Monday, April 11, 2011

An Open Letter to Amy Chua

I actually sent this letter to Amy Chua earlier today....This is my initial response to her book (I already responded to the WSJ article...). I am retreading some of the ground of my earlier post (sorry!) but there are some new thoughts here, too.

Dear Professor Chua/Amy/ Tiger Mom,
Reading someone’s parenting memoir creates a strange—and generally  illusory—intimacy. So I find myself addressing you more familiarly than I probably should. I want to make this short, since you are clearly insanely busy and in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, I don’t want to waste too much of your time.

First off: kudos. You are a woman with extraordinary energy, vitality, courage, and creativity.  Your book is also quite funny (though I’m not always quite sure that you’re being funny on purpose…). More than anything, you have a wonderful audacity that I am sure is even more enjoyable in person.

Second, your critique of standard-issue parenting has merit, though I suspect that you call the approaches “Western” and “Chinese” more for marketing purposes and personal history than for their accuracy. What you call “Western” could more readily be called “Modern” –a particularly degenerate form of contemporary Western parenting--though I’m sure it has some peculiarly Western characteristics.( I won’t comment on the Chinese part for now since I’m sure a brief dip into the blogosphere would provide you with more than enough on that front.)

Third, a brief story. One of my freshman roommates at Yale was a young Asian-American woman. She was smart, accomplished, pretty and very musically talented. For reasons that baffled me, she was also clearly the “bad child” of her parents’ two daughters, and rebelled accordingly. She was promiscuous, bulimic, and dropped out of school to marry a divorced man (though she did eventually come back).

Which brings me to the nexus of my questions for you regarding a) sibling rivalry b) music c) gratitude and d) Jed/family/the importance of relationships (not necessarily in that order). You make it clear at the beginning and throughout your book how important family and respect are to you. You say (page 148) that the standard “Western” question about who you’re doing everything for wouldn’t emerge in a “Chinese” context because “the child is the extension of the self.” Of course, that extension isn’t fully real. Your child may be conceptually, philosophically, genetically (in some ways), an extension, but s/he isn’t really an extension. You point out how very difficult it is to do what you did with your kids. Absolutely! But you’re no stranger to hard work, so that doesn’t prove anything. You volley the question back at Western parents (rightly so—many parent the way they do out of sheer laziness and confusion), but you don’t give a satisfying answer.   One of the mysteries of your book--which you partially put to rest in Chapter 32 “The Symbol”—is why the extreme focus on music? Your book is not so much a parenting memoir in many ways as a musical-parenting memoir. I found myself wondering why you were so particularly driven in this area—you make almost no mention of what you did with your daughters’ homework, for example. The violin is symbol, blah blah blah. But it is also a personal symbol.  While you are an extremely accomplished woman, you make several references in the book to having been seen as the one with no taste in your family, the loud one, the brash one (I don’t know, but suspect that you may have been compared negatively to Michelle in this regard…). Music is beautiful. It indicates taste, aesthetic sense, delicacy. What you couldn’t achieve yourself, you pushed your girls to achieve—as an extension of yourself.

This isn’t to say it’s bad. Personal insecurities and pathologies can lead to great achievements (cf. The Professor and the Madman ). But it does suggest that your daughters’ musical achievements are personally important to you in a peculiar way.  In this peculiar way, though, you have given them an extraordinary gift: an awareness of beauty and a vital connection to that beauty—in many ways, a religious phenomenon every bit as significant as Hebrew school.

You’re also kind of funny when it comes to gratitude. While you insist on the gratitude “Chinese” kids have towards their parents, etc., you seem to miss the boat a bit. You have worked very hard and very smart—but you have also been given a lot. Despite occasional nods to your daughters’ talent, you don’t seem to realize how special your circumstances are—in regards to finances and ability, but also in regards to relationships.  In particular, I mean Jed. Despite your drive, your stamina, your extremely flexible job etc., your whole Tiger Mother thing wouldn’t work without him; his presence and support. And I wonder what will become of your daughters when they go about looking for a Jed? As a mother, a daughter, and just a human being, I am increasingly aware of how very decisive interpersonal relationships are. Someone who marries the wrong guy finds her talent compromised for many reasons. You are reaching (with Sophia) and will soon reach (with Lulu) the moment where your daughters leave your house—even if they end up down the street at Yale. I feel pretty confident for you that they will not simply “go wild” with their new-found freedom (or not for long, anyway…). But they will get to choose their friends and their boyfriends.   Will they choose wisely?  Have you trained them in any way to play their hearts with the same precision, depth, and finesse with which they play their instruments? 

How does a Tiger Mother operate in this regard? (Especially since arranged marriages aren’t really a viable option!…). I wish you all the best in this new phase of Tiger Mothering. I hope that it becomes an arena of discovery and of gratitude for you.

Rebecca Cherico

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