Thursday, January 13, 2011

return fire

Shannon Love writes a blog post in response to Amy Chua's article about the superiority of Chinese mothers, creatively titled "Not So Superior Chinese Mothers." Most of the post is about the American ability to self-organize. I need to read her post more thoroughly, but I liked this insight at the beginning, which matches an insight of my own:

American culture is based on the seeming contradiction of extreme individualism combined with a near instant willingness and ability to join a team to accomplish any particular task. The way New Yorkers spontaneously organized to evacuate Manhatten [sic] on 9/11 represented a large scale and dramatic example of the type of self-organization that Americans reflexively engage in on a daily bases [sic].

Love makes her own sweeping generalizations here:

Chua should be applauded for breaking the contemporary taboo against admitting that cultures differ and that those differences mean that some cultures produce individuals better at some task than other cultures. She should also be applauded for taking a stick to the ridiculous runaway self-esteem movement. However, she errs when she says that Chinese mothers are “superior.”

She forgets that tradeoffs dominate everything in life. When a culture specializes for proficiency in one area of endeavor, it must sacrifice proficiency in another area. Cultures noted for their food, music and sociability often fall short in economic endeavors. Cultures noted for economic endeavors usually don’t have very interesting cuisines, food or music. Southern Italy is a great place to vacation but its [sic] hell trying to get anything built or maintained. Germans get things done [but] few go to Germany for the food. (There aren’t a lot of German cookbooks on bookshelves outside of Germany but almost everyone has an Italian cookbook.) Examples abound in comparisons of any two cultures. All cultures represent some type of tradeoff and therefore all cultures relatively excel in some areas but fall relatively short in others.

Like Chua's article, Love's post hits familiar notes for those aware of the long-running East-versus-West cultural debate. For a more level-headed appraisal, I highly recommend Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why. I wrote a bit about Nisbett's book here.



Charles said...

I gave the article a quick read and I have to say I'm a little confused on the message. I think her 9/11 example in the beginning is part of what threw me off. How was the evacuation of Manhattan "self-organization" (and what does that even mean)? If by that she means that people just decided on their own to leave the area, without having someone tell them what to do, well, yeah--buildings are collapsing, it might not be a bad idea to leave.

Her quote from Chua about things that Sophia and Louisa (poor kids) were not allowed to do does not seem to support the conclusion she draws from it, either. It would seem more logical to me after looking at that list to assume that Chua places little importance on drama or physical activities.

I think what Love is trying to say is that Americans "play well with others," or something like that. I disagree that Asians are incapable of cooperation on a level above the family, though; if competition is at the family level, they organize at the family level. If competition is at a higher level (say, local community or nation), they organize at that level. Education is just one of those things that is seen as a family-versus-family competition in Asia. It says nothing about people's ability to "self-organize" or "cooperate."

Eh, I don't know. This whole East-West debate really annoys me because almost every time someone tries to define the difference between the two mindsets, they end up making gross generalizations. I've lived in Asia for 15 years and I still don't have a handle on things. These black-and-white pronouncements really rub me the wrong way.

Nathan B. said...

Usually the comments of Charles and I are like ships passing in the night. I want to say that I very much agree with Charles' last paragraph, and also the first sentence of his first comment on the other related thread.

Anyway, Kevin, this is really a fascinating thing to have come up: it seems the whole blogosphere is talking about it, often rather strongly, and taking sides--and for once I'm not trying to avoid the trend.

Kevin Kim said...


I read your recent post on Chua. I'm guessing that Chua struck a few nerves because many Western parents are guilty as charged (though we do have to keep Charles's exceptions in mind). If those parents are hitting back hard, it may be because of their own insecurity. At the same time, I'm sure we all agree that the issues involved in the East/West debate are ridiculously complex, and any article, even if it runs a few thousand words, is going to fail to cover those issues with sufficient nuance.


At a guess, Love was trying to say that the NYCers who gathered at Ground Zero to help out-- mostly professionals, but plenty of civvies, too-- were an example of spontaneous self-organization in that they were able to quickly form efficient chains of command and cooperation. I was more interested in her insight about the American "paradox" of individualism and teamwork. My own mirror-image insight about Korea related to its general group-orientation and simultaneous competitiveness. Your way of explaining that through circles of loyalty ("family level," etc.) makes sense to me; maybe it's not such a paradoxical phenomenon, after all. In which case, maybe the American paradox isn't really paradoxical, either. I don't know. It's late and I'm sleepy.

Charles said...

@Nathan: Ahoy there! I gave your post a read as well, and I'm definitely going to have to dig into those links you posted when I get the chance. Update 3 in particular looks like it will prove interesting.

@Kevin: That explanation of Love's example makes sense. I just can't help wondering if such behavior is a) representative of American behavior in general and/or b) unique to America. On the one hand, sure, we've got the heroism of 9/11, but what about responses to other disasters? Hurricane Katrina was a textbook example of what not to do in the aftermath of a natural disaster. And other countries and peoples come together during times of crisis as well. I'm just not sure that this "ability to self-organize" is a defining and distinguishing characteristic of American culture.

And the whole "paradox" about being simultaneously group-oriented and individually competitive never really struck me as a paradox at all. It always struck me as rather obvious, but perhaps it's not. Hmm. Worth an entry on Liminality, perhaps? I'll have to think about it a little more (before I inevitably get bogged down in something else and never end up writing anything).

(By the way, if I do manage to motivate myself sufficiently to write something about this, do you mind if I steal your phrase, "circles of loyalty"? I like it better than "levels of loyalty.")

Kevin Kim said...

Feel free to use the phrase; I'm pretty sure it's not original to me. I think I picked it up from religious studies, or maybe from Clifford Geertz or someone else in cultural anthropology. I may even have stumbled across the term while reading about Confucianism. A search for the phrase "circles of loyalty" on my blog produced these results.

Charles said...

Took a quick look at some of those results--seems we're more or less on the same page.