Why Desi Mothers are Superior (Or Not)

If you haven’t already, I suggest you take a good, long look at the article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which appeared last Sunday in the WSJ by Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor. The piece, an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, describes Chinese parenting techniques in relation to those of “Western parents.” Chua cites her personal experiences with her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, and all the activities she doesn’t allow them to do– like “have a playdate” or “choose their own extracurricular activities.” Sound familiar? If you grew up in a desi household, it probably does. And Chua’s recollection of a particular situation, where her seven-year old daughter Lulu had trouble learning a difficult piano piece, may also strike a chord, no pun intended:

I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Now, I consider my own mother to be a very good mother. Edit. I consider my mother to be an excellent mother. As a childhood elementary education major, my mother could be quite rigid when it came to rules, but she gave us siblings room to pursue our own interests. As long as I pulled in semi-respectable grades, I was free to audition for the school play, write for the school paper, etc. But as I read Chua’s piece, particularly the piano piece story, I instantly recalled the time when I was a nine-year old struggling with fractions and my mother, who home-schooled us, might as well have been a “Chinese parent.” Perhaps my mother was particularly frustrated or stressed that day, but my failure to comprehend adding and subtracting fractions turned her into a banshee. She yelled. She screamed. She threatened. She beat. And sobbing, I spent the entire day by her side, learning fractions. Like Lulu, I did finally make that breakthrough. I learned how to add and subtract fractions. I got it. But 16 years later, if I find myself in the slightest bit of a stressful situation involving numbers, I still freeze. Even though I’ve actually taught math to high school students, if you ask me calculate tip at a crowded table with a waiter hovering over my shoulder, I start to stutter and fumble. My heart races. I feel my hands start to shake. I’ve gotten better at controlling my nervousness when confronted with numbers, but it’s never going to go away.

Chua describes her story as a win for Chinese parenting:

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

And no doubt many of you appreciate your parents for pushing you into learning the basics necessary for your academic and professional success. I’ve heard any number of desi folks tell me, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “If my mother/father hadn’t beat learning into me, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.” But they go on to ask, “But at what cost?” Chua mocks Western notions of self-esteem in relation to children, but I refuse to believe that bullying and browbeating a child promotes a healthy intellectual curiosity. Sure, Chua is right in saying that children of a certain age may need to be persuaded to accomplish certain milestones. But I worry about parents who can only accomplish this through threats or bribes–which Chua apparently promotes. And Chua never mentions the beatings that usually accompany such disciplining. Many were the times that I saw my Asian peers get thrashed by their parents for failing to produce less than perfect results. I’m not anti-corporal punishment, per se, but parents with Chua’s mindset often teeter over the border between abuse and discipline.

I hope some of you parents and parents-to be will join me in condemning this kind of parenting. I love my parents, I do. And I know that compared with the kinds of punishments they and their classmates received in Pakistan, their way of raising us was relatively tame. But I’d never even considering using the shaming, belittling methods spelled out by Chua and used in so many desi households. And I’m sure neither would most of you.

Note: Thanks to Nila for editing this post.

UPDATED: Take a look at this great piece from Slate that emphasizes that Amy Chua’s parenting techniques represent one kind of “Chinese mother.”

125 thoughts on “Why Desi Mothers are Superior (Or Not)

  1. “hmm I can’t think of any Chinese musical geniuses off the top of my head”

    I’m a brown who is appalled by the lack of awareness of East Asian achievement among Desis, and turned off by the unspoken supremacism of certain browns.

    To disabuse people of these notions, I suggest they look at winners here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Frederick_Chopin_Piano_Competition

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yehudi_Menuhin_International_Competition_for_Young_Violinists

    Also, as Razib points out there’s Yo Yo Ma (the greatest cellist alive, and a worthy heir to Rostropovich). Then there are other East Asian musical geniuses such as Lang Lang (NYT calls him the greatest pianist alive), Sarah Chang (perhaps the greatest female violinist ever), Midori, Akiko Suwanai, Anne Akiko Myers and others.

    http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050522/news_1a22cliburn.html

    “Look at virtually any American orchestra these days, in big city or small, and you’ll see Asian faces – often quite a few. They’re particularly well-represented in string sections, and have been for some time. Walk down the halls of American conservatories and you’ll see lots more.

