Amy Chua can’t be trusted

betty ming liu Inspiration, Relationships, Writing how-to's 76 Comments

On Tuesday night, I heard Amy Chua speak at the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan. Even though her whole Tiger Mom phenom disturbs me, I was curious.

In the end, the opportunity to see this controversial author up close was a revelation…Wow. Amy Chua is actually a confusing, ideological mess.

She constantly contradicted herself. She chattered away without providing real answers. By the time I left the 90-minute Q&A session, I had no idea what she stood for. I can’t trust anything she says. But trying to figure her out is not worth my energy. I don’t even want to keep detesting her. Time to move on emotionally. I’m ready.

The event I attended was more than another stop on her book tour for “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” As everyone knows by now, her dreadful bestseller about hard-core Chinese parenting tactics has detonated a global debate about raising children and the future of the slacker Western world. She’s done many readings and talks to spread her message — including some with students of Asian heritage.

But the gathering I went to was unique. For the first time ever, Amy was meeting with an audience of Asian American adults. We were her ethnic peers, a select mix of about 150 media professionals and Harvard University alumni. Most of us hail from immigrant families. Many of us are raising kids of our own. As a demographic, some of us have been giving her trouble.

“The Asian American feedback has been interesting — it’s been bi-polar,” she said.

Amy Chua can't be trusted

Her fans that night were represented by a sizable contingent that laughed at all of her jokes. She talked non-st0p and really fast.

Then there were the rest of us, who she described as being “among the angriest pool — ‘I hate my parents, I hate my life and how can you be championing this?’ If this pool read the book, some of them would get it.”

For the record, I love my life and even my late parents (especially since they’re deceased). I’ve also read the book. My one-word review is: Eeeew. In a deceptively friendly, breezy tone, Amy recounts her struggle to raise her two teen daughters with the same Chinese tough love values that her immigrant parents inflicted on her. I was appalled to read how she micro-managed her kids and then rationalized away her abusive mistakes with a grin.

I won’t go through all the points from Amy’s one-hour talk, which was followed by a half hour of Q&A. For starters, a lot of the content was familiar from past interviews. Her delivery was high-energy, self-deprecating and somewhat charming.

There were the usual anecdotes (her father hated his parents, her younger daughter Lulu rebelled). She had her stock punch lines (“Parenting is more intense than the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.” “My daughters get the best lines in the book.”).

Amy Chua can't be trusted

And once again, we got her signature defense of “Battle Hymn.” It’s an anthem that she trots out and repeats, repeats, repeats in interviews: Hey, this is a memoir rather than a how-to parenting guide — don’t you get it?!

I’ve always had problems with this explanation of hers because the word “memoir” appears nowhere on the book jacket. However, the back of the book does clearly state: “HOW TO BE A TIGER MOTHER.”


Thankfully, we got more than the basic book tour talk. Some of what went on was fascinating. In fact, it was quite startling to witness her attempt to undercut everything her book stands for. She said that she wrote it to be “zany” and “over-the-top.” She thought readers would get her “hyperbole” and “satire.” Had she known that this $25.95 hardcover would generate such controversy, she would have set up the story differently.

“I could have easily sanitized it,” Amy reflected. And since she’s actually very huggy-kissy with her girls, “I could’ve thrown in more I-love-you scenes everywhere.”


Now for some surprising tiger doo-doo:

  • Amy had thoughts on what we should ultimately teach our kids: “I come out with a big cliche that’s Western — ‘pursue your passions.'” (But, she added, the concept of pursuing passions “has been cheapened by Western society today.”)
  • In talking about happiness vs. achievement for her kids, she would choose happiness any day. (Although, she noted, “Happiness is the most elusive thing. And I don’t think it means to let them do whatever they want.”)
  • Her daughters are now 15 and 18 years old. She “can’t control them anymore.”

