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TALK ASIA

Interview with Author Amy Chua

Aired February 3, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): India, where one week every year, authors are revered as rock stars. And Oprah is treated like, well, Oprah. At this year's Jaipur Literature Festival, the largest in Asia, it was a tiger mother selling the seats and drawing the crowds.

AMY CHUA, JOHN M. DUFF, JR. PROFESSOR OF LAW, YALE LAW SCHOOL: And I think Western parents, these days - they're so worried their kids are going to feel bad if you say something negative. Well, I think, if you do something wrong, you should feel bad.

SIDNER (voiceover): Amy Chua's writing, taken by some as a how-to guide on parenting, taken by others as a satirical look at cultural differences between East and West.

CHUA: I still believe that Western society parents give their children too much choice, especially at a very young age. I really think you romanticize that. If you tell a six and seven-year-old, "Pursue your passions today". It's going to be watching TV all day and eating candy.

SIDNER: (voiceover): Debated by all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was just rearming. The battle lines were drawn. And she didn't even notice. Now, what kind of a mother draws battle lines?

SIDNER (voiceover): This week, on "Talk Asia", we ask the Yale Law professor if she has any regrets a year after "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" ignited the mommy wars. And turned her into a best-selling author.

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SIDNER: So, your book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", has really ignited a controversy. Because a lot of people thought you were trying to say that Chinese mothers are better than American or Western mothers. What were you trying to say with this book?

CHUA: It's been such an intense year. You know, I think a lot of the controversy came from an excerpt where the headline - somebody put the headline, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", which is exactly the opposite of what it says on the cover of my book. You know, my book is actually supposed to be a funny memoir. And people who read it do get it. It's about me trying to raise my two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, in America, the same way that my strict Chinese parents raised me.

But the book does have a point of view. I mean, I'm a proud strict mom and, you know, I'm really proud of the two daughters I've raised. And I'm especially proud of my relationship with them. We're very close. I think we're good friends.

SIDNER: You had mentioned the article, so now I'm going to have to mention the article, because this is a lot of what people have read. They may not have read the book, but the Wall Street Journal article, they've read.

And let me read just a bit from it. It's entitled, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior". And, in short, you say"-- a lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypical successful kids. Well, I can tell you, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters never were allowed to do. Attend a sleep over, they weren't allowed to be in a school play, watch TV, or play games, get any grade less than an "A", be anything but the number one student in all subjects except for gym and drama".

Is this a lot of pressure? I mean, defend your argument. That these sorts of rules can create both successful and happy children.

CHUA: Well, first of all, they are not rules that I follow strictly. And I'll tell you that list, that has sailed around the world - you know, it's been reproduced and people are debating it and talking about it - it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. That doesn't mean that I don't believe in lots of things, but it's meant to be exaggerated and over-the-top. But that list was applied to me, with no humor, straight, by my parents.

And, you know, the truth is that I am incredibly grateful to my parents now. I kind of - I like my life, I feel I have lots of opportunities. And my parents actually having had such high expectations for me - I would say it's the greatest gift that anyone has ever given me. I complained a lot when I was little, but that's how I feel now. And that's why I tried to do the same with my two daughters. I do think that Western parents tend to give their kids too many choices when they're very young. What I learned is that, as kids get older and they become teenagers, you got to listen more and sort of expand and, you know, let them have more choices.

SIDNER: Did you have any idea the reaction to this book and the articles - subsequent article - did you have any idea that the reaction would be so severe? I mean, what were you getting from people? What were they saying to you?

CHUA: This is so crazy. Before my book was published, my two daughters said to me, "You know, mommy, nobody's going to read this book, because it's a memoir and you're not a famous person and no one's going to care". So, we just had no idea what was going to come.

I would say, right after the Wall Street Journal excerpt came out, I started getting 500 emails a day.

SIDNER: What were they saying?

CHUA: Some of them were incredibly supportive. Others - there's one I remember - it said, "fan mail". I open it up and it said, "There's a special place for you in hell". I got a lot of emails like that - "We're going to get you in Chicago".

SIDNER: Death threats?

CHUA: Yes, I did. And, "Go back to China" profanities. And you know, after the firestorm broke out, I was thinking, "How could this happen to me?" It's just my own story. It's about my pulling back and, you know, not saying it's for everybody. And, in retrospect, I think that I accidentally tapped into two of America's deepest anxieties - fear of parenting and fear of China. I just, like, hit that intersection and it exploded.

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STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, THE COLBERT REPORT: And my guest tonight, Amy Chua -- and I hope I'm mispronouncing that correctly - knows exactly who is to blame for what is wrong with America - mom.

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SIDNER: I saw you on the American comedian's show, Steve Colbert -

CHUA: That was so fun.

