Why cultures collide and what you can do about it



from Introduction: Culture Trouble

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” —Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself ”


No TV. No computer games. No choice of free-time activities. And when noncompliant, no food, no water, no bathroom, and no shelter.

To many people, these rules sound like they came straight out of an American prison on a bad human rights day. In reality, they are a few of the parenting tips Amy Chua offers in her 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. An American- born daughter of Chinese immigrants, Chua reveals the parenting secrets of the Chinese, who are famous the world over for their successful children.

Underlying Chinese and Western differences in bringing up the kids, says Chua, is how parents think about their children’s selves—their I’s, egos, minds, psyches, or souls, to use the technical terms. Western parents assume that children’s budding selves are fragile, and so they empower their youngsters with choices and fortify them with praise. But Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility,” writes Chua. As a result, they set the bar dizzyingly high for their children, and then use tough techniques to help them meet the family’s expectations.

If the proof of the parenting is in the offspring, Chua’s mothering is so far unassailable. Her elder daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, made her Carnegie Hall debut at age fourteen, graduated first in her class from an elite prep school, and is now studying at Harvard University. Chua’s younger, “rebellious” daughter is no slouch, either. Louisa, an honor student at the same elite prep school, was a virtuoso violinist in the local symphony’s Prodigy Program, until she chose to dedicate more time to tennis, at which she also excels.

Despite the triumphs of her self-styled “Tiger Cubs,” Chua has outraged much of the Western world. Critics call her methods manipulative, abusive, and even illegal. They protest not only her means, but also her ends. “[Chua’s] kids can’t possibly be happy or truly creative,” writes columnist David Brooks, summarizing the public’s concerns. “They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great.” Consequently, they’ll crash into the so-called bamboo ceiling instead of rocketing to the top.

This is not a new line of thought. For several decades, the West has dismissed the genius of the East as one of imitation, not innovation. But the East is swiftly catching up with the creativity and audacity—the greatness—of the West. Between 2004 and 2008, Chinese scholars penned 10. 2 percent of the scientific research papers published in major international journals, second only to scientists in the United States.Those rankings are expected to flip as early as 2013, with China taking the pole position. Applying what these scientists find, Asian companies are dominating the emerging industries of clean energy and alternative transportation.

Science and technology are not the only areas of innovation with tigers at the top. Of the thirty-five living artists who earn seven digits for a single work, seventeen are of Asian heritage. Here in the United States, Asians make up only 5 percent of the population but fill three to nine times that number of undergraduate seats at the nation’s top universities.

Stats like these fuel the sales of Chua’s book. What if she is right? What if raising successful children requires the rigid enforcement of old- school rules? What if the European-American preoccupation with self-esteem, self-expression, and self-actualization is turning our children into hothouse flowers who will wither in the grip of their Eastern competition? What if the clash of Eastern and Western cultures in American classrooms, and around the world, ends with the East on top?

At the heart of the Tiger Mother hysteria are two deeper questions: What kind of person will not just survive, but thrive in the twenty- first century? And can I be this kind of person?

Our book is an answer to these questions. As cultural psychologists, we study how different cultures help create different ways of being a person—what we call different selves. We also study how these selves in turn help create different cultures. We call this process of cultures and selves making each other up the culture cycle. As we will reveal, many of the clashes that give us the most grief arise when different selves collide. But by using our culture cycles to summon the right self at the right time, we may not only stop many of these clashes in their tracks, but also harness the power of our diverse strengths.

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