by Nadya Agrawal – UCLA
Dr. Gyanam Mahajan is the language Program Coordinator for SSEALC and she teaches Hindi-Urdu and South Asian Language and Culture classes at UCLA. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics and has been teaching at UCLA since 1992. As an Indian mother of a daughter who currently attends a Top Ten university (“without ever being punished,” she adds), as well as an active participant in debate with Indian parents, Mahajan has an intimate view into the uniquely “Indian” parenting style. I interview her about reaction to Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” printed in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month and this is what she had to say.
Gyanam Mahajan (GM): I was looking up the World Wildlife Fund and it was saying that India is the last great refuge for tigers. So, my first reaction, because they’re referring to this article as “Tiger Mothers,” is this a misappropriation of the term! If anyone’s a tiger-mom it’s me! (laughs) How can you take away the term from us? It’s not fair. What are we? Monkey Moms or Rhino Moms, if we’re not Tiger Moms? So, I actually settled on Rhino-Mom.
Nadya Agrawal (NA): That’s perfect, I’ll refer to Indian moms as “Rhino Mothers” from now on.
GM: And then the worst thing was, she said like in the second line or something that this [article] applies not only to Chinese mothers, but to Korean and Indian mothers as well. So, there are a couple of responses. Number one, don’t talk about me! You know, leave it to me to talk about me. But the other thing is, contrary to the title of the article, this is not about Chinese mothers. Parts of it, every group of parents identifies with. Like Tom Brokaw saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize I had a Chinese mother.” This is about some specific mothers.
NA: Some specific style of parenting, right?
GM: Exactly. So it’s going contrary to the thesis, which is that there is a specific style of parenting called—you know, you can call it the “Chinese” parenting or whatever, and that style is superior to other styles. But right there there’s a contradiction because it’s an acknowledgement that there is no such thing and that it depends on a specific group of people or type of people—and, if one takes that argument further, because she starts giving personal examples, it might be specific to her then. Then there goes the whole [article] because now it’s not a scientific article, according to me.
NA: When reading this article, were there particular parts that you found were unrealistic?
GM: Given that she is a professor at Yale, I find it very difficult to believe that she doesn’t have empathy for her larger set of kids. Just gleaning it from how she treated or own daughters, especially that part where she calls her daughter “garbage,” I mean, I can’t even imagine doing that not only with my own daughter, but I can’t even imagine doing that with any of my students. If you’re teaching at such a big institution, aren’t you familiar with being empathetic with a whole lot of kids? You know, I wonder how her daughters are reacting to it.
NA: That’s one of the major responses to the article, like, people think her daughters will be scarred for life or they’ll grow up in some sort of affected way.
GM: She thinks not.
NA: What do you think about it?
GM: I think the daughters are in on it. I mean, come on, they must be—this is a concerted effort to have a best seller. It’s based on a book that’s supposed to come out, right? Do you know her husband also has written a book? And it’s very successful.
NA: So, you think this article is mainly a publicity stunt?
GM: Yes. It’s too extreme and it’s not very realistic. When I first read it, I thought it was a joke article, and it turns out it’s funny only in the sense that she’s laughing her way to the bank. (laughter) So, her book has become a best seller. So once I realized that she was probably not kidding, I actually got scared because it says “Indian parents”. So I always have this horrible impression that Indian parents are reading it and going ‘Oh my goodness, this is what I’m supposed to be doing? And I’ve not been doing half of these things!’ This would justify their past egregious actions and even take them further.
NA: What egregious actions?
GM: I think that while Indian parents might only do some of the things listed there, she’s probably right about Indian parents not allowing sleepovers. A lot of Indian parents do not allow sleepovers. However, while Indian parents may not take it to the extreme that she has given, there is another layer to Indian parents, which may not be there with certain other groups, which is this gender difference. Reading the article, I’m saying this, she is consistent over genders. Or maybe she just has two daughters, I don’t know. But she doesn’t mention this about Chinese mothers; For Indians, the son may be allowed sleepovers, but the daughter isn’t. Boys are allowed to do certain things, which girls are not, even with something like dating. Indian parents are very clear with girls about whom they hang out with or where they hang out. This goes to ridiculous extents too, like no boys allowed in their study groups. On this issue, Indian parents are actually worse than maybe other groups of parents.
