Parenting and Culture (and Tiger Mothers)

A week ago, Amy Chua, a professor of Law at Yale Law School and mother of two Chinese-American daughters, published an excerpt of her book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) that reflects on her Chinese parenting techniques. The response has been astounding with over 6,000 comments — and not just because of the provocative title the Wall Street Journal chose for it either.

Smiling Chinese Tiger, by Gobind Khalsa
Smiling Chinese Tiger, by Gobind Khalsa

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” presents Chua’s parenting model, and she offers three differences between Chinese and Western approaches (which, naturally, are countered by Asian and Western parents alike in the comments section):

  1. “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem” while Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility.”
  2. “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything” and “must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.”
  3. “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.”

Each of the three points assumes a significantly different common ground between parent and child compared to a generalized idea of Western approaches, which means that parents can take entirely different starting points toward shaping their children’s personalities, work habits, attitudes toward difficult tasks, and so on.

An anecdote in the excerpt shows what this persuasive approach can look like. It gives some insight into the kind of language, threats, and physical constraints (not violent, but including orders to sit still) Chua uses to control the learning and disciplinary environment after her youngest daughter, Lulu, repeatedly fails to master a difficult piano piece:

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.

When her technique also repeatedly failed to bring the desired results, husband and wife conferred, and Chua continued:

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.

Eventually something clicked for Lulu and she began to pay the piece correctly – and her exclaims show how proud she was of herself. But here’s where the critics disagree: Is Chua correct in assuming Lulu is “strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it,” or, as a writer at the New York Times repeats from a detractor, is Chua a “mommie dearest” figure raising a daughter destined for life in therapy?

Lots of questions, and lots of variables. Personally, what I think is interesting is parents’ struggle to follow one tradition while living and interacting in another. But I guess this is why Chua clarifies in a later interview that her book is a testament to the trails she went through as a bi-cultural (but Chinese-leaning) mother in a land with different basic assumptions about parent-child relationships. Whether her methods appear sound to us or not, my humble opinion is that we should applaud her attempts at sharing her experiences and reflecting upon them – a sign of good parenting in any culture.

“The Decision” and its reverberations

Perhaps I haven’t been looking too hard to find commentary that says otherwise, but I’d swear I haven’t come across one positive statement about LeBron James and his “Decision” to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. I’m not talking about the decision itself but rather of its execution. If we momentarily ignore the truism that says all publicity is good publicity and look at the merits of the various PR campaigns associated with the event, we might find it safe to say they’ve been a slight disaster. (I’m trying to soften the criticism a bit.)

The two main events are probably the hour-long special on ESPN and the scathing open letter sent out by the Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert. The first has been called a “media circus,” “a cultural low point,” and “Embarrassing. Overdone. Underwhelming.” One writer stated that “James was so concerned with the pursuit of his celebrity that he ran [his fans] over with this self-empowering TV special.” Some have found it shameful that James would decide to hold his event at a boys and girls club and proceed to dump his many fans on national television: “[A]lmost overnight, one of basketball’s most likable figures has turned into a complete jerk.” One blogger even has even written a press release that should have been — but, sadly, wasn’t.

Dan Gilbert’s open letter has fared no better. It has been endlessly criticized, is costing him a whopping $100,000 in fines, and has even mysteriously disappeared from the NBA web site. The original letter showed up in Comic Sans font, a font style universally hated by folks in the design community. Apparently, the media relations staff at the Cavaliers “begged Gilbert to not send the email, but he ignored the pleas and wanted it out immediately.” I wholeheartedly feel their pain.

The letter has been compared to “10th grade melodrama,” the reaction a slave owner would have to his runaway slave (although others claim that Jesse James’ criticism actually makes Gilbert look better), and a venomous validation for James’ exit. It’s clearly a letter written in anger that would have greatly benefited from a calm eye and a red pen.

If you’re curious, here’s a copy (and here’s a visual of the original at this site). Do tell us what you think.

Dear Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters Wherever You May Be Tonight;

As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier.

This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his “decision” unlike anything ever “witnessed” in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.

Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us.

The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you.

There is so much more to tell you about the events of the recent past and our more than exciting future. Over the next several days and weeks, we will be communicating much of that to you.

You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.

You have given so much and deserve so much more.

In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight:

“I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”

You can take it to the bank.

If you thought we were motivated before tonight to bring the hardware to Cleveland, I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our “motivation” to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels.

Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.

Sorry, but that’s simply not how it works.