SIDNER: -- Stephen Colbert. On that show, with Stephen Colbert, he said something that I think might be quite true, and I wanted to get your ideas on it. He said, everyone hates you, but they're thinking, "Maybe she's right". What do you think?

CHUA: I don't know. You know, when you read to the end of the book, there's so much about what I did wrong, but I think, yes -- I think the book must have hit a nerve. Otherwise I wouldn't have had a reaction like that. You know, parenting is so personal. And we're all afraid that we didn't quite get it right. And it feels like the stakes are so high. By we - what if we made a mistake?

So maybe some of it is - I do think that maybe, even subconsciously, a lot of parents in the West are wondering, have we gone too far in the direction of coddling and protecting - you know, you see kids, sometimes that seem very rude and disrespectful. And the more important thing is they don't seem that happy.

SIDNER: When you wrote this memoir and when you wrote the Wall Street Journal article, you had to have known there was going to be some serious reaction, and controversy does sell books. So the skeptics say, did you make it a little more punchy? Did you add a little extra just so you could get, basically, more books sold? I mean, did you do this just to sell more books.

CHUA: Absolutely not. I think a lot of people don't get the book. The book - it's like a category problem, right? It wasn't like, "Oh, I'm going to write a parenting book and stuff it with extra provocative facts". For me, the book is supposed to be like a David Sedaris book. It's zany. And there are all these showdowns between my two daughters and me. And, if you actually read the book, you realize they win every single fight. And they're always calling my bluff. And it's funny, because people say, "Oh, Amy Chua, such a strict parent". If you actually read the book, the whole story is told in the strong, rebellious voices, of my two daughters. So, yes, the book is full of hyperbole, but that's not to sell books, it was like, it's supposed to be funny.

You know, like I have this one scene where I'm saying I'm trying to be really strict with my dog and I say, "I finally realized that Coco was an animal and didn't need to have a career, necessarily". I mean, you know, it's a little bit, sort of - it's supposed to be over-the-top. And now that the emails are coming in, people say, "You know what? I was a hater. I was one of those people that posted the nasty things, but I read the book and what's the deal? It's different, it's funny, I get it". You know?

So the book was intended to be so much more universal. Much more universal. It's like, about maternal love, about the irrepressible personalities of your children, about learning to listen but also having high standards. You know, and just finding that right balance.

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CHUA: And one of the things I learned is you've got to pay attention more to your children's individual personalities.

SIDNER (voiceover): The tiger mother strikes a balance between East and West and tells us why the critics have it wrong.

CHUA: This is the opposite of a parenting guide.

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CHUA: "Hold yourself to a high standard and you can do anything?" Ok.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I admire mothers like you.

CHUA: Thank you so much. Well, I admire mothers like you.

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CHUA: It's so fun being here, in India. I've never had an audience like this. I didn't know this before I came to Jaipur, but there are a lot of tiger mothers in India. You know, there are a lot of parallels. Not everybody does - you know, there are so many different ways of parenting. But, in general, I think - it seems to me, just from the crowd that I was talking to, that's important to instill a sense of respect, responsibility, and work ethic in kids when they're very young in order to prepare them to be independent when they're much older.

SIDNER: What is it about American parents, or parents from the West, that drives you crazy? What are some of the things they do and say to their children that annoys you?

CHUA: Well, first, I - you know, most of my friends parent totally different from me. So I, you know, I think that there are great things about Western parenting, too. I think that Western parenting has changed. You know, so we talk about it like "this is Western parenting". First, there are a thousand different ways that Westerners parent. But, also, we parent really differently in the West than we did, say, 50 or 100 years ago.

You know, if you - in fact, I think that this thing that people are - I think what we're calling "extreme parenting" or "tiger parenting" - if you think about it, it's not that different from the traditional parenting of America's founders and pioneers. Why don't you be Caddie Woodlawn or Little House on the Prairie - I always tell my daughter, "How many sleepovers do you think Abe Lincoln had?" So, you know, there's been a change.

SIDNER: What mistakes are being made, though? What do you see as mistakes being made by Western parents?

CHUA: I think that we worry a lot in the West about this question of self-esteem, you know. But I don't think we necessarily know the best way of how to instill it. I think that, if you just tell your child, "You're perfect, you're great, you're the best", I honestly don't think that instills true confidence and true resilience and inner strength. I think that real self-esteem, real confidence has to be earned, you know, the old- fashioned way - by overcoming a challenge or mastering something.

It doesn't have to be anything fancy, but it's that feeling - look, I didn't give up. I tried, I didn't give up, and I discovered that I actually could do something that I thought I couldn't. I think that's the way you build real resilience and real inner strength. Not just people giving you trophies all the time no matter what, or - I don't think it's so helpful when parents praise their children when their kids, themselves, know they haven't put in their best effort. I don't know what that really achieves.

