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Posted on Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 10:59 a.m.

So what's the big deal about sleepovers, anyhow? More on Amy Chua's Tiger Mother

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

On my 16th birthday, a blond classmate was shocked to discover that I would not also, automatically, be allowed to date.

“But it’s a Constitutional right that you are allowed to date when you turn 16.”

The other three Asian American girls in my class and I all looked at each other. None of us were allowed to date until college. It was a distraction from our studies, a waste of time, danger. “You are not going to marry anyone you date in high school, so what is the point?” my mother asked.

The thing is, although my non-Asian friends thought my parents were soooo traditional, conservative, and unfair, actually, my parents thought they were being incredibly liberal.

My mother and her sisters were not allowed to date until their final year of college (so in case anything went “wrong,” they would still be able to graduate). My parents also grew up in Taiwan at a time when people did not even hold hands (let alone kiss) until after they had started “going steady,” after which they soon became engaged and got married. They were letting me date at a much younger age than they had.

I understood this, even if my 16-year-old self did not agree.

As angry as I have been with Yale law professor Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, for her incendiary article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” even as she backpedals from her hard-line stance, I am concerned that many cultural nuances are being misunderstood as everyone writes back — from Asian Americans to the happiness school to Bad Mommy — furious about even the less crazy things that she does, the details that really are cultural (as opposed to crazy). I feel like all Asians and Asian Americans are being castigated along with her, especially when people in cafés now glare at me when I scold my boy in Chinese.

We can try to understand each other, even if we do not agree.

Imagine that you move to Europe where it is no big deal to allow children and teenagers to drink a glass of wine with dinner. Would you do it right away? Or would it take some time to get your mind about it? How young could you allow it? Okay, now how about a topless beach? Could you? Would you? With your teenage daughters? And Grandpa, too? I can hear the Europeans in town laughing at our American prudishness. We have a hard enough time dealing with Speedos at the YMCA.

In Maureen Downey’s article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Chinese mothers: Perfect grades or else. And you’re fat,” she responds to Chua’s claim that “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty — lose some weight.’” However, what she does not understand and Chua does not explain is that saying someone is “fat” (or “old” for that matter) is not as loaded in some Asian cultures/languages as it is in America. It comes out of a past when it was good to be fat, chubby, plump or stout because it meant you had enough to eat. (Although this is changing.) Interestingly, my children and I use the Chinese word in the diminutive, “pang pang,” quite casually, but we would never ascribe the English word, “fat.”

For comparison, the Asian equivalent stigma-loaded word would be “tan” or “dark.” I once physically winced when a friend complimented me, “You're getting some color!” It does not sound bad in English, but it cuts to the quick. Someone like Snookie is completely incomprehensible.

Rather than pontificate about the wrongness of the particulars from our experience, (Ahhh! Children drinking! Ahhh! Breasts! Ahhh! She said “fatty”! And what is the big deal about sleepovers anyhow?), it is more important to see how they fit into the larger cultural context or parental plan. Every family is different and manifests its values and circumstances in different ways. The feel of it is in the nuances. Explain.

Still, to be safe, I brainwash, er, tell my daughters how important education is, how distracting boys can be, and how they are not to date until they are 32 and have finished graduate school.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang has written an earlier article in response to Amy Chua’s article, "There are other ways of being a Chinese mother than Amy Chua's Tiger Mother." She was interviewed for "Mother, superior?" and "Tiger Mom's Memoir Meets Ferocious Roar." Her take on “Asian American” parenting, which other than high expectations is pretty much the opposite of Amy Chua’s approach, can be found in, “APA Girl Power! Raising Strong and Confident Asian Pacific American Daughters.” Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is also a popular speaker available to speak to parenting, teacher and community groups on “Multicultural Toolbox: Raising our children with culture(s), languages, and pride” and other parenting issues.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Tue, Jan 25, 2011 : 10:24 p.m.

A third (and hopefully final) response: <a href=""></a>

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Sun, Jan 23, 2011 : 2:47 p.m.

@luv2read--excellent question. No easy answer. Rough thoughts: Role models. Friendships. Community. Mentors. Learning how to adapt to the different cultures. Understanding model minority myth and other Asian stereotypes. Asian American literature and pop culture to see the range of experiences. Early development of skills (knowing that this is coming later on). Strong development of Asian American identity and self-esteem. Brave and understanding parents willing to step out of their comfort zones and find other points of connection, other ways to reach out to other Asian American kids, to build community around their adopted Asian children. There is an excellent mentoring program in town I am sure you know about called GIFT that pairs Asian adoptees with college-aged Asian American "big sisters." I also give a talk called, "APA Girl Power! Raising Strong and Confident Asian Pacific American Daughters."

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 4:20 p.m.

