Building Cultural Bridges with Non-Tiger Moms

By Eun Young Kim

“A Harvard student was standing in line at an express checkout in a grocery store near Boston. In front of him was a young man with 12 items, although the sign said "10 items or fewer." The checkout clerk asked him, “Are you an MIT student who can’t read or a Harvard student who can’t count?” I cited this story in my book, The Yin and Yang of American Culture: A Paradox, which I dedicated to my son, then a five-year-old. The story must have been created as a joke; unfortunately I saw the tough reality of US education in the story.

Raising a bicultural child for a globalized world, I wanted him to appreciate diverse cultures, starting with his own (Korean mom and American dad). So from my Asian perspective, I listed 50 US American virtues and vices for him to embrace or avoid in order to become the best combination of East and West. Lack of education, inability to speak a foreign language, and expecting an easy life were among the US American vices that I wanted him to avoid. But as a product of authoritative Asian parenting and its educational system, I made a conscious decision to be a kinder and gentler mom.

However, whenever I travelled to Asia and met tiger moms, I asked myself whether I should let my son continue to enjoy his “work/life” balance into his teen years. I didn’t want to rush his childhood, but I wanted him to have the more hungry spirit that I saw in students in emerging countries. So I couldn’t wait to have him read the article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” hoping that he would notice that not only the students in Asia but also some students in the US work hard, too. I’m not sure whether he got that, but he was certainly entertained by the article.

Interestingly, the more I thought about Amy Chua and her book, the more American (than Chinese) she seemed to be. Certainly she demonstrated two key Asian values: authority as a parent and a strong work ethic. But I found the rest of her approaches quite un-Chinese.

Let’s start with the title: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior?” Humility is a key Asian value. When we grew up, parents and teachers told us to be like a rice plant: Lower your head as you mature. Humble Asians would never have chosen such hyperbolic words. This reminded me of my own cross-cultural experience as a parent. When my son was about six years old, he entered a piano competition. His performance was about average, but he got a blue “Superior” ribbon. Every player was getting blue ribbons, so I asked his teacher what that meant. She answered: There were three performance categories: Superior Plus, Superior, and Superior Minus. No Average, no Acceptable or Needs Improvement.

Beyond the title, Chua’s communication style was definitely “tell it like it is,” which is more American than Chinese. With her in-your-face writing style, she spoke up without a concern for anyone’s face, including her husband’s.

Everyone whom I talked agreed that her parenting style was extreme. With a laser-like focus on results, she forgot about one of the key Chinese values: zhong yong, the middle way. Years ago I visited the Forbidden City in China. In front of the Hall of Harmony (Zhong He Dian) there was a sign explaining where the name was from, the Book of Rites, and a quote, “When we handle matters properly and harmoniously without leaning to either side, all things will prosper.” Could Chua and her family have benefitted from balancing her overly yang (hard and aggressive) energy with yin (soft and nurturing) energy?

I don’t want to judge. In fact I salute her courage to speak up (which is another American value in Cultural Detective USA) to bring up a sensitive topic for US Americans. I also admire her enormous energy and devotion for her children’s education.

In Korea where I’m from, child rearing is often compared with farming. Despite hard work and continuous nurturing, farmers may have a great harvest in some years and in other years, only bad crops. With that, wise people warn parents not to comment on anyone else’s parenting until they have successfully completed their own. Indeed, parenting is hard whether in the East or the West. Despite our best intentions, children often turn out to be very different from what their parents wished them to become.

After reading several responses to Chua’s Wall Street Journal article, I saw a need to build cultural bridges between Tiger Moms and non-Tiger Moms. For those who were offended by the article, Cultural Detective is a perfect tool for reconciling differences. Following the CD model, both sides may try to understand the cultural values and assumptions behind the parenting words and actions of the other, and appreciate the positive intentions. Yes, even tiger moms have positive intentions!

We all know that there’s no single formula for perfect parenting. Each child is unique and there’s a right time for everything – a time to use yin and a time to use yang – depending on his/her age, ability, talent and traits. Parenting is an act of balancing both yin and yang, not either or. When parents will not lean to either side, children will prosper.


Eun Y. Kim, President of CEO International, is author of nine books, including The Yin and Yang of American Culture: A Paradox, and co-author of Cultural Detective USA and Cultural Detective Korea.