My initial reaction to Amy Chua’s now-infamous Wall Street Journal piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” was to check the author’s bio in search of proof that I hadn’t just read a satire. The accompanying photo of a cross-armed Chua, armed with her duet-ing daughters, placed next to a list of childhood prohibitions (no sleepovers, no play-dates) was Onion-worthy, I thought. Except that it wasn’t: Chua, a Yale Law Professor (I double-checked) is very much for real, and so was her (alas) humor-less, no-fun Wall Street Journal polemic.
I happened to be in the US when the piece ran, and not long after I received an emailed request from a friend in Shanghai to please, if I could, bring back a copy of Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, back with me. So on Tuesday, with some reluctance, I bought a copy, and yesterday, while confined to 18 hours of travel, I decided – having accidentally packed all of my other books into my luggage – to read the first chapter or two. And then, after the first chapter, I realized that I was going to stick with it, because – regardless of what you think of so-called Chinese parenting – it’s a beautifully written, oftentimes funny, humble and modest book about assimilation. That is to say, it has very little in common with the Wall Street Journal piece. Indeed, Chua is quite clear – in the book – that the genesis for the narrative is not a belief that Chinese mothers are superior, but rather an argument between her and her daughter that took place in a Moscow restaurant:
She’s just like me, I thought, compulsively cruel. “You are a terrible daughter,” I said aloud.
“I know – I’m not what you want – I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head? I hate the violin! I HATE my life! I HATE you, and I HATE this family! I’m going to take this glass and smash it!”
“Do it,” I dared.
Lulu grabbed a glass from the table and threw it on the ground. Water and shards went flying, and some guests gasped. I felt all eyes on us, a gross spectacle.
I’d made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can’t control their kids. Now I had the most disrespectful, rude, violent, out-of-control kid of all.
Lulu was trembling with rage, and there were tears in her eyes. “I’ll smash more if you don’t leave me alone,” she cried.
I got up and ran. I ran as fast as I could, not knowing where I was going, a crazy forty-six-year-old woman spriting in sandals and crying. I ran past Lenin’s mausoleum and past some guards with guns who I thought might shoot me.
Then I stopped. I had come to the end of Red Square. There was nowhere to go.
Now, if I didn’t know that the author of the Wall Street Journal piece was the author of the above passage, I might be tempted to send a copy of the latter’s work, to the former, in hope that she could see the dangers of her ways.
And that’s what makes Chua’s recent PR campaign for her book so frustrating. Her book is, in many ways, an account of her doubts about “Chinese parenting.” The cruelty that some readers found in the Wall Street Journal is present in the longer text, but it is present with doubts about their efficacy, the damage that was being done to her relationship with her daughter, humor, and emotion. The Wall Street Journal excerpt doesn’t contain any of that. In fact, in large part, the Wall Street Journal “excerpt” only qualifies as an excerpt in name. In reality, it’s nothing more than some of the book’s most inflammatory paragraphs and passages, cherry-picked from various points in the book, and arranged in order, minus context: the first three paragraphs are from pages 1 -2; the fourth paragraph is from page 5; the fifth paragraph is from page 29; paragraphs 6 and 7 are from page 50; paragraphs 8 – 19 run uninterrupted from 51 – 54; the remainder of the piece – the now infamous tale of forcing her daughter to practice “The Little White Donkey” runs from 60 – 63.
That’s not an excerpt. That’s a partially re-assembled jigsaw puzzle! Missing from the Wall Street Journal piece are thousands of words between paragraphs four and five, for example, and the humor, emotion, and self-doubts that make Chua’s book so compelling to read. As one instance, consider Chua’s masteful hedge when she rhetorically asks whether her parenting style is for the benefit of her daughters, or herself: “My answer, I’m pretty sure, is that everything I do is 100% unequivocally for my daughters.” Or this self-effacing passage, in which Chua describes her decision to drive her family’s new dog to over-achieve:
Nevertheless, not knowing a thing about raising dogs, my first instinct was to apply Chinese parenting to Coco. I had heard of dogs who can count and do the Heimlich maneuver, and the breeder told us that Samoyeds are very intelligent. Kaifas and Suggen were the lead dogs for the explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s famous 1895 attempt to reach the North Pole. In 1911, a Samoyed named Etah was the lead dog for the first expedition to reach the South Pole. Coco was incredibly fast and agile, and I could tell that she had real potential. The more Jed [Chua’s husband] gently pointed out that she did not have an overachieving personality, and the point of a pet is not necessarily to take them to the highest level, the more I was convinced that Coco had hidden talent.
It’s these insecurities, this very human capacity to doubt herself, that make the book so appealing, and unusual. As Chua herself notes, immigrant families (especially Chinese ones) don’t open their doors to the eyes of outsiders. Now, forgetting for the moment that Chua is a second-generation American, and a Yale Law professor, it is, nonetheless, striking that somebody who clearly adheres to Chinese parenting models would turn around and write a tell-all memoir in which she depicts herself in an unflattering manner. I can’t think of another example.
And perhaps that’s one reason why Chua and her publisher have chosen to promote, in effect, a different book: namely, she doesn’t want to talk about herself, and her mistakes. That, and – let’s face it – a racially-tinged account of why one culture’s children are superior to another’s is bound to generate interest. I just hope that some of the folks who pick up Chua’s book out of that interest, stay with it to appreciate the humor, subtlety, and finally, wisdom, that it contains. PR aside, Chua doesn’t believe that Chinese mother. Her book, in large part, is an account of how she reached that point, and for that reason, alone, I’d call it one of the best memoirs I’ve read in years.
[UPDATED: In an interview with Jeff Yang at the San Francisco Chronicle, Chua claims that the Wall Street Journal piece "had been edited without her input, and by the time she saw the version they intended to run, she was limited in what she could do to alter it." I'm sorry, but that's a little hard to take. At a minimum, had Chua been concerned about misrepresenting the book, she could have demanded that the excerpt not run. That would have been fully within her rights, and I'm sure the Journal - knowing that she intended to denounce their edit publicly - would've complied. But Chua, obviously and justifiably anticipating the PR/sales boost that she would get from the excerpt, decided to let it go. I can't say that I would do any different, though I'd like to think that I'd avoid subsequently denouncing the Journal's editorial practices - especially in light of the fact that those practices are directly responsible for launching Chua onto the best seller lists. Disingenuous, on Chua's part, at best.]