I wasn’t originally planning to weigh in on this whole “Chinese Mothers Are Superior” thing because I felt like everyone had already put a dog into the fight. I’m not a mother, I’m not Chinese, and I am equally appalled by the various ways I’ve seen parents raise their children, so I wasn’t really sure I wanted to wade into this, but I’m still thinking about some personal experiences that won’t let it rest.
During my first two years of college I encountered kids who were raised by Chinese parents the way that Amy Chua raises her kids. My first roommate spent his every waking moment outside of class studying and half way through the semester, when he learned that he would not be able to pull straight A’s in all his classes, he disappeared. One day he was there on the other side of the room, the next all that was left was the dorm furniture and a pencil. I asked around and learned he had dropped out of school, and about a month later someone said they saw him selling cars in downtown Oakland. His was the happiest story.
In the spring a girl who had similarly been nose-down working for nothing but straight A’s didn’t do so well in one class, packed her things and shipped them home. She never made it home. Her parents called because they received the shipped personal items but the girl never made it home. Her roommate said that the night before she disappeared all she talked about was the shame she was bringing upon her family. We didn’t understand it at the time.
My second year of college a third kid disappeared, and this was our window into what was happening. A kid down the hall had become increasingly agitated about his grade performance and would keep his roommate up late at night cursing. Apparently he was verging on dropping below an A- and even the A- was causing him stress. His roommate asked him why he was beating himself up and the kid explained that this was how he was raised. His parents, his mother especially, pushed him and his siblings to excel and would accept nothing less. They made it very clear that anything less than perfection was not an option, and would disown him if he failed to meet their expectations. His roommate thought it was harsh, and thought he might have been exaggerating a little, but wasn’t laughing a week later when the kid disappeared.
Campus police investigated, a letter was found, and a cursory search was made in the waters around the Golden Gate Bridge where the kid’s note said he was planning to jump from. When the dorm managers asked the family what they wanted done with their son’s personal belongings they were told “We have no son.” It was never clear to us whether they were more ashamed by the suicide or the grade failure.
Years later when I was a public school teacher I encountered some of these parents. During parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights they would make their expectations very clear to me, and it was generally the mothers who were the most concerned about their children’s grades. As Chua points out it wasn’t always Chinese parents, and it got so that when you met a student you knew which ones had the strict parents at home. They weren’t as social, kept to themselves, never attended any school activities. They would occasionally check in to see if there was extra credit work they could do, some even saying their mothers told them expressly to ask for extra work. Other kids would tell us stories about Chinese school where kids would spend several hours after their public school day, and weekends, translating their American schoolwork into Chinese.
And all this for what?
Do the ends justify the means?
I saw three kids pushed to the brink, where anything less than perfection was failure, and I find the argument that this is superior parenting arrogant . Yes, on their own, kids will be lazy, and in that weird way that kids are they do crave to be pushed. Yes, parents can and should want their children to excel and succeed and be the best people they can possibly grow up to be. But a world without unstructured play, without instrument beyond piano and violin, without choice in extracurricular activities sounds far from superior to me.