Earning a Superior Chinese Mother’s Love

There’s been a lot of talk about Amy Chua’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and some great responses.  I especially like the statement one commenter made, that the reason immigrant parents are so crazy and controlling about their children’s success is that they don’t want their kids to grow up in hardship and poverty like they did.  Chua, a Chinese American, presumably did not grow up in such poverty.

Chua’s piece basically details how incredibly strict she is with her daughters, even beyond my own upbringing.  You’d think raising daughters who are respectful, get mostly A’s, and play an instrument would be good enough.  But no.  The girls must get ALL A’s (except in gym and drama); they can ONLY play the piano or the violin (no guitars for you!); they’re not allowed sleepovers, play dates, TV, or video games; they’re (inexplicably) not allowed to perform in school plays; they get called names if they’re not respectful to their elders.

I’m all for kids being respectful to their elders, and like Chua, I can’t stand all the Western-bullshit worrying about a kid’s self-esteem.  “So how does having pancakes for breakfast make you feel, Jimmy?”  I would definitely want my kid to play an instrument.  I’d want them to not necessarily get good grades but to work to the best of their ability at everything they do.  I’d want them not to give up just because something is hard.

BUT.

So her daughters get straight A’s.  So they’re concert-performing musicians.  They get into ivy league schools.  They get straight A’s again.  They graduate – THEN WHAT?

What is it all leading to?  Jobs her parents can brag about?  Making a lot of money?  Making a third generation of overachieving, Type A nutjobs?

My mother was concerned about all the same things Chua is.  The grades, playing an instrument, being respectful.  Though she was actually okay if I got mostly A’s, and I was allowed to give up piano by the time I started high school, but by then I liked it and kept going on my own.  (See? Choices are good.)  She actually would have loved it if I did a sport or was in a school play.  True, it was all so that it go in my college applications, rather than being a well-rounded human being, but basically she got there was more to life than straight A’s and piano.

I’d say she was much more crazy about the respectfulness issue, whether to her and my dad, other family members, or their friends.  But this concern has made me feel she cares more about others than she does about me.  Maybe I was being rude to her friend – after 20 years of being polite – because a shit storm is going on in my life.  But no, she was more concerned about what I said to her friend, how I, and therefore she, came off, rather than bothering to ask, “Is something happening to make you act this way?”

And they wonder why I didn’t tell them about my husband’s affair and our divorce till several months after the fact.

My mother’s love and approval were earned.  My entire life I felt I had to do things to earn love, which was how my marriage was.  If I was very very good, and did exactly what my husband and in-laws wanted, then they’d love me, not just love me, but love me best.  They’d be there for me; they wouldn’t leave.

I was wrong.

Of course nothing I did – or didn’t do – caused their behavior.  But now in a new relationship, I have to remind myself that I don’t need to earn MB’s love, but at the same time, in some situations, I need to put his feelings first.  If something causes him to be upset, I try to stop myself from thinking, It’s because of me, but I didn’t do anything wrong, I’ve been “good,” so he has no right to be upset, and I will give him the cold shoulder. I remind myself, He’s upset because of A, and all he wants from me, as he’s stated, is love and affection. Sounds easy but it’s been hard.

I imagine Chua’s daughters going through something similar after they’ve grown up and start having relationships.  Being successful equals being worthy.  If I’m not successful, no one will want me.  I have to keep achieving, keep “winning,” to be happy.  I’m only happy if someone approves of me.

I’ve been there, and it’s not a nice feeling.  I hope her daughters have a stronger sense of self than I did, and are able to eventually make their own way, out of the grips of their crazy mom.

10 comments

  1. It’s weird…as a Greek-American, I experienced some of the same things–we were educated on how to greet and reply to greetings, in Greek, etc., so we would appear like the perfect, little immigrant children–but all of that–and I did do *all* of it–was blown out of the water, when I came out as queer. It made me feel like all that hard work of being the perfect child was for naught, just b/c I was being honest of an immutable aspect of my being. Going to listen to Alanis Morissette’s “Perfect,” now. :)

  2. aw man, that is so tough – so it’s not like you could argue, “Well I was behaving a certain way so maybe I deserved to be treated that way by my parents” (ie, my rudeness) – you were just being who you are and being punished for that.