This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown “chosen one” sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And “who” we would want them to grow-up to become.

But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called “curse” on Cleveland, Ohio.

The self-declared former “King” will be taking the “curse” with him down south. And until he does “right” by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.

Just watch.

Sleep well, Cleveland.

Tomorrow is a new and much brighter day….

I PROMISE you that our energy, focus, capital, knowledge and experience will be directed at one thing and one thing only:

DELIVERING YOU the championship you have long deserved and is long overdue….

Dan Gilbert

Majority Owner

Cleveland Cavaliers

Judging by Your Markings

I can be a rather skeptical reader — but sometimes more toward readers than authors.

The Shoemaker's Holiday by Thomas Dekker (1599)

The Shoemaker's Holiday by Thomas Dekker (1599)

Yup, the readers. You’re probably wondering how this works considering reading leaves no mark on a book, but sometimes these efforts are, sadly, not so invisible after all. Oh, you know who I’m talking about: those godless creatures who mark up library books! [crackle of thunder here]

I remember the first time I bought a heavily used book for a graduate class. I had taken so long to pick up the play, Thomas Dekker’s 1599 The Shoemaker’s Holiday, that all that was left was a battered copy with more lines highlighted than not. I had the hardest time with that book. I’m usually pretty good (or at least I used to be) at remembering where to find particular passages, but my reputation was seriously damaged with this episode. I could hardly recall where anything was located because I was thrown off by visual markers that, to me, meant nothing and only convoluted how I understood the play. I had no mental pictures of those pages.

It was then that I first began judging these invisible readers by how they mark up a book. After the first few pages, if a reader has highlighted what I think is fairly commonsensical, they get thumbs down, and I proceed through the rest of the book skipping any portions highlighted with that same pen. Or, if a person highlights what I would probably notice and shows herself to be fairly consistent about catching the good stuff, then I’ll come to pay more attention to the brightly yellowed portions of the book.

In recent years, I’ve been making heavy use of online booksellers to get a hold of what I need. When possible, I always buy new books, but if they are excessively expensive I’ll go for a used book and pay good attention to the descriptions booksellers give of their inventory. The only problem is many online booksellers have taken to writing almost no description of the book they’re selling. Instead they offer this kind of uselessness:

Useless comment by online bookseller

And then there are more comical instances like this:

Perhaps considerable markings?

Perhaps considerable?! I don’t know what that means — nor how my purchase benefits world literacy when I’m already quite literate, if I do say so myself — but it makes me think how cool it would be if booksellers could explain whether the markings are smart, uninformed, or some other variety. Not that I’d believe them, though. But it would be amusing.

I already own a copy of the book this last comment is on. I’m no stranger to highlighting, but I only do so when a book is particularly important to my work and when I expect to own that book for a long time to come. I’ve happily highlighted this copy because I expect it’ll remain mine, but it definitely makes me think about the lifecycle of highlighting. The next time I read this book, I’ll be more informed than the first time or the second or the third time through, so I won’t need nearly as many passages highlighted. Funny, isn’t it, how highlighting and leaving notes becomes a record of your intellectual status at the time of your reading?

These days I always highlight for a particular purpose. And it’s possible that neither I nor anyone else will ever match that exact purpose again. With time being a luxury I don’t have these days, I read for particular types of information rather than to piece together the trajectory of a book. It makes me think I’ll be (actually, I probably already am) one of those people who when asked to lend a book quickly shuffles through the pages first to see if there are any stupid comments that might ruin my credibility. Because I, too, will be judged. Alas.

marginalia_book_writing_lecture by hyperscholar (Flickr)

marginalia_book_writing_lecture by hyperscholar (Flickr)

How Extreme is “Extreme?”

Image by flattop341 (flickr)

Image by flattop341 (flickr)

Um, not quite as much as it used to be?

Sigh. I’ve become hyperaware* of the word. I’d rather I didn’t, but now I’m beyond hope. Every time I hear someone say extremely, my ears perk up because it seems abused fairly often (and please note I didn’t say “extremely often”). Someone is always “extremely nice,” or a movie is “extremely boring,” or a resource is “extremely useful.”

But seriously, if so many mundane qualities are described as extreme, then what happens to all those real-life instances of actual, um,  extreme stuff? Hearing the word used improperly so many times, I began thinking maybe I have the wrong definition in my mental dictionary (like those times as a teacher when I see a word misspelled so many times that I begin to think the wrong spelling is correct). Fortunately for my sanity (but not for overcoming my pet peeve), Dictionary.com defines extreme as “of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average.” Exactly! (Except that “farthest” should be “furthest” in this instance I believe.)

