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. Dear Neil,

    I sympathesize with you greatly and also appreciate your articulating your feelings so well. I have been in your shoes before. I learned to heal my pain and sadness, and ultimately come to develop a spirited self-esteem that flows so much that sometimes I can’t contain myself! It CAN be done. Recovery is very joyous and it is lasting. But it does take a lot of hard work. For me, my road to recovery was through psychotherapy and deep spiritual transformation. I studied and journaled intensively and I also learned how to pray (not religiously, but spiritually). The path of recovery is actually the road of going inside yourself, traveling from your mind to your heart. I also learned to forgive my abusive mother, which was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The road to healing is ironically kind of like going to school and doing the homework. Part of it is knowing exactly what you have to learn and to learn it, and the final most important part is to practice it and live it. I am not a professional therapist, but I am writing a book dedicated to helping abused Asian sons and and daughters to heal once and for all, and I am open to sharing with you the insight I’ve gathered along the way.

    Wishing you love and light,

  2. It’s striking to me how common these values are across so many non-anglo (mostly) cultures. Apart from the parts about not being allowed to socialize with anyone outside of our ethnic group, my parents raised us much the same way (and my cousins ‘back home’ were raised similarly, though I think their parents were much better than mine have been about starting to let go as their kids become adults). They expected complete, unquestioning obedience even int adulthood, and felt entitled to control little details of our lives, especially mind since I’m female and was “under my father’s authority.” I had to beg to do anything not school-related with my friends, even though I was a straight-A student and a complete nerd who never even remotely got into trouble and only ever asked to so much as see a movie every couple months. My siblings and I were also constantly pitted against each other and compared to other kids (even though, in retrospect, we were all doing much better than most kids we knew, at least by certain measures).

    My dad decided what courses I took in high school, and for the first couple years what I took in college, too – until I “rebelled” and decided to change majors, which along with other issues related to my exerting my independence led to us having an acrimonious relationship for several years. Things are better now, but very distant, and very strained.

    We were also taught to keep everything deemed bad or shameful within the family, including news of illness, or accidents. My parents kept a lot of stuff from us that I only realized in retrospects . . . an example: once I was home from college and my period started without my being adequately prepared, so I asked my mom for some pads. She got increasingly irritated with me for asking and eventually snapped that I should know that she wouldn’t have any pads since she’d had a hysterectomy. That was the first I’d ever heard of it! She was in the hospital and in recovery for several weeks when I was in high school; I think I knew she’d had an operation, but I’m not sure. But they never told us what the hospital stay was for.

    My parents and I have very little we can talk about. They’ve shown themselves to completely unable to handle their children doing anything they don’t 100% agree with that I no longer feel safe confiding in them about anything personal. They have little idea who I am now or what’s important to me, and I don’t think they particular care, to be honest. If they did know me better, they wouldn’t like me, because I haven’t followed their script for my life. We only have a relationship now because I “gave them” a grandchild – they weren’t speaking to me before I told them I was pregnant.

    And yea, I’m in therapy, trying to learn how to manage the depression and anxiety that years of emotional abuse and control contributed to, trying not to be terrified of both success and failure, trying to figure out how to be self-directed without sabotaging myself or having constant panic attacks. There’s no way on earth I would ever raise my child the way my parents raised me.

  3. Betty,
    Have been following this topic with great interest. I was raised in India and moved here after my first degree. I totally agree with you about the variation of Confucianism being present in all neighboring countries. Filial piety is still a big virtue. I even keep seeing references to this in kdramas so I know it isn’t some crazy guilt trip forced by many Indian parents on their children. It cripples people most in career choices (I know I just enrolled in engineering because of sheep mentality “everyone’s doing it!”) and when it comes to marrying outside community/religion in India.

    Thanks for the insightful commentary.

  4. I’m Chinese too, and I’d like to thank my parents for giving me nothing except unconditional love. Their parenting is not flawless, but they were still great parents. I know many Chinese parents who are controlling and demanding, but I also know many who sacrifice whatever necessary for their kids without expecting anything in return. I hope to pass on to my kids the love I received from my dear mum and dad <3

  5. I’m a Chinese Singaporean, and my peers and I consider ourselves the generation of rebellion. Well, at least some of us do.

    Our parents think the way Amy Chua do, to some extent, having been brought up that way. But almost all parents have been slightly westernized by the mordern Singapore. While they still discipline their children, most know limits. But when the teenage rebellious stage comes up, hell breaks out.