  3. Alas, I think the issue is far more universal and not unique to first-generation Americans born to immigrant parents. As a third-generation Irish-American, at age 45 I woke up to the angst of life as a true blue Type A perfectionist, thanks to four cancer scares in two years. Coming to grips with the realities of my imperfect human condition literally sickened me. I have my tale of familial dysfunction to which I could attribute my people-pleasing (and have ad nausem, some of my friends would say!), but I also wonder if it isn’t just part of the growing-up process to recognize the wisdom in “to thine own self be true,” admittedly one I came to a little late in the game. Then again, I can be grateful the light dawned at all–I have many former comrades who are still on the treadmill, and may only get off when they keel over. Recognizing that people’s reaction to me is “their stuff,” that their response to something I do or dont do says more about them than it does about me, de-personalizing those “mom moments” (and be assured, I have had many!) has been one of the most liberating awarenesses of my life. I just returned from a visit with my terminally ill mother, who told me how badly I needed my hair and middle thinned, and later spoke about growing up in an era in which she was to be seen and not heard. To my mom, there is no line where she ends and I begin and its a lack of boundries not a lack of love that prompts those comments that are better left unsaid. I see so many of my friends practically living their almost grown children’s lives for them–writing essays on college applications, insane stuff. In reality, its narcissism–the school their kid gets into is all about them, the parent. And that may just be part and parcel of imperfect human nature at its core…and why we need to tap into some kind of divine inspiration to transcend it. Perhaps easy for me to say…I don’t have kids. : )

  4. After all the fuss and stuff about the article, I finally got around to reading it. I wish I had read it without everyone’s shock and dismay clouding what I was reading but I wasn’t going to happen across a WSJ article on my own.
    Knowing the WSJ article/essay is an excerpt from her book gives me a lot of perspective about the piece. I’m tempted to think that there are flourishes added for effect although there is no doubt of the height of her standards. At the core of it, I think there is outrage about parenting and I’m so tired of everyone trying to say what is the best parenting technique. What works, I think, is dependent on the set of parents and the child’s personality, so there aren’t rules. But you don’t see me all eager to rear a child and practice my philosophy and I fear that with an manageable bratty kid, I’ll just helplessly and desperately raise it as I was raised by my mother who is Amy Chua-esque.
    Also I think the AA lit is just flooded with daughters bemoaning their upbringing, mothers making late-life discoveries they were so wrong and reconciling and all that. What about happy model minorities? They exist, but just aren’t that interesting for non-/fiction material. I think there is a glimmer of hope, a potential softness in Amy Chua when she talks about after the painful and successful piano session, the daughter came to her bed and they snuggled and hugged.
    I don’t know. I think she wanted a reaction and she got it. I think she’s gutsy and savvy.

  5. […] read the article, linked from Angela Tung’s blog and even left a long comment–apparently I lurk or leave long comments–while also […]

  6. meg – thank so much for reading and commenting! this did cross my mind as i was reading the article – it’s not just Asian and Asian American families that have these sort of dysfunctions. i’ve known Type A’s of ALL races, and people of all races who have had the same sort of “conditional-love” relationships with their parents.

    i really like this: “To my mom, there is no line where she ends and I begin and its a lack of boundries not a lack of love that prompts those comments that are better left unsaid.” you’re so right! it’s lack of boundaries, not lack of love. my own mom is the same way, though she’s mellowed out quite in recent years.

    i don’t have kids either, and make all sorts of promises to myself about what i’ll “never” do – but while i can’t expect perfection from my kids, i shouldn’t put pressure on myself to be perfect either.

  7. wyn – you know what? i see your point, and the piano scene probably bothered me the least and actually cracked me up. i went through something similar with my mom – her yelling and literally standing over me as i practiced piano and cried – and Lulu’s asking, “Why aren’t you at the Salvation Army yet?” shows me she has fire. and the cuddling, which my mom and i never did, does add some softness.

    what i have issue is with is the inexplicable strictness over WHICH activities the daughters do. why just piano and violin? why not the school play? why not a sport? why no play dates or sleepovers? isn’t it enough that they’re forced to excel at everything they do? can’t they have their own interests?

    this shows me the mom only cares about how the daughters come off, and how SHE comes off as a mom. she only cares about the daughters fulfilling some dream in her own head.

    she is not allowing her daughters to have their own dreams.

    which would be perfectly understandable for someone our parents’ generation. but Chua is closer to our generation. this is why i’m so flabbergasted.