But if by popular usage extreme now refers to qualities that are just a few measly degrees beyond the norm, then what do we use in its stead?

Enter UrbanDictionary.com. (They know everything.) Of course, the site wouldn’t even have an entry for something as boring as extreme or extremely, but – get this – they’ve got extremliest! A user defines the word as “more extreme than ever, used when u need to express an outrageous amount of extreme-ness.” Uh, right. That’s totally extremely clear.

My only conclusion is that some words appear to lose power with younger generations. I use awesome fairly frequently but rarely because I’m struck with awe. On occasions of awe, I might say something like whoa, which, to be honest, doesn’t add much to a conversation — so maybe I shouldn’t complain after all. If extremeliest is now required to evoke the same response that extreme used to bring, I suppose it’s kind of like the more mainstream ginormous substituting enormous. Nonetheless, I can’t guarantee I’ll be saying extremeliest any time soon. Alas.

Anyway, let’s take a look at some real life examples. A quick Google search brought these sites up:

Well, I feel better having gotten this rant off my chest. Now I dare you to keep your eyes and ears shut to the word 😉

_________________

* My browser showed “hyperaware” as being misspelled, so I Googled it to make sure the combined form is a word. Ironically enough, hyperaware is defined at Wiktionary.com as “extremely aware.” Ha! I’m amused.

Memory and Legacies

This American LifeI don’t always catch episodes of This American Life on National Public Radio (NPR) — though I have taken to listening to them online now — but I caught one by accident a few weeks ago. By the time I finished my drive home, I was glued to the story and sat parked in front of my home.

Remember Me” aired in early April, and it focuses on how individuals try to shape how their legacies will be remembered. I was struck, touched, disappointed, and then oddly relieved in hearing the first story (starting at minute 9). I don’t want to give it away; in fact, if I were you, I wouldn’t even read the description of the story online but just simply listen to it. Its unfolding is captivating.

The Art of Rejection

The Wall Street Journal just published an article about colleges and their rejection letters: “Rejection: Some Colleges Do It Better Than Others.” It’s a gives an interesting report on recent discussions on CollegeConfidential.com where college-bound students have shared details about the letters they received.

by Brymo, flickr

by Brymo, flickr

I was struck by one example. Admissions at Boston University tried (it would appear) to soften the blow by stating they “give special attention to applicants whose families have a tradition of study at Boston University.” But as one student responded, for someone who was attempting to follow his family tradition by attending the school such a comment wasn’t comforting at all. Quite the opposite in fact.

It’s always interesting when a message can be understood so differently from how the author(s) intended (yes, I know, I should stay away from the “intentionality” quagmire), and I do wonder if the letter writers were aware of how that line could be understood. But this example also reminded me of an opposite situation, one in which excessive celebration had others hang their heads down in shame. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but I do remember hearing a thank-you speech that had enough superlatives for those who had helped in the project to make others who hadn’t worked on the project fidget uncomfortably in their seats. Ouch.

But if you have a minute, you should check out a thread on CollegeConfidential.com where users are spoofing rejection letters. They made me smile 🙂

How Times Change….

My, my. Nothing like economic turmoil to wreak havoc on what a society thought it knew.

A Times article, “Can Marijuana Help Rescue California’s Economy” by Alison Statemen, reports that California is revisiting its strict rules on medicinal marijuana to consider whether the cash crop could help straighten out a bad economic situation. Apparently there’s enough money in the economy — it’s just a matter of what people are (not) spending it on.

According to Statemen, marijuana is California’s “biggest cash crop, responsible for $14 billion in annual sales, dwarfing the state’s second largest agricultural commodity — milk and cream — which brings in $7.3 billion annually.” Further, she writes, “[c]urrently, $200 million in medical marijuana sales are subject to sales tax. If passed, the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (AB 390) would give California control of pot in a manner similar to alcohol, while prohibiting its purchase to citizens under age 21.”

Another reason lawmakers are reevaluating legalizing marijuana is that it would result in the decrease of arrests, prosecution, and imprisonment, saving the state as much as $1 billion a year, Statement writes.

And, finally, adopting the law could make California “a model for other states” because as “[Democratic State Assembly member] Ammiano put it: ‘How California goes, the country goes.'” (Hmm. Perhaps this observation explains why the nation is so confused about gay marriage as well.)

