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24 Jan 2011

A little understanding – Today’s entry comes a little belatedly, as the articles that inspired it are now at least two weeks old. I had originally intended to write this entry last weekend, but I wanted to write about the Five Looking West exhibit and leave that up until the show ended. I am tempted now to leave this issue behind and move on to fresher topics, but I’ve never really been one for timeliness anyway. And this entry has not turned out to be the entry that I thought I was going to write—I didn’t even get to the article and the idea that I wanted to talk about—but seeing as it’s already 2400 words at this point, I think I’ll leave that idea for the next entry.

“I am thankful that she was able to answer a question that apparently still needed to be answered after twenty years.”

We start out with a Wall Street Journal article published three Saturdays ago: Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior (you’ll probably want to read this article for the rest of this entry to make sense). I discovered this through a post at my friend Kevin’s blog, and I left a comment on that thread saying that I thought the author, Amy Chua, was conflicted: “I think she wanted to write a tongue-in-cheek piece, but she failed because she’s not fully convinced that what she does is not the right way.”

Well, turns out that I had things backward. I wasn’t actually planning on writing too much about the Chua article itself, but last Thursday I was watching CNN while eating breakfast (my morning ritual involves flipping back and forth between CNN and the Beeb) and they happened to have a brief interview with Chua. The anchor (Anjali Rao) seemed sympathetic enough, and gave Chua the opportunity to present her side of the story after the firestorm that swept the internet (or at least parts of it) when the WSJ article went to press.

The article is just an excerpt from a recent book (which you can see if you read the author info at the end of the article), but there is no context at all. Chua explained that it was taken from the beginning of the book, and that there was actually a progression of her attitude as the book went on. She began in an “arrogant, deadpan, and tongue-in-cheek” tone, but halfway through there is a crisis (she doesn’t say exactly what, apparently not wanting to spoil the surprise) and she has a change of heart. The fact that the excerpt was intended to be deadpan goes a long way in explaining why it was so difficult to figure out if Chua was being serious or not, and I have a feeling that this might have been easier to see had it been in context.

When Rao asked Chua specifically about the title of the article, you could immediately tell that she had hit a sensitive spot. Chua looked a little flustered and started speaking quickly: “I do not think that Chinese mothers are superior, I never saw that title.” What she means is that the title was chosen without her knowledge and went to press without ever having been run past her. I have some very limited experience with the press, and I have to say that, while I find this sort of behavior unfortunate, it is pretty much par for the course—especially on the internet. With such a glut of information vying for flickeringly brief attention spans, writers often feel they need to come up with controversial or outrageous headlines to get people to read their articles. The problem is that they’re right. I mean, which article would you be more likely to read, one titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” or one titled “How Eastern and Western Parents are Different”? For however accurate the latter may be, the first is going to snag more clicks even though it is downright deceptive.

But it’s not just the internet. I’m a big fan of the Discovery Channel, and I think all of their commercials are for their shows or shows on other networks owned by the Discovery Channel. I’ve seen ads for shows like “Dual Survival” and “Man, Woman, Wild” (survival-themed shows seem to be popular at the moment). The ads for both of these shows play up the conflict between the stars. “Dual Survival” features a “naturalist survival expert” (i.e., a hippie) and a military survival expert. If you only saw the ads, you would think these two guys would be at each other’s throats for the entire hour. One commercial introduces the naturalist and then, right before introducing the ex-military star, the narrator says, “His worst enemy? This guy.” But I’ve seen two or three episodes, and while there are certainly differences in their styles and approaches, and they may not always agree, they are both very respectful to each other and will defer to the other when it is clear that person has more expertise in a certain area. Like I said, I’ve only watched three shows, but I’ve never seen them come anywhere close to fighting, and they are certainly not “worst enemies.” “Man, Woman, Wild” is similar (although I’ve only seen one episode of this). They play it up in the ads as a wilderness survival expert and his completely incompetent and girly-girl wife. In the one episode I saw, though, they both seemed quite competent, and while it’s true that his wife is not as physically strong as he is, she seems to do just fine. So why paint these shows to be something they’re not? Because people want conflict and controversy.

That was a bit of a tangent, but it illustrates that the phenomenon is not limited to the internet. In the Chua interview, CNN engaged in some “conflict mongering” itself. It was so bald and transparent that I honestly could not believe what I was seeing—I thought it just had to be a joke. CNN has this somewhat annoying habit of showing a series of “captions” while someone is speaking on screen. These captions are apparently intended to summarize what the person is saying, but what they really do is latch on to any sound bite that might be controversial or pack a punch. (I find this annoying because I don’t like having to concentrate on eight million different things at once—I would rather just listen to the person speak.) Well, all the while Chua was explaining herself and Rao was lending a supportive ear, the captions at the bottom of the screen were completely misrepresenting her position by taking sound bites out of context and, at times, making it sound as if Chua’s message was the opposite of what she was actually saying.

