China Power

Chinese vs. American Mothers

Amy Chua’s opinion piece on Tiger Mothers prompted a storm of criticism. Are Chinese really better mums?

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Caitlin Flanagan explains why Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal opinion piece ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior’ ignited such a firestorm of loathing among the United States’ professional class mothers. 

Yes, Japan has been grappling with a nuclear crisis, and the Middle East is at war and undergoing revolution. But the day of reckoning for US upper middle class families will come in early April, when they receive notification of whether their child has been accepted into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford.

Never before has college admissions competition been so fierce: Harvard has 35,000 applicants for 1,600 freshmen spots. And, as Jerome Karabel tells us in his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the majority of these spots will be occupied by legacies (children of alumni), athletes, and minorities with lacklustre GPAs and SAT scores. For the remaining 500-600 places, students need nearly perfect GPAs and SAT scores, and for better or worse that means those spots will go predominantly to the children of ‘tiger mothers.’ Thus, as Caitlin Flanagan argues, American ‘good mothers’ who want both a happy childhood and an Ivy League acceptance letter for their children are getting spanked by the likes of Amy Chua.  

Caitlin Flanagan’s point explains why Amy Chua’s book received such public notoriety, but it doesn’t explain why ‘good mothers’ who are nothing but well-mannered and politically correct would heap such visceral scorn on an ‘aspiring immigrant’. 

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The problem is that Amy Chua is anything but an aspiring immigrant. She’s not even a ‘Chinese’ mother, and she knows it (the Chinese version of her book is called ‘Being an American Mom’).

Daughter of an MIT-educated University of Berkeley professor, Amy Chua went to Harvard College and Harvard Law. She’s a former lawyer, a best-selling author, and a Yale Law professor. Her pedigree, along with that of her husband (Princeton College, Harvard Law, Yale Law professor and best-selling author), guarantees her two daughters a place at Harvard even before their birth. If anything, Amy Chua ought to be a professional class ‘good mother’ who cultivates her child’s imagination and passion – but instead, according to her book, she’s a ‘tiger mother’ (otherwise known as a middle class social climber). In other words, Amy Chua is a heretic, but much worse is that she’s what in game theory could be called a cheater.     

According to game theory, no one receives more social contempt than the cheater because the cheater benefits at the expense of everyone else, and makes the game unplayable. 

And the game being played among upper middle class mothers is to produce US society’s geniuses: America’s Mozarts, Tolstoys, and Einsteins. It can be seen as a selfish activity (a rich and powerful family now seeks everlasting fame and bragging rights at Hampton parties), but it’s essentially an altruistic activity, the most expensive tax that the elite will pay to society. 

Artistic, creative, and intellectual greatness benefits society because it elevates and edifies: in reading Jonathan Frazen’s Freedom or watching Darren Aronofsky ‘Black Swan’, there’s both pleasure and inspiration. The cost, though, is borne by the genius and his family alone. The genius will often sacrifice happiness and sanity in the pursuit of passion (think Natalie Portman in ‘Black Swan’), and the family must sacrifice an offspring as well as dedicate resources to cultivate genius. And the odds of success are incredibly low: For every Mozart, there are tens of thousands of lesser Mozarts who will never make it. But it’s only because there are so many lesser Mozarts out there helping to create the infrastructure (the knowledge, the social support, the audience, the culture, and the funding) that Mozart can be Mozart.

So why do rich American parents play this game? In part, that’s the game their friends and colleagues play. In part, while seemingly risky, there’s little risk involved: the worst case scenario for a child who strives to be Mozart is that he ends up a piano teacher to Amy Chua’s daughter. And, in part, because they see this as their noblesse oblige: to help produce geniuses to elevate and edify society, and to set a good parenting model to striving immigrants. And, in return, all they ask is that their children be admitted into Yale and Harvard.

So by this reckoning, mothers like Amy Chua ‘cheat’ on two counts. First, they refuse to pay the tax: instead of cultivating genius, their parenting model will probably end up producing that unique scourge of humanity called a corporate lawyer who publishes books. Second, without paying the tax, their daughters will still be admitted into Harvard. 

And so while Amy Chua is no Chinese mother, she cheats like one. In China, mothers will seek the least risky path to ensure maximum success for their child. They’ll prevent their child from developing and pursuing a passion because the odds are it will only end up in heartbreak. Instead, they’ll have their child focus on collecting credentials, and hopefully have them installed in that ever safe, easy, and profitable mafia called the Chinese bureaucracy.     

Why do upper middle class American mothers behave so differently from their Chinese peers? The difference is in their level of investment in society. The American elite generally see themselves fully invested and embedded in society, and thus have a vested interest in seeing the United States thrive and prosper both financially and culturally. But in China, no matter how rich China’s upper middle class become, they still see themselves as striving immigrants who could lose everything the next day:  they’re too busy trying to get ahead to care about anyone else.