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erin Khue Ninh Headshot

Amy Chua's Recipe for Disaster and the Externalized Cost of Book Sales

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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 Khuê Ninh is the author of Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature. She teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and serves as blog editor at Hyphen magazine.