Digital Archive: Amy Chua, “music moms,” and classical music

The myth of the model minority has a profound impact in shaping the image of Asian Americans and Asians in America today. The field of classical music is no stranger to this myth – recent increases in the presence of Asian and Asian American classical musicians has been met with intense scrutiny over their cultures and identities. One product of this scrutiny is the stereotype of Asian “music moms,” where the figure of pushy, competitive, stern, and heartless parents complements the myth’s original image of emotionless, robotic, and overly diligent young geniuses. (Wang 881). These “music moms” are, within the broader “yellow peril” discourse, dismissed as an outgrowth of “the Asian culture” that is parasitically creeping into the traditionally white territory of classical music. Through an analysis of Amy Chua’s autobiography Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, however, I argue that “music moms” should be understood as more than a phenomenon. Rather, it is an identity that is molded by the intersecting forces of race and class.

Establishing racial legitimacy is a concern that music moms most consciously address with their lifestyle. While diligence and talent are praised for white classical musicians, the same traits are weaponized against successful Asian and Asian American classical musicians. Within the dominant narrative, these minority musicians have, in some way or another, achieved their success through illegitimate and even condemnatory ways. In confronting this myth, the “music moms” produce their own counternarrative that over-emphasizes Asian-ness as source of their children’s racial superiority in classical music. Symbols of discipline, authoritative, and punishment are reclaimed in their narrative and turned against whiteness as reasons that explain why white classical musicians are being dominated in the very field that they claim entitlement to.

In Chua’s autobiography, we can see how she constantly owns up to the negative stereotype that “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all their children’s own desires and preferences” by repeatedly pointing to the success of her children in contrast to the failure of white children. This sentiment is also echoed by other “music moms,” some of whom go so far as to express confusion as to why classical music, an activity that heavily focuses on discipline and focus, was a Western activity in the first place. For them, “the activity of learning classical music” was “coded… as an ‘Asian’ cultural trait.” In embracing that notion, “pursuing classical music training became an explicit way of preserving an ‘Asian’ identity in the face of mainstream ‘American’ society” (Wang 893).

The other important concern is that of economic mobility and what classical music signifies for the “music moms.” Here, it might be useful to contrast Chua’s experience as a person with the privilege of citizenship and economic security, to the experiences of other “music moms” who lack such privilege. Throughout the book, recognition of the class dynamic within the classical music scene is absent for Chua. Her narrative focuses on the importance of classical music as a tool for fostering “Asian” values, but stops short. As a person of relative privilege, her only encounter with classism is when she feels that she cannot mingle with other “music moms” in the preparatory school and feels distant. Chua shows that she cannot connect to music moms who make their children pursue classical music as a means of economic mobility.

On the other hand, the issue of class status is the primary motive for many immigrant parents of lower class. For them, classical music signifies something that is “a very prestige kind of a thing” (Wang 895). Classical music training, then, is a way of getting access to that symbolic realm of high class. For example, an immigrant mother from Hong Kong describes the ability to understand classical music as an “advantage,” or an intrinsically good value that separates her from those who are illiterate in classical music (Wang 895).

Chua’s personal experience and those of other “music moms” portray the difficulty of navigating race and class in classical music. However, in embracing the identity as “music moms,” they are more able to reclaim their life in classical music as a legitimate way form of education and parenting. Although in some ways the identity of “music moms” re-inscribe pre-existing hierarchies, the performance of owning up to “Asian-ness” has the effect of subverting and disarming harmful stereotypes that are imposed on Asian and Asian American parents and their children in the classical music scene.

 

Sources

Wang, Grace. “Interlopers in the Realm of High Culture: ‘Music Moms’ and the Performance of Asian and Asian American Identities,” American Quarterly, vol. 61 (2009).

Chua, Amy. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Web.

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