Wow.

I’m really quite surprised, but I don’t know that I should be. Quite a bit would change and for the same reasons that some things have not. Smoking bans won’t result in a move toward outlawing cigarettes any time soon because the government makes a killing on taxing the item. Further, I’m sure a lot has been learned from the U.S era of alcohol prohibition. The country decided that profiting off alcohol consumption was better — economically — for the country than policing it’s illegal trafficking. If history repeats itself here, gone would be a black market and in would come flood of income in proper capitalist fashion.

In a rhetorical sense, one of the most interesting results would be a partial collapse of the War on Drugs. It could change quite a bit of what the nation stands for and how it continues to portray its surpriority in global terms. I don’t want to run too far ahead with this idea, but the change could be huge. In a time when the country has just finished a two-term presidency that resulted in a substantial rise in unfavorable feelings toward the country, I wonder how the doxa of the nation and the globe would change as a result of a change like this one.

Difficult times can change just about anything, it seems. Let’s wait and see what happens.

Harlot Symposium: Presidential Rhetoric

Check out Harlot’s latest call for contributions for a symposium on presidential rhetoric:

Presidents and Presidential Hopefuls of 2008/2009
Presidents and Presidential Hopefuls of 2008/2009

Throughout a heady election season, the conclusion of a divisive administration, and an inauguration that attracted a record 1.8 million people to Washington D.C., American presidents and presidential hopefuls have performed a flurry of persuasive acts, some stilted, some eloquent, some mangled, some unintentional, some iconic. What have been the most pivotal moments in American politics in the last year? What stood out, made you laugh, made you yell, made you think? What conversations should the nation — and the world — have as we move forward?

We welcome short contributions of 500-750 words or video/audio productions of 1-2 minutes (or any combination thereof) that explore an issue or phenomenon you think is stimulating, amusing, or uncomfortable — as long as it is insightful. Submissions are due by Monday, March 2, 2009.

George W. Bush’s Farewell

I can’t help but feel it’s embarrassing the U.S. media has slighted its outgoing president.

Sure, his approval ratings are quite low, and sure a pilot crash landing on the Hudson River was riveting news, but I’m still surprised the major media outlets largely cut directly to and then directly away from President Bush’s farewell speech without giving much build up or much conversation afterward.

Even this Time‘s piece from November 2008 says it’s “the nature of mainstream journalism to attempt to be kind to Presidents when they are coming and going but to be fiercely skeptical in between,” and yet this article is anything but kind and celebratory. Googling “Bush” and “farewell address” shows an odd listing: The second hit is Ariana Huffington’s piece, “Bush’s Farewell Address: Still Delusional After All These Years,” which is anything but a charming look at Bush’s legacy. Even knowing the current atmosphere is not in Bush’s favor, I’m surprised the article ranks so high.

The eyes of the country are certainly looking forward, but it’s worth taking a look at how President Bush has been packaging the remaining days of his presidency. I can’t seem to remember where I read an article about the Bush administration working hard since the election to paint a flattering picture of the president, but it seems true. Bush gave a record number of interviews, and I recall reading a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of Bush, and the picture was flattering.

But then there’s Bush’s final press conference:

(The complete 47-minute press conference is hosted on C-SPAN)

I was watching CNN when I heard one commentator call Bush’s performance “pathetic.” They are really giving him no love.

And then there’s President Bush’s farewell address:

(Click here to see Part 2 of the farewell address.)

The speech contains some of the usual (see the transcript here) — gratitude for having served, a positive look toward the past, an optimisitic look toward the future, and honor expressed over remaining an American citizen (though I am surprised how close  line echos President Clinton’s farewell speech: Bush said, “It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve as your President. [. . .] I have been blessed to represent this nation we love. And I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other – citizen of the United States of America,” while Clinton said, “In the years ahead, I will never hold a position higher or a covenant more sacred than that of President of the United States. But there is no title I will wear more proudly than that of citizen”). The speech also held some unusual moments, like the inclusion of American citizens and their individual stories, a touch that is reminiscent more of state of the union addresses than farewell speeches.

The line that struck me as the most poignant came after mention of the September 11th attacks:

As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did.

Sadly, what followed didn’t build up on the emotion of the statement. The job of the president can be a lonely, harrowing experience. Some more humanity and  humility in the president’s words and demeanor would probably have the media — and the public — respond more sympathetically and respectfully to a departing United States President.