@keepingitreal--this is hugely generalizing, but some Asian cultures prefer fair skin. historically, skin color was an easy marker of wealth and status and education, as those people did not have to labor in the fields (and get tanned by the sun). This is the opposite of Americas mainstream culture where a tan used to be desired because it indicated enough wealth and leisure to be able to vacation and/or lay out in the sun (and not work). Both used to be indicators of wealth and status, but now only a preference for a tan or no tan remain. (and this is changing now as people learn more about skin cancer). the tricky part for some Asian American women is that one quality that makes them attractive in some American settings, a tan, is the opposite of what makes them attractive in some Asian settings, fair skin. they cannot be both and please both potential audiences at once. Also, "tan" and "dark" are loaded words in some Asian cultures the way "fat" is a loaded word in American culture. both of these words cannot be used (in their respective languages) simply as statements of fact because they carry pejorative meaning. I brought these up to compare the feel of the words.


Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 12:29 p.m.

Frances--as an adoptive parent to a Chinese daughter, all these discussion have me pondering how to help my daughter build/maintain relationships with her Chinese American classmates when their worlds are so very different. Our kids who look like they should fit into this world end up being uncomfortable when the cultural expectations don't fit them. Many adoptive parents have raised their kids with such different values/priorities that our kids can end up looking like total slackers in the education world compared to their Asian American counterparts with more culturally Asian upbringing. Adoptive parents of middle and high school aged Asian kids have commented that their kids sometimes try to "out Asian" (meaning out do) the Asian kids in their classes so more AP classes, more "resume builder" activities, trying to find a way to fit in with great costs to themselves personally. Other parents say their kids just give up and don't even try to find a place for themselves in the Asian American community in their schools. Neither of those aproaches is good for our adopted kids. What are your thoughts on helping older adopted kids find a place in the Asian American educational community they interact with when the cultural values they have been raised in are different in ways that can make our kids seem/feel inferior to their counterparts? It's one thing to be happy playing with your Asian American friends when you're little, but the gulf just keeps getting wider as the kids get older. Thanks for your writing on this topic--it is very helpful.


Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 12:19 p.m.

@Frances: I'm not sure I understand the issue about being "tan" or brown for Asians. Please explain.

kathy seal

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 11:55 a.m.

Great conversation here and interesting links. Here's an article I did on the academic research into Asian-American parenting: Part 2 appears Tuesday. Enjoy, Kathy


Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 11:48 a.m.

Excellent piece of writing!

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 9:37 a.m.

Gish Jen's review of the book

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 9:13 a.m.

westsidereader--thanks. that conversation is happening in the asian american blogosphere. and in the new lighthearted Tiger Mom meme that riffs on both Amy Chua and our own high expectations parents (My favorites: "Yale? Okay for safety school" and "No you can't go to prom, but we can drive by on way to Stanley Kaplan") Im considering putting together an anthology of Asian American parenting writers, a sort of how-to manual for Amy Chua, and reviving my old Multicultural Toolbox: Raising our children with culture(s), languages, and pride lecture/book, but clearly I need a sexier, scarier title.


Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 8:38 a.m.

Now that the cat (Tiger?) is out of the bag, Amy Chua has been given celebrity status over her book and Wall Street Journal article. Now she IS the expert and is handling questions like a seasoned White House press secretary. What's next, Oprah? "Asian American Tiger Mom reveals secrets to raising successful children, whether they liked it or not." Many years ago I was asked to be the guest speaker at the scholarship awards dinner for the Association of Chinese Americans. I talked about the culture clash of immigrant parents who knew only one way to assure success for their children: Work harder than everyone else in your class and you will be rewarded with money, success, and respect. When I gave examples of college students I counseled who were depressed, resentful, bitter, on the verge of suicide, and confused, many parents objected. It would never be THEIR child. And none of the scholarship awardees spoke up. The dialog shouldn't be between Amy Chua and the curious about the best school of parenting. It should be among those whose lives were affected-- in both good and not so good ways.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 6:55 a.m.


Cynthia Lim

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 : 2:56 a.m.

It is indeed difficult to raise children in an environment with a predominant culture other than your own, but there has to be a better way of instilling the values of your family in your children other than hysterics and threats. It certainly seems like even Chua eventually understood, and forged a middle ground. I consider myself extremely lucky. I understood from the start. I am Chinese, born in Manila from Chinese parents like hers, similarly raised like her. Unlike Chua, I vowed never to parent like my parents. I continue to resent them. I never said, "I am right, and you will obey me because I am your mother". I taught myself to say, "Mother does not know," and "I am sorry. Mother is wrong." I encouraged my daughter to enjoy all the things my parents would not allow, sleepovers and play dates, and school plays, and yes, dating in high school. I had hoped she would play the drums, but she wanted to play the piano. No, not classical music. Pop music. Do you know how hard it is to find a piano teacher to teach "Close To You" by The Carpenters to a seven-year-old? She can barely read music notes, but even now, she will sit at the piano to relax herself. She turned out all right. Near-perfect SAT scores and offers of admission from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. I have no doubt good fortune played a major role. I never pushed. I encouraged. And I loved unconditionally.