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What Amy Chua (and David Brooks) Didn’t Tell You: The Real Reason “Chinese Mothers are Superior”

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ChineseScholar 188x300 What Amy Chua (and David Brooks) Didnt Tell You: The Real Reason Chinese Mothers are Superior

While researching my book, I met Tiffany Liao, a soft-spoken Taiwanese-American high school senior from Silicon Valley.  She’d been a shy and quiet child, she told me.  When she accompanied her parents to their friends’ houses, she always brought a book. The grown-ups praised her.  She’s so studious, they marveled.

It’s hard to imagine Caucasian-American parents smiling down on a child who buries her nose in a book during a backyard barbeque.  But Tiffany’s parents may have been on to something.  Today she’s a poised Swarthmore grad, aspiring journalist, and recent Editor-in-Chief of her college newspaper.

In the wake of “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua’s manifesto, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” Americans have done a lot of hand-wringing over why the Chinese economy is growing so much faster than ours and why Chinese students do so much better in school.  (Americans came in 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math in one important standardized test, while kids in Shanghai took first in all three areas, according to Time Magazine.)

The Chinese drive their kids harder, it is said; they have more will power.

But here’s another explanation:  the Chinese respect quiet – and quiet people. “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know,” goes the famous quote from Lao Zi. A pillar of the Chinese approach is to think before speaking, to put one’s head down and study, to diligently practice new skills until they come effortlessly.

Many Asian-American kids I interviewed for my book told me that they’d rather listen to their teachers than interact with other kids in the class.  “Introversion is not looked down upon,” one college counselor serving a largely Asian-American population told me.  “It is accepted. In some cases, it is even highly respected and admired.”

It’s impossible to generalize about an entire social group, of course, and we should be careful of stereotypes, even flattering ones.  But a host of research points to the same conclusion.  One study found that shy and sensitive kids are shunned by their peers in Canada but make sought-after playmates in China, where they’re also more likely than other children to be considered for leadership roles.*

Gregarious Americans find this quiet approach curious.  In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks said that if Tiger Mom really wants her kids to excel, they should spend less time studying and more time socializing in the school cafeteria. “…Groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals,” he wrote.

I have long admired Brooks for his humane intelligence, but in this case I have to disagree with him.  When it comes to productivity, forty years of research on brainstorming shows that individuals produce more and better ideas than groups do.  Studies also suggest that the path to excellence in many fields is not only to practice, but to practice alone. And creativity researchers have found that many highly creative people were shy and solitary in high school, and recall adolescence with horror.  (I explain all this in detail in my  book.)

Of course it’s true that social skills are key to health and happiness (and indeed the Chinese tend to have more cohesive family and social bonds than Americans do.)  But forming intimate attachments and hanging out with the gang are very different things.

One reason Chinese students are pulling ahead is that they’re not overly distracted by the court intrigue of eleventh grade society.  There are only so many hours in a day and so much social capital to go around.  If as a culture we allocate too much time and status to pep rallies and popularity contests, then there isn’t much left over for math, science, and art – or for the quiet types who often populate these fields.

I once met a university professor who confided how hard it was to be the parent of an introverted teenager.  He knew how wonderful his son was, but he felt that he had no bragging rights with his fellow parents: “When your friend tells you how well her children are doing with travel soccer, you can’t say, well, my kid read eighty books this summer.”

But Chinese-American parents can say exactly that.  And Chinese-American parents do.

*These attitudes seem to be changing as China Westernizes, according to recent studies.


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14 Comments

  1. Richard on 22.01.2011 at 18:44 (Reply)

    Great post, Susan!! Introverts rule…quietly.

  2. Jeff on 24.01.2011 at 12:17 (Reply)

    So, the observation from my wise wife was: We shouldn’t assume the views of Chinese-American mothers exactly correspond to those of Chinese mothers. Their social views and values likely differ.