And how about some comments that seemed fresh & interesting:

  • Before the book’s publication, she showed the manuscript to her core group of about two dozen personal friends, none of whom are Asian. They told her to go ahead and publish the book, and that she shouldn’t worry about how it would affect her two kids.
  • The first two weeks after the book’s publication were tough because “I felt all alone with my family.” Even though she has “always been a popular teacher,” she feared that the controversy would kill her enrollment. But instead, the number of students who registered doubled and she received a teaching award.
  • She loves cocktail parties and hanging out drinking with her students. Many of them tend to be Asian and female.
  • Devoting herself to her daughters resulted in making professional sacrifices. Even though both she and her husband teach at Yale Law School, “I’m not a central player on the faculty,” which she described as being “old boy.” As a result, she added, “I don’t think that my voice has a lot of authority.”
  • Despite the pretty pictures we’ve seen of her home in New Haven, Conn., “our household is a mess.” She said that they “eat a lot of take-out” and there are “dirty clothes everywhere.”
  • Oldest daughter Sophia has had a rough time because the book portrays her as an obedient goody two-shoes. She wanted to rebuttal, which she initially did by writing an open letter in The New York Post in defense of her mom. She also made some book tour appearances with her mom (Amy’s husband did some of those too).
  • No more “memoirs” for Amy. Her next book takes her back to academia. It will be about international business transactions. She already has two well-regarded books in this arena:  “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability” (2003) and “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — And Why They Fail” (2007).

From the I-can’t-believe-she-said-this category:

  • At one point, she rambled on about Asian American stereotypes and how she was breaking them in her book. “It’s an outlaw voice,” she said.
  • “I think there is a theme of rebellion running through the entire book.”(She’s joking, right?)
  • “I refuse to let society define me,” she added during another moment. An odd statement considering that this graduate of both Harvard and Yale is obsessed with elitism. By the way, doesn’t her “memoir” focus on raising kids to be top students and excellent musicians who perform at Carnegie Hall? Isn’t she a supporter of “Chinese” values?
  • “It’s so weird that people don’t get the contradictions,” she said repeatedly. The inconsistencies are part of her voice, she insisted. “I’ve always liked books with unreliable narrators,” she added.

After hearing this, I had enough. I couldn’t figure out if her book was factual. Did she subject her kids to extreme parenting measures or not? Did she choose their extracurricular activities? Were TV, computer games and sleepovers forbidden? Or were these simple “zany” exaggerations?

During the Q&A, I managed to get in one question. Sort of…

Hey Amy, you say you like unreliable narrators. But that means the narrator’s voice can’t be trusted. So what do we have in your book — are you someone we can trust or not? What do you actually want from us?

She responded with a lengthy explanation about how the book accurately captures her initial outlook as a mom. But she changes by the last chapter of the story. She likes her contradictions. (“I love my book!”) Parenting is filled with contradictions. “So to answer your question, I feel that I am very honest,” Amy said.

Yeah, but is being honest the same as being trustworthy?

I didn’t get a chance to ask that follow-up question because the microphone was handed to someone else. And then, the talk was over.

Afterwards, there was an impressive line of about two dozen people waiting for the book signing. I stood off to the side with a few friends. We compared notes.

“She was totally confusing!” I said.

“She erased herself, she completed neutralized her message,” said one buddy.

“She’s still dangerous because the book is out there and it just adds to the stereotypes about Asian Americans,” said another pal.

Now that I’ve seen Amy, you know what I think about her? Depending on your viewpoint, she had either the fortune or misfortune of excerpting her book in the Wall Street Journal. It appeared on Jan. 8 in the form of an essay with a brilliantly provacative title: “Why Chinese Moms are Superior.”

During the talk, Amy said that she was shown the text of the Journal essay before its publication. But she never had a clue to the “superior Chinese mom ” headline — which was written by the paper’s editor. If she’d seen it, she told us, she would’ve nixed it. (She also would’ve softened her image by adding something about Lulu’s rebellion. “I don’t know how I missed that,” she admitted.)

As for the article, it lifted the most horrendous of Amy’s “zany” parenting moments and presented them with a how-to decisiveness. The reaction to the story had everyone talking about her book before its subsequent release a few days later. By the time “Battle Hymn” hit stores, there was a mad rush to buy it and find out what the fuss was about.

And here’s the key to Amy Chua…not one page of the book matches the airtight clarity of the Journal essay. If there was no essay, I highly doubt that we would’ve gotten this worked up over what is actually a very small book.


During the talk, Amy remarked that she’ll always wonder what would’ve happened if the book landed in the universe without the Journal’s advance fanfare. “Arrogant me,” she sighed, adding, “I had hoped that it would be received as an interesting literary thing.”

Poor Amy. Oh well, things didn’t turn out too bad for her, did they? Both her name and “Tiger mom” are now pop culture phrases. She’s on Time magazine’s 2011 list of the world’s most influential 100 individuals. She has established a platform for global interest in parenting issues. She’s turned down a few reality shows and movie deals.

