“What Does Asian American literature have to say about the issues raised by the recent discussion of Amy Chua’s book?” — This blog post is the third in a series by Prof. Patricia Chu. Read the first post here.
Part Three: Who’s afraid of the Wall Street Journal? or, “I am the very Model of a Mommy Major General”
In my literature classes, I always ask students to consider the source of their quotations. [I haven’t yet discussed Chua with my classes.] In this case, we have a firestorm of discussion about a book published by Penguin and excerpted in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. The Journal, required reading for CEOs and investment bankers, is being reinvented by Rupert Murdoch to attract a more popular following. Hence the new 4-color mastheads and the weekend features like“Caring for Python,” “How Uncertainty Cripples,” and “Carla Gugina on Turning ‘Every Day’ into Something Special.” Why has Chua, in this venue, gotten so much attention? Was it to sell papers that the Journal apparently edited Chua’s piece just so, and added the endearing title, “Why Chinese Mothers are Better,” guaranteed to insult the majority of its readers?
Chua’s article supports all the worst stereotypes of Chinese as self-serving, elitist, unfairly competitive, narrow, workaholic Model Minorities, the minority you Love to Hate.
(Note: The Model Minority myth arose in the 1960s, when the mainstream press portrayed Asians as exemplary citizens, well-behaved,not politically radical, without social problems or needs for redress, and successful. Like teacher’s pets, they were positioned to make other racial minorities look bad. Of course, this was not entirely true. Though some Asian Americans attained middle class status, many suffered from poverty, un- or underemployment, crime, depression, and other certifiable social problems. Many Asian Americans were unwilling or unable to claim political agency due to the anti-Asian climate of the 1950s and 1960s. Many Japanese Americans had been intimidated by the internment of the Japanese Amerians, while Chinese Americans were wary of being deported as Communist sympathizers. Chinese had lost the right to become naturalized American citizens in 1882 and only regained it in 1943; Japanese regained the right later, in 1965. And many Asian Americans, contrary to the stereotypes of quietism and passivity, were politically active and sympathethic to other groups.)
In Chua’s case, the provocative confidence in her article signals that she is not only of Chinese background, but comes from a family with a tradition of success and achievement. Her tone is not the tone of the daughter of refugee farm workers. Yet she will be taken as a representative of all Asian American mothers. To the extent that Asians are seen simply as relentless and arrogant competitors in the absence of such history, we are liable to be seen as The Enemy. Whatever nuance and self-reflection Chua has brought to her book is minimized in the inflammatory excerpt that many people are using to pass judgment on the complete book. People are talking, blogging, and buying books. And we other Chinese Americans are left to consider the damages.
The other, related problem, is the question of Showboating. Who gets to brag about their achievements with impunity in this public culture and to whom?
1. As a parent in Northwest Washington DC, I’ve observed a curious dynamic: parents of children in public school love to assert the excellence of their schools. Parents of children in private schools listen with interest, and talk about their children’s more expensive schools only if asked. Why? It’s courtesy. Private school parents don’t want to emphasize their dissenting (minority) educational choice and their children’s privilege.
2. Theorists of women’s writing argue that men are socialized to trumpet their successes; that’s what’s expected. Traditionally, women were “not supposed to” brag, publish books, or publish books about themselves. For instance, the early memoirs of Mary Rowlandson (a Puritan) and Harriet Jacobs (an escaped slave) were published with introductions insisting that the writers were, despite the fact of publication, modest and decent women.
3. It’s said that Americans, in general, like to talk about themselves and that Chinese, in general, do not. Asians are also taught to refuse compliments to show humility. (In Milton Murayama’s novel, a little Japanese American boy relates that when guests compliment your cooking, you’re supposed to say, “What we served you was really garbage” just to be polite. ) Immigrants learn early not to flaunt their children’s successes. And ethnic women writers know they’ll be critiqued as representatives of their community, expected not to reveal insider information. No wonder Maxine Hong Kingston began her own shattering memoir, The Woman Warrior, with the words, “You must not tell anyone.”
In short, the social norms for Chinese American women writers are the opposite of social norms for law professors and memoir writers.
Amy Chua certainly doesn’t have to tell other Chinese Americans about the Secret Methods of Chinese Motherhood; with much individual variation, we’ ve more or less been through all that. And, while we appreciate our mothers, we don’t want to be them. Does she want to gloat with us about “our” success? Fine. Put it in an Asian American magazine (if you can find one). Write to our ethnic listservs. We understand that it’s nice to let the steam out when you’ve been working so hard. Glad to hear about Carnegie Hall. But the WSJ? Please.
Asian American history, as ably interpreted by Sucheng Chan and others, has shown that discrimination and violence against perceived outsiders—including all Asian American ethnic groups—rises in times of economic crisis and difficulty. At a time of high unemployment, incivility, and random shootings, this article brands all Asian Americans with the model minority stereotype and adds fuel to the flame of ethnic envy. Why else would people send death threats to someone for an article about parenting techniques? I’m not saying it’s fair to expect Chinese American women not to toot their horns, but that there is an existing public discourse that needs to be acknowledged when we write. It’s particularly odd that Chua should have made or permitted such an error of tone, given that—according to Wikipedia–her first book, “ World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), explores the ethnic conflict caused in many societies by the disproportionate economic and political influence of [visible,] market dominant minorities and the resulting resentment in the less affluent majority.”
In short, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, the more minority authors write and publish, the better we can be understood in our full, flawed, and deeply human complexity by readers within and beyond our communities. Especially if readers are willing to read all those other books about “Chinese” motherhood. On the other hand, when it comes to the loaded topic of child-rearing, I’d like to cite that well-known authority on humility and public relations, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin observed that the Quakers of his time were often embarrassed because, having proclaimed their commitment to pacificism, they found it difficult to support necessary motions for the defense of their community. By contrast, the more prudent Dunker sect had concluded early on that they were still in the process of becoming Enlightened. Since they felt they had not yet arrived at “perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge,” they refrained from publishing a fixed statement of their beliefs.
Hm…while I admire the Dunkers’ wisdom and humility, from the point of view of posterity their philosophy may be wanting. Perhaps one more story is needed, just to show that even Englishmen can be “Chinese mothers.”
John Stuart Mill, a prodigy who began to study Greek when he was 3 years old, spent all his waking time studying English, Greek, Latin, history, politics, and economics with this father, who employed sarcasm as a teaching method. Looking back on his education in his Autobiography, Mill wished his father had also taken the time to teach him how to tie his shoelaces. He, too, was deprived of playdates, and his only sleepovers seem to have been with the family of his dad’s colleague Jeremy Bentham (who advocated utilitarianism and invented the panopticon). By the time he was 16, Mill was publishing articles on public policy in major journals in his native England. By the time he was 20, he had had a nervous breakdown. If memory serves, he wrote in his Autobiography that he asked himself the question, if all the social changes that he and his father were working for came to be, would it make him happy? The answer was no. But all was not lost. According to biographer Phyllis Rose, Mill recovered when he met and befriended his future wife, Harriet Taylor, whom he married 21 years later. Warmed by the glow of this unorthodox friendship, Mill went on to lead a long and productive life in which he championed woman’s suffrage and wrote On Liberty.
Jan. 21, 2011