Amy Chua, I offer these words as a declaration of kung fu challenge -- an invitation to engage in a stern dialogue of fists such that we can measure, publicly and for the world to know, who between the two of us has the bigger, longer Chinese-ness. I'm talkin' me and you and the most Chinesest challenge imaginable. I'm talkin' I wanted to send you this invitation written in calligraphy on a small rolled up scroll, delivered by a pigeon -- but my pigeon has a drinking problem and was too hungover to fly. I'm talkin' I wanted to send shirtless kung fu henchmen to your house to silently but dramatically mouth these words in Mandarin while a poorly synced English translation plays on a tape recorder. That's the level of Chinese-ness I'm talking about.
Tell me how you want it, Chua. We could match fists across the rooftops of a small rural village, the shadow outlines of our battle poses stitched across the cold black fabric of night. We could flying swordfight ballet upon the tops of tallest trees, barefoot or wearing Li-Ning sneakers. We could get down in Chinatown at the corner of Mott and Bayard, with a gathered crowd of elderly Chinese men, all of them squatting and smoking cigarettes as they watch us. Whatever you want to do. We could trade stances and glances in an ancient temple, awash in a thousand beads of candlelight, encircled by bare-headed monks thumbing their beads and chanting. We could shadow-box in the middle of the Stuyversant High School cafeteria, amid a room full of Chinese kids taking the SATs and scoring perfect on the Math sections. We could get real, real Chinese with it.
I'm talkin' the most Chinese Mahjong Fukien showdown. Ever.
See, Amy, you're not the only person who can make a circus of our culture and caricatures of our people for the sake of grabbing a little public attention. It's naïve to blame you, really, being that much of modern society is driven by a "be seen at all costs" mentality -- at all costs, disregarding all potential consequences, and effortlessly detached of morality -- and you are certainly not the only one whose bank account feeds from leveraging the public's fear and ignorance. But, I am curious if you have ever found a moment, undressed of your "Tiger Mom, celebrity author" costume and all of the salesmanship it entails, to sit in your natural skin as an Asian-American, and as a mother, to properly measure how the thoughts you spread might affect our community, and in particular our youth -- those young people of shiny black eyes and straight black hair who look like you and me, many of them growing up exactly as you and I had to grow up, isolated from other Asians and left to fend for themselves in that psychological warfare of the modern American childhood, with its teasing, its bullying, its acts of merciless dehumanization.
Have you ever maturely measured such things?
1) Your personal success, popularity, and financial gain from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom are paid for by an increased threat of psychological and even physical violence for Asian youth, everywhere throughout America.
Across today's America, you will find a thousand, thousand young Asian people who are engaged in violent struggle to accept themselves -- to find belonging in the image of their own faces and in the customs of their own families -- because they are Asian in America. Because they are mocked and insulted for the way their eyes look, for their "complicated" last names, for the traditional Asian food they bring to school lunch, for the way their parents speak with an accent and behave so differently from "normal American parents." This is an immeasurably large number of fragile and developing psyches -- young children and teens, exquisitely innocent and beautiful -- looking upon America from behind eyes that look like yours and mine, and confronted by the impossibly difficult task of finding self-worth amid a social reality that tends to repay their Asian identity with insult, mental and emotional aggression, pain. Thousands of us grow up quietly "wanting to be White," some even seeking surgical procedures to change our eyes, or our bone structure; so many of us so intensely willing to pawn the immense treasure of our cultural heritage for the comfort of "feeling normal and being accepted in America." Thousands of us grow up without the ability to be physically attracted to other Asians, or even to befriend and feel close to other Asians, a profound symptom of the severe discomfort that exists in our relationships with ourselves. And though we rarely discuss it, there are many instances where we hang out with or date Whites as a means of assimilation, to escape the awareness of feeling foreign; to validate our place in this country, by fleeing from our roots.
Amy, these difficulties experienced by our community are a result of Asians being perceived and treated as alien -- as non-human -- by members of other American communities. If a person is addressed, relentlessly, as if he or she is less than human, then he or she will feel it, will believe it, after time.
