Why I Would Never Claim to Be Superior, Especially As a Mother

For the record, I am not Chinese.

If you haven’t read the Wall Street Journal article about Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior please expand your circle of friends and acquaintances. The article’s author Amy Chua is a Yale Law School professor (seriously?!) and my cynical side thinks she might be gunning for a spot during Oprah’s final season.

I’ve read and re-read the opinion piece several times and it’s a messy, mixed bag of emotions and thought for me. I am a not quite 1.5/2nd gen Korean American. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 8 months old and just last year became a U.S. citizen. I grew up wishing I was White=American and unsure of how to love and honor my parents and survive adolescence as a bi-cultural kid when so few understood where I was coming from and going home to.

Which is probably why Chua’s commentary is hitting a nerve with me and so many of my Asian American friends. Deep down inside some of what she writes about is true. And we know it. It is why so many of my Asian American friends understood with absolutely no explanation why I had given part of my advance check from More Than Serving Tea to my mother. It is why so many of my Asian American friends and I share a knowing laugh when we reminisce about our childhood memories. It is why my husband, daughter and I laughed at some of the recent “Asian” commentary on Glee. And it is also why so many of my Asian American struggle to fight against the stereotypes of the Model Minority because we are not one big monolithic math team. We are more than the sum of our musical and mathematical abilities but sometimes it’s a no-win game. We want to succeed because so much of the stereotyped American Dream experience is about success.

Which is why Chua’s piece hits a different nerve because there is something about the response from non-Asian Americans that bothers me. Chua’s piece is as much a statement about her specific, culturally-bound and sometimes broken parenting style as it is about a generalized American style of parenting. Defenders of the American/Western way seem to think that “their” style where everyone gets a ribbon for participation, perfect attendance, self-esteem or happiness is the better route to success and more happiness.

If I parent like a Tiger Mother (I prefer Dragon, wink, wink) I am abusive. If I parent like a stereotypical American parent my child loves her/himself but really too few will look at me and think “American”. As one who forever lives in the tension, we are all very broken people and parents. Whether it’s through the pursuit of academic excellence or self-esteem, extremes lead to idolatry. My children and their success or happiness is not the end goal, but I see that value played out regardless of race, ethnicity and class.

I was given/made to take piano lessons, but I started dreadfully late – fourth grade, I think. Which, by the way, is when the public school system here starts band and orchestra. I remember my mother saying at least once that she wanted to give me and my sister a chance to learn the piano because she never had the opportunity to do the same as a child. So I often reluctantly learned to read music, play the piano and then the flute. As an adult I revisited music and realized my mother was right. I did regret quitting. My piano and flute skills aren’t where they could have been and where I would like them to be, but I am grateful for the chance to decide that now even though it was forced on me then. So there. It’s too late to call DCFS on my parents.

Academics were stressed because when you are the child of immigrants you don’t have the luxury of understanding the system, networking, interview skills, legacies and missed opportunities. Getting top grades, arming your college application with the very best of the very best, proving that being a hyphenated American/immigrant with parents who don’t speak flawless English doesn’t mean you are stupid or abused. When your family has given up everything to come to America mediocrity is not the preferred end result.

I was on poms, edited my school newspaper, served on the state board of education student advisory board, sang and danced in the high school musical, managed to get better than good grades and, despite the concerns of “Western parenting” advocates I’ve read in the comments sections of various blogs, have friends. I tell my daughter that had we been in school together I would have been her nightmare.

My parents didn’t forbid extracurricular activities, but they didn’t always understand them. Heck, my daughter is on the poms squad now and I don’t always understand it. But my parents emphasized grades, and with each fluctuation in my GPA came a wave of self-doubt. Do my parents still love me? Am I smart enough? Will my parents ever be proud of me?

Which is where the pendulum swings back. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, depression is the second leading cause of death for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women between 15 and 24, who consistently have the highest suicide rates among women in that age group. AAPI women over 65 have the highest rates of suicide among all races in that age group. Those are the type of top rankings we Americans don’t often talk about when evaluating the success of self-esteem programs at school. After Chua’s book it’s too easy to blame the Tiger Mothers who emphasized achievement but fell short on communicating love, support and respect but when are we also going to take a look at how public health services are failing a generation of Americans of Asian descent or how school programs that are meant to build up a student’s sense of achievement isn’t translating cross-culturally? My depression is as much nature as it is nurture. Chemical imbalances are real. And so cultural forces – American cultural forces that pushed me as much as Korean cultural forces. Solely blaming Asians parents for those statistics is irresponsible and short-sighted.