    My mother is a great example. I showed her Amy Chua’s article. She said that she agreed with the author and spent half an hour lecturing me about how much she does for me. Which, she honestly does. When I tried to point out the ridiculous list, she simply replied, “Well, maybe if I made you take piano and violin as a religion, you would be much better now.” Yeah, because it’s pathetic that I’m 13 and I’m only at Grade 8. Yes, that was sarcasm.

    She attempted to rationalize by telling me that all Chinese mothers believe that their children can be the best, hence they push them. But when a top 10% exists, so must a bottom 90%. Imagine what an autistic or mentally challenged child must suffer under the hands of someone like Amy Chua!

    The only issue in the article she carefully trod by was that of self-esteem, because I have Social Anxiety Disorder. This may not be entirely because of her parenting, but more of school. Comparisions and grades put so much stress on me that I broke down and cried in school.

    At the age of eight.

    I still think that in one or two generations, Singapore may have just provided the perfect balance between Western and Chinese education. Tough love, but enough comforting words and true love to shine through.

  6. After reading one of the blogs there is something disturbing about Asians, particularly Asian women. Why is that Asians seem so docile and self-resistant in front of, particularly white race but in reality, Asians thrive on control and power. I asked this to my Asian friends who avoided my questions and on blogs, all I hear is Asians are too mature to show emotions or Asians don’t want to cause waves, etc. However, amongst themselves they do exactly that. They yell and scream at each other and fighting for that title or power. Some white guy wrote on his blog how Asians were humiliated by Europeans yet Asians worship and kiss up to them. Even though Europeans don’t feel the same towards us. I find this very very disturbing. I wish someone who is good at writing brings this fact into light. I know this can be a taboo subject and admitting that we might have an inferiority complex towards the majority white race but isn’t that what online blogging is good at? Bringing taboo subjects out in the discussion forum that is long overdue?

  7. And another thing, as a daughter of immigrant parent who mentioned more than once how they sacrificed everything for me. Just what in the hell did they sacrifice? They wanted to get out of the authoritarian dictatorship government regime to a country that promotes democracy and freedom. They even admitted they wanted a better opportunity in America and to fulfill the American dream. It sounds to me that immigration benefited the parents more than me. It seems to me I’m the one who ended up sacrificing because I left my friends and the environment that was familiar to me back home. I had to grow up in a surrounding that was very foreign with people that looked very different from me. The eastern and western culture is like day and night. If Asian culture was so superior where our parents forced in on us then why the hell did we move to western country where western culture was taught to us? With these thoughts in my mind, it wasn’t too hard for me to “rebel” against my parents and had less thoughts on “repayment” And those who think I’m not a good daughter can kiss my a$$.

  8. Fem,
    Great question about why Asians are so docile when confronted by non Asians. I will attempt to explain it to you since I am a Chinese American male, born and raised in the streets of Chinatown in New York City.
    Asians do not have any interpersonal skills. It is not their fault. They were never taught how to relate to others. Immigrant Asian parents feel that since they are in “someone else’s” country, they are afraid to cause any waves. They teach their children not to cause any waves either, especially when dealing with “white ghosts.” A condescending term used to group all white people. It’s an inferiority complex that is taught to most Asian children at a very young age. They are always told to “back down” because they are not in control in this foreign land. Even my parents were that way. They always say that I am too vocal when dealing with non-Asians. They say that I will insult them (whites) and in turn they (whites) will cause trouble for me. Asian immigrants would rather suffer any injustice done to them by whites in silence, instead of hiring a lawyer or calling for help. But if another Asian did them wrong, they would raise hell.

    Asians are a very competitive people, how can they not be since it is drilled into their heads that they need to be #1 at everything they do. Asian families have this pride mentality that anything bad or embarrassing must be kept in house. They would go as far as to lie and make up stories to keep their “public face” intact.

    Mix these two together and you get Asians that will be very competitive and nasty towards their own but yet will back down when faced with perceived power from non-Asians, particularly whites.