When you, as an Asian-American, make public a statement such as "Chinese mothers are superior," I understand that it is a strategic self-promotional needle intended to pierce at that acutely sensitive, easily agitated region of the American psyche that concerns itself with race, ethnicity, and nationality; and you do this to conjure public drama and give visibility, marketability to your book. This is clear; this is easy. But you should also realize that when you say, so publicly, such a thing as "Chinese mothers are superior," what members of other groups essentially hear is the arrogant declaration: "Chinese people are superior." Their intuitive reaction will then be to respond with a sentiment of "F-- Chinese people", which, in America, is ultimately "F-- Asian people." To re-fold what I am trying to say: your work contributes to anti-Asian sentiment and increases the alienation experienced by Asians across the United States. Such sentiments lead to retaliation against Asian people, exposing the more vulnerable members of our community to an increased threat of psychological and even physical violence. "Oh, your chink family is so superior, isn't it? Well, what's your Tiger Mom gonna do when I beat your f-ing ass?" I'm sure you've known racism in the United States, Amy, and as such, I imagine you can hear with great clarity the realism of such a statement.
2) Your new work¸ The Triple Package, attempts to assess the value of human communities based on income and test scores - this is shallow and simple-minded.
The Black community began its history in the United States of America held by chains. They have since marched through generation after generation of inequality, brutality, systematic dehumanization... and across the distance of this advancing struggle, they have met each step with grace and pride intact. How does one rely on numbers to tell of such strength and radiance of heart? And this is to say nothing of the cultural innovations of Black America -- in the arts, in language, in urban culture, in freedom of expression -- which have profoundly altered the design of the entire human culture. I have personally absorbed from my interaction with the Black community profound lessons on standing tall and with furious dignity against the winter wind of racism. My relationship with Black America has trained me in unique and liberating techniques of self-expression and celebration. I am a more quality human being for having been influenced and shaped in America by Blacks, but also Latinos, Muslims, Jews -- many other groups -- and none of the things I have gained from my immersion in these communities could ever be conveyed with a no. 2 pencil across a multiple choice answer sheet.
Conversely, concealed beneath a glamorous cover page that speaks of our prolific spending power and professional achievement, is the reality that a great number of Asian-Americans cannot even look each other in the eyes when we pass one another on the street. I speak of Asian faces struggling to look upon other Asian faces, because we do not know how to confront the discomfort we experience as a people, so we instead look away from who we are. This is a trauma that no Harvard degree or executive title at a Fortune 500 company, no minty new Lexus or penthouse condo, can heal.
3) Your two latest books drive a feeling of distance and opposition between communities, endangering the American future.
America, with an effort that is arguably more dedicated and advanced than any other nation, has labored throughout its history to confront the most ancient ignorance: the one that deceives human beings of differing skin tones, belief systems, and ancestral backgrounds into feeling as though they share nothing in common with one another. The greatest of all American innovations could one day be the birthing of a society in which all varieties of people are able to identify in one another the shared, binding experience that defines us as human beings. But while many strive today to cleanse our nation of pre-modern biases and ignorance, work such as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom and The Triple Package add more pollutants to our social eco-system, strengthening the perception of difference, distance, and opposition between our communities.
We are walking now through a climactic passage in American history where the long held and previously unquestioned understanding of America as a definitively White and Christian nation is being forcefully challenged by an increased diversity both in the American distribution of power and in the voices that carry the American conversation. This ever-strengthening challenge to the American identity has created a feverish and still escalating tug-of-war for the soul of the United States, pitting those who push towards a more diverse and tolerant America against those unwilling to surrender yesterday's status quo. Indeed, America's social climate trembles with oncoming storm. The projecting image that we see of America's arriving future tells of a continued and intensifying economic hardship, as well a widening fissure dividing rich and poor. Such periods of economic suffering are generally accompanied by a growing tension between different ethnic and cultural groups, often leading to violent and destructive activity. Now, is a time of true vulnerability and fertility in the story of the United States -- a moment like those chilling, surreal ones we encounter in the defining experiences of our individual lives, marked by the presence of both real danger and grand opportunity. Now, is a time when the spreading of thoughts that antagonize and divide our communities is most dangerous; a time when gestures that might unite our communities, are most necessary.
A truly Chinese principle, one inherited from ancient ancestors, is the awareness that all the independent movements of life ultimately abide by the motion of one unified, greater destiny. The ancient Chinese recognized that the value of the individual part is expressed in its relationship and interaction with other parts in achieving the harmony of a greater whole. So too are the people -- White, Black, Asian, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. -- of the United States of America bound to a shared path, one that is ultimately tethered to the greater destiny of humankind and the earth. We have arrived in an epoch of history where the state of interdependence and shared consequence between humans is widely visible, provable, and (most importantly) teachable -- and America, this cradle that nurses a thousand ancestries, is a fitting place to develop and broadcast such thoughts that would make all of us more aware of our being inseparably bound to one another. In this way, our nation, and the world, might come to intuitively understand that it can only be in the recognition of our great common cause, in the joining together of our individual strengths, and in the sharing of our collective responsibilities that we will pass through honorably to the next stage of humankind.