A Partial Defense of Amy Chua, but not her PR agency (and/or strategy).

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.]

16 thoughts on “A Partial Defense of Amy Chua, but not her PR agency (and/or strategy).

  1. I wonder if that’s how the Journal does excerpts ordinarily or if this was just an an instance of half assing it for the Saturday edition. Then again the Journal is a Murdoch property now so I don’t know why anyone would expect better. I assume Chua saw the edit and could have called it off and didn’t.

  2. Whatever one can fairly say about the WSJ’s politics, they are an incredibly well-run paper, the rare picture of professionalism. My articles and editorials for them are rigorously checked, and I always get a final check of and say on the edits before going to press.

    Whatever one can fairly say about Chinese parenting, Chua is NOT a Chinese parent. She is a Western and American parent with an immigrant background. The only similarity is that Chinese parents do pressure their kid a lot – while spoiling them rotten. Chinese parents will berate a kid for being fat while force-feeding her cake. Chinese parents do their kid’s homework for him. If a Chinese kid gets a bad grade, the parents will yell at…her teacher.

    Modern Chinese parenting more resembles mainstream/European-American helicoptor parenting than the immigrant ethos of Chua.

  3. I think many people were misled from reading WSJ’s article that Amy Chua is a cruel person when she is not. There’s was an msnbc interview with her.

    http://behindthewall.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/01/10/5805977-chinese-or-western-who-wins-the-mommy-war-

    She says that her book wasn’t exactly a how-to manual for the Chinese way of raising your kids, but more like a memoir. At first I thought she was cruel, but after watching the interview, I kind of sympathize with her.

  4. I’m sure the WSJ article helped increase her sales not because ANYONE would want to raise kids this way but because we want the incredibly dirty dish.

  5. I completely disagree with the claim that assembling an excerpt from different parts of a book is somehow illegitimate. One of the best book excerpts I’ve ever read, a Commentary piece from Vladimir Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle, was done that way.

    Also, I have no inside information on this particular example, but I do write regularly for the section involved. The editors are first rate and quite open to author input, including objections to headlines. My guess is that Chua might have had a few qualms about the excerpt but basically thought it was OK until she saw the reaction.

  6. Virginia – I probably didn’t phrase that very well. What I should have written, but didn’t, is that assembling an excerpt from various places in a book is fine – so long as it doesn’t distort the book being excerpted. I didn’t read the Bukovsky excerpt, but my guess is that it represented To Build A Castle fairly well. My problem with the WSJ excerpt is that it was assembled in such a way as to mis-represent Chua’s book. The actual thesis of Chua’s book – that maybe this kind of parenting isn’t always effective, after all – isn’t nearly as inflammatory as the one that the WSJ’s editors pulled together, and – if excerpted accurately – wouldn’t have drawn 5000+ comment to the WSJ’s site.

    As for Chua – you may be right about her initial reaction. But what she’s said publicly, subsequently, makes it sound like (truthfully or not) that she had a much stronger reaction.

    It’s a great book, either way. I’ll be curious to see whether the heat surrounding it is sustained once people get around to actually reading it.

  7. Many Asian parents(not only Chinese) agree with Amy’s parenting in principle so the interest in buying the book was rather low – we know all about it ! As for the article, I actually felt her sense of humor – I quite liked her writing. “Cruel” is not the word to describe her – just tactless on purpose, that’s all. Mother – daughter relationship shouldn’t require tact…. Her children ‘are’ American – so she received more resistance than a mother would from children who go to an international school here in Shanghai :))

  8. The standards of most news organizations include prohibitions against distortion of any kind in interviews, book review excerpts or any other form of quotation. Intention and motivation should never change: fair and balanced! Sound familiar? The WSJ editors seem to work by a different set of standards, and while Ms Chua is a lawyer and Law Professor, her own ethical standards seem questionable if not hypocritical. If she had review rights and privileges over the article about her book she cannot claim “foul”; unless “foul” is a reflection on her own behavior.

