Amy Chua and the Externalized Cost of Book Sales

January 19, 2011

Originally published at the Huffington Post.


In the week or so since its publication, Amy Chua's controversial Wall Street Journal essay prescribing "Chinese" parenting has run through the system like a bad case of food poisoning. There has been nausea, intense pain, and now a seemingly massive wave of relief: She didn't mean it, after all! (Journalist Jeff Yang reported that the book from which the "excerpt" was taken offers a far more nuanced, chastened message; Chua crosses her heart that she had no idea how the fragments would be edited; Asian American critics who had decried her harmful message now look abashed as if they are themselves to blame for having misjudged her.)

Despite the frenzy of responses both in and now outside the Asian American community, however, I've not seen anyone name my deepest dismay about this essay. And as the piece continues to circulate -- through the delayed but ever-widening network of emails forwarded -- that neglected point becomes only more salient: Long after we have tired (as we have already begun to tire) of Facebook-posting or retweeting rebuttals and responses to Chua's piece, it will still be finding its way to Asian parents like my own.

In light of this, to the extent that the book and essay do not align, the essay is more reprehensible, not less.

Because you see, the WSJ essay will reach these immigrant parents without context. It will not be accompanied by the outpouring of blogs and comments, testifying that parenting methods like those the article champions have driven their writers (or siblings) to therapy (or suicide). Neither will it be accompanied by Yang's article nor Chua's book, in which latter the author says she has beat a partial retreat from these methods -- finding their destructive costs too high.

Imagine a case in which a Yale professor believed herself to have discovered a powerful vaccine, and had been applying it within her clinical context with stunning results. Thirteen years in, however, she discovers that long-term effects are far more mixed: Some patients achieve a matchless immunity to environmental dangers, but an alarmingly high number of them suffer a total system collapse. The drug company has moved into promoting this vaccine for widespread use, but its blitz ad campaign makes no mention of the recent bleaker findings. Only if consumers order the study will they discover that the researcher herself now questions the vaccine's use, fearing that the risk of destroying the very thing she had meant to protect is unacceptably high.

If to this analogy just now you objected, "But she's not a researcher!" -- quite right. And quite to my point. Chua's memoirist perspectives on parenting are no more academically based or weighty than any other parent's. The WSJ piece is no more accountable to standards of social and cultural analysis than an ad campaign. And yet.

(Asian immigrant) parents who already embrace eyes-on-the-prize childrearing will click on the URL in the email, note Chua's name brands (Harvard! Yale!) along with her children's (Carnegie Hall!), and see all the authority and expertise they need. Seeing their own values and methods so illustriously trumpeted, they can hardly be expected not to bask in the article's own smugness.

The parenting methods Chua describes are not of her own invention, and among Asian immigrant families they are not rare. The CDC's alarming findings of high rates of suicide among young Asian American women became news only a few years ago, and research has not yet emerged to tie cause to effect -- but anecdotal evidence abounds, pointing accusing fingers to unbearable parental pressures for perfection, professional achievement, and prestige. Yet the article offers just such parents unqualified vindication in what they are doing.

I am chilled by the image of the parent who already drives his child into the Ivy Leagues and med school by use of insults, isolation and shame, now encouraged to redouble his efforts and ratchet up demands -- or at the least, to dismiss what doubts or second thoughts he may have begun to entertain in the face of his child's distress.

The reader who believes that, to such a "Chinese" parent, the throng of Asian American "bloggers" and their "commenters" pouring grief onto the webpage are so much as audible over the boom of Wall Street Journal and Yale Law, severely misapprehends the nature of this parenting paradigm.

Whatever we may believe of Chua now -- however much we may wish that she had at least seen fit to issue a counter or qualifying message to contest the sensationalism of an unscrupulous ad campaign -- the damage is done. And it will continue to be done, in the months and even years to come, as this spurious piece of parenting wisdom surfaces again and again in fragile families -- inoculating not the children against harm, but their parents against self-reflection or doubt.


erin K Ninh

contributing editor & blogger

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.



