Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tiger Mothers and Other Reaffirming Stereotypes

I admit, I've been mildly intrigued by the idea of reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ever since the fire storm over Amy Chua's book erupted a few months back. For those of you who haven't heard, Battle Hymn chronicles Chua's battles with her daughters and the utter abuse they take in the author's quest to be a proper "Chinese mother."

As many of you know, I read books for a living. As soon as this bad mutha hit the office, I scrambled to have it assigned to me. Mission accomplished, I started Tiger Mother yesterday and am about halfway through. This is what I think so far ...

First, I must make perfectly clear, that I hate exceptionalism in all its forms. For nations, it simply means that we Americans will rush headlong into countries like Afghanistan simply knowing that, because of our inherent goodness, we will not suffer the fates of Alexander the Great nor the British Empire (see how that's working for us).

As far as race goes, I believe that exceptionalism is simply the PC flip side of racism. These backhanded compliments will laud any race in one particular area while subtly suggesting that they are inferior in all others. In the 1840s, while enslaved Negroes were being called "lazy" and "shiftless" in one breath, the very next breath admonished those "slovenly" and "dirty" Irish and Germans to be more like the "hard-working," "industrious" darky. The "model minority" was born and continues to thrive to this day--though the levels of melanin have pretty much changed.

The modern minority is nothing but a racial stereotype. Like all stereotypes it can be totally contradictory and divorced from all reality. There are enough examples to reinforce these stereotypes, and we simply ignore the examples that don't. People love compliments, and many have fallen for the okey-doke, failing to realize that these laudatory compliments hide within them the implicit belief that these people are somehow inherently inferior.

Yesterday, it was the American Negro. Then came the "Black Jews" of upper class Jamaica (who are perfect in every way--and have you heard our music?!) and Haiti who emigrated to the States. It was the Jews. And today it is East and South Asians. While completely ignoring the sheer, debilitating poverty that billions of people live in on the Asian continent, we in America love to herald how well Asians are doing here in our own country. We somehow imbue their races and cultures with a magical, mystical "Eastern" way of understanding math and science that we in the West somehow fail to grasp.  Yes, South and East Asians have done remarkably well in this country, but it has much less to do with race or mysticism or any other racialist explanation one can come up with other than the racial policies of American immigration.

One simply need look no further than the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which was the first time America let of-coloreds immigrate en masse to this country since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Of course, America did let in "ethnics" before 1965, but it was under a very strict quota system (in 1958 Paul Robeson complained in his book, Here I Stand, that our country only allows 100 Indians in a year while retaining a virtual open door for Irish immigrants) and was incredibly selective (note the aforementioned "Black Jews"). The 1965 law only continued this practice. Sure, Lady Liberty opened her arms to Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, but she wasn't no ho, now. She didn't want "your poor, your tired, your huddled masses." She definitely wasn't looking for "homeless, tempest-tost." And you could forget about anybody's "wretched refuse." These weren't Europeans, after all.

So, when this great land of ours, reached out to distant, darker climes, they weren't looking for the strong backs and calloused hands they looked for in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. No, in our post-industrial society, we decided to drain these other countries of their brains. They didn't want goatherds from the Greek Isles. They wanted folks like my father, a teacher at a business school back in Jamaica who became a student here in America. They reached out to students, professionals, and entrepreneurs from other countries. These foreign students may have started out as goatherds but were now prepared to enter the middle class. Many of these foreign professionals may have ended up as cab drivers or grocery store owners because of language barriers, but they had solid middle class backgrounds in their homelands.

Now, I know that all stories aren't the same nor that all systems are perfect. There were undoubtedly hardships and obstacles. And I am sure there are many Horatio Alger stories among this class of immigrants. However, I bet that the lion's share of the immigrants of 1965 to, say, about 1980 ended up middle class no matter from which shore they hailed. And since class seems to influence class (not too many doctors' kids end up working as janitors), we would probably find that their children probably ended up at least middle class as well.

So, if you parse solely by race (instead of class), East and South Asian children have done remarkably well but mainly because their numbers are so small (all Asians and Pacific Islanders combined only make up four percent of the population) and were culled from populations most likely to succeed. The same is more than likely true of African, Carib, and Latino children, but their numbers are absorbed into the larger African-American and Hispanic populations. In fact, I'd wager that if America did open itself up to the "wretched refuse" of Asia and it was made a lot easier to get here, they, too, would have the same problems of criminality and "underachievement" that had befallen other large immigrant populations from the Irish, Jews, and Italians to Latinos and even, yes, my beloved "Black Jew" Jamaicans (after all, we do know there are Asian gangs in California, and I personally knew a few Asian "gangstas" in Atlanta), thereby shattering yet another "model minority" myth.

