Post Academic

Post Academic’s Inner “Chinese Mother”

Posted in Absurdities,First Person by Arnold Pan on January 18, 2011
Tags: , ,

"Amy Chua (author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) at the 2007 Texas Book Festival" by Larry D. Moore (Creative Commons license)

By now, many of you are probably aware of the tempest in a teapot online over Yale Law Prof Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was excerpted in the Wall Street Journal as the provocatively titled opinion-y piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”.  To give you a basic rundown, Chua basically compares what she calls “Chinese parenting” and “Western parenting” models, basically describing how the former gets results from filial authoritarianism and coming down on the latter as wussy and passive aggressive.  Really, it’s nothing groundbreaking and pretty stereotypical, though I guess it seems pretty scandalous and bombastic considering the headline.  Most more objective readers want to believe Chua is being satirical, since some of the stuff is so pretty over-the-top and written in a cheeky enough way that you could take it like that — see the list of what Chua’s children were supposedly not allowed to do at the beginning.  But seeing Chua explain on TV and reading her clarification in the WSJ that the memoir is not a how-to guide and how her parenting changed over time, I’m not so sure how much satire is involved.  I’m just guessing Chua and her savvy marketing crew have figured out the best way to play the PR game, by making a splash with a bold, crass statement, then toning it down once people are starting to pay attention.

I’ll probably have more to say about this from an academic angle from my day job blog, which suggests that even if Chua might just be having fun with stereotypes, she has only led to perpetuating them as a result of the responses to her piece, which have more or less called “Chinese Mothers” and children as unassimilated and perpetual aliens.  Here at Post Academic, though, I’m gonna have some fun with Chua’s piece and imagine how my inner “Chinese Mother” has shaped this Chinese American’s educational experience.  Mind you, I have to begin with a disclaimer that my actual real-life Chinese immigrant mother is not very much at all like Chua’s caricature-ish “Chinese Mother”, though who really would admit they had one if they did.  But really it’s true in my case, and I actually haven’t encountered any Chinese parents from the many I know that are so aggro and high-strung about academic achievement as Chua’s Tiger Mother “Chinese Mother.”

In my case, I kinda internalized some of the aspects of the “Chinese Mother” that Chua describes, though even a geeky high-school me wasn’t so socially sheltered as Chua’s kids.  Here’s what my inner “Tiger Mother” might think about my academic career.

Getting into college: My inner “Chinese Mother” pushed me to get straight A’s, finishing as Salutatorian to an even more driven Asian immigrant kid.  I don’t know if this is a triumphant achievement or a dubious one, but I could will myself to A’s in things I didn’t understand, which, shockingly for an Asian, were math and science.  Like Chua writes, “rote repetition is underrated in America.”  The “Tiger Mother” in me was proud to be voted “Hardest Worker” by my high school class!

However, I don’t think Harvard appreciated my internalized “Chinese Mother”, because I got waitlisted in part because I fit a certain stereotype of the good model minority with strong grades with no intangible qualities (yes, I somehow found this out second-hand later), never mind that classmates with worse grades and no more extracurriculars were accepted.  But after going into a major self-esteem crisis as Tiger-influenced types would, I earned vindication by getting into Stanford, though it probably had as much to do with face time with the admissions director as it did with my dossier.  Still, chalk one up for the inner “Chinese Mother”!

More about my academic career from my internal “Chinese Mother”, below the fold…

The College Years: Here’s when I started to outgrow my inner “Tiger Mother”, since I decided it wasn’t so important to get straight A’s and that I really couldn’t be good at everything.  I think this competitive streak started to slip when I couldn’t even understand the questions on a frosh Calculus test.  Plus, I began to cultivate a contrarian side that rebelled from the “Tiger Mother” side, which meant I deferred any practical plans (dropped econ after the first exam, stopped taking Poli Sci classes) and just studied what I liked.  Who the heck knows what “Modern Thought and Literature” was, but the compromise between my two sides was that I would get good grades in the classes that mattered.  And heck, my major was an honors program and I graduated with distinction, so that’s good enough, right?

Grad School: The other part of the deal struck between the contrarian and the inner “Chinese Mother” was that I might as well get a Ph.D. and attain the highest degree possible.  The “Chinese Mother” in me was tempted to go to the bigger name school that everyone had heard of, but then was swayed to go to the better ranked school in my field, which also offered me a much better fellowship–my  inner “Chinese Mother” likes prizes!  But really, grad school was mostly a case of humoring my inner “Tiger Mother,” since, at this point, grades didn’t really matter and I basically got gentleman’s A’s for papers that probably half the profs didn’t even read.

The Academic Job Market: Here’s where my inner “Chinese Mother” resurfaced, but could no longer help me out.  The thing is, you could be pushed to achieve–I earned fellowships, wrote a very comprehensive dissertation, had publications–but if the jobs aren’t there or the connections aren’t great, you’re out of luck.  But my internalized “Chinese Mother” wouldn’t let me let go: my friends were getting jobs and good jobs at that, so why not me, who worked and tried so hard.  And that’s not to mention people I knew whom I wasn’t overly impressed with and even younger colleagues who started beating me out for the same position.  I think I kept?/keep? keeping on with the academic job market because my inner “Chinese Mother” needs something to hang on to.

Post Academic Me: My inner “Chinese Mother” has stopped talking to me…

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