24 January 2011

My thoughts on Tiger Mothers, tigers in general

Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  has understandably raised a lot of criticism with her portrayal of Chinese-style parenting and her defense of tough love mothering. The mother of two daughters, now aged 18 and 15, Chua was a very strict parent who severely limited her daughters' free time and who had very high expectations for her kids. Among the things she mentions are some things that seem awfully close to abuse: threatening to destroy toys and stuffed animals, rejecting hand-drawn cards, forcing her two daughters to practice their instruments for hours a day, and demanding nothing less than top performance in every subject but drama and physical activity. This, understandably, has earned a lot of criticism, especially from the "western" parents she seems to denounce in the excerpts published on the Web as too permissive. Many mothers especially feel that Chua's parenting style is not only undesirable but downright abusive; however, there are a fair number of reviewers and bloggers that have responded with their own stories of "Tiger Mothers" and success.

Not having read the book yet, I can't really present a truly informed opinion. However, what I've gleaned from the reviews, interviews, blogs, and other responses to Chua's book, a lot of the debate about her parenting ignores the context in which certain actions took place as well as the cultural context that teaches about discipline in an entirely different manner. Many Asian-American students, especially those with parents who grew up in Asian cultural contexts, find their parents expectations almost suffocatingly high and the restrictions intolerable. And compared to many American peers, the life of an Asian student seems almost humorously restricted. The High Expectations Asian Father meme is a central example of this trend - in fact, Chua has herself spawned her own meme (the picture is a stock image, of course).

Humor aside, there are some important things to consider when evaluating a Tiger Mother. One is the effect of such upbringing on psychological development. Many psychologists believe that children need internal approval of their actions in order to mature; approval that is contingent upon factors like grades or competition can cause self esteem problems, claims Madeline Levine in the San Francisco Chronical.  Others point out that fear-based parenting is not as foreign to Americans as we'd like to think, as is provokingly acknowledged by Psychology Today. Note that many of the measures of self-esteem and psychological and psychosocial development that both articles treat as dogmatic are based upon Western ideas, specifically individualism and a rejection of the belief in filial piety and debt. Although by a Western model, Chua's parenting might seem to produce deficient children, I feel strongly that her kids are not deficient: her oldest daughter is a classical pianist who performed in Carnegie Hall before age 15 and is now attending an Ivy League University, and her younger daughter, who attends a prestigious program at Juilliard School of Music.

I also believe that the cultural context of achievement in China and other Asian countries is worth mentioning. Asian schools are highly competitive, with academic tracking occurring very early in the educational heirarchy and with test scores determining entrance into elite high schools. The admirable work ethic of Asian students, many of whom attend school before the sun rises and don't come home until dark - and only then to study, results in students that outperform American kids in math, science, and English. And Chua's kids are demonstrably successful. Her oldest, Sophia, has published an open letter to her mother that describes her experiences and tongue-in-cheek thanks her for pushing her to succeed despite herself. Compared with many American parents, Asian families often set high expectations for their kids and are critical when those expectations aren't met, but in many cases those expectations and pressures create kids with strong motivation for success and a drive for competition.

Although my mother wasn't a Tiger Mother, she was often very strict with me and my sister. She was demanding when it came to our grades and restricted our activities with friends. For example, we were rarely allowed to play with friends if we had homework, we practiced piano and other instruments and competed in local competitions, and had our report cards scrutinized. Compared to many of my friends, I wasn't allowed to do much, and I was often resentful of her demands and the pressure that I felt. However, as an (almost) adult, I look back and realize that my mother created a successful, strong individual. She pushed us to succeed in school; she also spent untold hours with us learning to read, poring over the same picture books until we had memorized them. She demanded that we practice and master piano; she also paid for lessons all through our schooling, drove us there and back and to every recital, every competition, purchased literally hundreds of music books. She was exacting in her requirements for tardiness, cleanliness, and behaviour; she also put up with the whining, crying, and resistance to all the many activities she helped us achieve. She criticized my weight, my diet, my physical activity, and the clothes I wore; she also spent our whole lives trying to teach us about healthy choices when we were constantly demanding junk food, sleeping instead of playing, and (in my case, anyway) shopping for inappropriate clothes that mostly didn't fit. Without her pressures, her demands, her criticism, and her brand of tough love, I know I wouldn't be the strong, successful, independent woman I am, and I know my sister wouldn't have made it through the demands of high school. I have to agree with the Chua family: if you don't have to work for it, it's not worth having, and this applies to success, achievement, and, in some cases, love.

04 January 2011

Immigration Debates: What and Why?