    The explosion of Asian pianists is a newer phenomenon, but it’s huge. Nelita True, professor of piano at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., says between 70 percent and 80 percent of the school’s piano students are Asians. At New York’s Juilliard School, it’s more than 50 percent, says Yoheved Kaplinsky, who chairs the piano department.

    At the University of Texas, professor Anton Nel figures the Asian contingent is nearly 40 percent. Joseph Banowetz, professor of piano at the University of North Texas, says two-thirds of his students are Asians.

    “The piano departments of the major schools in the United States would close if it weren’t for the Asian students,” True says.”

    To quote Spengler of Asia Times:

    “Something more than the mental mechanics of classical music makes this decisive for China. In classical music, China has embraced the least Chinese, and the most explicitly Western, of all art forms. Even the best Chinese musicians still depend on Western mentors. Lang Lang may be a star, but in some respects he remains an apprentice in the pantheon of Western musicians. The Chinese, in some ways the most arrogant of peoples, can elicit a deadly kind of humility in matters of learning. Their eclecticism befits an empire that is determined to succeed, as opposed to a mere nation that needs to console itself by sticking to its supposed cultural roots. Great empires transcend national culture and naturalize the culture they require. “

    “The world’s largest country is well along the way to forming an intellectual elite on a scale that the world has never seen, and against which nothing in today’s world – surely not the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills – can compete.”

    It’s the same story when it comes to elite Math(Tao/Chern/Bau Chau/Yau) /Physics(Yang/Chu/Lee)/CS(Yao) metrics.

    China is the ONLY nation out of 104 where all 6 out of 6 participants were awarded gold medals (cutoff: top 1/12 of all contestants).

    And the only 2 contestants out of 565 who had perfect marks and who scored at the 100th% percentile hail from North East Asia:

    (a) Makoto Soejima of Japan (b) Dongyi Wei of China

    Now we turn our attention to the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO). This is their 40th anniversary, and was held in Mérida, Mexico from the 11th July 2009 to the 19th July 2009. Normally students who do well in math tend to ace physics, but due to the overlap of dates with the IMO very few if any managed to participate in both events. In other words, we’re sampling a different talent pool here.

    Participating countries will send up to 5 students (contestants) to the IPhO. Gold Medals are awarded to 8% of the contestants; gold or silver medals are awarded to 25% of the contestants; gold, silver or bronze medals are awarded to 50% of the contestants; and Olympic Medals or Honorable Mentions are awarded to 67% of the contestants. That is, the overall criteria very closely parallels that of the IMO (with exception of the HM category.)

    70 countries participated, with 315 contestants in total (not every country sent 5 contestants). Unlike the IMO however, the International Physics Olympiad does not explicitly rank countries. Individual results are as follows:

     http://ipho2009.smf.mx/marks 
    

    Top 5 out of 315 contestants:

    1. China’s Handuo Shi
    2. Taiwan’s Yu-An Chen
    3. Korea’s Donggun Kim
    4. China’s Qian Lin
    5. China’s Jin Lei

    The pattern is once again so eerily familiar with the IMO: all the top dogs hail from North East Asia.

    East Asians are really the new Jews. And there are 2 billion of them around the world. They completely kick brown ass whichever way you slice it, and they really have a 1-1.5 SD advantage in IQ (just ask Razib) over subcontinentals. Make of this whatever you want.

  2. Where do you get the 2 billion number from? China, Japan, and Korea comprise a population of around 1.5 billion and all of these societies will be undergoing a demographic decline in the future(particularly Japan and Korea). Southeast asian nations are wholly different and ostensibly less successful. Northeast asians don’t actually have a 1-1.5 SD advantage in IQ relative to browns if you consider that India is very diverse with many endogamous caste populations. Also, much of the IQ data collected thus far in the few publications concerning the subject may be false.

