by OiYan A. Poon
*crossposted from Amerasia Journal
Personal memoirs by people who are not household names rarely set off fiery debate and conversations the way that Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ignited them in January 2011. Yet Tiger Mom’s chronicle of her experiences as a second-generation Asian American woman raising mixed-race, third-generation daughters has clearly struck a national nerve. The book has been discussed in major print and broadcast media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, NPR, and the New York Times, just to name a few; Chua has even made an appearance on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. The hype generated around the book can be explained by two key concepts. First, Battle Hymn converges with the master narrative framing Asians in America as invading foreigners who maintain their peculiar un-American cultures in the US. Second, it concomitantly connects to cultural fears of a non-white population challenging white supremacy vis-à-vis educational attainment, particularly in elite college admissions.
As such structural circumstances have in the past, this latest economic downturn has prompted an increase in anxiety and media hype, implicitly asking: How are Asians and Asian Americans “outwhiting the whites” in educational measures and global competition, as Michael Omi and Dana Takagi have put it? In the context of increasing fears and anxieties over the rise of China as an economic superpower, this persistent US recession has compelled the nation to seek answers and scapegoats for the economic malaise. Chua’s book arrives just in time to help decode the mysterious and ancient ways of Chinese childrearing methods, making no distinctions between families in China and those in the diaspora, offering Oriental culture as an explanation for why they outperform white Americans. In this essay, I explore how the success of Chua’s memoir can be explained by how the author positions herself as an informant on the “cultural tradition of [her] ancient ancestors.” By doing so, she takes advantage of white anxieties over China’s challenges to American exceptionalism and white dominance in elite US colleges. Various media artifacts, including examples of conservative punditry, political ads, and most notably a YouTube rant by a former UCLA undergraduate, exemplify these fears. This exploration leads me to conclude with a brief discussion about the role of research in advancing public discourse beyond master narratives of Asian Americans as hypercompetitive foreigners.
Tiger Mom Explanations and the “Ching Chong” Asian Invasion
In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua famously proclaimed:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. .... All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.
Though she maintains that her book is not a how-to guide on childrearing, this quote from the first chapter frames her memoir as a tell-all and a glimpse into the mystical ways of Chinese families. With these words, Chua claims a role as cultural spokesperson for what she contends to be authentically Chinese child-rearing methods. By marking Chinese ways as diametrically opposed to what she believes are American ways of parenting, Chua buys into longstanding Orientalist master narratives of Asians as incapable of being citizens of the “West.”
Since at least the nineteenth century, Asians have settled in the US. However, as the Tiger Mom phenomenon and other recent media events, notably Alexandra Wallace’s anti-Asian YouTube rant, demonstrate, Asians in the US are still viewed as foreigners who do not belong in the West, and whose cultures are contrary to American ways. However, their existence and growing numbers in the US do not reconcile the view that, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” as Rudyard Kipling lyrically declared in his 1889 poem, “The Ballad of East and West.” So what about members of the Asian Diaspora, who claim home in the so-called West?
Along these lines, it may be no coincidence, then, that Penguin Press released Battle Hymn amid a heightened climate of anxiety over China eclipsing the US as a superpower in global politics and economics, exactly one week prior to the state visit of China’s President Hu Jintao to Washington. An example of these fears can be found in conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s remarks in a radio broadcast on January 18, 2011, the day Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington. Beck stated, “Everyone should ... pray Obama does a good job schmoozing [Hu Jintao] because we’ll need all the bonus points we can get once China replaces America as the biggest superpower in the world.” Around the same time at the end of 2010, the political action committee Citizens Against Government Waste began airing its “Evil Chinese Professor” television ad on major cable news networks, which depicts a Chinese professor explaining the downfall of the US empire in a Beijing university lecture hall in the year 2030. In the ad, a large mass of Chinese students breaks out into laughter after the professor pronounces into the camera that, because China owns the largest share of US debt, “now [America] works for us.” Tapping into this anxious political climate, Chua presents readers an authoritative view into Chinese parenting methods that can be consumed as a possible explanation for the rapid rise of China in global competition, by positioning herself as a cultural spokesperson. While selling the image of the ultra-competitive, overachieving Asian, she frames Asians and Asian Americans as one and the same, with cultural practices that are foreign, alien, and diametrically opposed to those of “Westerners” or “real” Americans. For example, Chua even goes so far as to play off of the stereotype of Asians as dog eaters, stating:
I’m guessing that most Chinese immigrant families in the United States don’t have pets. ... Chinese people have a different attitude toward animals, especially dogs. Whereas in the West dogs have long been considered loyal companions, in China they’re on the menu. ... It feels like an ethnic slur, but unfortunately it’s true.
Fears and anxieties of invading Asians threatening white dominance are also demonstrated by Alexandra Wallace’s YouTube video in her honest perceptions of her Asian American classmates at UCLA:
The problem is these hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every single year, which is fine. But if you’re going to come to UCLA then use American manners. ... In America we do not talk on our cell phones in the library ... I’ll be in like deep into my studying ... and then all of a sudden when I’m about to like reach an epiphany, over here from somewhere, “Ohhh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ohhhhh.”
