Black-Asian Relations and "Fresh Off the Boat": Education, Motherhood and the "Tiger Mom"

In my review for Fresh Off the Boat, I wrote a lot about how Eddie’s love of rap (and his parents befuddlement about it), Eddie’s experience with a racist black kid and the lack of Asian-American representation only taps the top of the iceberg of black-Asian relations.

I’m quoting myself, but really, you should just read the post for yourself since the quotes could very easily become my whole article all over again. Anyways, some quotes I wrote:

I’m sure as the season goes along, Eddie will have his own problems when it comes to his identity, what with him identifying more with black culture than it would seem his parents, especially his mom, are comfortable with. His mom wondering why he’s always wearing black rappers on his shirts and his dad calling Eddie’s rap music collection “dirty music” once again goes back to the sniping other minorities do at each other, thinking one minority is worse than the other. But it also goes towards the worry about keeping cultural identity. I was taken back to my own childhood at certain points in this episode.

…Eddie’s mom’s concern about Eddie always wearing black people on his shirts reminded me of my own mother’s concern about us playing with white dolls. She was so concerned that we never did play with white dolls; we played with black dolls and dolls of other minorities, never white. Therefore, we learned to appreciate our culture and the cultures of others instead of learning to uplift the Eurocentric idea of beauty.

However, Eddie’s mom, in 1995 and in a still mostly-white Orlando, didn’t have the opportunity my mom did. There were not only black dolls I could look to, but there were role models like Oprah, Tyra Banks, RuPaul, the Wayans, Will Smith, and so on and so forth. I could go on forever naming powerful black people in the ’90s. Yeah, there’s Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, but who else was there? What images were there in which Eddie could see himself? The main reason Eddie turned to hip hop was because, as he said in the pilot, it told the minority’s struggle. This is how Eddie cultivated his perspective on life.

By now, I’ve watched both episodes and, believe it or not, I think I identify a lot more with the second episode—which focuses on CLC (Chinese Learning Center) tutoring and grades—than the first. It also got me to thinking a lot more about the unique relationship between Asian-Americans and African-Americans that seems to be an open secret. One area this relationship is apparent is through the quest for education excellence.

If I’m being blunt, America doesn’t like thinking of black folks as being extremely studious and high achievers. Despite all of our achievements, including the many kids who have been accepted to multiple Ivy League schools (with one of whom I linked to, Kwasi Enin, crediting his “helicopter parents” for his success),  the inventions this country is built upon, and the very layout of Washington D.C., we still get thought of as “anomalies.” The version of blackness America likes to promote is that we’re all shiftless layabouts. F that, America!

On the flip side, the version of the Asian-American experience America likes to promote is that all the mothers are Tiger Moms and that every Asian person adheres to the “model minority” myth. That “model minority” stuff is a cancer America just accepts as true, and even though I’m not afflicted with that stereotype directly, it still affects all minorities, particularly African Americans. People like Bill O’Reilly will throw around the “model minority” stuff when they’re comparing or contrasting Asian Americans to black people. The myth’s lifeblood is the assumption that black people are this:

Jimcrow

And Asian people are this:

asian-math-400x320

And it’s annoying, to say the least. All the “model minority” myth does is uplift white supremacy and pits two races-one seen by while supremacy as unruly and the other seen by white supremacy as weak, malleable and “understanding” of white privilege-against each other just so the power structure stays the same.

However, this infighting leads to a very complicated relationship between Asian and African Americans, one that is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen play out in American society.

Let’s go back to what I wrote about black achievers. The reason the second Fresh Off the Boat episode spoke to me even more than the first was seeing a mom hard on her kids for doing well in school. My mom (who is black, but has ironically been mistaken for blasian at one point in her life) was rather tough on myself and my siblings when it came to (or, in my brother’s case, comes to) grades. I distinctly remember coming home with As, and my mom (and dad, for that matter) saying something to the effect of, “This is great, but remember to always shoot for A plus.”

At least, this is how I remember it. What they were attempting to do was impress upon me that excellence is always what I should be shooting for and, for all intents and purposes, it worked. I did get all As in school, was on the honor roll numerous times, and got tons of awards. It was only in college that I decided to stop focusing on grades so much in an effort to grow up a little, but that’s a story for a different time.

As I thought about my past and why my parents pushed me so hard, I realized that the reason is the same for Eddie’s mom, Jessica. Both sets of parents know that the way America’s set up, non-whites (even Asians, when you take out the “model minority” stereotyping) are set up to fail. We’re the automatic “Other,” and people who are different are expected to not be accepted just because of their differences.

Therefore, one of the loopholes in America’s society is to be the best you can academically. Eddie’s white classmate might be able to get away with all Cs, grow up to be just average and still be able to land a six-figure job as an adult, but you can best believe that Eddie, and that racist black kid, can’t. Both of them have to be able to not only get As, but A plusses. And keep getting A plusses all throughout their school careers just to be at the same table as all the C minus white kids, who get basketball goals as rewards for being average.

Despite the commonality between my mom and Eddie’s mom, I would not call my mom a “Tiger Mom.” I wouldn’t even call Jessica a “Tiger Mom.” I don’t think a lot of Asian-Americans would call their moms “Tiger Moms” either. From what I’ve read about Amy Chua and her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, some of the “Tiger Mom” ideology seems pretty abusive, and if you’re a mom who cares about your children, I’d think you’d give them a chance to live, like play with dolls and, as Eddie’s mother does, allow her kids to play basketball with their dad, like normal children. Moms aren’t supposed to be monsters.