  3. Christy on 28.01.2011 at 14:38 (Reply)

    This was most fascinating. The Chinese model does appeal to me rather more than the American (speaking as an American introvert), though I’m willing to bet that Chinese extraverts dislike the emphasis on quiet studiousness as much as American introverts dislike our emphasis on outgoing gregariousness. How lovely it would be to have a balance where both are valued and the strengths of both are allowed to contribute equally.

    “It’s hard to imagine Caucasian-American parents smiling down on a child who buries her nose in a book during a backyard barbeque.”
    Indeed! That was me, when I dared, and my parents were always making me go play.

    “He knew how wonderful his son was, but he felt that he had no bragging rights with his fellow parents: “When your friend tells you how well her children are doing with travel soccer, you can’t say, well, my kid read eighty books this summer.”
    I think that’s a perfect thing to brag about!

  4. Susan on 28.01.2011 at 15:08 (Reply)

    Interesting comments, Christy. Yes, balance! That is the goal.
    P.S. Your writing style sounds British (very much a compliment).

  5. Christy on 28.01.2011 at 15:37 (Reply)

    Haha! That’s marvelous. I read loads of British books, probably more than American, so it’s not surprising I have evolved a British-like style.

  6. Joanie on 15.02.2011 at 17:33 (Reply)

    Excellent observation, really rounds out Amy Chua’s book. An over emphasis on socializing at young ages is what gives little kids anxiety at birthday parties and in later years they seem to care more about Facebook than studying. It is hard to keep tween/teenage focus on learning when popularity & having hundreds of ‘friends’ seem paramount.

  7. Vanessa on 18.02.2011 at 08:02 (Reply)

    I found this website just an hour or so ago and it apppeals to me so much. I have always been a quiet introvert and I never fit in, mostly because being black,I am expected to be an extrovert.My mother who was always supportive of me was always surprised that my only friends in school were the few Asian kids. They have been my friends for life. Except for one, we are all physicians today in our forties.Our most common trait was our quietness, and it helped us academically. My husband , who is black is thankfully also a rare introvert. My, kids are mostly introverts and avid readers. We have chosen the catholic religion for the quieteness of worship. We grew up in the Caribbean but now live in North Carolina and it has been difficult to find a community that we fit into. I really am not surprised that introversion is respected in asian culture.My Asian friends feel more comfprtable in their skin than I do in mine. As introverts are now ‘coming out’, hopefully it will be embraced by the American culture and one day, for my children’s sake, by the African American culture.

    1. Susan on 18.02.2011 at 09:14 (Reply)

      Vanessa, Thank you so much for writing and for being so candid. It’s exactly for this kind of conversation that this blog exists! Please keep visiting; as the site grows, I plan for it to have not only blog posts but also discussion groups and other ways for people to connect and figure out ways to change things, and readers will have plenty of opportunity to shape that growth…In the meantime, thought you might like to know that during my book research I met many many African-Americans who feel the way you do. I’m making a note to post on this topic at some point.
      (By the way, how did you find the site?)

  8. Denton on 01.07.2011 at 05:13 (Reply)

    You’re opening a larger can of worms that involves the issue of race and intro/extroversion. (For convenience, I will make up a word and call this “vertedness.”) I have long thought that one of the primary barriers to racial integration is a difference in vertedness. Let’s say you take a large random sample of Asians and arrange them in order from introverted to extroverted. Do the same with a large random sample of Caucasians and blacks. I think you would find that the middle Asian is more introverted than the middle Caucasian, and the middle Caucasian is more introverted than the middle black person. In other words, I believe the center of the intro/extroversion distribution curve varies by race. Even if you eliminate the learned environmental cultural variations (the nurture side), there would still exist natural preferential differences because of vertedness. Because of this, I think different races as a whole vary in their preferred communication styles, working styles, and information processing styles. (Whether variations within a race exceed variations across races is a different question.) When you put these groups together, each group tries to force the other groups into conforming to the style which most suits them. As a result you get racial conflict. Of course numerous other cultural and socio-economic factors come into play. I am not saying vertedness is the only factor, but I am saying it is one of the factors that contribute to a lack of racial harmony. Before I get reamed out for being a racist, let me say that acknowledging a difference is in no way saying that one is superior to another, or that a difference justifies discrimination. Because of our history of racism and links to eugenics programs, the study of racial differences has become taboo in academia. This is unfortunate because pretending differences don’t exist does not make them go away. Only by acknowledging and understanding differences do you make progress. At one time I considered writing a book about the idea of race and intro/extroversion. It is a no win situation because racists will take these ideas out of context to push their agenda, and the politically correct “race doesn’t exist” crowd will refuse to listen at all. I ask you Susan how you would evaluate the merits of this idea, and if you’d cover it in your book.