SIDNER: Do you think that the Asian way of doing things -- China and India educating students - which is intense, intense studying, memorization, as opposed to sort of innovation and kind of keeping your mind a bit more open - is a better system than what is going on in America or the West?

CHUA: I definitely don't think the Asian system is a better system. In fact, I think both Eastern and Western parenting have strengths and weaknesses. I think what a lot of the Asian nations do very well is - they're really good at instilling a sense of discipline and focus and sort of a work ethic in kids when they're very young. And I think we, in the West, could really profit from that. You know, now we have all these media distractions - we have Facebook and IPod and texting. So, if our kids, when they're in high school, had already instilled in them this ability to concentrate and focus, I think that would be fantastic.

I think where the Asian nations have shortcomings is, they don't have as much vibrancy and thinking outside the box. They really don't have as much creativity in China. And they know that. And that's where I think the Western system is fabulous. You know, we are great, in the West, at, you know, kind of encouraging irreverence and independence and leadership and more civic behavior and thinking outside the box. And we should keep that. We should build on that.

I really think the idea is not, which is better. You know, and that's one of the problems with the mommy wars - is the violence and the vitriol. We shouldn't be talking about which way is better. You know, why don't we say, "What are some of the strengths of this system? What are the strengths of our system?" Can we try to pull in the best of all worlds and all our kids will be happier.

SIDNER: Do you think success and achievement leads to happiness? Or are those two different things?

CHUA: I don't think success always leads to happiness. But nor do I think it should be a black-and-white choice. I think there are all these false choices in the mommy wars. "Do you want happiness for your kids or success?" Well, if you put it that way, let's go for happiness. But I don't believe - you know, if I could pick between happiness for my kids or success, I would pick happiness in a second. That's a no-brainer.

SIDNER: That would surprise people.

CHUA: I know.

SIDNER: When they look at your article -

CHUA: Well, but if you - you know, but I really do think it's more complicated. I don't think, if you tell your kids, "Do whatever you want. You're perfect" - that that will necessarily lead to them being happier adults. I'm not even sure it leads to happier kids. You know, as you know, in the West, we have very high rates of teenage depression, teenage anxiety, teenage substance abuse - highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States, actually, in the developed world. And those, in general, are problems of too little structure, not too much. And they certainly aren't recipes for happiness either.

SIDNER: But here, they have the, sort of, opposite issue. You have children who are killing themselves, literally, because they did not do well on a test.

CHUA: I really think there is too much pressure in countries like China and Korea, especially, where everybody - you know, it's like your whole life comes down to one exam. And I don't think it's tenable. I think something - when I went to China and Korea, I said, you know, there need to be more choices and more definitions for what counts as success. You know, if your child is an incredible fashion designer, that should count as success. If your child is just a really happy writer, that should count as success. And they're still much more narrow in Asia. There are, I think, a much smaller set of things that seem to satisfy parental expectations. And I think that should change, also.

SIDNER: What has been the reaction in China and India to your book, as opposed to the United States? Compare the two.

CHUA: I think it's being a little bit misunderstood. I think they're taking it as a "how-to" guide.

SIDNER: You didn't intend it to be a "how-to" guide?

CHUA: No. It's not a "how-to" guide. You know, it's a memoir about, in some ways, going too far. I was a little bit disappointed with the publication of my own book in China, because I did not like the translation and I also didn't like the title they put on it. They -

SIDNER: Which was?

CHUA: They called it "Parenting by a Yale Law Professor - How to Raise Kids in America". So they're marketing my book in exactly the opposite way in China as, you know, all about, like, finding more balance. Because it's so much more strict in China. They've never even heard of a sleepover there.

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SIDNER (voiceover): The daughter denied sleepovers weighs in and Chua's family offers up their support.

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SIDNER: Your mom, and your wife, has written a very controversial book. How has it affected your lives? I mean, was it embarrassing, at all, for you to have, kind of, your childhood spilled out in front of the world?

SOPHIA CHUA-RUBENFELD, DAUGHTER, BLOGGER: Well, I wouldn't say it was really embarrassing in that sense. Because I really feel like it's more my mom's story than anyone else's. And I think it's really about how she changed and developed as a parent. And I really feel like I'm kind of a supporting character. And I don't know, I just thought she was really brave to write the book and I'm a big fan of the whole project. So, we were kind of - we had her back the whole time.

SIDNER: What is it like for you guys, being here in Asia?

JED RUBENFELD, ROBERT R. SLAUGHTER PROFESSOR OF LAW, YALE LAW SCHOOL: It's just been a great time, just walking around here, being in Jaipur, and all the different kinds of people who have gathered here to talk about ideas and talk about what they read - it's just great. It would have to be movie stars in America, right? Or TV stars. That's the only way you'd get all these people to come and follow them around.

SIDNER: How have you handled all this? Because there has been quite a bit of nasty, nasty criticism about the family as a whole. How have you handled it?

