Q: You are known as the “Tiger Mom.” Do you think the title overshadowed your other work?
A: It’s crazy. You know, most, many people know of me as the tiger mom but don’t even know that in my real job, I am a Yale law professor and my expertise is in foreign policy and ethnic conflicts. At the beginning, I was a little bit upset about it. I kept wanting to say, “Wait! You misunderstand the book.” I mean, the truth is, I think that many people talking about the book and what they think of it are actually people who never read the book.
So they had this idea, this crazy, strict mom saying it’s better. But if you actually read the book — I wrote it when my younger daughter rebelled against my strict parenting. So it’s a much more thoughtful book. I am in favor of higher expectations. I am a very proud, relatively strict mom, not in a way that both people in the U.S. and China think I mean it. Because a lot of in the book was supposed to be funny and tongue-in-cheek. You know my own parents were immigrants. And they were super strict. No boyfriends, no dances. And I hated that. So I was kind of making fun of that, you know, I was much more lenient on myself. But now, you know, it’s been eight years. Now I kind of realize, you know, it was an incredible opportunity. Without that controversy, I would never have met so many amazing people. Including all the wonderful people at SupChina. You know, a lot of that came because of the firestorm and suddenly, people wanted to talk to me. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for my whole family as well.
Q: What do you think is the biggest difference in parenting between the West and the East?
A: I feel that when it comes to raising children or educating children, the East and West almost have the exact opposite problems. In my view, kind of mainstream Western parenting, sometimes it’s too permissive, too coddling, you know, sometimes you let kids give up too fast. And that is not necessarily a recipe for happiness. On the other hand, I think for traditional Asian parenting, again, it’s not everybody but just sort of generally, it’s too strict, and too stifling, too suffocating, and not very good at promoting creativity and leadership and fun-lovingness.
I think, in some ways, my view is kind of if you could mix the best of both aspects. For example, a little more self-discipline in many young Western kids would actually help them a lot when they get to high school and college. Because when they get so stressed, you can’t sit down for 10 minutes. In “The Triple Package,” we actually write about the benefit of the ability to be able to have impulse control, the ability to sit still for 20 minutes. I think the problem on the other side is, you know, I don’t know about sitting still and listening to a lecture for 10 straight hours, I think that’s not a very good way of stimulating exciting original thoughts. So again, I think it’s too much on both sides. And if you can find a happy medium, that would be the ideal for me.
Q: In your first book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, you talked about what would happen if the U.S. pursued its democracy promotion agenda in countries ruled by ethnic or religious groups. Can you elaborate?
A: So my first book, I published it in 2003. And you have to remember, back in 2003, it was just after the Soviet Union collapsed. And everybody, although in the West, was so excited about markets and democracy. They just wanted to export it to everywhere. Everybody needs this. In my book, I sort of pointed it out from the point of view of an outsider because of my own family. They are Chinese, but they grew up in the Philippines.
So I knew that there are these small ethnic minorities, like ethnic Chinese who are only about 3% of the population in Indonesia, in the Philippines. And those countries, you see when you have democracy, it’s actually not this fairy-tale thing. Sometimes democracy can be very destabilizing. And it can turn into an engine for ethnonationalism or confiscation. So my first book was basically saying, “Look, everybody. Democracy is a great thing to aspire to, but it’s not that easy to just implement overnight, especially for countries that are very, very different from the United States.
Q: In your book Political Tribalism, you examined the “tribal” political instinct. While it’s mainly about the U.S., are there lessons to be learned for American foreign policy?
A: When I wrote this book, Political Tribalism, it was a couple of years ago when things had only gotten more and more intense and actually worse.
I do think the reaction against China is an example of tribalism, but it’s not the only example. What we are seeing in the United States is so many different forms of tribalism at so many different levels. You see the coastal elites reacting against less-educated Trump supporters and you see just it’s at all different levels. But, yes, I think it’s often driven by the same thing. That is, when people feel insecure or threatened, that’s when they became more tribal.
When they close wings and look for more people like themselves, and it gets to be a zero-sum game. And unfortunately, that kind of thing is easily triggered by a few loud voices. You know, kind of whipping up anxiety, and I do worry that that’s what we are seeing.
Q: Do you think the current trade war fits into the narration of global tribalism and is a reflection of a zero-sum game?
A: I agree with the people saying that it shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. Of course, there is going to be rivalry. Let’s not be overromantic. There is some level of distrust and, you know, I’m a lawyer, I know about national security concerns, spying concerns. Nevertheless, I think it’s clearly a win-win for both the people in China and the people in the United States if we can have a good exchange. What’s interesting is that you see a lot of that very positively, the smaller local levels like mayors or cities are really interested in that.
And a lot of the antagonism is coming when people are just posturing. They want to get on TV and have their people see them, kind of pointing to an enemy. And that gets people mad and it gets them attention.
So what I am hoping is that the real forces, the people who are actually doing all the business, actually doing all the work, actually doing all the running the country on the smaller levels. And the people actually want the products for a cheaper price in both countries. I am sort of hoping that will dominate. But it’s definitely a tricky time.