I have read the book and the WSJ article was correct. This article has caused grief and returning bad feelings about how Asians were raised. 
The allegedly higher risk of suicide among Asian American women is overblown.  This group has a high suicide rates only if you disregard men of all races (including Asian men), if you disregard American Indian women, and if you look at a particular age group (20-24). For 2005-2007, among non-American-Indian women aged 20-24, Asian Americans do have the highest suicide rate (4.9 deaths per 100,000), but it is not that different from white women (4.4 deaths per 100,000).  American Indian women in the same age group have a much higher suicide rate (9.2/100,000);. Men of all races aged 20-24 have much higher suicide rates than even American Indian women.  In fact, Asian American men have a relatively low suicide rate  (14.5) compared to black men (15.4), white men (23.6), American Indian men (50.6).  Hispanic men have a lower rate than Asian men,  but not by much (14.3). Can we attribute the somewhat high suicide rate of young Asian American women to Asian immigrant parenting styles, when young Asian men appear to have some kind of resilience to suicide, compared to other young men?  If you look at older age groups (25-34, 35-44) among women Asian Americans are surpassed by white women and by American Indian women.  Among men aged 25-44 Asians have the lowest suicide rate than all other racial/ethnic groups, including Hispanics.  There is a study (Duldulao et al, 2009) purporting to show that US-born Asian American women have higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts than Americans in general (thoughts: 15.9% vs American average of 13.5%; attempts: 6.3% vs. 4.6%), but even here we must be cautious.  The Duldulao study is comparing survey data conducted on Asian Americans in 2002 to survey data conducted on all Americans in the early 1990s, and it is possible that the "average American" (Asian, black, Hispanic, native American, and white) became more likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempts from the early 1990s to the early 2000s.      

Hi, Josh.  Thanks for this.  Yeah, it's looking like a distressing amount of contradictory or discrepant information floating around online about these suicide stats.  Sometimes two places will both cite the CDC and say conflicting things.  I'm going to be checking into this as thoroughly as I can, but meantime have asked a researcher friend who has offered some provisional and clarifying responses:

(1) yes, men of all races have higher suicide rates than women. But women have higher rates of lifetime suicidal ideation and attempts.

(2) yes, it is only when you examine women ages 15-24 excluding Native American women, that AAs have the highest rate. But the CDC rates from 2007 show that AAs have higher completed suicide rates compared to whites.

(3) Duldulao et al. is based on a large nationally representative sample of AAs--the National Latino and Asian American Study (NLAAS); however, this study targeted Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean Americans, so it actually doesn't provide the most accurate representation of AAs by ethnicity. Yes, it is problematic to compare rates from NLAAS with that from another large scale epi study, the National Comorbidity Survey, that was conducted in the early 90s: suicide rate have gone up since the NCS was conducted. But the studies from the NLAAS dataset are useful for examining potential risk and protective factors for suicidal ideation (SI) and attempts (SA) among AAs. For example, the Cheng et al. study found that risk factors for SI and SA were family conflict, perceived discrimination, being female, and the presence of mood/anxiety disorders. Duldulao et al. found that US born AAs are at higher risk than foreign born.

(4) Though among "older" women , Whites have higher rates than AAs, among women over age 65, AAs have higher rates than Whites.

(5) Agreed, there is never any mention of the proportionately lower rates of suicide among AA men compared to men of other races.