    Betty Ming Liu’s response is awesome. she cites Tony Hsieh, the 30-year old CEO of Zappos, as an example. he did everything his parents didn’t want him to do. he took chances and made mistakes. and now? HUGELY successful.

    yes, his parents probably put the “work hard” ethic into him, and i think that’s great. but if he had played it safe like his parents wanted, and hadn’t been as daring, he might just be some cog in some corporation now.

  8. Oh, I can probably explain the extracurriculars somewhat based on my own upbringing. Besides piano and violin being most proper and generally accepted, I had to learn them because it takes people of means to learn those instruments–a piano is expensive! Woodwind and brass instruments aren’t “polite” at all (although flute is a little different), neither is a cello or bass. Singing only requires your vocal cords.
    My sports were hand-picked for me with motivations to make me taller: basketball, volleyball, and the stretching required for overhead shots in badminton. Soccer was forbidden because kicking doesn’t seem lady-like or helping one grow taller and there was no way I was allowed to kill brain cells heading a ball.
    In my case it was complete overprotectiveness and no faith that kids can choose properly (where the “face” thing comes in). I wasn’t allowed to sleepover because I had my own bed and I was raised as a “princess” who wouldn’t sleep in other people’s beds/houses. And you never can trust you sleepover buddy’s father/older brothers….
    –Doesn’t my childhood sound like a barrel of laughs?

    But yes, it is shocking how she is someone close to our age but with parenting methods that seem like her mother’s generation. I wonder if she’s making up for something she felt missing (my mother made up for being the eldest daughter and neglected, amongst a ton of other factors), or if it wasn’t some control-freak or “scientific” experiment that she could then write about and analyze?
    I also speculated that she does appreciate the Asian values and raising third generation children (who appear to me from the image to be biracial but I’m not sure), she saw the only way to be restrictive. Otherwise, those 3rd gens are apt to be “I’m not Asian! I’m American!!”

  9. Angela, I am so glad to have caught your post on FB on this subject, so near and dear to my heart! In your response to my post, you nailed what I refer to as my own brand of “Pier Pressure”…self-inflicted. While Perfectionism may have been an evolutionary tactic developed in response to less than warm-and-fuzzy parenting, at some point I realized it was not only NOT working for me, it was working against me (and big time at that). The big “Hellllooooo” from the Universe was when I found I was feeling as stressed out about my flipping blog as I had about the intense media job for which I was paid the big bucks. I saw that I had taken the Girl our of Corp. America, but was having difficulty taking Corp. America out of the Girl! So I began the process of re-wiring my brain and listening to the tone of voice in which I talk to myself…and giving birth to the kinder, gentler Meg, who treats herself at least half as nice as she feels compelled to treat everyone else! So to come full circle to Sweet Land of Liberty, whatever our heritage is…Choices!

  10. wyn – fascinating! and eerily familiar.

    i remember being invited to play flute in band in elementary school, and my mother saying no, not because she felt one way or the other about any instrument but because in her mind, i barely practiced piano (which wasn’t really true), how did i expect to learn ANOTHER instrument, without thinking that band is a fun social activity and that if i were busier, i’d actually compartmentalize my time better.

    maybe i am projecting that regret as i read Chua’s piece – my mother keeping me from doing extracurricular activities when i was young (band, safety patrol, the “gym show” [don’t ask]), which made it difficult for me to do them when i was in high school, when she suddenly wanted me to do them. i was shy and just not used to doing that kind of thing. maybe if i had always done them, it’d have been easier. (then again, i’m not really any worse off now because i wasn’t in safety patrol.)

    as for sports, what is it about Chinese parents thinking certain physical activities will make you taller?! my mom thought that about swimming and so encouraged me to do it. i had fun doing it anyway but i doubt it made me taller. more fit yes, but people are as tall as they’re going to be, unless malnourished.

    i remember my mother was reluctant at first to let me go to sleepovers. i was 8 when i went to my first one, and she said i could stay as late as i wanted but not sleep over. i felt extremely left out, and kept calling asking her if i could sleep over. she kept saying no – i don’t even know why – till finally i hung up and started to cry. my friends found me, and then THEY called my mother to “butter her up,” as one friend said, and finally my mother agreed and drove over with my sleeping bag and nightgown.

    why is this making me verklempt? *sniff*!

    i guess everyone’s parents have crazy ideas. but you’re right in saying, “This is the best way,” or not is so annoying. it’s not a competition. at least it shouldn’t be.