Saturday, January 15, 2011

On parenting: Chinese mothers

A friend recently directed me to this New York Times Saturday Essay by a Yale professor of law. In it, Amy Chua displays a dazzling armory in her brand of "Chinese" parenting to emphasize its superiority to "Western" parenting. In her list of a "Chinese mother's" mandatory requirements is playing the violin and piano. It's a fascinating topic not least because of the prevalence of Chinese youth in the classical music scene, and certain to draw criticism from Asian readers. Besides, one of my recent blog visitors found it by googling "Chinese parents grades."

She begins by creating a false dichotomy of Chinese versus Western mothers, including in the latter group ethnic Chinese immigrants who adopt "Western" parenting practices. The conclusion that my mother might not be Chinese enough is so problematic that it warrants dismantling beyond the scope of this post. I won't even get into the detail of why a solid hour (or three!) of instrument practice is counterproductive for adults and children. I want to explore success and happiness in the cultural context of 1.5- and 2nd-generation immigrant families.

Chua fails to consider community -- are the kids who surround her daughters Chinese, white, or mixed? Do they have peer support and understanding for that level of discipline? Her anecdote about calling a daughter "garbage" at a dinner party suggests not. How, then, can these children process this brand of verbal abuse in an age-appropriate way? Nor does the anecdote about learning the difficult piano piece prove Lulu's acceptance of Chua's coercive methods; abuse commonly strengthens codependency in relationships. I was deeply ostracized from grade school through middle school, in addition to being the only Asian, for rarely paying social visits or attending club activities. Social isolation can only hinder success in adulthood.

Chua's Chinese mother is incapable of hearing what her child is trying to say. I was a stubborn kid and learned the way to get my way was by manipulating, lying, and equivocating according to my mother's professed values. I was "the kid who tried that one." After encountering only disgust and fear in response to topics relating to the body, I learned to silence my body's changes and needs. After being explicitly forbidden to date, I kept my activities a secret. Clinging to rules and ideals, I stayed with an abusive boyfriend with the intention to marry this one-and-only. To this day, my family knows nothing about my love life or partners. Chua won't be so self-congratulatory about her unidirectional parenting if one or more of her daughters comes out as queer or trans. Despite recognizing my fierce confidence and tireless work ethic, my mother regrets that I'm not headed toward a full-time job with a normal marriage and lots of letters after my name.

The most grievous time in my mother's life may have been when I cut off all communication for three years after college. It was my trial by fire for all the "future" for which my parents couldn't prepare me with their input-only practice. I desperately sought community but feared and felt alienated from my own heritage. It wasn't until I built a strong individual identity that I could reach for understanding of my parents and culture of origin.

In a rapidly transforming society, and especially for immigrant families, it's not enough simply to replicate your parents' practice. I don't suggest throwing away everything you remember and copying your white neighbors' practices wholesale. Parenting is a highly individualized process.

I've now forgiven the strained, one-dimensional parenting that was Mom and Dad's way to show love so I could again be a part of my family of origin. The rewards have exceeded my expectations. We even had our first conversation in which they expressed genuine interest and analysis in a significant topic in my life!

[EDIT 1/21] In a conversation off-blog, a teacher noticed Chua "doesn't quite read emotions and tones well..." My response:
Your observation is germane to my personal experience -- my parents are especially bad at reading people, a state that I realized only after years of being better socialized as an adult. For example, it is a piece of cake to lie to them because they can't recognize signs of guilt. I'm still relatively poor at social cues, but the realization was key to adopting methods of compensation. Perhaps too many artists indulge ourselves in this. A pianist correspondent finds ill sentiment in art music circles toward financially successful composers, perhaps for their ability to navigate contracts more easily.

No comments:

Post a Comment