Dearest Nobody

In the news yesterday, the U.S. Army apologized for 7,000 letters sent to the surviving families of deceased soldiers who fought in the present Iraq war. Apparently the contracted company suffered a printing problem where the placeholder salutation, “Dear John Doe,” was not properly replaced with the recipients’ names and titles. Ouch. The letters were meant to notify the fallen soldiers’ families of services or gifts they could receive from nonprofit organizations.

Letter from the U.S. Army

(Download the .pdf file hosted by CNN here.)

(On a quick side note, I’m fascinated that they chose to capitalize “Soldier” and “Survivor.” While the move strikes me as archaic, it’s simultaneously respectful for that exact reason.)

I don’t bring up this story to poke fun at the U.S. Army for this mistake — it’s much too sensitive an issue — but I wonder how  the recipients must have responded to the letters. The Army has supposedly sent out an apology, but I can’t seem to locate it. You can read their press release here.

I am reminded of two related stories. One is admittedly minor and even silly in comparison, and the second is one that comes with the gravity of history, great loss, and a way with words from an important man.

Related Story #1

On November 5th, 2008, I received an email from JetBlue, the cool, fresh airline I frequented back when I lived near a city it serviced. Now I simply ignore their emails until I move again (from what I could see, they don’t seem to have an easy way to delete one’s account without contacting customer service — very clever). The critic in me, however, can’t help but open these emails to see how companies represent themselves these days, and I certainly had a moment when I opened this particular email.

Letter from JetBlue

I am addressed as “Mr. Soandso.” Huh. My mind quickly did a few loops at the time, the first beginning with the technology problem and then ending with questions regarding the company’s views of its customers: (1) obviously an improper or mistakenly forgotten link to the database caused the problem; (2) the placeholder doesn’t sound nearly as cool as JetBlue markets itself; (3) people actually use “soandso” these days? (4) why am I a Mr.? (5) I can’t believe I’m a Mr., especially a Mr. Soandso; (6) what general image must they have of their customers?

Somehow I really got put off at the idea that JetBlue thinks of me as “Mr. Soandso” rather than a “Dear Jetsetter” or even something as innocuous as “Dear JetBlue Customer.” (JetBlue sent out an apology within an hour or more of the error, but it appears I didn’t save the email.) To be honest, I’m really surprised at how much I was bothered over the “Mr.” From what I understand of technology, a placeholder doesn’t need more than a single character to tell the software where to insert the proper data. Adding the gendered title, if I’m correct, would be unnecessary. In my mind, then, it really says something about who the heads of the company think they’re servicing.

A quick aside: I’m reminded of an old classmate who would write “snazzy title here” at the top of her academic papers when she couldn’t come up with a title. She shrugged and looked a bit embarrassed the first time I noticed it, but I loved the idea and still do. It evoked such a positive feeling about the work: By intending to write a really snazzy title, she meant she intended to write a really snazzy paper as well. How else to get a graduate student pumped about writing a seminar paper?

But if Jetblue thinks I’m simply “Mr. Soandso,” they don’t think I’m snazzy at all. When I imagine the character they construct to represent the target audience of their marketing materials, I can only picture shiny shoes, a suit, and tie. A business man. Am I taking this slip personally? No. But I feel like I’ve been given an accidental glimpse into the company. It’s like taking a peek into a restaurant’s unkempt kitchen and realizing why some people in the business tell us we’re better off not knowing what goes on back there if we want to continue enjoying the luxury of eating out.

Alas, I am making too big a deal about this particular story, but I’m doing so to make a larger point: If I could read so deeply into a human and/or technology failure in a case where nothing more than my ego and consumerism are at stake, I can only imagine (or, honestly, perhaps I can’t) what it must feel like to receive a letter regarding the death of a family member and be addressed so coldly.

Related Story #2

And then I think about one of the best letters of all time, one attributed to Abraham Lincoln nearly hundred and fifty years ago, in which the president addresses the mother of five soldiers who where thought to have been killed during the Civil War. (A print version follows below.)

Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

The letter and the (now inaccurate) storyline may be familiar to those of you who have seen an adaptation in the film, Saving Private Ryan. How sad to think that such a deep apology was (apparently) promptly destroyed by the receiver, for the mother was sympathetic to the South rather than to the views Lincoln held.

I wonder how the “Dear John Doe” letter was received today — even if it’s not the letter that actually breaks the news — if over a hundred years ago a mother and citizen could so decidedly disregard a personal letter from the President of the United States of America.