I’m also quite certain that she and her kids truly love each other. It’s just a shame that this smart cookie isn’t more self-aware or evolved. That’s why I blogged an initial post that went viral: “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason Asian Americans like me are in therapy.” But that’s another story.

Well, it’s getting late and I can’t stand to blog another word about Amy Chua. I’m spent. Time to wrap up this post….

A huge thank you to Jeannie Park, program organizer and the evening’s moderator. Her reason for coordinating the Amy talk: “Seeing someone in person is always helpfuI because it’s humanizing.”

Jeannie is a visionary networker who brought together three steller organizations to co-sponsor the talk. They’re groups that she helped to found: Harvard Asian American Alumni Association; A3 (the Asian American affinity group for Time Inc. employees); and the Asian Journalists Association’s New York chapter. Here’s Amy Chua (left) and Jeannie (right) during the event:

Amy Chua can't be trusted

At the very, very end of the night, Jeannie said that she rounded up some folks to have dinner with Amy. The guests included Wesley Yang, writer of this week’s New York magazine cover story, “Asian Like Me.” His angst-y personal reflection on being an Asian American male has set off fresh intra-community debate. The piece is clearly New York mag’s belated attempt to cash in on the Amy Chua Asian action.

Even though this post is already way too long (yeah, I need a good editor!), I must make one more observation….

There are parallels between Amy and Wesley. Amy showed her “Battle Hymn” manuscript to her inner circle, which includes ZERO Asians. In Wesley’s piece, he wrote that even though he is the child of Korean immigrants, he’s never dated a Korean woman. He doesn’t have a single Korean friend either. (P.S. — That might change now that he’s met Jeannie.)

Consider also where these two writers were published…Amy is the darling of the Wall Street Journal, a powerhouse for conservative, white male-dom. Meanwhile, Wesley became the cover story in New York — a magazine so irritatingly, infuriatingly white lacking in diversity that, over the years, I have cancelled my subscription at least three times.

Proceed with caution — because the white mainstream media has framed the context for the community’s latest and most public round of self-examination. The white boys have set the terms. They chose to ignite the discussion with two isolated voices; Amy and Wesley have NO social context for the community they’re writing about.

While it’s great that the mainstream media now sees the discussion worth packaging to its audience, I remain wary. Remember, they are playing this as a “model minority” issue. I mean, really — we’re arguing over the terrible scars that come with achievement (!).

That’s why I’m grateful to Jeannie. She gathered Asian Americans in a forum where we could discuss matters among ourselves. It was a classy venue for introducing Amy and Wesley to the possibility of extended family. For everyone to meet on conversational terms makes much more sense. This is much better than falling for the old divide-and-conquer game within a white power structure that would keep us quarreling in separate camps.

So let’s not forget who should be in control of the community’s identity. Yes, it’s important to scream and fight and rage against Amy Chua. I probably will never trust her. But she’s not going away. She knows I’m not going away either (Google her name and my first blog post about her is the third link — haha!). This is my new reality. I’m accepting it. And that’s why I’m ready to move on.


Comments 76

  1. “Amy Chua is actually a confusing, ideological mess.” Ha ha – so true! So now she’s saying the book is a memoir? I read an article in Slate where she said it was a satire! Thanks for weighing in on this Betty!

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      miss rachel, thanks for the reminder….she also told us that she felt the book was “satire.” i’ve added that to my post. as for the memoir bit, saying her book is a memoir has always been her strategy. she’s trying to deflect criticism of this work as a how-to guide.

      a friend of mine told me that he thinks my criticism of her book cover is too harsh. he says that usually the publisher designs the book jacket. and that’s true. so maybe it was the publisher’s decision to position it as “how to be a tiger mother.” but writers do have a say in the process. i just think amy wasn’t expecting the backlash.

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    hana, i hope amy reads this post too. i don’t mean to be hard on her — i really don’t. i just want her to get some therapy and figure out what she’s truly feels about things!

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    thanks for linking, linda! and pramilla, i love your line about parenting being a “never-ending process in constant need of a reset button.” you’re right, i’m not here to discuss parenting strategies in this post. all i want to do is hold amy chua’s feet to the fire. she needs to take responsibility for her work.