  3. Malik:

    Aren’t test scores and academic performance the criteria for measuring aptitude/preparedness/dedication in every nation, including the four east asian tigers mentioned earlier? What better alternative would you propose? Like I have already mentioned multiple times by now, I am against any sort of caste discrimination and only advocate for a meritocratic system. Furthermore, if you believe that east asians are a far more intelligent race, then wouldn’t that sort of a rationale lead you to the logical conclusion that the Brahmins and forward castes of India are similarly more intelligent than castes requiring reservations?
    1. If you advocate “only meritocracy” then you should be the first to stand up against the brahminical caste system which is the very anti-thesis of a meritocracy.

    2. You can’t have a true meritocracy without equal opportunity. Drill that into your skull.

    3.. How do you expect dalits to compete fairly against brahmins growing up in a non-meritocratic social system that handicaps them so much?

    1. Academic performance in east asian nations cannot be compared to that in India. They have a far more egalitarian social and educational system. Their literacy rates are close to 100% and they get a far better education (in their own mother tongues) than indians. In India the effective literacy rate is less than 10% which is the proportion of indians getting an english medium education, and the socially dominant castes dominate this limited pool of effective literates. Thus East Asia has a far truer meritocracy than India and the results are apparent.

    5.To claim that brahmins are more intelligent because there are more of them scoring higher in rote-learning tests which they disproportionately take, in a social system skewed in their favor, is nothing but circular reasoning. Look at the end result also: does India look like a place run by intelligent people? Who has dominated India since Independence? Draw the conclusion.

  4. Satyajit Wry:

    You are a troll. You were always a troll. You will always be a troll. I don’t need to defend my remarks to you now more than I had to during your previous incarnation as vivek. You have an elementary school level understanding of hinduism,

    Yeah right. I am an elementary school level troll who is being given an “ass-whupping” by a gang of genetically superior brahmin intellectuals. LOL. Get real. I just don’t see anything graduate level in your mob’s defense of brahminism. I see stupidity, delusion and deceit.

    I don’t believe that a mere ritual or puja makes anyone superior–and neither did the wisest of ancients. The Mahabharata clearly discusses how it is conduct that makes the brahmin not birth. A mere ceremony is meaningless without proper thinking and conduct.

    This is a fine example of the deceit. It is the Manusmirthi not some line in the Mahabharata you should be quoting. For that reflects the reality. In reality it is birth that determines caste in hinduism not conduct. To claim otherwise is to lie through your teeth.

    You seem unable to comprehend anything beyond your own biases which equate hinduism only with caste, curries and cows.

    Show us where I equated hinduism with cows and curry? As for caste anyone can see that it is integral to hinduism/brahminism. It is certainly not integral to all dharmic religions. Why do you think the other indian religions like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism rejected castism/brahminism?

    The logic of it is that the worker/artisan class, aka shudra varna, should focus on craft and providing labor. As such, members of this varna likely did not have the time or disposable income to go to a gurukul to become proficient in the sacred texts (and therefore undergo the thread ceremony)

    You can make such excuses all you want it won’t change the fact that a hereditary system is utterly indefensible. What makes you think the 95% of non-brahmin hindus “likely” did not have the time to study the sacred texts? In the Laws of Manu sudras who even tried to do that deserved to have molten lead poured down their ears. You are trying to rationalize a cruel, oppressive and totally irrational social system.

    Western civilization tied down serfs to the land. By living in western society do you support that there should be serfs and that they must be tied down to the land?

    Western civilization which is far younger than hindu civilization judged serfdom, slavery, church power etc to be intellectually and morally indefensible; they fought against these primitive customs and won. India on the other hand remains mired in religiously sanctioned casteism; and even western-educated hindus such as the ones here keep defending the indefensible tenaciously. Thats the difference which you refuse to acknowledge.