    This is also a reason why there are very few Asian CEOs or Asians that serve on boards of major companies. It’s not because they aren’t smart enough. It is not because they can’t do the work. It is because getting to the top in the western business world requires a certain amount of networking skills. When I worked at a large high end jewelry firm in the early 90s, I had the opportunity to interview many people for various positions, ranging from sales to shipping. Every Asian I interviewed highlighted how well they performed in school. They made sure to mentioned that they were tops in math or science or on some sort of an honor roll. All of them were very tense, none of them made any jokes. When hired, every Asian worked very hard. They were always on time. Always did their tasks as quickly as possible. In a word, they were anal. Most could not assimilate into the general work force. Most had a hard time making small talk with their coworkers. Some viewed me as their competition because I was also Asian. Even worse, most of my Asian employees cowered when they had to deal with a white person that they perceived to have more power than they did, when in fact it was a perfect opportunity to network.

    I also see this competitiveness and lack of interpersonal skill on display whenever I am at a casino. Most non-Asians at the tables are half drunk, smiling, having a blast. Every Asian gambler is stone faced serious. It’s as if they have just bet their lives on the next hand of blackjack. For all the years I have been to a casino, I don’t ever recall another Asian gambler making small talk with me. Never asked where I was from or what am I doing in Vegas. In fact, most Asians don’t even want to bother with talking to anyone. Their only purpose is to win, to be #1. They don’t know how to have fun or enjoy life.

    I hope my comments were able to help you understand why Asians are so docile when they are not in the company of their own kind.

    I do want to note that Asian Americans born and raised in non-Asian communities do much better in these situations simply because they are surrounded by children of other races at a very young age.

  9. Another thing I want to say is that I am very uncomfortable in social settings with Asian people of my own age. I immediately notice a different energy. I can feel the other Asians sizing me up. And it’s with both male and females. It’s a very awkward feeling.

    When I walk around at malls, go to movies, or out to eat. I usually catch another Asian sizing me up. And once I make eye contact with them, they immediately look away. I do not catch people of other races doing this. I wonder if any of you folks here notice this.

  10. I read the article and it has left a sick, disgusting, bitter taste in my mouth. I have been able to see first hand the parental demands placed on kids, justified by ‘let’s bring them to the potential we believe in (and befitting our ‘rich’ Chinese tradition). My partner is Shanghainese, and she vouches for the ‘efficacy’ and legitimacy of Amy’s methods. It is frightening the amound of pressure kids face- (in China), even when they are transported elsewhere. I credit it to the hyper competitiveness politics of survival in a 40 year policy of the one-child family. Amy is enacting a paranoia and seige mentality approach to parenting, where failure in academics equates with lifelong failure in life (of course, back when societies had narrower options, in less developed circumstances) What Amy described definitely happens right now, in Shanghai, Tianjin, any part of China- the strength of will to break poverty, or to increase one’s relative wealth, imposed by a parental-led mental backbone. the convergence of society that rejects failures (families have a large say in choosing life partners) for these Chinese kids- means extinction, if a person is any less successful or academically brilliant (no job, no ‘face’, no reputation, no ‘respect’ etc)- extinction via rejection by all potential life partners.
    Outside China, especially in Western education systems- Amy’s methods may have a limiting, debilitating influence- narrow and parochial in outlook, intolerant of society’s imperfection or diversity. For a true parent to succeed, the love of knowledge, and of life must be inculcated. although the end result is academic excellence, and perhaps job achievement- living an inspired life vs one of a prisoner to parent’s desires, is definitely harder to do, but will result in happier generations of children. today’s news highlighted Singapore’s total fertility rate at 1.16, and for the Chinese population, at 1.04. Children must be celebrated, enjoyed. With positive parenting and child- guiding experiences, low birth rates as such can be reversed, since many modern economies do not lack child-development infrastructure. Any culture that does not promote the pursuit of happiness, may sow the seeds of non-adaptibility and a lifetime of non-fulfilment. I hope people read Amy’s work with an appreciation of where she comes from, and I hope Amy reads her critics correctly by appreciating where people need to go, for a sustainable form of excellence and achievement.

  11. I think you hit the nail on the head, or whatever the saying goes.

    I chuckled at the image of an Asian man at a blackjack table stone faced. You must be one of those high rollers because that’s where I saw Asians play BJ. People that play at $2 BJ table were bunch of hillbillies. Yes, this was at least 10 years ago.

