Notes from an American Mother in Beijing

Susan Conley's memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, traces her years as a Western mom in Beijing, where she also contends with breast cancer. It will come out with Knopf on February 8th.


Amy Chua raised the hackles of a whole legion of American moms when she dreamed up the title of her recent incendiary Wall Street Journal essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” She touched a nerve. So much of what we American mothers read these days is about the demise of schools here in the States and the reign of the Chinese student. We read the buzz over the Shanghainese fifteen-year-olds who blew away the American field last month in an international assessment test, and we worry. Then Chua comes along and tells us how to really get things done.


When I lived in China, I was the American mother on the playground—the one looking for all the Chinese mothers, and where were they anyway? Turns out they were home helping their kids do their homework. This new book I wrote about my time in China traces my attempts to parent Western Style in the Chinese nation—and it takes a close look on the kind of “Chinese Mothering” Chua describes in her essay. The kind of mothering so strict it doesn’t allow for bathroom breaks or basic food and water while her daughter struggles to learn a new piano piece. It’s a mothering style akin to psychological war zone—based on threats and withholdings. One that insists on being first in every school classroom and forbids play dates and sleepovers and independent decision-making—all staples of the loosey goosey, kid-empowerment program of parenting that my husband, Tony, and I imported to our Beijing ex-pat home when we moved to China three years ago.


Our first October in Beijing I met a Chinese woman at the bus stop who explained why the playgrounds were empty. “It is because we have homework every day,” she offered with a hint of pride. “No playing.” Her children were five and three. “Every day it’s hours of homework. But Lucas likes it,” she pointed at her son. He was small for a five-year-old and wore an eye patch. “We’ve also gotten a Chinese tutor after school three days a week,” Rosemary added. “She has the children write Chinese characters for two hours at a time.”


Then a Chinese mother named Veronica wheeled her stroller towards me and said she’d pulled her six-year-old daughter from the American school in Beijing that day because it was too much fun. “They weren’t doing enough memorization,” she’d explained. “They were having too much fun.”


Chua’s essay put many American mothers on edge partly because she tapped into our collective paranoia. We boast that we’re not rule mongers or slaves to standardized tests. We say we pity the Chinese child forced to memorize Mandarin verbs for hours, and we allow for all night sleepovers. But many mothers I talked to who read Chua’s essay were vacillating now—wondering if their kids were learning fast enough. Or deep enough.


And the one thing the Chinese mothers I knew in Beijing never openly did was doubt themselves. They operated with a level of hubris hardly seen in the States—hubris that seemed to stem from a larger cultural pride. And these mothers weren’t embarrassed by their competitive zeal.


In November my husband, Tony and I went to our first Beijing school open house. The Chinese mother of one of Thorne’s friends, Roger, was there with a book of Roger’s greatest hits: photos of Roger winning swimming ribbons and math awards and reading contests. Roger’s mother sat across from me at the grey, plastic table in that second grade classroom and nodded unabashed while I worked my way through page after page. Her pride was a palpable thing that night. And I got the feeling that Roger was destined for greatness because no one in his family was embarrassed by their ambition for him.


In Chua’s essay she describes a world in which she chooses the musical instruments her kids will play: it’s piano or violin and no fooling around. My boys like to try out the banjo and the bongo and the synthesizers and guitar, and they move back and forth between the instruments at will. These are the same boys who like to act in school plays. But Chua finds school drama programs a colossal waste of time. “God help any Chinese kid,” she writes, who tries to be Villager Number Six in one of their school’s drama productions. Not long after we’d settled into Beijing, my older son, Thorne, came bounding off his school bus with a huge smile on his face and announced that he was Villager Number Two in the Robinhood play. Nothing could hide his pride. He had two lines in the entire play. Count them. Two. And hours and hours of practice ahead and I clapped my hands for him.


In February, just before our first Chinese New Year in Beijing, we had our Chinese friend, Julia, for Sunday lunch. She’d already pulled her kids from Thorne and Aidan’s school because there was “Not enough structure.”  Now, she tried to explain why her nine-year-old daughter, Rebecca, had three hours of homework each day and piano class at 9 am on Saturdays and then math tutoring and English speaking class after that. “She’s behind,” Julia announced, and then reached for a dumpling. “Rebecca is way behind in Chinese.”


Julia winked at me then and I knew she loved her children just as much as I loved mine. She was parenting in a way that she thought was best for her kids in a country where things were changing so fast it was hard to keep up. And where the Communist government acted as the preemptive father and had already dictated so many of the other personal choices we in the Western world take for granted.


Julia took a bite of noodles and asked Tony if our boys used the playground outside every day. “Most days,” he said and looked at me.


“While all the Chinese children are doing their homework.” She laughed. “No Chinese tutor?” Julia asked me then.


“No tutor.” I said and leaned back in my chair and held my ground and smiled.

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Comment by Susan Conley on February 3, 2011 at 11:48am
Such great points Gina--you remind me that there was this moment in the Chua fracas where some people forgot that all parents can have that competitive zeal. And I really appreciate Marcia's comment that is so much about finding balance as a mother.

Really nice to hear that this whole Chua craze resonated for you as well Jocelyn, as someone who spent many years in China. Take good care! Susan
Comment by Marcia Fine on February 3, 2011 at 10:56am
Great story! This is such a hot topic even Jean Rubin weighed in on it! I think it's about finding balance, fulfillment and allowing children to find their talent AND have a solid foundation of adcademic skills. After all, it's creative thinking that moves the world forward.
Comment by Jocelyn Eikenburg on February 1, 2011 at 1:51pm

Susan, as someone who spent many years in China, I enjoyed reading your blog post -- and really couldn't agree more about the issues w/ the "Tiger Mother" craze going across the Internet.


On a personal note, I'd love to get a chance to read your book when it comes out. I'm a sucker for memoirs by women living in China. ;-)

Comment by Gina Frangello on February 1, 2011 at 1:08pm

This is so interesting.  I don't think American parents lack a (sometimes inflated) zeal of competition where their kids are concerned, however.  I just think it's often that our sources of pride or cultural obsession are different.  I've seen American mothers completely obsessed with their children's "popularity" or even with a daughter's physical beauty, and I've seen plenty of dads (and some moms too) who are fixated to a fanatical degree on team sports, so that the kids are almost as tyranized by sports practice and games as another child might be by violin lessons and homework.  


I wonder how much of this also has to do with women having value as Women, not only as Mothers.  It seems to me that if a woman's whole worth is in her Motherhood, she is going to naturally become fixated on her child's outer successes, as a way to validate her own existence.


I think this reaches across cultures.  It's not that I don't think some cultures lean more in one direction or another, but when I was in China I did see many children at leisure, in parks, playing, and the Asian parents I know here in the States aren't any more strict or obsessive than many other parents can be (and sometimes are not at all.)  I feel like Chua has done a lot more harm in terms of stereotyping the Chinese (already a mysterious culture to many Americans, and easily prey to stereotypes) than she has done hurt the American mother's collective feelings, you know?  I feel sorry for every Chinese mom, now, who's got some weird white mom in the park saying, "Wow!  You let your kid play on the swings?!  Aren't you a tiger mom?"




Very interesting personal take, though--good luck with your memoir!

Comment by Susan Conley on January 26, 2011 at 2:45pm
Thank you Shannon and Cathy. So interesting to hear all our perspectives on this.
Comment by Shannon Drury on January 26, 2011 at 11:33am
No one can parent in a vacuum--we all do the best we can with what we've got.  Good to remember before we jump into the Mommy Wars.


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