Erin: good points.  I think we agree that that parenting style outlined by Amy Chua can have deleterious consequences on mental health and quality of life, but I think we are in danger of exaggerating the consequences and going way beyond what the data tell us by talking so much about suicide.  Point #4  is interesting, I did not bother to look at racial differences among that age group because so much of the conversation was focused on young people.  Don't you think though that it is a stretch to say that Asian immigrant "tiger" parenting increases suicide rates among daughters when they are 20-24 and then 65+?  To the extent tiger mothering causes suicide, this would suggest that it is causing suicide among the tiger mothers more than the tiger daughters.   Maybe we should be talking about the harmful effects of tiger parenting on mothers.  I have not seen anyone mention how conservative Amy Chua's WSJ excerpt was in terms of gender roles, with the emotional brunt of parenting (not to mention the time spent on teaching the Little White Donkey) born by the mom, not the dad.
(for some reason, my comment is not showing up; this is my third try; apologies if this is redundant) Erin--good points.  I think we can agree that there are potential harmful consequences of tiger parenting for children's quality of life and mental well-being.  I would just caution that we might be exaggerating these consequences when we talk about suicide. Point #4 is interesting; I did not bother to look at older individuals because the broader discussion about tiger parenting has been about younger people.  I do think it is a stretch to say that tiger parenting results in higher suicide rates for AA women aged 20-24 and 65+ though.  I do wonder what is going on among older AA women given their high suicide rates.  Could tiger parenting have bad consequences for mothers, not just children?  One thing about Amy Chua's WSJ op-ed that hasn't been talked about a lot is how conservative it is in terms of gender roles.  Mothers bear the emotional brunt of parenting, as well as the time commitment (teaching your kid to play the Little White Donkey on the piano); the father seemed to get off way too easy. 

Sorry about the delay, Josh. To keep the spammers out we require all comments to be manually approved by the blogger or editor before they go up -- in this case, both me.  :)   But that makes for a time lag, oftentimes...

First though, totally didn't mean "checking" as in, you know, to check you! Was passing on my colleague's responses, merely, and I don't think she disagreed with you, either. I appreciate the important questions you're raising; we're working on some kind of clarifying statement for the Ask a Model Minority Suicide column, actually, as the most appropriate place for it. Hope to have it up soon.

Anyway, so good point (and point taken) about not jumping to suicide as the (alarmist or only) conclusion to this parenting discussion. There surely are many other dimensions and consequences to be addressed from such parenting -- even if suicide is not necessarily an exaggeration, either.

Age groups: Yes, the 65+ group does certainly demand a different (or differently angled) narrative than we've been rehearsing here. (One of the other blogger-respondents -- I forget who, sorry, there've been so many! -- mentioned something along the lines of your interesting speculation: that such parenting is ultimately also harmful for the parents, who damage their relationships with their children even decades down the line. Nonetheless, different can of worms.)  As for the 20-24 group, though, intuitively (and intuitive is all I claim for this right now) that makes a lot of sense to me, actually: that's college age. In other words, when the girls first leave their parents' tight supervision. Many options -- and self-discoveries -- emerge there for the first time, some of them very dismaying.

As for your question about mothering vs. fathering in this controversy, actually, that question's been raised by another AsAm blogger who has said he'll be writing about it soon:  Jason at Ricedaddies.  Keep an eye out for his piece! My quick op: this parenting is not gender-specific, though the press has certainly colluded in Chua's exceedingly "traditional" (sexist) view of gender roles (this in the book, even more so).

Anyway, thanks, Josh. Keep an eye on AAMMS for the stats piece. Hopefully soon.

Chua-Gate has me depressed and I predict it will bring on more suicides among both Asian American men and women. She should however be exonerated if that should happen because a Chinese father writing the same book that brought on more suicides would be exonerated and simply be told not to do it again.  There are discrepancies in the literature but here is another study. Asian American women aged 15 to 24 experience depression and commit suicide more than any race or gender group in the United States (National Asian Women’s Health Organization (NAWHO, 2001). Asian American women aged sixty-five and over commit suicide at a higher rate than any other race or gender due to loneliness, lack of social support systems and loss of motivation to live as their children have grown. NAWHO suggests the high depression and suicide rates are due to cultural conflict and intimate partner violence while a 2007 California State-Fullerton study suggests the high suicide rate is due to pressure from families and the dominant culture to be “model minorities,” the stereotype that Asian Americans are hard-wired for success, a stereotypical image can be devastating those who don't meet unrealistic expectations (Cohen, 2007). Sources: National Asian Women’s Health Organization. (2001). Breaking the silence: Astudy of depression Among Asian American women. San Francisco, CA. Cohen, E. (2007, May 16). Push to achieve tied to suicide in Asian-American women. 