RUBENFELD: Well, you know, it was such a - really a shock when the whole thing went viral and became such a firestorm around the world, really. But, honestly, I think Amy's book started a conversation that people really wanted to have. And yes, there was a lot of tough things about it - very nasty things for a while - but I really think she wrote a book that is changing how people think and has written something people want to talk about. So I admire what she did tremendously. And I'm very proud of her for it.

CHUA-RUBENFELD: I mean, the book is definitely exaggerated. Like, we had plenty of friends. I went to birthday parties. I had a great time. And my mom was definitely strict, and we had our conflicts, but I mean, what family doesn't, right?

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CHUA: I can't believe how amazing my family's been. There was a moment, when the book first came out and I just was receiving all this hate mail, where I thought, "Oh my gosh, because I was hubristic enough to publish this book about my family, now my family's going to fall apart. It's all my fault". Just the opposite happened. My family rallied around me. They were always laughing, even when I was wanting to crawl into a hole. They're really strong. They're really strong. And I guess that's something I'm proud of. I feel like, you know, proof is in the pudding and if they can take this, then I must have done something right.

SIDNER: Who's the stricter parent? You? Or your husband? People are going to assume you are.

CHUA: I think I'm stricter, but my kids are more afraid of their father by far. So, go figure.

SIDNER: Why?

CHUA: Well, he never raises his voice, but he has this kind of moral authority and judgment that they're terrified of. Whereas -- people don't get this until they read my book - my kids think I'm a little goofy. And, you know, the scenes in the book are me just being ineffectual and huffing and puffing and foaming at the mouth. And I think they think I'm a little bit, I don't know, sometimes steam's coming out of my ears, but they're not really scared of me. In fact, I don't think my daughters are scared of me at all.

SIDNER: Really?

CHUA: Yes. I know.

SIDNER: Did your parents have anything to say, because you married someone who is not Chinese decent. Jewish-American. What did they think about that?

CHUA: When I was really little, my father actually said to me, "You will marry a Chinese person over my dead body". So he was really strict. Now, I adore my father and this is the thing, America changes people. When I married my husband, they were first really skeptical. Now my father and my husband are best friends. They idolize my husband.

SIDNER: What types of things did your parents say to you, though, when you said, "Mom, dad, this is my future husband"?

CHUA: It was so funny. My husband - you know, he had gone to acting school. He was sort of like a - did some public interest work. And, in the West, that's really cool. "Wow, he was an actor, he did plays, you know, he's doing community service". My parents sat there stonily. "How is this person going to support my daughter?", you know? But they changed. I mean, now they just love him now.

SIDNER: What was your worst day as a parent?

CHUA: I think I put my worst day as a parent in my book. And that's why it's sort of tough for me to deal with some of the criticism. Because I put - it's a very honest book - I put in my own worst moments. You know, we all have those moments as moms, especially when we have teenagers - those, "Boy, do I wish I could take that back" moments. And I put them all in the book. And it's weird to have it all thrown back at me. You know, like, wow, this is a day that I regret. And people turn it around and, you know, "Amy Chua thinks everyone should burn their kids' stuffed animals". No.

SIDNER: Can you think of a single moment and sort of how you felt at that point in time?

CHUA: I remember a terrible fight that Lulu and I had in Red Square, Moscow. Where she said to me some of the most painful things that anyone has ever said. And I think, when she said, "You make me feel bad about myself. You're selfish. Everything you say you do for me, is actually for yourself". That hurt. And it really just - it just took me aback. Because I had always been sure, no, I'm doing all the sacrificing for you.

And, when I finally heard it like that, I just started to question. And, you know, I feel lucky that I pulled back, I think. And we had a big Western type of therapeutic conversation. It's been a couple of years, but we're in such a good place right now. And I think I'm really close to both my daughters. You know, people would be surprised, from my reputation, that, you know, a lot of moms have to call me to find out what's going on at the parties.

SIDNER: It sounds like they really changed you, your daughters.

CHUA: Yes. I think it's, you know, I think it's a back and forth. I mean, I was terrified of my own parents. I admired them so much, but I really - they weren't my friends. I'm a little bit different. I mean, I'd like to think that I am very good friends with my daughters. I'm still not just their friend, I'm also first and foremost - you know, I'm their parent. And it's my responsibility to prepare them for the future, teach them right from wrong. But I also think, you know, we're good friends.

SIDNER: What's next? Are you working on anything else?

CHUA: I am not writing another parenting thing for a while. I was joking to a friend - I said, "You know what? I'm going to go back to writing something less controversial like, you know, ethnic conflict in the Middle East". Compared to parenting, that's non-controversial.

SIDNER: You've really felt the judgment from people, haven't you?

CHUA: It's been just a - it's been a surreal year. It's been - but, you know, a lot of good with the bad.

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