By **Angela Chen**
I’m Chinese, so it goes without saying that I read Amy Chua’s now-infamous Wall Street Journal piece about Chinese parenting practices as soon as it went live, and have been discussing it ever since. This is because part of being Chinese involves being asked your opinion whenever other prominent Chinese people come into focus. But an even more important part of being Chinese is always comparing yourself to everyone of roughly equal age, so I have been keeping a running total of my life accomplishments versus those of Chua daughters Sophia and Louisa.
The chart’s a little misleading, I admit. It looks like we end up roughly equal, but we all know that Sophia and Louisa will attend an Ivy League university (and I don’t mean the “lesser Ivies” either) and have Wikipedia pages and make lots of money, while I’m going to state school and am still anxiously trying to predict if the job market will have recovered by the time I graduate. In terms of both tangible accomplishments and future potential, they seem to have won, hands-down. But I still put a question mark in the “future” column, because I once spent six months wishing for tiger parents, thinking that they would have ensured my success, and have come out the other side realizing that it was not having tiger parents that has made me feel secure in where I’m headed.
Chua will disagree. My friends who once bemoaned pushy parents and now thank them for Harvard-stamped diplomas will disagree. Generations of parents who scoff that their kids don’t know any better will disagree. My own chart doesn’t even quite support this. But, cliché as it is, I believe that having choices gives people the tools to succeed on their own terms and that, tired as it is, mistakes do make us better.
For me, all this tiger parent business started before Chua, when I was rejected from Yale—something Sophia and Louisa will never experience, not least because their mother is a professor there. Not being so lucky myself, the first thing I did when I was rejected was blame my parents for giving me the freedom to be rejected. And that freedom is why, at the core of the discussion over Chua’s tough love philosophy, beneath all the din about whether burning your children’s stuffed animals is wrong (yes), the most important question to me is simple and somewhat philosophical: Is it better to have choices, even if you sometimes make the wrong ones?
The key difference between Chua and my Chinese parents isn’t that they let me be in plays, but that they let me order my own life—even though I sometimes did it badly, with transcripts strewn with B’s in math and nary an international award to my name. When this mediocrely constructed life turned out not to pass muster with Ye Olde Gods of Ivy League Admissions, I was angry with my parents for not forcing me, kicking and screaming, to be better. I believed I was smart enough to get into Yale. More importantly, in a thought process mirroring Chua’s essay and what people think may cause China to surpass the U.S., I believed I would have gotten in, if only my parents had ignored my complaints and relentlessly pushed me to work harder. I wondered for the first time if having a choice in what I did had any worth if I just did everything wrong.
Here’s some advantages of having choice. First, you get to call things your own, including, you know, your own interests, your future success, what you want to do in life. Chua has molded her daughters into piano-playing first-in-their-class model children and, to a large extent, they owe their success, their future, their very being to her years of micromanagement. My parents have refused to either take responsibility for my failure or try to bask in my reflected glory so both the less-than-4.0 GPA and bullet points on my resumé are mine alone. Chua’s children will become the successful people she wants them to be, measured by the definitions she sets. I will (job market willing) become the successful person I want to be, which doesn’t always mesh with the goals set by others.
Then again, knowing who you want to be means nothing if you don’t have the means to get there. So here’s the second big advantage, the one that evens the playing field: You learn to push yourself to get what you want. I always think about a quote from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, where a character says that the terrible thing about being pushed so hard is that you lose the ability to push yourself. It took me a while to develop that ability (see above: didn’t get into Yale), but once I arrived at my campus determined to prove a thing or two, I found a strength I didn’t know I had, and it was all the sweeter for being mine to discover. And that’s the reason for the question mark in the “future” column, because Sophia and Louisa have a lot of advantages over me—and probably also strengths that I have—but through my imperfect upbringing, I learned two things that one day could put me on equal footing. Without having to be called garbage all my life.
Of course, this all comes with pretty heavy caveats. I couldn’t account for issues of inequality, and don’t buy into the idea that the American Dream lets anyone who works succeed and that all you need to succeed are “ inner motivation,” or even the idea that where you go to college and what connections you have don’t matter. Thus, most of these observations are assuming circumstances of people like Sophia and Louisa and me, not those with vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds. My parents’ hands-off approach worked partly because I had the internal motivation to get good grades, and they would no doubt have helped me with calculus and signed me up for contests if I ever showed the slightest interest, and parental negligence should not be confused with “ choice.” But controlling for those factors, comparing just a couple of girls with similar social class but very different upbringings, I’m no longer the person wishing I had tiger parents, I’m the one who can’t see any vast disadvantage at all.
Copyright 2011 Angela Chen
Angela Chen is an editorial assistant at Guernica.