These captions were so ridiculous that I grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper and started writing them down: “Chinese mothers are superior because they are strict,” “Chua has called her daughter ‘garbage’ when she was disrespectful,” “Western mothers are too easy on their children,” “Children should be forced to be the best.” The first one just flat out contradicts what Chua said. The second one is technically true, but the grammar is deceptive. Sounds like a funny thing to say, I know, but the first thing I think upon reading that sentence is that this is something that has happened more than once. Chua explains that it only ever happened once, and she went on to say that words have different meanings in different languages. She says that her father used it on her once when she was disrespectful of her mother, and that it was intended to mean something like, “shame on you.” So she used it in the same way on her daughter. To be honest, I’m not really sure I buy this explanation—I’m familiar with a number of foreign languages, and calling someone garbage in any of them is a pretty demeaning insult. Whatever the case, it is obvious the caption was chosen specifically to be controversial.

Both the third and fourth captions, which touch on flip sides of the same coin, are gross simplifications of Chua’s thoughts (probably the biggest danger of sound bites in general). The fourth one in particular sticks with me because I have personal experience with this sort of thing. When I was growing up, my parents (but my father in particular, mainly because my father was more strict, I think) pushed me to perform well in school. If I came home with a B or C, my father would tell me that he was disappointed. But sometimes even As were not enough. There was one incident in particular that has been burned into my memory. I started taking French in middle school, but in my junior year of high school I switched to German and took two years of that. (This would actually cause problems for me when it was time to take a language as an upperclassman in university—because I had already taken both French and German, I could not start out at the beginning level in either, but I also didn’t have enough knowledge (or memory, for that matter) of either to keep up with the higher-level classes. Thus I elected to study Japanese, which I suppose turned out fine because it ultimately influenced my decision to come to Korea.) Anyway, I came home with my report card one quarter. I had gotten a 99 in German (we got numerical grades back then), which was the highest grade of anyone in the class. When I showed it to my father, though, he said, “Why didn’t you get a 100?” I don’t remember what I said in reply, if anything, but I do remember that I was devastated.

So I could relate very easily to Chua’s concept of “Chinese parenthood,” as opposed to her idea of “Western parenthood.” Which is why I was very interested in hearing her explanation of the last idea, that children should be forced to be the best. She was very quick to offer a more nuanced interpretation: “If you say, ‘If you don’t get an A, I don’t love you,’ that’s obviously wrong. Love has to come first.” She went on to say: “You’re saying, ‘I believe in you... more than you believe in yourself.’” I will admit that tears came to my eyes when she said that. I didn’t think that this sort of thing would really affect me anymore—it happened twenty years ago, after all—but when Rao asked that question I found myself leaning forward and waiting for an answer. Not from Chua, but from my father, because I knew he would say the same thing. I guess I already knew the answer on an intellectual level, but it’s different hearing someone say it to you.

Twenty years ago, I was crushed. Today, I understand why my father did the things he did and said the things he said. It’s not because he was trying to put me down, but because he thought I could do better than I was doing. He was right, too; I coasted through most of high school, even the AP classes, and didn’t really even learn how to study until my second year of university. Of course, he was not perfect and probably could have expressed himself better, but I think there is a certain element of inevitability when it comes to father-son relationships at that age (the age of the son, that is). It just surprises me how emotional I can get about this after twenty years—long after I thought I had come to terms with it and put it behind me.

It was not easy growing up under my father, but when I look back on my early years now, I realize that there was never a time when I doubted that he loved me. There were plenty of things that I doubted (mostly about myself), but I think I always knew that he loved me, even if he couldn’t always show it. I’m sure that, like all children, I said hurtful things like “I hate you!” or “You don’t love me!” But children don’t really mean those things. They just say them because they have been hurt and they are lashing out (someone will likely have to remind me of this if I ever have kids). At the end of the interview, after Chua was off the air, Rao closed out the segment by wondering what her daughters—the people at the center of this maelstrom—thought about all of this. One of Chua’s daughters had published an open letter she wrote to her mother, and Rao quoted one line from it (again paraphrasing): “It wasn’t always a tea party being raised by you, but now that I am 18 and ready to leave home, I’m glad you raised me the way you did.”

It’s easy to judge others, especially when it comes to how they raise their children—if you are unfamiliar with how easy this is (though I suspect you are), just check out the comments on that article. Most of the blame, though, lies with the WSJ for their manipulative excerpting and inflammatory headline. And shame on CNN (you... garbage network!) for those conflict-mongering captions. Not only did they work to undermine what Chua was saying, but they did so one-sidedly—none of Chua’s explanations were reflected in the captions. It was like watching an MST3K-ing of the interview.

I was not raised by Chinese parents, of course, but as I mentioned above, I can relate to certain elements of that parenting style. I believe that Chua is sincere and took an undeserved beating due to a media machine solely interested in grabbing eyeballs. This does not necessarily mean that I would agree with everything she says—having not read her book, I don’t know if I can even properly comment on her position. I can say that I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, though. And, if nothing else, I am thankful that she was able to answer a question by proxy, a question that apparently still needed to be answered after twenty years. (Dad, I know you will be reading this at some point, or Mom will read it to you. I hope it doesn’t sting too much. I love you, too.)

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