Fortune cookie cupcake (photo: abakedcreation via Flickr)

Last weekend’s piece in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chua whipped up a firestorm of debate about parenting techniques heightened by racial, ethnic and cultural tensions.

What a pity, really. This should have been an opportunity to talk about the challenges parents share in common rather than polarizing them into Chinese/Western, obsessive-compulsive/loosey-goosey, dictatorial/complacent factions.

I should point out for starters that the Wall Street Journal’s bought-by-News Corp. editorial team kicked this off with the crappy, inflammatory but traffic-boosting headline they put on Amy Chua’s essay — “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” is just begging for a beat-down, isn’t it?

And I say that as a person of Chinese heritage.

Chua didn’t do herself any favors, either; she comes across as a real tyrant who in just the right community and state might be labeled an emotionally abusive parent. She’s sold herself on the notion that it’s just the Chinese way to bully children into complete submission.

Granted, she does say other groups will do the same thing, but still, there’s this smugness about her background. And granted, this particular essay is an advance peek into her book she hopes will sell like hotcakes; there’s some hyperbole to be expected but this seems a bit excessive. (You can be certain that when someone claims to speak for half a billion people of a single cultural group and gender, there’s some hype involved.)

On the other hand, I’ve gotten some mileage out of her essay here at my house. I asked both my blonde-haired, Asian-eyed 13-year-old and 16-year-old kids to read Chua’s piece; both of them had the same reaction, their eyes wide with disbelief that a parent could possibly be more demanding than their own mother.

“No sleepovers — ever?” said the 16-year-old, stunned at the prospect of not having a girls’ night with her peeps.

“No television, no video — ever?” said the 13-year-old, his thumbs moving in unconscious sympathetic reaction to the loss of an invisible game controller.

“Yeah,” I said, “Imagine if I went full Chinese mother on you and expected better than 3.85 grade point averages out of you. Just think of it!” I rendered my best imitation of my Asian auntie’s high-pitched laugh.

They were terrified. Good.

But not really…We’ve had several nice long talks about Asian and Western culture since then, which is very important to understanding the nearly demonic drivers behind Chua’s parenting. Even today, while watching the movie Ip Man with my son, I pointed out that honor is absolutely critical to the social fabric of many Asian cultures. Honor in one’s own actions, honor in own’s family, honor in own’s community, state and nation, all these layers of an onion which helps a populous country like China work as a cohesive, integrated whole. It’s not just China, either; this is steeped into many Asian cultures, that one is subordinate to the whole and one must help maintain honor for the whole in their own actions as an individual.

Chua’s parenting is a hyper expression of this ethic. The ethic, though, becomes a joke in a culture which prizes individual rights and freedoms over that of the society itself. Just check out the site, High Expectations Asian Father and you’ll see what I mean. Well, some of us laugh our butts off at it; some of us may think it’s racist. All I know is this theoretical amalgam of an Asian father sounds like my dad did when I was in high school, and even now and then as a grandfather with his grandkids (“This not a restaurant! You eat what’s for dinner — everything!”). My siblings and I knew how much of this was just expectation-setting chatter versus earnest scolding; we laughed then behind his back about it, and now laugh openly about it since we’ve obviously survived and become responsible taxpaying citizens.

But this is a key point which emerges from Chua’s essay and I suspect in her book: Westerners, specifically Americans, don’t set expectations the way Asians do. There’s a lot more latitude about self-determination, but it borders on a complete lack of expectations at all. I hear it from my kids, who complain with a mixture of envy and dismay as the kids they’ve gone to school with for years, who’ve qualified for and sat next to my kids in the same Honors level and AP classes, yet take home Cs or Ds and get little pushback from parents at all about their lapsed grades. I can hear in their voices that they wish I was less of an Asian mom and didn’t expect them to do so much better: “Look at what K. did and her mom hasn’t taken away the car keys!”

Unlike Chua, we don’t move on to three hours of practice at the violin. Right then and there we sit down and we talk. And we talk about what’s going on with K.’s life. I’ll ask what’s going on and I’ll just listen and get a full download: K has a new boyfriend with whom K is spending all her time, sucking face and bailing on studies. K comes from a divorced family which has shared custody of K, and K isn’t getting pushback from either of the households on her grades…or on the boyfriend.

“Gee, maybe K is looking for attention?” asks this partially Chinese mother.

Click! goes the lightbulb. “Oh yeah, that completely makes sense!” says the kid, the recognition apparent in her expression.

Yes, it does make sense, and if I was to go completely Chinese superior mother on my kid, they’d never have this kind of conversation, never bother to analyze this situation, never realize that their mother’s giving them the attention they need right there in this moment as we talk about real life issues that they see every day around them. And they’d continue right on thinking that pressure to achieve isn’t fair.

If I went all Chinese mother on my kids, they’d be unprepared for doing anything more than crunching out facts and numbers, unready for living a full life. They could become miserable statistics as far too many Asian students do once they reach college — depressed, suicidal, unable to cope with the less structured, free form demands real life places on us all. I just can’t imagine putting that much pressure on my kids.

I will settle for partial Chinese mothering and an emotionally well-adjusted potential future pathologist.

However I may yet have to go full-on Chinese mother with the younger one, who the science teacher said is his brightest student and yet can’t turn in his papers on time.

I’m wondering if Chua shows up at school to turn in her kids’ papers for them…perhaps I will borrow a copy of Chua’s book to find out.