On January 8, Yale professor and writer Amy Chua published an article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in The Wall Street Journal. It caused what has been called “a firestorm of controversy“.
Chua’s article has brought an important issue to light, though I haven’t seen it mentioned in any of the scathing comments I’ve read so far. I haven’t read all of them (3397 comments at the writing of this).
The important issue is: What’s the point of all this achievement anyways?
In my shifting through standardized test data during my doctoral years, I noticed pretty consistently that Asian Americans tended to outscore their peers. This is even true when they’re compared to White students, who they either score close to or higher than. Apparently, this trend continues as seen in College Board’s Total Group Profile Report for the 2009 SATs. (To be fair, it should be taken into account that API make up only 5% of the nation, so there’s naturally a smaller sample size.) I’m not familiar with classical music performance statistics of Asian Americans compared to their peers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if similar results were found. Although I attended high school in a very diverse neighborhood, with almost equal amounts of Hispanic, White, and Asian students, the most advanced classes were always filled with Asian Americans. I think we had eight valedictorians in my graduating high school class, all of Asian heritage. I think it is evidence such as these, both statistical and anecdotal, that have lead people like Chua to think that Chinese American parents or Asian American parents in general are “better parents” since they produce more “successful children”.
The obvious problem is that “success” is a very subjective and culturally/personally defined concept. Success to one guy may mean getting a job that pays six figures, buying a house, and raising a family. Success to another guy may be becoming a world renowned rock musician who is able to mobilize the support of a massive international fan base to help tsunami relief victims. To guy number two standards, guy number one is a total and utter failure, and vice versa.
So, given some of the evidence discussed and to respond to some of Chua’s comments, let’s say it can be generally concluded that Asian Americans are, as a group and on average, 1) extremely good at taking tests, 2) getting good grades, and 3) playing classical piano and violin. Basically, the model minority stereotype. Of course, there is great diversity in the category of Asian Pacific American that don’t fall into these characteristics, but we’re speaking in terms of the general average of the overall group.
Let’s take each of these achievements and consider for a moment what they are worth.
1) Asian Americans are excellent at taking tests.
As a public school teacher, I was asked by one of my Hispanic American students “Why are Asians so smart? How do they do it?”
What a great question. Well, here’s what I think. At around AD 605, an Imperial Examination system was established in China in which people in China could study to pass a test and get promoted to a higher standing in society as a government official. The higher your test scores, the better your social standing and career projections. Clearly, much of China’s culture and knowledge were spread all over the Asian continent in major exchanges. Such Imperial Examination systems were established elsewhere such as Vietnam and Japan. It seems that Asians have been taking standardized tests for almost 1,500 years. That’s a lot of practice.
All this testing and getting a better job sounds great, like America, right? All you have to do is study hard and you can climb the socioeconomic ladder to a better future for you and your family. Unfortunately, there’s more. I quote from Iris Chang’s book “The Chinese in America”:
“But the most effective weapon in the Manchu arsenal was the imperial examination systems, which used civil service tests as a mechanism of social order, forcing all aspiring officials to write essays on ancient Chinese literature and philosophy…These tests created the illusion of meritocracy, of a system in which power and prestige were achieved not through lineage but through individual hard work and the rigors of learning…the examination system had the nefarious result of creating a society in which the Han constantly competed against each other for favor with their rulers.” (p. 7-8)
So, while the kids of other American ethnic groups are writing books, painting great works of art, making films, creating powerful social networks, learning about life in the real world, and gathering in political activism, Asian American kids are communally if not individually pushed to spend entire summers strapped to a chair trying to master the art of the multiple choice question and, worse, feeling pretty smug about scoring higher on a standardized test score than everyone else.
2) Asian Americans are great at getting perfect grades.
I’d like to answer this with a personal anecdote. In my AP Calculus class in high school, we had this horribly incompetent teacher who one day decided that since she liked to see kids dressed up formally, we could get a perfect score on the next day’s quiz without taking it if we come to class dressed up. Basically put on a tie or some heels, and you get a 20/20 perfect score automatically. Many of my mostly Asian American classmates (this is AP Calc after all) complained about how stupid that was and how they weren’t going to play her little game. Following the crowd, I too defiantly stated that I wouldn’t be her monkey. The next day, I went to school in my normal t-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers, and what did I see? Practically everyone from that class had dressed up, even the ones who had said they were going to be defiant and not play her game. Upset that I was almost alone in my little demonstration of defiance (one other girl out of a class of 32 didn’t dress up either), I took the test and scored 16/20, a B-. I was horrified and wanted to cry. Afterwards, one of my Asian American peers said to me “You’re so stupid. Why didn’t you dress up? It’s an easy A!” Luckily a friend of mine defended me with “At least she knows she earned her grade for real!” or else I would have burst into tears there and then.
While being trained as an educational researcher, I found out that no respectable researcher wants to use student grades in their research. Teacher grading is just too variable and unpredictable to be a reliable measure of student abilities.
So, this leaves us with the question, is the straight A student a genius or just a really highly functioning monkey? (Hint: The answer’s not a simple one.)
3) Asian Americans are great at playing classical piano and violin.
When I was studying Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan during my college summers, I often saw posters of young boys wearing black tuxes or girls in white flowing dresses holding a violin or poised at a piano. Clearly there was a market for people wanting to see prodigy musicians.
When I watched the newest “Karate Kid” movie with Jaden Smith, his Chinese girl love interest was also an expert musician…at a western instrument.
This phenomenon has of course leaked over to Asian Americans, many of whom were forced to learn violin or piano.
“Asian Americans are great at playing classical piano and violin” can be easily restated to say “Asian Americans are only good at imitating music written by Western composers with Western instruments.”
Now, I don’t want any Asian Americans who are really talented with and passionate about a Western instrument or musical style to think I’m attacking them personally, nor do I take lightly the skill it takes to play Mozart or Beethoven. But as a group phenomenon, the fact that most Asian Americans and Asians put so much value on being able to play Für Elise instead of High Mountain and Running River (one of the oldest songs in the history of the world) to me is evidence that as a group, we are not valuing our musical heritage at all.
What am I advocating? Should Asian Americans start failing tests and dropping out of school? Should we all be ashamed to pick up an electric guitar or violin instead of a guqin or shamisen? Absolutely not. What I advocate is what Lisa Delpit inspired me to understand in her book “Other People’s Children,” that there is culture and politics in education. When we take the standardized test or receive grades, we should take them not with the mindset to gain personal glory or advancement. We should have the understanding that tests and grades are political tools used to sort and control us, that until this blockade is removed, we should beat it in any way we can, whether it is by scoring so high that nobody will have an excuse to close a door of opportunity on us or by encouraging views of alternative forms of “success” or by writing your first book before your 19, an accomplishment no one can deny you once you’ve done it. Instead of blindly pushing our kids to master Western classical music on Western instruments, maybe we can ask them if they might want to try the pipa or kulingtang. Maybe we can encourage them to create a musical style that is uniquely Asian American the way hip hop, jazz, rock, and latin music are credited to their respective ethnic origins. Maybe they can become composers of new and brilliant music.
For all our high test scores and record breaking GPAs and award-winning classical music performances, politically we fall behind all the other American ethnic groups and are the last in line for the presidency.
There are many reasons why we are in this situation, but at the very least, we shouldn’t be the ones making chumps of ourselves.
So whether or not you agree with Amy Chua’s style of parenting (a style my Taiwanese Chinese American mom did not use with me), the important question for the Asian American is what sort of future are we really taking our children towards? Are we truly empowering them to be agents of freedom and change for themselves and their communities or are we only helping them learn how to enslave themselves further in systems of control?