And to those of you who have thought, “Just wait until Chua’s daughters are older. Let’s see how it all pans out” in a judgmental sort of way do what I did and ask for forgiveness and extend some grace. God knows parenting is hard enough without having someone wait for us to fail.

In the end the article and flurry of comments and commentary makes me angsty because our definitions of success, superiority, achievement and happiness are so completely messed up and complex. I would be lying if I said that I don’t want my children to succeed, to live full and rich lives, to enjoy the very best of what God has to offer in life in all of the physical, emotional and spiritual ways but I know that it won’t always come in the ways I want to. I am angsty because I can’t help but think of the story of the prodigal son. I’ve heard so many sermons about the son who squanders everything to pursue a version of happiness but goes back to his father’s home because in the end home is where he thinks of. I wonder how the other son missed or misunderstood his father’s love and lavish provision as only belonging to the “less successful” son. The party and celebration and love and sense of belonging was always there for both of them but they both misunderstood success and love.

Instead of criticizing the style of parenting maybe we should take a closer look and critique the end goals we are hoping our children will achieve because the beginning and end for me as a parent doesn’t start, shouldn’t start with academics or achievements and end with worldly success and gain.

So how do we learn? I hope I learn from others. What have you learned from your parents and what are learning as a parent?



  1. sdjurgensen January 12, 2011

    Thank you for your response to the piece in the WSJ. Here is my response to the article. I hope you enjoy it.


  2. YoungOwen January 12, 2011

    I admit the first thing I did when I read this story was bounce over here to see if you had blogged about it yet. (You hadn’t then, so I got to enjoy your take on herring.) Ultimately your closing point is the most powerful and pertinent: we should identify the goals and focus on them. It’s way better to measure results than it is to keep track of activities.

  3. Calvin chen January 12, 2011

    Hey Kathy

    Great thoughts, absolutely. In conversations I had with Max Kuecker during nationals about the dissonance we were experiencing re: all the “ivy league” type testimonies and “world changer” archetypes, Max talked about helping people “achieve their missional potential” ad a helpful paradigm (ie not everyone is called to give up the six figure bonus from Goldman sachs to go into microfinance). This is in contrast to the “phd/md/jd/seven figure salary or bust” mentality or the “anything goes as long as you’re satisfied” complacency/relativism.

    That said, based on some comments that were posted in the blogosphere that jeff Liou linked to, apparently Amy chua’s book is about how she eventually moderated her philosophy on parenting, so the wsj article seems like a bit of a publicity stunt.

    I did have conversations with AA staff at nationals about how many of our parents have a hurtful tendency to tear us down and critique us even if they know nothing about our domains of competency “you must be terrible at ministry or music because …” and that this is extremely unhealthy, but the white Western extreme of empty and even false praise is unhelpful, as well.

  4. keithosaunders January 12, 2011

    Great post. I have mixed feelings about Chua’s article. I admire her for taking a stand knowing that she would receive vehement criticism, but I felt repulsed by the conceit and narcissim involved in this one style fits all parenting.

  5. fernandotesol January 12, 2011

    Thanks for sharing this. When I read it, my first thought was to wonder what other Asian Americans felt. It seems like such a complex, layered reality – good, bad, beautiful and messy all wrapped up in one! I appreciate hearing your perspective. Haven’t read the comments at the end yet, but not sure I want to? *sigh*

    • Jody Fernando January 12, 2011

      oops – just saw I posted from another account – Fernandotesol was really TheLinkBetween…

  6. drita January 12, 2011

    As a Latina I am still processing the article…seeing as my initial response was to ask if this makes bad parents or low achieving immigrants? (clearly I do not think that). I had an alum send it to me with a quick joke, but for some reason I could not stop thinkin’ bout it.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. Clear it hit a nerve which usually are folks best blogs 🙂

  7. grace January 12, 2011

    wow, this is tough. I have to admit, when I read her article my 1st thought was I that I hate her. I hate her & I hate the way she thinks about parenting. But then I realized quickly that I have NO UNDERSTANDING of where she’s coming from. I understand not an inkling of Chinese culture. I read “Paper Daughter,” years ago & had a similar disheartening response.

    Anyway, that said, I hate a lot of ways that Western folks parent too. That said, I hate a lot of ways that African-Americans within the Western culture parent as well.
    I’m an equally equality hater, basically.

