I grew up in a heavily immigrant neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. My high school was minority White, with most students being 1st or 2nd generation Chinese and Taiwanese, or one of several other Asian nationalities in the mix. So when I saw this piece by Amy Chua in a friend’s Facebook feed, it really caught my eye: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”.
Chua describes a routine that would seem brutal to many American parents: several hours of music practice a day, no playdates, no TV, no less-valued extracurriculars like drama, no exceptions–ever. “The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners.” Readers not familiar with real Chinese parents might assume that Chua is exaggerating for effect, but I can attest otherwise, as can “studies indicat[ing] that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children.” Living amongst friends on such a regimen was just a part of the rhythms of my childhood. I knew Friday afternoon/evenings were off-limits for scheduling my birthday parties–that’s Chinese school time, when my friends attended classes in Chinese language, math, and SAT words. Of course I knew never to ask if a friend could play after school on any day.
It was a very comfortable, even familiar, environment for me, I think more so for me than most of my other white classmates. Although my parents had few of the scheduling trappings of Chinese parents, they too had very high academic expectations for me, and they were Mormon. Growing up Mormon in a multicultural immigrant community is great. In such a community, everybody has something freaky about them, usually several things. Whether it be something unusual we had to abstain from, something our family has to do on a certain schedule that compels us to drop out of the mainstream culture’s routines for a time, something friends needed to be forewarned about before they visit our home, some peculiarity of dress, or just the fact of very stubbornly different parents, we all had a few. There was no pause or judgmental looks from the others when any of us had to shrug and say, “Can’t–Asian parents,” or, “Can’t–Mormon.” We were protected by the fact that, if any amount of you’re-a-weirdo judgment were allowed to creep into our world, it would be mutually assured destruction for all of us.
As far as the particular peculiarities of Chinese parents, I’m ambivalent. Chinese parents produced great friends for me. We could all focus squarely on studies and advancement, because “coolness”–an incredible time and energy suck if there ever was one–was decidedly out of reach for all of us. My parents had little to worry about in terms of drugs, alcohol use and sex amongst my Asian-parents-reared circle of friends. Their parents kept them on a very, very short leash on all those things. And we all went on to kick butt on our SATs, and go to good colleges. There were also downsides to be sure–extreme pressure and anxiety, very little sleep (of course with early morning seminary, and a full AP class load, I fit right in on that one), angst about parental disappointment and rejection. Even Chinese government officials are concerned about the emphasis on drilling rather than the creativity they see as fostered by more Western education styles. But I’d rather not focus on the details of Chinese mothering. It isn’t in the details where there is similarity between my Mormon mother and Chinese mothers. In fact, despite similar outcomes, I’m sure my mother would find some of the details Chua cites appalling.
What I think is especially interesting and relevant about that piece is its more general implications for the power of mothers to shape a whole nation’s workforce, to shape a whole nation’s character, to shape a whole nation’s destiny. That China has been on a rocketship trajectory toward the top of the world’s superpowers is not in dispute. While natural resources and a large population are important causes, much of this success comes from academic achievement induced by Chinese mothers. This piece can’t but leave the reader with a powerful feeling that mothers–perhaps not individual mothers–but mothers as a unified-purpose, standardized-methods army, can and do wield unmatched power to direct societies.
Of course, this is the same vision of motherhood that we are taught at church. A quick perusal of lds.org’s “Motherhood” topic page yields Chinese-mother-like quotes in spades. “You are the real builders of nations wherever you live, because strong homes of love and peace will bring security to any nation,” said Dieter Uchdorf in 2009. “Throughout the history of the world, women have always been teachers of moral values. That instruction begins in the cradle and continues throughout the lives of their children,” said M. Russell Ballard in 2010. “We hold in our arms the rising generation. They come to this earth with important responsibilities and great spiritual capacities. We cannot be casual in how we prepare them,” said Neil Anderson in 2010. This last strikes me as especially Chinese-motheresque. Casual, let them discover on their own, approach is absolutely not in the Chinese mother program. Ballard’s injunction against paying any heed to what mainstream society thinks also rings very true, “And so, my dear young women, with all my heart I urge you not to look to contemporary culture for your role models and mentors. Please look to your faithful mothers for a pattern to follow.” This was the feature of growing up around Chinese-parent-raised children that made my religious observance so much easier–the key that assured our uncool mutually assured destruction. The fact of this disciplined otherness creates a level of analytical distance to every aspect of life. Every choice becomes a conscious choice and little is taken for granted under an everybody’s doing it umbrella. This is a required value for living a full, examined life. That’s why Mormon mothers–like Chinese mothers–are superior.