As more and more immigrants enter the United States, legally and illegally, and create lives and communities and families, the debate over their citizenship status rages in courtrooms and on the political grandstand. Arizona's recent immigration law, signed in April, makes residing in Arizona without citizenship or immigration documents a crime and granting police the power to detain and question suspect undocumented immigrants. This law has drawn harsh criticism from a variety of sources and has been challenged as unconstitutional because it supplants federal law - not to mention the fact that it opens the door to unfair profiling, police harassment, and outright racism.

The DREAM Act, which would have granted citizenship to immigrants who meet certain requirements, failed to pass in December. Under the Act, children who entered the country before age 16, demonstrated "good character" (no jail time, no suspensions, satisfactory school performance, etc), and went to college or served in the military would be granted conditional legal status. Roundly denounced as "amnesty," its failure to pass was both a heavy blow to its supporters and President Obama but was widely hailed as a victory by the Republican party.

Others are challenging "ethnic studies" classes in public schools. Arizona, again at the forefront, threatens to withdraw funding from schools that teach "ethnic studies" classes on the basis that they encourage treason and ethnic identity that supersedes American identity. Additionally, teachers with heavy accents are no longer allowed to teach English classes, and bilingual teachers who taught in both Spanish and English are now only allowed to teach in English. It is worth noting that Arizona, like many other states, encouraged bilingual education in the 1990s as the Latino/Hispanic population of the US surged. Proponents of the legislation maintain that it is simply a measure to ensure that schools don't encourage ethnic exceptionalism; opponents are fighting it on First Amendment grounds.

Some of the recent rhetoric surrounding undocumented immigration now surrounds issues that should have women rallying in support. The birthright clause, a part of the 14th Amendment  which grants citizenship to a child born on US soil, is now being challenged by Arizonian lawmakers. They scathingly criticize women  who cross the border to give birth in the United States, dropping "anchor babies" that give them a tenuous foothold. Contrary to popular belief, "anchor babies" do not make their parents automatic citizens; parents can still be deported and often are. Once they reach age 21, children born in the US can sponsor their parents for citizenship. Many want to remove the birthright clause and deport children born in the United States along with their parents. However, many women cross the border legally, with visas and permits, to take advantage of better medical care in the US or to be with family when their child is born.

Some patterns that emerge throughout these debates are some implicit fears about identity, citizenship, Americanity, and even human rights. According to Arizona, ethnic identity can and does supersede American identity, despite the fact that many people exist with a "hypenated American" status quite comfortably. I do not feel that my Asian heritage makes me less of an American citizen; I have lived here all my life, spoken American English, studied in American schools and paid American taxes. However, also according to Arizona, I could be arrested and detained for failing to carry my citizenship papers with me at all times - regardless of the fact that they were issued in my infancy and are no longer relevant to my political status. Americanity is fluid and has been since the creation of this country. We are no longer a frightened group of Anglos huddled together on a rock on the East Coast, fighting for survival against a natural world infinitely more powerful than anything we can imagine. We are intimately and inextricably tied to other cultures, histories, religions, and beliefs, and to ignore that fact in the name of "patriotism" is dangerous.

The "anchor baby" attack is interesting in a dangerous way because it targets specifically the women who carry these babies. In a way, those who want to remove the birthright clause are denying women the security of a safe childbirth, criminalizing pregnancy and the act of giving birth and reducing it to a scheme for citizenship and the presumed handouts that come with it. Why will people not understand that more American citizens mean more taxpayers and thus more income? Why do they see these desperate, frightened men and women and children as a threat to their livelihoods? And why don't they acknowledge the fact that people come to this country illegally in search of work that is readily available in American homes, farms, factories, and fields?

People have always sought to define and redefine American identity. It is no longer limited to white, upper-class males; now we include women, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and poor people. Has America suffered as a result? I believe not. What has suffered is the idea that Americans are somehow mystically superior to the rest of the world and that only one group of people can make meaningful contributions to a healthy, developing society. We cannot forget this, and thus descend into the kind of fear and ignorance that characterized witch hunts, Jim Crow laws, Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment camps. Human rights don't stop at the border, and Arizona cannot be the loudest voice for American intolerance when so many others are willing to open their hearts and minds where they are not.

03 January 2011

Happy New Year!

New Year! 

Penguin's list of New Year's resolutions:

1. try not to curse at other drivers on the road
2. be nicer to manbear
3. exercise more often
4. eat more healthy foods
5. plan more trips with friends and family
6. take more long baths, read more silly romance novels, and generally do more relaxing things for myself
7. do some community service
8. remember every day how lucky i am and how wonderful is my life!


happy new year everybody!

Dear "jeggings,"

Please go away. Forever.