the child's failure. The child will feel it for his/herself, and if, as Chua says, the child is strong, I really think they will come out the better for it. For those of us not as fortunate, though, this kind of upbringing feeds back into an ambivalent storm of self-uncertainty that I really think poisons the parent-child relationship.

It's difficult for me to divorce this commentary from personal experience, and so I may be a little emotional and overdramatic. But objectively, I think Chua says some interesting things about the dichotomy between Western and Chinese parenting. She discredits Chinese mothers as a whole just in assuming this is the way every mother runs her household (and as an aside, I think she's fucking offensive for leaving out fathers entirely). She certainly doesn't give enough credit to the "Western" way of valuing a child's self-esteem and emphasizing things like "love and affection." Yes, ensuring a child is "prepared for the future" is one way to ensure their success, but that says nothing to the child about whether they're loved. And, like the study I referenced in a previous post, I think that's a HUGE indication of how successful a child will be. There's no replacement for that.

In some ways, I think the "Chinese" model of parenting is unsustainable in a transplanted setting like America. Once  Chinese-American kids see that their peers get grounded instead of having to study for hours or actually enjoy the extracurricular activities they do or have relationships with other children that involve playdates and sleepovers and whatnot, they'll feel the lack of love. They'll recognize that something very important is missing from their lives.

The article links to a few videos I didn't bother to watch, supposedly testimonies of Chinese adults having been raised as Chua described and wanting to apply the same model to their children. They make me wonder whether such people are the majority or the minority among Chinese-Americans raised in this way.

Again, I'm biased heavily by my own experience of the Chinese-American upbringing, but I'm curious to see some statistics. In populations that advocate and practice Chua's model as compared with a more "Western" upbringing, how many children develop psychological problems or self-esteem issues? The funny thing is, this thought brings to mind a dramatic work I saw a few years ago: "Wong Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." Although the writer/actress declined to make any sort of social commentary on the story conveyed by her work, she emphasized a recurring theme of suffering in silence. The play doesn't speak to children as much as it does to Asian women as a whole and the mentality the embodies the quite strength idealized by Oriental cultures.

"I don't want to see a therapist because it would show that I'm weak. My family would think there's something wrong with me."

"There's nothing wrong with me, I'm fine."

"I don't want to bother anybody. I don't want to make them worry. I'm fine. I'm strong."

In any case, just wanted to throw in my response to this crazy lady's article. As if we didn't have enough Asian female commentary on growing up Asian-American. All of it just puts me in the mood to bash myself over the head with an Amy Tan book.

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