  9. Susan Cain on 01.07.2011 at 13:00 (Reply)

    Oh, I already have covered it (in part) in my book! I devote an entire chapter to East Asian views on quiet, introversion, shyness, and so on. In that chapter, I make exactly the same point that you just did — that the people in the middle of an East Asian introversion-extroversion spectrum are more introverted than those in the middle of a Caucasian-American one.

    There’s actually quite a bit of scholarly research out there on cultural differences in personality style, at least when it comes to East Asian vs. Western. I didn’t research African-American cultural differences, so not sure what’s out there on that.

    You make an interesting point re scholars fearing a linkage to our history of racism/eugenics programs. It’s a legitimate fear, and, believe it or not, until recently research psychologists were loathe to study the biological origins of temperament for just that reason. They didn’t want to believe, or didn’t want to appear to believe, that some people were born with “easier” or more favorable temperaments. So, for years, psychology cleaved to an “all-nurture” view of human nature. Luckily that has changed in recent years. I write about this history in my book too.

    Thx for your thoughtful comments.

    1. Denton on 02.07.2011 at 04:07 (Reply)

      You say there is scholarly research on the cultural difference, but what about a biological difference?

      I believe that intro/extroversion is a physiologically hard wired genetically rooted trait that differs by race. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. As human populations migrated out of Africa they encountered different environmental stresses. Just as certain superficial physical traits offered a survival advantage, so too did personality traits. On the African savannah, extroversion offers a survival advantage. The introverts who sat contemplating the world got eaten by a lion. In a cold dark bleak Arctic environment the extroverts suffered from severe depression or went insane. (Obviously these are oversimplified examples.) The Maasai and the Inuit are each well adapted to their own unique environment and wouldn’t do well in the other’s. Race is an inexact word which loosely refers to these populations which evolved independently in different environments. It makes sense that races would have varying personality traits, one of them being intro/extroversion.

      A (racially homogenous) society will develop a culture which reflects its biology. In other words, it is our genetics that determines the outlines of the possible cultures we may adopt. Asians, being hardwired for greater introversion, will develop a culture geared for introverts. As an example, consider religion. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were developed by introverted minds for introverted minds. They are abstract philosophical meditative religions. The implication of this is that cultures have limited transferability. Chinese culture won’t run on American brains any better than the iOS will run on a desktop computer.

      So…two questions. Have you found evidence of a genetic cause for “vertedness”? If so, have you found evidence that a genetic variation in this trait correlates to race?

  10. Brittany on 09.08.2011 at 15:47 (Reply)

    Great post Susan, this was really interesting to read! I wish more people in the U.S. would respect quiet. If I ever travel to a country in Asia like China or Japan, especially if I ever teach abroad there, it would be really interesting to see the difference in the classrooms. My friend who is teaching in Japan right now says the kids are not shy or quiet at all really though. I think there is more respect for quiet though and for elders.

  11. Vincent on 24.10.2011 at 05:03 (Reply)

    I currently going to middle school in China(lucky for me). We don’t emphasize much on being extroverted.No one here will think that you’re strange if you stay home on a Friday night,in fact, a lot of us do. And yes,we do think someone who is constantly reading books as studious.:)

  12. Vos on 25.08.2012 at 12:44 (Reply)

    But then why are Asian cultures more introverted than Western cultures, considering they are more collectivistic and Western cultures are more individualistic?

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