    I always read about inferiority complex that Asians supposedly have towards white race. Maybe I’m not sure how this should feel because I don’t think I do.
    My parents saw me/heard me confront whites but was never told to “back down”. As a matter of fact, they seemed rather proud. This doesn’t mean I challenge every action/remark ignorant people would make towards me because I don’t think it’s worth the hassle but if I feel they stepped out of the line, I will make sure they know about it (and fix it). Unfortunately, I know it’s quite a sight for an Asian woman to do this. I don’t understand why inferiority complex always comes up when dealing with Asians and white race. As a woman, I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to feel inferior about towards white race. Sure, I might see a prettier white girl but the feeling I will have won’t be any different than if I see a prettier Asian girl. I’m beginning to wonder if inferiority complex is some terminology Asians came up with because there is no true explanation. What do Asians feel inferior about? Another thing is my parents would hire an attorney for injustices rather than suffer in silence. That is just dumb. Maybe certain people handle situations differently. (I’m not criticizing your answers, I’m criticizing those that backs down to white race just because they’re white)

    I read somewhere that English language is made with “small talks” in mind, whereas Asian languages don’t have that. Plus, I noticed Asians love forming cliques and if you’re not in it, you will be an outsider forever. Could this be the reason why Asians are work quietly and fast. I remember I wanted to joke and talk to my fellow Asians at work but the only people responded were the whites. Then somehow I get labeled as a banana because I talk to whites. I’m more in tune with Asian culture so that’s a mislabel. And I would rather talk to Asians than whites because there is definitely culture clash. And plus I don’t want white guys to get the wrong idea since they’re so infatuated with Asian women. They seriously need help.

    I know what you mean about Asians sizing you up. I know why I do it because I’m curious if I know the person. Since Asians come in one look (black hair, brown eyes mostly) the “looking” takes more than few seconds to see if you know the person or not. If I realize I don’t know them then I go about my business. But I do find this annoying from the receivership. Especially from the older generations or Asians from Asia. They stare at you for very long time. They don’t even smile or show any expression on their faces for you to know exactly WHY they’re staring at you. Only time I know why they look at you is from non-Asian guys (especially whites, ughh) and usually I give them a stern look which makes them look away. I’m just mean like that.

    Are you sure you only get the stare from Asians? I feel like these days everybody is watching you. There are more blogs I see where people ask “do you feel people are always staring at you?” I’m not being paranoid either. I don’t know if it’s due to huge influx of foreigners from different countries immigrating here where staring is the norm. I always thought staring was rude. I’m sure this isn’t what you meant by being sized up. I remember when I used to attend Asian parties, the moment you walked in, people were busy sizing you up. I think it’s from the Confucius ideals where there must be hierarchy in Asian society. They want to see how much better/worse you look to them so they can file you away in the pecking order? lol

  12. Fem,
    I am not sure what Asians feel inferior about. Asians are smart. Asians are known to be beautiful, especially females. So why Asians feel inferior when matched up to do whites? I believe it is directly related to parenting and the environment where they grew up. I do know that Asians raised in a western style are much more comfortable in their own skin. I have several cousins that did not grow up in Chinatown. These cousins are like any other Americans except that their look is Asian. They are very well adjusted adults. They do not carry the burden of guilt and obligation that most Asians are saddled with from their parents. Of course, they are criticized for not being able to speak and write Chinese but does it really matter? They are living in America not China.
    As for the staring vs. sizing up issue, I think it is two different things. Older Asians like to stare because they are trying to figure out if they know you from somewhere or if you are the son/daughter of one of their friends. I do not feel a bad energy from this type of staring. However, when younger Asians (45 and under crowd) stare me down, I most definitely feel that they are sizing me up. This feeling is even stronger when it is done by a female Asian. And Fem is absolutely correct when she says they are filing it away so they know the pecking order each person belongs in. I absolutely do not sense that people from other races are sizing me up when they look at me.
    You will never find me at a casino if you look for me at the “Asian” tables. I make it a point to find a table where there are NO Asians. In fact, I do not even want my dealer to be Asian. I have even said to the pit boss one time that if they switch to an Asian dealer, I will leave!
    I guess I am a “banana” because in any social setting I feel very comfortable chit chatting with non-Asians. There is NOTHING to talk about with other Asians simply because the conversation has no substance. Most only care to ask about what you do and based on your answer, they immediately file you in their mental pecking order.
    Like I said earlier, many of these issues are slowly disappearing with Asians that were raised in a more westernized way. I am fairly certain that if a self esteem test/survey was performed, the ABC’s (American born Chinese) will clearly do better than the FOB (fresh of the boat) crowd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *