Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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Perhaps you've heard some of the buzz over Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In Chua's own words, the book "was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old." I kindled the book after Amazon thoughtfully suggested it to me, but as I am only reading books in paper right now (saving the kindled ones for China), I haven't gotten to it.

But I've been getting really irritated at the responses. Things have been building, but the final blow came when The Onion, my go-to source for news and information, jumped on the bandwagon. Of course they would; it's low-hanging fruit. I turned to their article with interest to see how cleverly they skewered Chua. They provided a list of suggestions for how to be a good Chinese mother. (My favorite item was "Replace their frail little limbs with less fragile prosthetics.") The last item in the list, however, really stuck in my craw: "Remember, you may have to put up with one or two suicides before you finally craft that perfect child you've always wanted." And I thought, no, no. It's not just the tacky reference to suicide (a problem about which we can't take the moral high ground, anyway). There are some profound misperceptions here.

The author of that piece assumed that Chinese parents behave as they do in order to gain something for themselves - a perfect child. That may be why Westerners parent compulsively (and we all know those people), but for the Chinese it's a different story. My Chinese friends who are parents push their kids hard because they want the best for them. In China, as in America, people know that having a university degree can open doors to jobs that otherwise would be closed; but unlike in America, there are not enough universities to meet the demand. Here, anyone who has the money can go to school somewhereand work their way up. There, the only guarantee students have that they will even be able to enter college is to do well on the gao kao, the nationwide exam given to high school seniors. So, not surprisingly, there's intense pressure to get into the best middle school, and then the best high school. People push because they know the stakes are very high. They don't push their kids so that they, the parents, can score one against the Joneses (or the Zhangs, I should say). They fret and worry and talk to one another about how to get the kids motivated and on track if they've wandered astray.

Well, that was bothersome, but the more troubling response has been floating around on the New York Times. David Brooks took Chua on in a column that's #1 in today's New York Times "most emailed" list. He calls Chua a wimp, right there in the title of his piece. He criticizes her because "she's protecting them [her children] from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn't understand what's cognitively difficult and what isn't." He then goes on to claim that "practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group - these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale." C'mon, David, really?? Did your wife handle the sleepovers in your house, or what??

Do you guys think Brooks really assumes that the Chinese spend so much time studying that they don't learn to negotiate group dynamics and understand social norms? I'm willing to grant that this is an overstatement because he's matching Chua's sarcastic tone, but there's enough of a stereotype there that I want to refute it. This is such a loopy assumption that it makes me sputter. I think it must be based, frankly, on the fact that people around his age (about whom I happen to know a lot :) grew up when it was Red China and the social studies textbooks included pictures of masses of monochromatic unsmiling people.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do Chinese people smile, they pay a lot of attention to relationships. A LOT of attention. You only have to look at their words for family members to see that. There is a different word for a sister who's older than a sister who's younger. When it comes to uncles, there's one word for your father's brother, and another word for your mother's brother. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Another example. In school, kids are grouped into cohort classes that travel together throughout their years in that school. And, back to the point that got us here, they study a lot. Typically, my friends (who are now in their 20s and 30s) told me that when they were in high school, they would stay at school from 7:30 am until 10:00 at night. A friend who's a high school teacher confirmed that kids at the school where she currently teaches do the same thing; the teachers are assigned various nights of the week to stay with them. The thinking is that the students are better off doing their homework where someone (probably a classmate) can help them if they have a question. I have another friend who takes her 15-year-old son his dinner so he can stay at school and work. Those kids emerge from high school with strong friendships that last for the rest of their lives, if my friends' parents (now in their 60s and 70s) are any indication. The whole system of "guan xi," or social capital, depends on negotiating complex relationships.

In short, context is everything. Things that work in one context might bring completely different results in another. And passing judgment when you've got half the story is just plain dumb.

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