Forget Amy Chua. Bigger fish to stir-fry: 4 ways I’ve been conned by Confucius.

betty ming liu Inspiration, Relationships 86 Comments

On Saturday, I blogged about “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason Asian Americans like me are in therapy.”

Other bloggers had a lot to say about the topic too.

Taken as a whole, the collective reaction was a chilling, community-wide scream over an issue so deep that it’s practically genetic.

For me, the scope and depth of what’s being said has been mesmerizing. On some weird level, I almost want to thank Chua for jump-starting our focus on a long-overdue discussion.

Clearly, this is about more than just one sadly misguided author-mom who is promoting a scary book about Chinese-style tough love.

Our real problem is that we’ve all been conned by Confucius.

The ancient, so-called sage preached that children should honor and respect their elders in a way that amounts to emotional child abuse. It has led to a goal-fixated, parent-centric, male-dominant culture that continues to demoralize most of us.

Under Confucianism, kids work hard, excel at school and must avoid bringing shame on their families. In principle, these might sound like reasonable expectations. But the reality can be very different, especially when you throw in the old guy’s teachings for the female gender: a woman must obey her father, husband and son(s). What a crime that Asian society has been boxed into these rules for centuries.

Now that the topic is on the table again, I hope we can examine how we’ve been conned into accepting awful traditions. While there’s plenty to admire in Chinese and other Asian cultures, I wish we could make a group jailbreak from the bad stuff. Let’s become ex-cons and stop being victims!

The effort to do that is worth it. Think of all the creativity, fulfillment and genuine community that lies ahead…

The struggle to get beyond my past has been huge. My parents, who were immigrant PhDs from China and South Vietnam, didn’t talk much about personal happiness or self-expression. As the first-born of two daughters, there was no opportunity for me to indulge in such giddy foolishness. Forget about individual interests and preferences.I was too busy trying to be their pseudo-son. (Did they view me as castrated? Or eunuch? Not sure…)

Over the years, my fury against Confucius has kept building. His brutally narrow-minded advice has led to five thousand years of mediocrity — and not just in China. The Confucian chokehold has been strangling more than “just” the country’s billion or so people, who account for roughly 25 percent of the planet’s entire population. Versions of similarly rigid belief systems exist in nearby Korea, India and Japan. Then there’s the diaspora — the natives of each country who have scattered around the globe. Taken together, these numbers add up to a lot of stagnant human energy.

Four Ways I’ve Been Conned by Confucius

1. Since I obeyed my parents, I wasn’t encouraged to think independently. My mom limited my friends to Chinese kids in our Chinatown neighborhood. My dad decided what courses I took in college.

2. Family and family honor always came first. We never publicly aired anything that might make us “look bad.” I grew up confused about things but kept my mouth shut. It was hard to make and trust new friends.

3. The insular lifestyle had me socially awkward. I went to church instead of parties. I didn’t know how to date or talk to boys. Being around people of other races was uncomfortable.

4.  Since the family marched as a unit, being an individual was never discussed. My sister and I were constantly compared to each other. During our late 20s, we were so competitive that we barely spoke. Let’s not even get into how our parents complained that their friends’ kids were smarter and better than us.

Check out these photos of my younger sister and I. Mom picked out our clothes. Even though we’re two years apart, she enjoyed dressing us like twins. Is this twisted or what?!

Looking back, I know our parents loved us the best they could.

But as my first shrink used to say, parents can’t give what they themselves never had. Unfortunately, what they provided was difficult and suffocating.

Well, no wonder. They lived through poverty, hunger and war. It was also tough immigrating to the U.S. as adults who didn’t speak the language. Their survival deserves my respect. But that doesn’t mean they were great parents.

When I was 19, my father died of a heart attack. Who knows what would’ve happened if he had held on and run my life. With Mom all alone, my sister and I tried to take care of her. But then I started therapy in my 30s and suddenly realized how needy my mother was. The breakthrough moment was realizing that I could get mad. What a novel idea: it’s possible to love my parents and still be angry with them.

The last 20 years have been a personal campaign to liberate myself. Therapy provided very helpful tools.The recovery process took off once I believed that my Chinese family didn’t rule me. It was simply a passport into the universe. Today, I define “my people” as the seekers who care about community, change and new ideas.

Breaking out of the emotional and cultural prison means that at last, I can protect Little Betty. Together, we journey on, learning positive ways to discipline, set boundaries and show love.