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    ohhhh, thank you. it took me forever to write this thing. i woke up this morning and addd a few paragraphs at the end. i finally feel resolved about amy chua. the power of blogging! and p.s. — i live tweeted from the event because one of my twitter followers asked me to. if you’d like a look at that, here’s the link:!/bettymliu tweeting in-the-moment is a really interesting way to report a story. it was a bit nerve-wracking. but it was fun to feel useful in reaching a live audience. :)

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      thanks to @sree for tweeting about this post. he also tactfully fixed my hashtag boo-boo. when i was live tweeting the event on tuesday night, i was adding #amychua — off the top of my head. and i did that this morning too, when i announced this post. wrong! the twittersphere is actually tracking amychua stuff under the hashtag category of #tigermom. live and learn. thanks, @sree!

  5. Thanks for writing this, Betty. If I lived in NY I would’ve loved to have been there. I’m frankly pretty Chua’d out so probably won’t follow up on her. For the same reason, I probably won’t write about Wesley Yang’s New York piece — he’s also a jumbled mess of confused ideology (and odd sexism). But I feel like its’ best to ignore the piece and let it fade after its 15 minutes. Amy Chua’s long past her time limit.

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      thanks, ivan! and gil, i totally relate. it nearly killed me to write this post. but i’ve blogged my way through it. on to new adventures!

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    my twitter buddy @sistalocks! so this is your real name. thanks for dropping by, takiema. and thanks for slogging through this long rant — a lot more to take in than the usual 140-character tweets! xo

  7. Totally agree with the fact she neutralised everything… I was not at the meeting. I was… 10’000 km away, accross the Atlantic. but I’ve seen several interviews of her, and seems like she has a double speech. I could not get her at all, which still disturbs me a lot as a “tiger cub”. As a university teacher, she kind of mixed up a lot of things, Asians VS Not Asians? Harsh VS soft? I’m lost, to say the truth.

    Times change, and education has to change too, this is the reason why books change at school. I repeat our parents knew Asia during an era. and by the time they left things were changing. If she calls that “Asian education”, I’d rather call that 50’s education. Wanting to go back to a harsh education that’s been changed by the experience and time, in french, we call that “réactionnaire”.

    but she succeeded one thing… She disturbed thousands of parents and (ex) tiger cubs for weeks!

    thank you Betty, for putting an order in this affair. My brain has been such a mayhem since I started knowing about AC (but it allowed me to find your blog :D)

    PS: Hail to Miss Rosebud!
    PPS: See, I also need an editor…

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    anna, you’ve hit on the #1 problem with amy chua’s whole concept of traditional chinese values — she’s operating in a time warp. her values are based on her parents’ values. and their values are based on what they experienced in the ancient past, before they immigrated to america.

    this was my problem growing up too. my dad would say, “this is how the chinese do it!” but actually, it was what the chinese were doing way back when he was a kid there. after decades in america, he had lost touch. and he didn’t realize it. neither did i — until i grew up and found myself a good therapist!

    thank you for bringing up this essential point. it’s worth explore in a post all its own. i’ll add it to my blog posting to-do list. look for something soon about miss rosebud too. :)

  9. Great Job Betty. I guess what really frustrates the rest of us is that now America thinks we ALL raise our kids that way. I certainly don’t. I don’t want HER to be MY voice. Heck, I’d rather that YOU be my voice. (Does that make sense? It does to me). Your lifepath is a little more similar to mine. I think you and I experienced that glass ceiling all Asian people know about, but someone like her seemingly hasn’t. Anyway, I’m glad you call her on her elitist BS. Somebody has to.

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    mimi, thanks for the encouragement. i think i’m looking for something different in raising my kid too — although if you heard her complain about me, you’d think i was doing the tiger moves on her!

    like you, i also resent the idea that she has become our public face and voice. i just want to be my own voice. and honey, what a voice you’ve got of your own!

    for those of you who don’t know mimi chen, listen to her on “the sound,” a classic rock station in l.a. — here’s the link to her station: and here’s her twitter:!/mimi_thesound

  11. Great piece, Betty.

    What a coincidence: Just before reading your post, I read Wesley’s piece. Not sure how I feel about it, but it was interesting to see that viewpoint.

    That Rosebud is sooooo cute :-) Congrats on being adopted by that furry little girl! Is the name a ref to Citizen Kane, or just springy fun?

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      i have a lot to say about the little doggie, bria. wait for my next post. as for “rosebud,” she came with that name from the shelter. we decided to keep it (even though she seems to have no idea that this is her name! however, she does respond to “sit.”)

      the new york magazine piece had some really good statistics and research in it. and i think it’s great to get an asian cover story in this weekly publication that usually focuses on white, upscale new york. but it’s infuriating that they would chose a story of alienation, an angle that suggests that asians are NOT really part of new york. don’t even get me started….

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