    I’m sorry for you and the ways that this article makes you feel internally discombobulated. I have a tiny bit of understanding of feeling displaced as a bi-racial 3rd culture kid stuck in between waring black & white worlds, but nothing on the level you & Amy Chau have experienced.

    And I know I shouldn’t judge her b/c what STUPID things am I going to do and say wtih my own kids that are broken & evil and not godly, ya know?

    I LOVE that you clearly point out that our end goals for our kids should not be gain, success, academics or achievements. Maybe for her, but not for those of us trying to please the Lord. It’s a good reminder for us all.

    Thank you for posting your response to it. I don’t know if I could have responded to loving & tactfully.

  8. Eileen January 12, 2011

    Hey Kathy! Great piece. I had mixed feelings about Chua’s article — while I can relate in many ways because it’s so reminiscent of my own upbringing, it was hard to digest her point. I mostly read it and chuckled to myself haha. But I love the point you make at the end of this entry! There was so much emphasis on worldly success and achievements and superior this and that in her article — I pray that when I’m a parent, I would encourage my kids to uphold an eternal, kingdom-minded, godly perspective! You have some wise words and thoughts here. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Bill H January 14, 2011

    Wow great stuff. Thanks. Your line “I grew up wishing I was White-American and unsure of how to love and honor my parents and survive adolescence as a bi-cultural kid when so few understood where I was coming from and going home to,” really hit home. I am mixed race, Japanese and American, and that was a thought that ran through my mind on so many occasions. I saw your post on the Jesus Creed blog about this article, and was so deeply affected. Your words and insight to this issue are deeply appreciated.

  10. […] you read the WSJ article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior?” Blogger Kathy Khang responds. And so does Peter Chin. And Alexandra […]

  11. […] Kathy Khang, whose blog I find especially interesting, chimed in with her analysis of Chua’s parenting style. […]

  12. Lived in Wien! January 16, 2011

    Thanks for this post. I am a public school teacher. My class is 25% Asian. I find that most (not all) of my Asian parents try to simulate this parenting style. However, the outcome with their children is probably not the outcome of the author of the article you referenced.

  13. Seung-Joo January 17, 2011

    I’ve been discussing Chua’s article with SO many people (both Asian-American and others), and I think this blog entry sums up what I’ve been trying to say so very eloquently! Thanks!

  14. Melody Hanson February 7, 2011

    I only want to tell you how deeply I appreciate what you’ve said. When you said your experiences growing up and being a mom were/are “unlike” so many people in your life it brought home again how I am a majority culture person and how much freedom that offers me that you don’t feel. It is so difficult to be a parent even if we are excluding (which we can’t) our cultural upbringing. My heart goes out to you!

    In the end, as in everything we do, I think we are mostly accountable to ourselves and God.

    If I were to focus on the day-to-day of parenting I’d be scared to death and paralyzed, unable to move or make choices! But over the years I can see that we must be doing something right. I parent so differently than so many of my friends, more lenient in some areas and much less in others! We were forced to take piano and I didn’t want to (age 5-16) and I deeply regret giving it up! I wish my parents had pushed me [more] academically but find it hard to push my own kids. I was never sure my parent’s love was unconditional so I try to prove daily to my kids that their actions don’t change how I feel for them. It’s all so complicated.

    But the wisdom of your words will sit with me for a long time in terms of how to approach it all in a Godly way. Thank you again.

    I wrote a little response to her book here: http://logicandimagination.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/what-kind-of-a-parent-is-she/

  15. Kathy Khang February 8, 2011

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. It’s been interesting to see how Chua’s book, public comments and now her daughter’s comments play out in the media. Time magazine, The Colbert Report, Newsweek, Good Morning America…I’m hoping to check out the book through my public library. Has anyone read the book yet?

    I will say that as a mother in the thick of it all (my daughter is a high school frosh), the pressure to “succeed” as a parent is there. I don’t care what indignant “western” parents have said about the abusive tactics of pushing kids to succeed. I see that pressure everyday here in suburbia and in the media. Success may not be academic, but there is a definition to success and parents all around the world should be wrestling with the validity of that definition.

    At the end of the day I have to ask myself whether or not I trust God has a plan for my children and whether or not I trust God with my children. It doesn’t mean I throw my kids to the wolves and ignore their academics and extracurriculars, but it reminds me that success doesn’t start with a GPA or transcript.

    I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be disappointed if my kids didn’t get into good colleges. But I would be devastated and grieved if they didn’t love Jesus and live for kingdom purposes.


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