Along the way, I’ve made my peace with my folks. As an ex-con, they’re essential to my personal story but they don’t own it. Since they’re both dead, they can’t hurt me anymore either. Mom, who passed last year, has even become my muse. And I’m starting to write more about my father, which means something (although, I’m not exactly sure what).

The jailbreak has me running as fast as I can from the more unfortunate aspects of Chinese parenting. Of course, blown opportunities are gone forever. But even though Dad prohibited self-discovery, I have control now — so I’m finally studying art and dance! In raising my own child, the goals aren’t about family pride blah-blah. My greatest hope? That she finds happiness and love by following her dreams.

The public forum offered by blogging gives me a chance to reflect on this material in a unique way. Once the static comes out of my head and goes onto the computer screen, it loosens its grip on me. Then, having people read me creates clarity and…validation!

So here’s my suggestion. Let’s start an “Ex-Con Honor Roll” in the comment section below. How have you managed to make a break with childhood traumas? What are you wrestling with now? That’s what I’d love to hear more about. But having said that, please still feel free to comment on whatever you want. :)


Btw, I’m done talking about Amy Chua. To wrap up, here’s a last look at the reactions that some other bloggers had to her book.  So interesting. (Asian American intellectualism & activism) (Gil Asakawa’s Japanese American perspective)

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang ( multi-cultural column contributor) (Asian American fatherhood) Christine Lu on her sister’s suicide (Asian pop columnist Jeff Yang)


Update for Monday, Jan. 17th:

Lots more interesting stuff being published, from all kinds of angles.

Also want to point you to a piece that thoughtfully details the historic roots of this whole Confucian mess. “The Chinese Mom Controversy” ran in The Boston Globe and was written by Patricia Wen, an old friend and former colleague.

Update for Tuesday, Jan. 18th:

Two more pieces that I really like:

  • A heartbreaking essay by  Lac Su, “My Life as the Child of a Tiger Mother.” His memoir is “I Love Yous Are for White People.”
  • A brilliant contrarian take on the whole debate from David Brooks in The New York Times: “Amy Chua is a Wimp.” He argues that Chua coddled her children by “protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.” In other words, it’s easier to sit home playing a piece on the piano than to negotiate the complex human interactions involved in a playdate or sleepover. Agreed!


Update on Jan. 31, 2011 -- I just finished reading the Amy Chua book. And a word now, to my critics: I did NOT misunderstand Amy Chua or judge her too harshly. I stand by everything I've written so far on this issue.   :-)


Update for Thursday, Jan. 20th: Thank goodness Confucius doesn’t represent all ancient Chinese thought. There were also the Daoists, philosophers who were at the center of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Please check out my next post: Chinese Medicine master Jeffrey Yuen’s essential health and beauty diet regimen.



Comments 86

  1. Betty~
    I remember sitting in my therapist’s office many years ago and being shocked silent when she said I didn’t have to take my mother’s behavior without standing up for myself. “Yes I do,” I replied, “she’s my mother. You don’t know her.” As we talked it out, my therapist eventually got through to me that I can set boundaries and make deals, like if she continued to try to be the boss of 30-year-old me, I wasn’t going to visit or talk with her on the phone. I really learned how to not accept being treated badly, which was healing for my other relationships as well. I realized, like you did, that she did the best with what she knew, but I had developed better skills and resources. How delicious life is now when we can make our own choices and life the life we desire!
    Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Post

    kellie, i read your comment and i have to say, I TOTALLY REMEMBER!! how is it possible that we didn’t dare speak up? i was stunned when my shrink said, “negotiation isn’t a dirty word.”

    i know i said earlier that i wasn’t going to jump in and comment in the comment in the comment section…but i can’t help it. thanks for your story. these are great moments for us. simple things that others take for granted.

    also, i hope everyone feels free to comment — EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT OF ASIAN HERITAGE. unfortunately, childhood trauma is an equal opportunity abuser. this isn’t about being asian or chinese. it’s about taking care of ourselves. :)

  3. Reading your post this morning really hit a nerve in me. I grew up in Asia but had a Western education and my entire childhood was caught in the middle of conflicting ideals. I grew up with a lot of guilt, feeling that I’m not a good daughter, not an obedient daughter. As an adult, I’ve been trying so hard to do things to please my parents but even so, I’ve never succeeded in completely pleasing them And even if I do please them, they have never told me or shown me in any way.

    Six months ago, something happened which caused me to seriously think about why, in my mid-40s am I still living my life to please my parents. Why a single word from my parents still makes me fee like I’m 6 years old again. Why, I allow myself to let them affect me in this manner.

    I’m a mom and I am trying my best not to make the same mistakes with my child. I’m trying to be the parent my parents never were. Yet, when my parents see how I deal with my child, they feel the need to criticize and judge me.

    I’ve been avoiding my parents — it helps that we don’t live in the same country — I don’t call, or email much these days, I am trying to focus on my life, trying to live my life MY way. Every time my mother calls me I feel my confidence being stripped away.

    I’ve been in therapy but to me, having friends who listen is just as good. I find that by talking about it makes things better. I too was brought up not to air my family’s dirty laundry. I was compared to other kids and I had low self esteem growing up. I think all of these things affected how I dealt with relationships.

    Two years ago I met an amazing man who has helped me be who I am today, stronger and more confident and accepting myself for the good person that I am It’s still a struggle and I know I may never be completely healed, but just knowing that someone loves me unconditionally, that loving me wasn’t based on how much I obeyed or how much I listened has been the best medicine ever.

    Thank you for your honesty and for sharing. For others like me, it is so reassuring to know that we are not alone.

  4. Kellie – my goodness! When I read your comment I felt like I was reliving a conversation I frequently have with my American husband. He simply cannot understand why I don’t give my mother a piece of my mind, especially when I never, ever mince words with anyone else in my life. I’m very honest and open….except with my mother. Sometimes it’s just easier to swallow my comments or not stand up for myself because expressing what I am feeling is simply not worth the reaction that I am going to get from her. These include but are not limited to: the silent treatment (from 6000 miles away no less), nasty comments behind my back, holding such comments over my head 10 years later, and so on. I’m 32 now but she still brings up things I evidently said when I was 16!!

    Betty, your question at the end of your post has had me thinking for a while… I have certainly done things to break with how my mother would have preferred it:
    – Went to college in the US (abroad for me)
    – STAYED in the US
    – Dated someone from a faith that was not exactly ok to date (in terms of the culture I grew up in) for 5 years
    – Met someone from a completely different ethnic group than my own (and a hated one with a terrible history at that), fell in love, LIVED with him prior to getting engaged and married
    – Decided I was NOT going to go after being the biggest and best of everything because I realized my success lies in the happiness of my family, not in my career

    Hmmmm, not too shabby! I don’t think I did any of these things out of spite or to piss her off – and that’s not to say she was not VERY difficult about any of the above. She made my life a living hell from afar, in fact. But she got over it. We still have our tiffs (see first paragraph), but I’ve learned to “handle” her. Perhaps it’s not the best thing – to handle her, that is. I should be as open and honest with her as I am with everyone else in my life. It’s just so difficult. When I try to have a serious conversation with her about something that is bothering me, she takes on a sarcastic tone or expression and literally makes fun of the issue I am having. This is not all the time, of course. But when she feels out of control of a situation, that is her way of showing that she still (in her mind, anyway) has the power. She does not realize that to the outside world, she looks like an arrogant, egotistical, unreasonable, and spoiled woman.

    Ok this is a novel now. Hm, perhaps I should seek therapy.

  5. Hi Betty – Thanks for another great blog post. Wow, this really hit home. Not sure if I’ve completely broken out of Confucius jail…but I’m getting there. It’s hard not to feel like the biggest disappointment and failure bc my parents’ idea of success has always been measured in material wealth & prestige like a lot of Asian parents. I’ve made mistakes, strayed, and fallen out with them many times in my life. Now I’m 40, remarried to my best bud, mom to a great kid who is all definitions of weird & wonderful, and letting myself indulge for a change instead of worrying about how I’m not living up to some expectation that I really couldn’t care less about. I can’t wait to read more Betty Ming Liu blog posts…I feel like you’re a soul sister. :)
    Kyong (daughter of Korean immigrants & immigrant myself at age 5)

  6. As a Chinese American who grew up differently from both you and Amy Chua, I read both of your writings as your own personal stories, and both of you try to generalize how your upbringing reflects Chinese culture. I also think about my own upbringing in the framework of Chinese culture and how Confucianism affected it. My mom idolizes Confucius but interpreted and implemented a totally different upbringing for us than what you have described here. Similarly, I have listened to sermons and read writings from different Christian churches and they have wildly different interpretations of honoring your father and mother, wife submitting to the husband, etc. It is an interesting idea that perhaps Confucianism had something to do with 5000 years of mediocrity in Asia while Christianity might have had something to do with the rise of the West. But I wonder how such similar concepts of honoring your parents and obeying your husband led to such different societies and results, and difference between families under the same religion or philosophy.

    I think we all want to ascribe part of our own experience to some general cultural effect. Personally, I received far far more serious abuse from white peers (which lasted 2/3 of my life and has had seriously negative effects on me which I’m still trying to recover from) so I tend to think negatively about certain aspects of Western or American culture. Maybe it takes some of the blame off particular individuals who are responsible for being abusive. And it’s natural to want to understand what produced such abusive people. We come to different generalizations based on identities of the particular individuals who were doing the abusing in our own lives.

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  8. Dear Betty,

    I loved reading your personal story which so many of us share. I spent a year in therapy and simultaneously read 44 spirituality books within the same year. I must have journaled a thousand pages and sought help from energetic healers, cord-cutters, medical intuitives and the like. What I sought was complete emotional freedom from my mother, without needing her to leave the planet in order for me to feel relief. Coupling psychotherapy with deep spiritual transformation made me see that as much as she deserves my hatred, I came to see my emotional wounds as symbolic spiritual gifts. People used to encourage me by saying, “If it weren’t for your experiences then you couldn’t be the person you are today.” For a while, I was unwilling to believe that torture and suffering was necessary on my path of self-discovery and enlightenment. Why me?

    The ultimate questions were answered for me, and I was wondering if you would venture to my blog to read my essays titled “The Gift of Pain” and “The Pursuit of Personal Power.” Even before Chua, my intention has been to help traumatized Asian daughters like myself to heal, once and for all. In that sense, I too am sort of glad that Chua opened the floodgates to this conversation that we all need to have as a community, as families and within ourselves. However, the conversation of spiritual and emotional recovery as daughters from mothers like Chua is the one conversation she is most afraid to have, and where I have chosen to lead.

    The suicide rate among Asian women is a silent epidemic. It is a spiritual crisis of epic proportions. Because of the sensitivity of this issue, it is one reason why I can’t bear to hear any more about Chua either. I have this gruesome mental picture that every time Chua opens her mouth, another Asian daughter kills herself. Abused children have an extremely strong intuition, because it is the only guidance system we can actually trust. Chua may be honest about her parenting past, but she’s lying about her present. It is the reason why no abused child has intuitively felt her sincerity or compassion about her supposed growth, because it isn’t there. When I tune into the energy of her words in the followup interviews where she uses spiritual buzzwords like love and compassion, I sense static, that it is all air.

    I have said the past several days that this discussion has nothing to do with Chinese vs Western parenting. What matters most is helping the traumatized Asian sons and daughters to heal. The most sobering life lesson I’ve ever had to learn is that mothers don’t always automatically love her children. Our task is in learning how to mother ourselves, so that we never need to rely on another what we need to do for ourselves.

    I really want to continue this conversation with you, Betty, and expand on what you wrote above. In my latest essay “The Pursuit of Personal Power,” I talk about the concept of Confucian filial piety, and explains how it is actually a game of self-esteem. Confucian is literally confusion, and from a broader perspective, dare I say that it is unloving, unspiritual and inhumane. It is such an opportune time to discuss all of these issues. It’s time to disempower the bullies in our lives and in our minds, and to empower ourselves.

    With love and light,

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  10. So love your point about not being paralyzed by tough childhood issues. It’s so tempting to sit there and mourn the loss for ages – when really, maybe the best thing would be to face it, get THROUGH it (not past it, if you see what I mean), and move forward confidently in a new direction.
    A book I recommend to everyone about this – it’s actually a children’s book but oh, so wise and SO good for adults: The Old Woman and the Wave, by Shelley Jackson. Lovely spikey illustrations and a gentle but lasting lesson. Just wonderful.
    Keep on keepin’ on, sister! Love your blog. Found it thanks to my college classmate Amy Chua (don’t get me started).

  11. I’m not even Asian, I’m African American and I have decided not to parent my future children the way I was parented. None of that hitting and yelling nonsense. I want to be patient and compassionate towards them because how you raise a child can affect them for life.

  12. When I was in school, there was a Chinese girl in my class, and her sister was in the following class year. In addition to being straight A students, they worked at their parents’ Chinese restaurant. The older one went to medical school and the younger one went to law school. Needless to say, the parents retired a few years thereafter. I don’t recall either of them participating in any clubs or extracurricular activities. They were very quiet, very nice girls. I now have an idea of what kind of home life they may have had.

  13. Not being Asian-American, I really don’t have any personal experiences quite like that – except that my mother decided exactly what my brother and I would wear till we were in our late adolescence, ordering our clothes from the Sears Roebuck catalogue – which, by the standards of small-town Europe in the seventies, may not have been a wise choice.
    She did insist that I should go to medical school, but she died before I dropped out of college. Unfortunately her effect on my older brother was much more profound, and almost certainly contributed to his early death. He needed her approval far more than I ever did, although there was a period during my single digits when I nearly ended it all.

    Some people are not suited to being parents. While they may be wonderful people, and even good people, they have too many rigidities and issues themselves to be allowed near children.

    The one and only time she applied thoroughly draconian measures was when she forced me to read Beowulf in the original – having drilled me for several months in the language and literature for which she got her first masters degree. Apparently, studying old English would give me a better perspective on the Dutch and the Germans (it didn’t – it gave me a different perspective on the Berkeley environment when she was a student). Perhaps that was worthwhile. It’s nearly forty years ago, and I still haven’t revisited Beowulf, or had any desire to see the movie.

  14. When I was in 6th grade, I took a social studies test. It was the first test I’d ever taken in my life. I got a 91% and my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Berg, read out my name in class as being among the honor roll of students who got A’s. I was thrilled – my elementary school didn’t have grades, so it was the first time I was ever really evaluated, the first time I ever thought I might be smart. I was glowing for most of the day, and when my mom and dad came to pick me up, I excitedly told them about my first grade.

    Their response was unexpected. A 91? An A-? Why couldn’t you get an A? Obviously you didn’t work hard enough. We’re disappointed in you. Work harder next time. I burst into tears. There is nothing quite as bad as being told you’re not good enough by your parents, especially when you’re 11 years old and all you’ve ever known is life with them.

    There is a reason why Amy Chua’s book/WSJ article didn’t anger off whites as much as it did Asian-Americans – like me. Whether the WSJ article was taken out of context or not is irrelevant. It’s because it brought back all the painful memories of growing up: feeling like you’re not good enough, feeling like success was measured in letters as opposed to personal enrichment, and always feeling like you had a hanging debt to your parents of which you can never possibly repay. My parents raised two sons. My brother responded through introversion and depression. I rebelled for many years, but found my way to academic success in my own way. I opted to pursue a Ph.D. in social sciences instead of a medical degree or JD. I chose a college as far away from my mother as I could get without leaving the country. Yet the shadow of my parents hung over me for much of my adulthood and still haunts me to this day. I still feel worthless when I don’t succeed. Nobody’s a harder critic on me than myself. After all, someone needs to fill my mother’s shoes when she’s not around.

    But if it were only so easy as hating your parents. Every Asian-American raised like this does hate their parents to a certain extent. But we love them too. Within all that, you can recognize their genuine desire to see the best for you. The genuine sacrifices they made to ensure that you had the education and life they didn’t have. Mine never hesitated to remind me of both these things, and that made the guilt even more overbearing. Growing up, I gradually came to realize that I didn’t love myself. In fact, I often hated who I was. Leaving home and living alone and pursuing my own dreams has been more a journey of learning to love myself, all my good qualities and all my faults. I hope that I’ll one day wake up and be happy with who I am, but that nagging sensation that I’m not good enough persists to this day.

  15. I’m Caucasian, and didn’t grow up in the Chua-tradition, but I lived interesting parallels. I was the straight-A older sister, and my parents’ way of motivating my younger brother was to ask why he couldn’t be more like me. As he got older and never more like me, my dad would say, “Rachel is book smart, but David has common sense.” My mother was incapable of much emotion or validation. Imagine my surprise when, as an adult, my father admitted he said my brother had common sense to make him feel better. He always assumed I knew that, but I actually grew up thinking that my own father felt I had no common sense. I see a wonderful therapist who has helped me a lot, but there is still a lot to do. I cringe at the thought of parents calling their children fat, garbage, or any other insult in the hopes of motivating them. Once those beliefs are integrated into one’s being, they are so difficult to extricate. I still have a hard time finishing things I start for fear I’m not doing them well enough.
    Thank you MissouriMom for the book reference. I will look for that. Thanks everyone for these great posts.

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