I think showing Jessica giving her children some time to be kids is subtle, indirect commentary on the fact that the “Tiger Mom” ideology isn’t really the way to go. I could say my mom has some “Tiger Mom”-ish ways about her, such as a deep focus on education and fostering musical talents for educational purposes (when my mom figured out I could play the keyboard by ear, I was rushed into band practice.) However, lots of parents can say that. There are parents of every race and ethnic group that push for their kids’ success and want to foster talents for their children’s betterment. These are “helicopter parents” like Enin’s parents. I also didn’t go to any sleepovers, mostly because my parents are very over-protective. Apparently not going to friends’ houses is also a symptom of having a Tiger Mom for a mother, but there are a lot of parents out there who just aren’t into letting their kids go to strangers’ homes. Again, they’re being helicoptery. But the idea of a “Tiger Mom” is also one of the areas where black and Asian Americans are pitted against each other for no reason.

I kinda wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother off after learning what it was about, mostly because I felt like I already had an inkling of what it was like to grow up with a perfectionist for a mother (for instance, she can get really obsessive about getting projects just right). But I think there’s a difference between an “intense” mother who means well and a “Tiger Mom” who believes in her own—and her race’s—superiority.

Jie-Song Zhang, a contributor to National Geographic and a producer and director of international arts and cultural exchange projects, really let Chua have it when he wrote his essay for The Huffington Post, “Tiger Mom vs. Brooklyn Dragon: I Hereby Challenge Amy Chua to a Barefist Kung Fu Duel.” He explains why Chua’s ideology—shown much more in her subsequent book declaring certain races smarter and better than others, The Triple Package—is troublesome, to say the least, since it’s rooted in systemic racism, the “model minority” myth and a dangerous conflation of “motherly love” with ” birthright superiority” and, to be frank, bullying.  Some choice cuts from his essay:

“…Amy, you’re not the only person who can make a circus of our culture and caricatures of our people for the sake of grabbing a little public attention. It’s naive to blame you, really, being that much of modern society is driven by a “be seen at all costs” mentality–at all costs, disregarding all potential consequences, and effortlessly detached of morality–and you are certainly not the only one whose bank account feeds from leveraging the public’s fear and ignorance. But, I am curious if you have ever found a moment, undressed of your “Tiger Mom,” celebrity author” costume and all the salesmanship it entails, to sit in your natural skin as an Asian-American, and as a mother, to properly measure how the thoughts you spread might affect our community, and in particular our youth–those young people of shiny black eyes and straight black hair who look like you and me, many of them growing up exactly as you and I had to grow up, isolated from other Asians and left to fend for themselves in that psychological warfare of the modern American childhood, with its teasing, its bullying, its acts of merciless dehumanization.”

“…When you, as an Asian-American, make public a statement such as “Chinese mothers are superior,” I understand that it is a strategic self-promotional needle indeed to pierce at that acutely sensitive, easily agitated region of the American psyche that concerns itself with race, ethnicity and nationality; and you do this to conjure public drama and give visibility, marketability to your book. This is clear; this is easy. But you should also realize that when you say, so publicly, such a think as “Chinese mothers are superior,” what members of other groups essentially hear is the arrogant declaration” “Chinese people are superior”…To re-fold what I am trying to say: your work contributes to Anti-Asian sentiment and increases the alienation experienced by Asians across the United States.

…The Black community began its history in the United States of America held by chains. They have since marched through generation after generation of inequality, brutality, systemic dehumanization…and across the distance of this advancing struggle, they have met each step with grace and pride intact. How does one rely on numbers [i.e. grades and test scores] t tell of such strength and radiance of heart? And this is to say nothing of the cultural innovations of Black America–in the arts, in language, in urban culture, in freedom of expression–which have profoundly altered the design of the entire human culture.

The whole of his essay gets to the heart of what differentiates moms—Asian, black, etc.—from “Tiger Moms.” As minorities, we should be able to come together on the fact that education is one of the outs we’ve been able to utilize to get our deserved seat at the table of equality. With that understanding, we should all be able to help each other achieve all we can, not just through education, but through inter-racial and inter-cultural support of all forms. However, it’s divisive things like the “Tiger Mom” idea that pits races against each other, with one thinking they’re somehow better or smarter than the other.

So, what’s the point of all of this blathering? 1) That minority moms all face the same struggle when it comes to making sure their children get what’s owed to them from America, 2) a lot of minority moms push their kids towards excellence in school, and that could be used as a commonality that gets inter-racial and inter-cultural conversations started, and 3) the points of interlap when it comes to “intensely focused” mom and “Tiger Mom” can become muddled. But 4) Being a mom intently focused on your child’s education isn’t the same as being a Tiger Mom. Being a Tiger Mom is damaging, not just to kids, but society in general, particularly when it’s used as a way to get up the ladder at the expense of tearing other groups down. In my opinion, my mom and Jessica have a lot in common, but they also seem to realize when education isn’t everything.

Constance Wu as Jessica in Fresh Off the Boat. Photo credit: Bob D’Amico/ABC

Jim Crow caricature. Public Domain/Wikipedia

“Asians” Demotivational image. Found on Google (from Morrissey-Solo.com)