  5. T:

    there’s Yo Yo Ma (the greatest cellist alive, and a worthy heir to Rostropovich). Then there are other East Asian musical geniuses such as Lang Lang (NYT calls him the greatest pianist alive), Sarah Chang (perhaps the greatest female violinist ever)

    You missed Alina’s point. All these names you mentioned are famous as performers not as composers. Amy Chua and so many other chinese parents are forcing their children to play the music of western composers on western musical instruments. Clearly the chinese elite have concluded that chinese music and chinese musical instruments are hopelessly inferior to their western counterparts.

    If you go to white supremacist forums the consensus there is that east asians are an admirably intelligent and racially aware race, but they sorely lack in creativity and innovation and can only ride on the coattails of western civilization, imitating what whites have created. I think that is BS but that is what they believe.

  6. Wow, dev, personal that bad, huh? Romantically jilted? Just unloved as a child? Really? I’m so sorry for you. So let’s try and educate you as you type over a pint of haagen dazs:

    1. If you could read, you would realize that I am neither a brahmin nor a dalit. But, given your extenuating circumstances I understand why you must have made that oversight. It’s ok. We know you’re going through a rough patch.

    2. “This is a fine example of the deceit. It is the Manusmriti not some line in the Mahabharata you should be quoting. For that reflects the reality. In reality it is birth that determines caste in hinduism not conduct. To claim otherwise is to lie through your teeth.”

    I mean really dev. We all feel sorry for you and all, but on what basis can you tell us which text I should be quoting. Have you even read either? I have read both. There is no evidence the manu smriti was actually implemented as a code (though hindu rational law does exist through kautilyan law codes). The mahabharata is one of two great hindu epics that have inspired all of hindu society and indian civilization for millennia. But that’s ok, we know you’re going through tough times and it’s far easier to erect a strawman in the form of the former rather than contend with the deep, practical, and righteous wisdom that emerges from the latter. It’s alright, we forgive you.

    1. “Show us where I equated hinduism with cows and curry? As for caste anyone can see that it is integral to hinduism/brahminism. It is certainly not integral to all dharmic religions. Why do you think the other indian religions like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism rejected castism/brahminism?”

    Oh dev, so hurting inside. Why so much pain that must be directed at hinduism? And so disrespectful to call it brahminism. Should people here call christianity priestism or clericism given the power those positions wield and the unspeakable crimes routinely committed by catholic priests? Should we call buddhism monkism given the powerful political influence wield in Sri Lanka and Myanmar? Should we say that while the Buddha was soo irresponsible in leaving his wife and child to pursue his own selfish quest for liberation and in contrast, hindu dharma emphasizes that duty to other be executed before liberation can be pursued? Or is it far better to gain a better understanding rather than judge off the cuff or selectively character entire traditions and people?

    4.”You can make such excuses all you want it won’t change the fact that a hereditary system is utterly indefensible. What makes you think the 95% of non-brahmin hindus “likely” did not have the time to study the sacred texts? In the Laws of Manu sudras who even tried to do that deserved to have molten lead poured down their ears. You are trying to rationalize a cruel, oppressive and totally irrational social system.”

    Oh, poor innocent and ignorant dev. So you support the social darwinism of ayn rand and her progeny? How do you rationalize that cruel, oppressive and totally irrational social system? See 2 again.

    5.”Western civilization which is far younger than hindu civilization judged serfdom, slavery, church power etc to be intellectually and morally indefensible; they fought against these primitive customs and won. India on the other hand remains mired in religiously sanctioned casteism; and even western-educated hindus such as the ones here keep defending the indefensible tenaciously. Thats the difference which you refuse to acknowledge.”

    Yes, because people at the bottom of the economic ladder are not still exploited (ceo:worker pay = 400:1), the church hasn’t taken over native land the world over (ask Rev. Tutu: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land”), and many whites in the US don’t have racist views towards african americans. No we can sweep all this under the rug and say the west is best.