I love that we're collectively gathering/comparing stats info here.

A silver lining, I'd say.

as they say. I hope.

Yes, it does. It certainly, at least, can.

Website created by Joel Wong, a leading researcher on AsAm suicide:

I would like to suggest a perspective for looking at the suicide rates. Take a look at the gender differences in rates by race. Asian Americans have the smallest gender gap while the other races have large differences between males and females. Thus, among females, Asian American females are on the slightly higher side while among males, Asian American males are among the lowest. My guess is that there is less of a gender gap among Asian Americans than other races on other characteristics as well which might correlate with the suicide rates.
Continuing to follow the saga of what may be one of the more outrageous examples – and there are similar examples aplenty! – of the child abuses of Amy Chua, I think it timely and prudent to provide a healthy, humane counterpoint by way of a much different kind of example of adult guidance to a young stranger. To wit: ADVICE TO A YOUNG PERSON INTERESTED IN A CAREER IN THE LAW In May 1954, M. Paul Claussen, Jr, a 12-year-old boy living in Alexandria, Virginia, sent a letter to Mr Justice Felix Frankfurter in which he wrote that he was interested in “going into the law as a career” and requested advice as to “some ways to start preparing myself while still in junior high school.” This is the reply he received: My Dear Paul: No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man. If I were you I would forget about any technical preparation for the law. The best way to prepare for the law is to be a well-read person. Thus alone can one acquire the capacity to use the English language on paper and in speech and with the habits of clear thinking which only a truly liberal education can give. No less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music. Stock your mind with the deposit of much good reading, and widen and deepen your feelings by experiencing vicariously as much as possible the wonderful mysteries of the universe, and forget about your future career. With good wishes, Sincerely yours, [signed] Felix Frankfurter From THE LAW AS LITERATURE, ed. by Ephraim London, Simon and Schuster, 1960. __________________ I knew that a Paul Claussen had been a major figure (1972-2007) in the Office of the Historian of The United States Department of State in Washington, with an abiding interest in The Great Seal of The United States. An obituary of Dr Claussen is on page 47 in and,+history's+friend%3A+office+of+the+historian+suffers+a…-a0167843232 So, wishing to determine whether or not the elder Claussen was, indeed, the boy writing to Justice Frankfurter in 1954 I wrote to his former colleague at State. The reply received today follows. —– Original Message —– From: PA History Mailbox To: ‘Andre M. Smith’ Sent: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 10:11 AM Subject: RE: Chris Morrison Dear Mr. Smith, Copied below is the response I received from one of Paul Claussen’s long-time colleagues here in the Office of the Historian. Yes it is. The young Paul wanted to be a lawyer and so decided to write Felix Frankfurter and ask for his advice. Frankfurter evidently was taken with his letter and wrote back at length…Frankfurter of course kept a copy and the text of the letter has been published in collections of Frankfurter’s writings. Please contact us of you have any additional questions. Best regards, Chris Christopher A. Morrison, Ph.D. Historian, Policy Studies Division U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian (PA/HO) _________________________________ Dr Claussen did follow the advice of Justice Frankfurter. And he came out of that advice none the worse for it. The world is much bigger, richer, more tolerant, and more laden with opportunities than the blinkered view of Amy Chua would have her daughters and fellow fear-laden mothers without Ivy League tenure believe. For a very well-balanced alternative to the mania – and it is nothing less – to which the many Chuas of the world subscribe, read the refreshingly informed reports on,, and ________________________ André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard) Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy) Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University) Formerly Bass Trombonist The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York, Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall), The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.