LONDON – Almost exactly three years ago, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from a book that remains its most commented article of all time. Under the fiery title, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Yale law professor Amy Chua set out a manifesto for motherhood in proudly recounting her ironfisted reign over her two young daughters, which included the prohibition of sleepovers and the insistence that they attain no grade lower than an A.
The 8,821 comments that followed are a snapshot of the kind of vilification leveled at Chua. Readers were outraged by her dogmatism and superiority, furious about what they saw as cultural stereotyping and appalled by the kind of parenting that many commentators deemed “child abuse.”
The noise got even louder when she published “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” later that year. In it, Chua depicts herself as so cartoonishly cruel that she seems more evil Disney queen than real 21st-century mother. Of all the many indelible details that had readers shrieking, the birthday card incident is the most infamous. This is the time that her 4-year-old daughter offered her a handmade card with a smiley face on it and promptly had it thrown back in her face. Chua’s words: “I deserve better than this. So I reject this.”
Later, in an open letter to her mother published in the New York Post, Chua’s eldest daughter, Sophia, dismissed the incident.
“Let’s face it: the card was feeble and I was busted. It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.” To the dismay of Chua’s critics, her daughter’s eminently sane letter ended: “I’m glad you and Daddy raised me the way you did.”
Now Chua is about to publish a new book, co-authored with her husband, fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, which, a month away from publication, is already provoking reaction on the Internet.
In “Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” they argue that certain “cultural” (they avoid the words “racial” or “ethnic”) groups succeed in the U.S. The list includes Jews, Cubans, Nigerians, Mormons, Indians, Iranians and Lebanese-Americans and the three traits they share, (the “triple package”) are, apparently, “superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.”
Whatever the controversy and success of the triple package (and Chua is sobering proof of just how the former can generate the latter), it seems unlikely that it will ever eclipse Chua’s reputation as the “tiger mom,” a stereotype that has generated, in turn, “manatee dad”— the kind of “weak-willed” and “indulgent” parent Chua scorns.
Amy Chua was born in 1962, in the Chinese year of the tiger, which makes her, as she wrote, “powerful, authoritative and magnetic.” Her parents were Chinese-Filipino emigrants to the U.S. and she and her three younger sisters were raised in a very strict Roman Catholic household.
She studied economics at Harvard and remained there to study at its law school, where she was appointed executive editor of the Harvard Law Review. It’s also where she met Rubenfeld, yet in remembering her time there she’s confessed: “The truth is, I’m not good at enjoying life. It’s not one of my strengths.”
Her first book was the scholarly and respected “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability,” which The Economist named as one of its books of the year. She followed this with “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall.”
The book that made her famous, though, came not out of academic research, but personal desperation. Louisa, or Lulu, her youngest daughter, was in the throes of teenage rebellion and their confrontation reached its peak in a Moscow restaurant where, Chua recounts, her 13-year-old smashed a glass and screamed: “I HATE my life, I HATE you!” at her mother.
Chua began writing “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” as you would a diary. It poured out, she has said, and was finished in just two months.
The fallout, in fact, took up more time than the writing. In the months that followed publication, Chua went on the defense, tirelessly insisting that “it’s supposed to be funny, it’s a self-parody” and “a satirical memoir.” Most people, however, failed to see the joke. There were death threats, Chua said, as well as “hundred and hundreds” of emails.
Virality begot virality and one of the most talked about responses was from Betty Ming Liu, a former newspaper columnist who now teaches journalism at New York University.
In a blog post titled “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy,” she called Chua “a narrow-minded, joyless bigot.”
The writer Ayelet Waldman had a more eye-rolling response. Her essay, also published in the Wall Street Journal, was titled, “In Defence of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom.” Despite professing a grudging admiration for Chua’s perseverance, Waldman pointed out that Asian-American girls aged 15 to 24 have above average rates of suicide.
“I might,” she added, “question the hubris of taking credit for success that is as likely to have resulted from the genetic blessings of musicality and intellect as from the ‘Chinese’ child-rearing techniques of shrieking and name calling.”
The loudest shrieking and name-calling, though, came from her critics. Despite the back cover of the book reading “How to be a tiger mother,” Chua has insisted it’s not a manual or a how-to guide, but a memoir. In defending the book she frequently drew attention to its subtitle, which ends “How I was humbled by a 13-year-old.”
Nonetheless, she became a focus not just for a global debate about parenting, but for the West’s economic anxieties about China.
Stephen Colbert, an American satirical writer, told her: “There is a political component here — we’re terrified of the Chinese, ever since the Olympic opening games. We think they’ve got more discipline than we do!”
The facetiousness couldn’t obscure the truism: five months after Chua’s piece, Time magazine published an article titled “Why do we fear a rising China?” and essentially answered that question with this statement: “The political ideology behind China’s economic ascent completely counters western ideals about democracy and human rights. . . . China is succeeding based on ideas that Americans despise.”
And so the semantic link between “tiger mother” and “tiger economy” growled on, helping many to conflate Chua’s strident principles of parenting with a broader, even more frightening set of principles.
Clearly, the reading public likes to be terrified: the book was a best-seller and has sold millions internationally. The expectation is that “Triple Package,” however lambasted, will do the same. (A few days ago the essayist Ayelet Waldman tweeted: “Amy Chua out w/ volume 2 of ‘I’ll Write Something Insane So You’ll Buy My Book and Make Me Rich . . .” In a widely circulated review in the New York Post last week, Maureen Callahan excoriated what she saw as “a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes, meant to do what racist arguments do: scare people.”
The U.S. economy is now one of the most unequal in the developed world, with more than 1 in 5 children below the poverty line. It’s also the number one jailer in the world and last year the Urban Institute, a U.S. think tank, reported that the racial wealth divide had worsened. The average white family had about $632,000 in wealth, whereas that figure was $98,000 for black families and $110,000 for Hispanics.
Referencing these dismal truths on the website Race Files, Soya Jung criticized Chua and Rubenfeld for “buying into exceptionalist arguments to explain disparities means endorsing a dehumanising system of racialised norms.”
Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at the University of California, had this to say by email: “While social scientists never took Chua seriously, her arguments resonate with some people who believe in the cultural values argument, and especially for those who may not understand that correlation is not causation.” She added: “Perhaps the biggest misfortune is that Chua’s incendiary arguments receive more media attention than the research by social scientists who are genuinely interested in understanding how culture operates as a resource to produce positive outcomes for some groups.”
Chua’s eldest daughter, Sophia, is now a student at Harvard and there’s a modicum of filial rebellion in the name of her blog, new tiger in town. A recent post began: “It’s been said before, and it will be said again, but I’m going to say it now: Harvard students — students everywhere, really — need to do less.” Not, it seems, advice that her mother will be taking to heart.