    Nowhere, have I said that casteism (or the caste system as is practiced now) should be continued. All I did was explain varnashramadharma, as I have done before in your previous iteration as vivek. But we realize you subscribe to racist theories towards people of the subcontinent, perhaps because you yourself have been subjected to them. We are truly sorry that you have faced such racism in your life. Tell us how you feel? We’re all here to make you feel better.

  7. Satyajit Wry:

    Wow, dev, personal that bad, huh? Romantically jilted? Just unloved as a child? Really? I’m so sorry for you…… We know you’re going through a rough patch……I mean really dev. We all feel sorry for you and all……Oh dev, so hurting inside……..Oh, poor innocent and ignorant dev……… we realize you subscribe to racist theories towards people of the subcontinent, perhaps because you yourself have been subjected to them. We are truly sorry that you have faced such racism in your life. Tell us how you feel? We’re all here to make you feel better.

    WTF?? This is what passes for “graduate level” discourse in your genetically superior “twice-born” intellectual circles?? LMAO. Grow up already. For someone who claims to not be a brahmin you sure take it very personally when they are legitimately criticized. :) I am guessing this is another example of the deceitfulness that caste is notorious for, as polls show.

    1. It is asinine and callous of you to compare India’s miserable conditions to that of the West. Shows how much you really care about the lot of the masses of Indians.

    2. Your claiming that “it is conduct that makes the brahmin not birth. A mere ceremony is meaningless without proper thinking and conduct.” is an outrageous LIE and you know it and everyone knows it. As you yourself stated a few hours ago “the term dvija applied to kshatriyas and vaishyas as well given that they too were permitted to undergo the ceremony”. Let me repeat “permitted to undergo the ceremony”. Permission based on birth in a dwija family. No consideration whatsoever for “conduct”. You are nothing but a brazen liar whose own words betray your deceit. To lie about something so well known shows stupidity and shamelessness.

  8. Oh, dev, so much hate and bitterness. Please, tell us, what is it that ails you? Who wronged you? Why do you insist on spouting racist theories? Was it cause you faced racism in your own life? Should that not educate you to not espouse racism towards others?

    1. devloo, if you read any history, you would realize that india’s miserable conditions were due to the west (specifically britain). Prior to that, it was the richest and most prosperous region of the world.but that’s ok, we know you believe in theories of social darwinism and that cruel and oppressive system that exploits hard working americans who do not deserve exploitation by the financial industry and the ceo class.

    2. can one who is so racist towards indians really be a sincere advocate for and truly care about india’s masses?

    3. regarding defending brahmins, could it be that i consider them fellow hindus (in spite of the boorish behavior of a few like sanjay 123) and consider all forms of discrimination illegitimate? Since you have apparently faced significant discrimination in your own life, should this not educate you to treat others the way you wish to be treated?

    4.since you are so concerned about casteism, should we not be equally concerned about the treatment of children in catholic churches? is this not a crime against humanity? would Christ himself not excoriate the entire west for its criminal negligence and silence over this? however rigid varnashramadharma may have eventually become, it pales in comparison to the systematic abetting of this horrible treatment of children. are you saying you support this because the west, in spite of its youth of course, has conquered all and won?

  9. Please, tell us, what is it that ails you? Who wronged you?

    Thats all you can say after being busted for shamelessly lying that caste is determined not by birth but by conduct? Pathetic.

    When are people like you gonna stop blaming the West for India’s intractable poverty and hunger? The british left decades ago. Countries that were just as bad off as India when it became independent are now doing far better. Stop making stupid, pathetic excuses. Stop defending the people who are responsible for so much that is wrong with India.

    As for India being the richest and most prosperous region in the world before the british came and spoiled everything, if you really believe it then you have to credit the muslim mughals for ruling India benevolently and wisely in contrast to the selfish, callous, corrupt and incompetent brahmins whom you are so tenaciously defending. I personally am not convinced that the average Indian was better off than the average european, chinese or middle-easterner before the Brirish takeover.