Paper Tigers and Model Minorities

The above link is a response, of sorts, to the Amy Chua “controversy” that seemed to galvanize proponents of Western culture everywhere a couple months ago.  For those who were not in the know (or choose not to remember), Amy Chua is a professor of law at Yale Law School, and wrote a memoir of her experiences as a mother (“The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”). As part of the marketing strategy for the book’s release, Chua penned an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” and all hell broke loose. The strict, demanding, oftentimes cruel regimen she chose for her daughters roused all kinds of hackles within both the white-American and Asian-American communities, with accusations of child abuse rife amongst the internet commentariat.

The reaction from most of my Asian friends took one of two forms: either they brought up an anecdote of someone they knew personally who had grown up under such a system, or they were rather angry about the continuation of Asian-American stereotypes reinforced by such a system. The question of whether or not it actually happens was immaterial: everyone knew of parents who did this.

I deal with the children of parents like this nearly every day. In any given classroom, I can point out the kids who will likely go to a decent school, perhaps even do reasonably well there, but fail miserably once they graduate. They are products of parents who cannot help but control their children’s lives; always with good intentions, but cohering to a standard of excellence that does not brook any challenges or alternatives. The student who spent more than half of each of his months alone with his mother on long drives to this or that cello competition/recital/camp (and apparently he had real talent with the cello) but had no desire to go to a conservatory and really wanted to major in biology (one of his weaker subjects) in college. The student (rather intelligent) who would struggle for whole minutes to come up with an answer to a simple question of “What did you do over the weekend,” and end up with “I don’t know” (her response to much any question, even if she KNEW the answer). The student who changed the topic of his college application essay daily because of his mother’s input, who began with a topic he was truly passionate about and ended with a topic so neutered of anything remotely resembling a living personality that he soured on the entire concept of college altogether (but his mother came off very well in the final draft).

I should be helping these kids, but I only see them for, at most, 4 hours a week. How can I compete with the likes of the most Asian of Asian mothers? One particular helicopter mom (“always hovering”) holds a special place in my heart and in the stories I tell even though I never met her; I just lived the experience vicariously through one of my unfortunate coworkers. The mother came in with her husband bobbing along in her wake to attend one of our college counseling sessions, and as is the case with so many of these mothers, was so inherently convinced of the superiority and special needs of her spawn that she turned love for a child into absolute aggression towards anyone else who might be able to provide the golden child with service. Demands, demands, demands. Demands for private sessions with tutors who do not do private sessions. Demands for refunds for classes the child chose not to attend. Demands for 24/7 access to counselors and tutors to accommodate her child’s insane schedule of music practice, cram sessions, and volunteering opportunities. She asked question after question, rapid-firing them and refusing to wait for the answers. The session was interrupted abruptly, if temporarily, when the golden child called her cell phone, and her voice instantly turned syrupy sweet and infinitely accommodating. 30 seconds later, and she was back to poisonous angry well-meaning Asian Mother. The session culminated in her whirling upon her obviously broken husband, who up until that point could do nothing but huddle in the corner and stare at his watch. “You!” she cried, “Why aren’t you asking Tiffany [my coworker] a question! You are wasting her time! Ask a question!” He tried to respond, but got only halfway through a query before she practically screamed “THAT’S A STUPID QUESTION! Why would you ask her that! You’re wasting our time!”

I have had the fortune of not having to grow up under such a mother. Whether it be her upbringing in Hawaii, her thoroughly Americanized social background, the fact that she was fourth generation, or simply something innate, my mother encouraged many of the more positive aspects of an Asian child-raising system (emphasis on schoolwork, respect for elders/authorities, humility, etc., while avoiding the stricter and more extreme means of ensuring those aspects were properly instilled. I thus feel I have some kind of empathy with many products of more traditional Asian upbringings: I can recognize why their parents did what they did, but having never truly experienced it myself, I have a bit more objectivity about the whole enterprise.

Yet I do recognize the space from which Wesley Yang writes. How could I not? I was right there, ready to take the plunge that he and Jefferson Mao have already indulged in. I grew up obsessed with reading, and knew that all I wanted to do for the rest of my life was, somehow, talk about literature (and hopefully get paid while doing so). I decided on academia as the best path, but that was by no means my first choice. I had cherished thoughts of becoming an author, of writing the next great American novel. Over the course of high school and college, I realized that was extremely unlikely: I had neither the talent nor the drive to write the kind of work I enjoyed reading. I did not have what it took to produce what I considered quality enough to submit to the world.

I had always thought that inability to trust in my own talents was something innate and individual within me; a fault or failing I had to overcome on my own. But reading the accounts in the Paper Tiger article, I now wonder if, in some way, my own personal emphasis on presenting my ignorance/failings before my expertise/strengths is cultural, not individual. I need to stress that I am barely an example of the typical Asian child. I’m hapa, my mother is one of the more lenient parents I’ve ever encountered, and I did not grow up in a typically Asian social circle. So take all of this conjecture with a grain of salt. But suddenly my uncertainty and lack of self-confidence seems to have some resonance with the (admittedly hilarious) stories of young Asian men taking courses on how to smile.

My first trip to China, for example, was a revelation. I do not speak the language (much to my own disadvantage), and yet I felt comfortable there like I had in very, very few other places. Some of it may be attributable to the fact that I was the only Asian (even if I’m only half an Asian) in a group of white kids mostly from Idaho, but for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who instantly knew I was Chinese. I felt calm and collected talking and interacting with everyone in the cities I visited, and I felt like a lot of the small behavioral and personal characteristics I had once thought my own suddenly had a historical, cultural background and basis. “So THAT’S why I do that” was a common refrain in my head upon watching the natural ease with which Chinese citizens behaved.

Is it really so strange, then, that even a fifth generation hapa kid might still have some of those behavioral characteristics rattling around in his head? I do not absolve myself of responsibility for failing to pursue a writing career (and I’m very excited about the choice I’ve made to go into law – how typically Asian), but now I wonder if I had been preconditioned to expect the worst of myself when it came to creativity and imagination, rather than the best. And if that is true, am I really the most ideal person to be aiding Asian students today with the most creative part of their college applications? Should I be working harder? My criticisms of how boring and factory-produced they are suddenly seem myopic and hypocritical.

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