Thursday, January 13, 2011

She Be Kim-Jong-Illin'

Bleed American - Jimmy Eat World (mp3)

Amy Chua is the kind of guest blogger I’d love to have scorching up the pages of Bottom of the Glass. She’s clearly brilliant. She’s a great writer. She is convicted with strong opinion. And she’s off her frappin’ rocker.

She wrote a barnburner of an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and pulls no punches in preaching her truth to us mamby-pamby American weenies.

I love that Eastern cultures don’t generally worry about annoying trifles like political correctness. They don’t let little things like notions of equality or universal rights get in the way of their perceived superiority. They don’t worry about self-esteem because they’re obviously the awesomest, so what’s to question?

In many ways, folks like Ms. Chua are a much smarter and more Type A version of the French, and she reminds me of that French knight from “Monty Python & the Holy Grail,” on the castle wall shouting insults down at the little English “kuuhhh-niggits!”

A lot of Western folks will read her piece and get all wiggy and pissed off and defensive. These people, I suspect, haven’t had much experience with families from Far Eastern countries like India or China, Japan or Korea. Seriously, if you can read that whole thing without once getting annoyed, pissed off, or rolling your eyes in disbelief, then you are a calmer soul than most parents I know. Or you’re not a parent, at which point you might just find the entire thing amusing on both ends.

One of my favorite sentences: “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything.”

As is usually the case with brilliant, hyper-opinionated people, Ms. Chua’s argument is not entirely ludicrous; it’s only 15% ludicrous. But it’s a big, important 15%. One might suggest that Ms. Chua was being over the top to be provocative or funny, but I would have to honor her love of stereotypes by saying that I don’t know many over-the-top funny Chinese people. At least, not any who didn’t grow up in the U.S.

Funny doesn’t get good grades. Funny doesn’t play the hell out of an instrument. Funny doesn’t focus. Funny often requires a knowledge of stupid or useless information found in popular culture. Funny requires an impatience. Therefore, according to her, there’s nothing Chinese about Funny.

Funny is a waste of time and energy. Funny is Western civilization. Funny is pathetic.

What I really loved about Ms. Chua’s column is how hard she tries to pretend to be reasonable. It reminded me of comic book supervillains who pity the poor clueless hero and his pitiful weaknesses, like his notions of decency, honor, respect, foolish things with which one can never achieve world domination. Ms. Chua pities American parents, with all their sad focus on trifles like self-esteem, freedom, choice. And she does so with a disdain that oozes out of her eyeballs as she writes.

Because I’m a mamby-pamby relativist without the balls to believe much of anything to an extreme, I conveniently believe Ms. Chua is plenty right and plenty wrong. I believe her children might grow up more financially successful than my children, and I believe they might well play a meaner fiddle (or whatever their instrument of choice), and I believe they might well grow up with better grades. Might, as they say, doesn’t make right.

More importantly, I don’t believe any of that will lead to her girls, decades after they are independent, to be happier or more satisfied human beings. Nor does it increase their odds of doing anything more world-changing than my children. If American history has shown anything, something about the wacky way we raise kids kick-starts ingenuity, breeds insight, stirs inspiration.

Still, to outright dismiss Ms. Chua’s argument is also foolish. Plenty of the ways we raise our children deserve to be mocked or at least questioned, and the kind of rigor and level of expectation Far Eastern parents demand of their children have results that are often difficult to scorn too harshly.

When foreign students board at our schools and outscore us on the English section of our own college entrance exams, they're basically playing on our own home court with one hand behind their back and still kicking our butts. That kind of mismatch deserves respect.

In some sense, their parenting philosophy is much like the story of Ray Kinsella from “Field of Dreams.” Chinese parents believe If you build it, they will come. If you build up a high, almost-unattainable level of expectation, your children might get close to reaching it, and sometimes they might even rocket right past it.

We Amur’cans parent more like that age-old proverb stolen by Sting: If you love somebody, set them free. And, much like Sting’s music, it’s a very hit-and-miss proposition. When you drop a rock off a bridge, it rarely flies; it usually plunges in the water.

And, in honor of great American bumper stickers, my kids could kick your honor student kids’ butts! (Well, or at least they’re gonna be funnier.)

The truth is that all parents screw it up one way or another, because parenting isn’t some chemistry experiment. It’s not paint by numbers. It’s an organic experiment where every portion of the equation changes constantly, and where any attempt to roboticize the experience seems doomed to failure.

Then again, I'm quite positive it's myself and my own parenting that Ms. Chua would deem an utter failure. God bless us, everyone!

Editorial Follow-up (2:10 p.m., 1/13): A column by Lisa Miller in The Daily Beast catches up with Ms. Chua in the aftermath of her WSJ column. The information provided in this column is important and suggests the book is less extreme in its approach than the WSJ excerpt might suggest.


Bob said...

I read it. My immediate reaction is: if we are competing with that country for world dominance, we don't have a chance. But then I realize the ways that our system has been successful--Yankee ingenuity and all of that. But are those values still at the forefront? There seems to be much in her perspective that could be assimilated and adapted, for a parent or a school. They're living Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers theory of 10,000 hours. But I also think, thank God for the husband who will take those girls to Yankees games and that kind of thing. The Chinese method seems to completely deny the social aspects of life. Which, if you're trying to achieve world dominance, is probably not all that important. It sounds more like an educational Sparta.

Bob said...

Interesting companion piece:,0,6192691.story

Daisy said...

If the Chinese way is better why don't they live in China?

Billy said...

Thanks for the link, Bob. So both of you know, Lisa Miller has a very enlightening follow-up with Ms. Chua at the Daily Beast, and I've appended that link to the end of the post.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting piece on Chua; David Brooks consistently comes across as about the only conservative worth his salt.