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Not Asian enough: Jan Wong on the phenomenon of “Tiger Mom” parenting

The furor over Tiger Mom parenting ignores one awkward fact: academic success doesn’t guarantee a sparkling future. Confessions of a delinquent mother

(Image: Peter Arkle)

I freely admit that I’m a bad Chinese mom. I do not whack my sons with chopsticks; neither of them speaks Chinese; and a couple of years ago, I was thrilled when one of them doubled his math mark (at summer school—don’t ask). Which is why I’m bemused by all the angst, outrage and uproar over super-achieving Asian kids and their Genghis Moms.

Culture and competition make for a volatile mix, especially in Toronto, where we come from every part of the world, and especially during uncertain economic times, when people are worried about job security and who’s outperforming whom. It’s at moments like these that politicians and the media, consciously or unconsciously, tend to exploit the West’s simmering insecurities about The Other. They hint, for instance, that we are losing ground to China and even to our own Chinese-Canadian population.

It’s all so tiresome. As we prepare the next generation for survival in a global economy, these folks keep wanting you to think that someone else, right beside you, is about to eat your lunch. Rob Ford is guilty of it. “I’m telling you, Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over,” he infamously said back in 2008. “[They] work like dogs.… They sleep beside their machines. That’s why they are successful in life.”

The outburst is worth repeating only because he now runs a city that is 11 per cent ethnic Chinese. Last fall, Maclean’s echoed the Yellow Peril theme. “Too Asian?” queried its inflammatory headline. The article led with complaints from two anonymous Havergal graduates about how “Asians” at the University of Toronto work too hard, making it difficult for “non-Asians” to compete. That story was itself a reprise of a dusty old 1979 CTV documentary, “Campus Giveaway,” which portrayed Chinese-Canadian students as “foreigners” and accused them of usurping university spots in engineering, pharmacy and medicine.

Most recently, Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, jolted the chatterati with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it, she slams weak-willed parenting by Westerners—she uses the term loosely to include wussy parents of any ethnicity—and contends that Chinese parents rightly “assume strength, not fragility” in their children. She also shares this rather un-Hallmark moment. At age four, her daughter Lulu gave her a crayoned, happy-face birthday card. Tiger Mom scrawled “I reject this” along with a sour face on the back of the card, saying she “deserved” better because she spent “half her salary” on balloons, clowns and party favours for her daughters’ birthdays.

Chua’s parenting philosophy went viral after the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her book, headlined, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The most quoted bit was this: “Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover; have a playdate; be in a school play; complain about not being in a school play; watch TV or play computer games; choose their own extracurricular activities; get any grade less than an A; not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama; play any instrument other than the piano or violin; not play the piano or violin.”

Initially I assumed this had to be a spoof, like those dumb Internet jokes. “Chinese parent to child: ‘Your blood type is B+! Why not A?’ ” Chua has since insisted she was trying to be funny, in a deadpan sort of way. Here’s my take: Chua’s not funny; she’s a nutter and a narcissist.