Even though the great majority of Asian students at UCLA are either 1.5 or second-generation Asian Americans overwhelmingly from California, Wallace views them as an un-American and monolithic horde. Wallace’s racial anxieties and xenophobic attitudes toward Asian American undergraduates at UCLA are similar to those driving Chua’s book sales. Albeit they come from different backgrounds and perspectives, Amy Chua and Alexandra Wallace actually share strikingly similar Orientalist views of Asian Americans as invading foreigners who are outcompeting whites in elite US universities and in the global marketplace. However, some have lauded Chua for “raising [issues of culture, parenting, and educational achievement] with a thoughtful, humorous and authentic voice,” while Wallace’s open display of her perspective has been publicly admonished. Unlike Tiger Mom, Wallace has yet to learn how to couch her opinions with more palatable terminology.
Finally Going Beyond the Model Minority?
Although the Tiger Mom and Alexandra Wallace cultural spectacles demonstrate public interest in Asian Americans and educational attainment, extant research literature on the topic remains limited. For more than two decades, scholars have lamented the lack of research on Asian American educational attainment. Since at least 1977, they have, in response, produced a significant amount of literature with the primary objective of pointing out the inaccuracies and injustices of framing Asian Americans as a super-achieving minority group, the so-called model minority. As a result, there is an amassed body of research describing what Asian Americans are not in the context of educational attainment that largely neglects who they are, as well as what, why, and how they go through education systems.
The current Tiger Mom moment provides scholars with a critical opportunity to advance the field of research on Asian Americans in education. Amy Chua and Alexandra Wallace remind education scholars that there is a lot of work to be done to fill the empirical knowledge gap about Asian American educational experiences. Rather than maintaining a primary agenda of countering the hegemonic framework of the model minority, which has already been extensively explicated in the last few decades, scholars should begin a new phase of research and ground their work in the voices and experiences of Asian American youth and families. The perspectives and the indigenous knowledge of Asian American communities, families, and youth are lost in the construction of heavily quantitative proofs focused on empirically refuting the model minority myth. While I do not argue that projects to disprove the model minority concept are unnecessary, I do contend that these kinds of projects should not remain the central focus of the Asian American education research agenda.
I conclude here with three suggestions for future research, with a sociology of education lens in mind. Studies can focus on any number of questions that these incidences conjure up. For example, scholars interested in immigrant communities can study how immigrant Asian American child-rearing practices and investments might be tied to processes of immigrant adaptation, as sociologists like Min Zhou and Susan Kim have. Another prime area for research relevant to immigrant parental investments in education is the topic of college choice and access. For instance, Robert Teranishi, et al. have already provided important statistical evidence of differences between ethnic groups and socioeconomic class in access to post-secondary schooling. Qualitative research in this area should consider incorporating theories of social capital, habitus, class structures, and immigrant adaptation. Moreover, future research on immigrant Asian American parental behaviors related to the educational attainment of the second generation should include or focus on the perspectives of immigrant Asian American parents. Vivian Louie, to cite one example, has speculated that there might be significant differences between parental motivations and second generation perceptions of their parents’ actions and values. Finally, more scholars should better integrate their scholarly work with ongoing discourses on education access and equity. It is important to articulate diverse Asian American interests in federal, state, and local education policy reform debates. In conclusion, Tiger Mom’s notoriety can be explained by the pervasive and persistent master narratives of invading Asian hordes, which seem to be threatening to supplant US and white dominance in global and domestic competition. As if to answer the search to explain the “hordes” of Asian Americans attending elite US colleges and universities and how China is so quickly gaining as a global economic superpower, Amy Chua arrives on the scene presenting herself as a cultural interpreter allowing the “West” a glimpse into an Oriental household.
The current state of research on Asian American educational attainment unfortunately limits, to some degree, the effectiveness of efforts to interrupt the reproduction of the model minority and perpetual foreigner master narratives. As long as the central focus of Asian American education scholarship is on what Asian Americans are not, Asian American subjectivities can continue to be pushed to the margins of dialogue. The post-Tiger Mom era presents scholars interested in education research an imperative to advance research that centers Asian American experiences to illuminate and contribute new insights toward the field of education equity research. By focusing on who Asian Americans are rather than on who they are not, education research scholars can educate, inform, and disrupt master narratives in the public
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OiYan A. Poon is currently a research associate at the UMass Boston Institute for Asian American Studies, and will be the 2011-2012 visiting research fellow at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Her research interests include public policy and social contexts of college access, youth and community-based policy research methods, and social demography and GIS spatial analysis methods.
from "Battle Hymn of the Model Minority Myth"
published in full at Amerasia Journal
... Yale Law Professor Amy Chua retold this model minority myth, which has attracted astonishing media attention and inspired numerous related stories. My discussion will focus mainly on the educational propositions that emerged from this unexpected media circus, particularly what was said concerning higher education since the model minority myth has had an extraordinarily strong grip within this context. I will also focus my discussion on a short five-month period between January to May 2011, during which a number of unusual activities rejuvenated this myth and placed it more prominently in national discourse.
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Introduction to this Across the Desk series in collaboration with Amerasia, here.