NA: Hasn’t there been some change in that, though? Like within a lot of modern Indian-American families, both parents work so they probably don’t have time to be so overbearing.
GM: Generally, girls whose mothers work have it slightly easier because their mothers have seen far more and have had more interactions. They’re slightly more open-minded than mothers who stay at home. There are mothers who don’t know what other girls the same age are wearing or doing.
NA: What do you think about her stance on punishment? How do Indian parents punish their kids, generally?
GM: Just a few months ago, my daughter was sitting in her college computer science class and they were talking about punishment for middle school and high school kids. My daughter told them that she’d never been punished in her life and they were all shocked. I even had the computer science professor calling me and telling me this. And I mean, how do you punish a high school kid? He told me, “Yeah, she said she wasn’t even ever sent to her room.” And I was like, “Why would I send her to her room? She’d only be too happy to go! The real punishment would be to say ‘Sit down and eat with us. Sit here and talk to us.’” On the other hand, I do know, in our community, hitting is considered nothing. But, as kids grow older, parents do tend to back off a bit. It’s very unusual for high school kids to be hit in their homes, but we’re not talking about abuse cases. There’s a lot of parental control and there’s a lot of yelling. We love to yell. I mean, I’ve yelled a lot.
NA: What would you say is a particular trait of Indian parenting, separate from this “Chinese Mother” way?
GM: She doesn’t really talk about this, but as an Indian parent, I feel like for us it’s not just about our kids but we’re almost always more concerned about other Indian kids. For example, many of my students tell me this, but even if you go to the temple or the Islamic community center or something, the ‘Aunty Effect’ kicks in. I wrote an article about this a little while ago. The kids are not so scared of their own parents, but they’re outright scared of aunties and what the aunties will ask them or what they’ll do. It takes a village to raise a child. It’s extended parenting. You’re answerable to so many. Many people are keeping tabs on you, give you, unsolicited or solicited advice, and they’re harsher on you than your parents are.
NA: What part do you think Indian-American kids play in the parenting process? I mean, in this article they seem to alternate between being forced to do things they don’t want and ultimately obeying.
GM: The kids give up a lot. I know kids who got into universities where they wanted to go, but they weren’t allowed to. Even at the graduate level. I’m writing letters of recommendation right now, and I have kids who aren’t allowed to apply to the East Coast. There’s so much evaluation going on, on the parent by other parents. Half the things Indian parents do by way of parenting is because of pressure from other parents. It’s not so much that they believe in it, it’s more like peer pressure.
NA: What do you think the lasting effects are on the kids? Or what are the lasting effects on the culture?
GM: It reinforces this notion of success. The Indian-American community, according to me, is growing. With the rise of people like Kal Penn, people do come to accept that there are other things one can do in life to be successful.
NA: Besides being an engineer, lawyer, or doctor?
GM: Exactly. Or that it is respectable because now he’s in the White House. Even now, you’re seeing so many more Indians on TV, like in Parks and Recreation or The Office where they’re not being typecast as speaking with an Indian accent. You see seven or eight prominent Indians within entertainment—like Russell Peters who’s one of the highest paid comedians. He’s not just popular among the South Asian community, either.
NA: So, if people like this are becoming big, then the Indian-American parenting style must be changing, right?
GM: Yes, but if an article like this, though, is taken seriously by the Indian-American community, it’ll push us back to the stereotypical things of being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. People are becoming more open-minded. A lot of these things wouldn’t have happened if people weren’t changing or kids weren’t changing. Parents are changing. The next generation is changing; it’s indeed different from the last.
NA: Well, that goes into my next question. Do you think that this controlling parenting style will last? Or do you think it’ll die out with the next generation with us?
GM: It’s a reality with any group. All Americans, not just hyphenated ones, are changing. We’re also mixing a lot. More languages are being taught right now that at any other point in U.S. history. The next generation is likely to be more American, because it’s more mixed, in a nicer, different way. It’s going to evolve. Maybe they might adopt parts of this article or different parenting styles, and maybe it’s for the better.