  9. Clearly, the effort was to try to sell books or papers, hence the sensationalist headlines. Everyone I have spoken to in Shanghai about this has been generally surprised at the heat it has generated as it seems unclear why this is such a hot button piece.

  10. What I can’t figuer out is why a Yale Law Professor who wrote a book about something not law is accepted as such an expert. The shows I saw her appear on talk about her like she was the head of the Chinese-American League of Moms or Director of the Fascist Parenting Club. I get her relating her experience, but main stream media then turning that experience into a representative experience for ALL “Asians” is weird.

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  12. I just read the book. Very light and mostly fun to read. Here are a few thoughts.

    One, she is a very typical immigrant’s child. She had, from a very young age, a LARGE chip on her shoulder. “I had to get rid of my accent.” etc.

    Two, the build up of her roots also shows the immensity of the chip. When she says, and I quote, “My family comes from southern China’s Fujian Province, which is famous for producing scholars and scientists.” That is equivalent to saying, I am from the state of Alabama, famous for scholars and Scientists. I have tested the “joke” out on many Chinese friends, not Chinese Americans I might add, and they laugh. My good friend from Quanzhou, Fujian thought she was nuts!

    Three, she shows a very strong autistic streak. This was backed up by a clinical psychologist who I was chatting with the other day. If you look at the notes she wrote for her daughter to practice violin while she was away, it is all the proof you need!

    And finally, here is a direct quote which helps understand the author much better.

    “The truth is I’m not good at enjoying life. It’s not one of my strengths”

    This shows she is NOT the one to give advice on child development. Why, because she wants her kids to be just like her, and what a shame that would be.

    Recap of Chua

    Insecure and Autistic! Let’s give her a break!

    Book review

    Fun, but incredibly poor ending. The ending is telling how she has no real ending and it goes down hill from there!

    Bottom line, I feel kinda sorry for her. I hope that once her kids grow up and become mothers, she can become a soft and fun grandmother. I think then she can learn to be better at enjoying life.

  13. Interesting post – I have read so many things about this book and Amy Chua’s parenting style – being an Asian (grew up in India) , settled in USA and now, here in Shanghai for a brief sojourn – I understand what she is referring to – my kids are young and my husband considered the American school system to be seriously lagging behind in Math and reading – we enrolled them in Kumon – a Japanese system of learning through repetitive practice – my daughter hated it and honestly, so did I – my parents are nothing like Amy Chua – I didn’t have a sleepover ever – because the concept of childhood in Asia differs from the one in West – it’ s not thought of as abnormal = because in place of sleepovers, I went for movies or hung out with friends when I could – the social pressure in USA – is different – if the child has few friends it’s an issue, if the girl is interested in a boy from an early age it’s considered cute – selling girl scouts cookies is such an important social event in a child’s life there (and very driven by the moms). Sports are competitive as well – you will see helicopter parents there as well – I just feel the priorities or focus is different. Academic excellence in recent times is not a priority for many Western parents. But for immigrants, especially Asian, it’s vital key to succeed in life – if baseball was the yardstick for success, Amy Chua would have pushed for it – but is realistic enough to realize that medicine, music, and other conventional fields are safer choices. And, honestly speaking kids will have issues with parents – even Western style parenting – there is no good or bad parenting – extreme parenting exists everywhere – but is more of an exception than a norm – and Amy Chua is an exception and should not be used to generalize Asian parenting. Because, if I read up on Jon Benet Ramsay, should I assume that all Western moms are stage moms and look what happened – the daughter died in sad circumstances. I kind of feel sorry for all the western kids, then, because this is what they had to go through – so , bottom line – she wrote a book to sell it, not for any other reason.

  14. But you gotta admit a lot of it sounded like she was boasting about her cruel methods. Of course she’ll pass it off as a memoir under so much criticism.

    For the record, none of the Asian immigrant kids, including myself, were denied sleepovers or dates or games. Not even the ones with really strict parents. We had tighter limits and more extracurricular stuff, but there was still room for a childhood. We all turned out stereotypically successful Asians, top marks and good jobs right out of university. So I don’t know what Mrs. Chua’s deal is.

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