Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tiger Mom or total cow? Amy Chua punts her book

Look. Let's get this straight. Amy Chua is nuts. In China her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is called U.S. Mom because her maternal oddities are regarded as symptomatic of a western spiritual and psychic malaise. That her neuroses are being marketed as typical of the Chinese people as a whole (as if we are a monolithic society) is a sign of how little we are understood over here.

A grown woman goes into battle with a three-year old when she shows signs of having a will of her own? You threaten to chuck her out into the freezing winter's night because she had fun bashing the keys of the piano with her tiny splayed fists instead of picking out the pinched three notes to which you have reduced her world? Get some therapy, lady.

While I haven't yet read the book, I've heard the radio serialisation, watched the TV interviews and read the numerous articles as the Amy Chua roadshow juggernauts another stereotype down our collective craw: the machine-like drone incapable of deep love; function and service being all.

Chinese are complex, as all human beings should be. Yes, there's the age-old pressure to 'get on' and do well materially: hardly mysterious in a region of the world where absolute poverty, famine, civil war, the low status of the regularly conquered, and a short life-span was the norm until the latter half of the 20th century. [Note: while there is still poverty, China lifted 400 million out of absolute poverty in the last few decades according to the World Bank.]

Yes, Chinese can be strict as any middle-class white folk who send their offspring to boarding school to be beaten and fagged. As anyone who ever belted their kids. But they are unlikely to start an airline with child-free flights. And the Chinese certainly don't get arsey when kids have noisy fun in restaurants.

While there are indeed student suicides in China driven by failure to gain desired grades, Cambridge had a two per cent suicide rate [Edit: need to confirm this figure]. My mate Denis Wong remembers the tower being sealed off while he was at Birmingham University. Recalling his own mother's soppiness towards all children, Denis points out, 'Chua correlates herself with the Chinese, rather than of a certain class in North America. Much of the pressure by Chinese parents is not Spartan, but concern for their children to succeed, like anyone else might feel.'

But no! We are presented with a media tidal wave of stereotyping the Chinese as loveless robots. Channel 4 News, departing from its usual high standards, has Katie Razzall writing online:
It's a far cry from traditional western methods of parenting and, at some points in the book, Ms Chua appears almost deranged.

Funny how, when CNN went to China to find these 'Tiger Moms', they couldn't. How surprised they must have been to discover that the Tiger Mom is seen in China itself as a specifically US stereotype.

Even Chua's own husband, Jed Rubenfeld, now assures us that they were raising their kids with traditional American values.

Sigh! Someone brings out Mommie Dearest and suddenly we are all Joan Crawford.

When I was a kid, I was spoilt something rotten by the Xinhua journalists and embassy staff, who missed their own children while they were abroad on assignment. Comrade Ma, the Chargé d'affaires, swept the porcelain panda off his desk and into my hands when he noticed I'd been admiring it. My white English mother raised me as a Spock baby, with my father's up-to-a-point approval, but Denis reminds me of the counter-trend to instil discipline, and intensely hothouse, the children of the western middle classes. I escaped that relentless academic pressure and was still consistently in the top three of the class, and joint first in the year for O levels.

Perhaps journalists should get out more. Or get some Chinese friends.


Denis said...

Just to clarify, that 2% suicide figure at Cambridge was given to me by a student during a pre-university visit. He was making a point: things were pretty tough.

I didn't get into Cambridge, finished up a Brum and there were similar jokes, this time about jumping off the clock tower. This was all insider stuff, of course. The university would hardly want prospective students to know that by signing up, their survival rate had lowered.

Most importantly, however, this was long before the days of university marketing in the Far East; this was nothing to do with China and the Chinese.

The West has had a long stream of obsessions about the East, stretching through the various Opium Wars, through the obsession to attract Chinese students in the 90s, to the current obsession to chuck them out as soon they finish and finally to the obsession with Amy Chua and her particular mental illness.

But please don't let me over-generalise. We are, of course, at least with the Amy Chua obsession, talking about a small bunch of journalists who *surely* do not represent wider audiences (surely?).

Laban said...

I went to a New Year bash, and the (Singapore) Chinese hostess had Chua's Times piece pinned up in the loo. She said that no fewer than twelve of her friends had mailed it to her!