Of course, Chua relies heavily on said myth (how can you write a book titled Tiger Mother and not, eh?). While she readily admits that anybody can be a "Chinese mother" and is quick to poke fun at her own obdurateness, there is a bit of the smug superiority throughout what I've read so far. And one can't help but to wonder why.

Now, I'll admit that I grew up in a fairly strict household, and I've confessed that I view myself as being a pretty strict father. But Chua is in a whole, other league. Her Tiger Style is more than a little bit draconian--no extracurricular activities, no sleep-overs, hours upon hours of music practice every day even on vacation. And the woman is downright verbally abusive to her daughters--constantly comparing them against one another, perpetually haranguing, and even frequently calling them "garbage." And, as I said, you can't help but wonder why. You've got to figure that the children of two Yale professors and authors would probably do pretty well in life with a little prodding and direction. They probably would not have become the piano and violin virtuosi that Chua seems hellbent on their becoming, but still why put them through the abuse that she seems to inflict on the little dears daily?

It must be because Amy Chua is a Chinese mother, right?

See, we in the West have always found something inscrutable, something mysterious, something inhuman in the people we once called "Celestials." They are Genghis Khan/Ming the Merciless ruthless in war lacking all human decency and compassion. They are brainless automatons that blindly follow orders as every Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and/or Vietnamese soldier has done in our movies, caring nothing for their own lives or ours. Or they are soulless overachievers who care only about success and nothing for humanity. This last one has lately been attached to South Asians as well as any viewers of Dr. Bashir on Deep Space Nine or Dr. Neela Rasgotra from E.R.--both technically amazing physicians who mysteriously lacked the human capacity to feel empathy.

And that is the double-edged sword to the Asian version of the Model Minority and Chua's Tiger Mother. Her children are indeed overachievers. They will most definitely be successful. But, at the same time, there is something inhuman and cruel about the path their Chinese mother has chosen to get them there.

We Americans have been looking enviously on Asian success both here and abroad for well over almost three decades now as American hegemony declines. We have excoriated our own schools and teachers in light of Asian accomplishments in both math and science and have skewed our own education toward those two subjects in order to make for own supposed failings. In reaction to our schools becoming more "illiberal," eroding music and arts programs and even gym, we have professionalized our own children. We have loaded up their schedules with every new exotic experience we can think of--from Lichtensteinian Senegambian barbecue cooking to pre-Cambrian Mayan mating ritual dance class to soccer--in order to "round out" our children and give them the "best" of everything. It is hectic, nerve-wracking, exhausting. It is fraught with second-guessing and the niggling suspicion that it may all just be for naught, may not be for the kiddies at all and mainly for ourselves (to show what great parents we are) and that our children would probably just be as happy and successful if we just gave them a stick and a ball, kick them out the house, and tell them to be back home when the street lights come on.

So, every neurotic, diffident American parent out there looks for the latest kernel of wisdom on how to be the perfect parent. And we look toward that model minority Asian parent, who seems to have it all down. Chua happily fills that role, imperiously telling us how to do it. But in filling that Celestial role, she seems somehow demonic in her pursuit of her own Golden Child. The woman may be able to crack the occasional joke, but she is what the Asian stereotype has been saying the race has always been ... a shockingly inhuman automaton who lacks a soul and knows nothing of compassion.

We Americans can take solace in reading The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which may have been the function of the book all along (as I said, I'm only halfway through). Sure, our children may never be the math and science whizzes that these Asian kids are, but at least, we can tell ourselves, they will be loved. We will give them the compassion and support they need. We will never go around constantly berating them and calling them "trash." We can feel all the better for being the ones who actually nurture our children. We can revel in the fact that we will positively reinforce every single one of their actions no matter how mundane. We will give them medals and ribbons and trophies even when they come in twelfth out of ten. We will love our children much better than any Asian "tiger mother" will ever be able to do. And we definitely would never, ever go into "battle" against them. It is in that knowledge that we, too, can feel superior.


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