Amy Chua, March 1, 2011: Prizefight

March 7, 2011

By the New York Bureau Chief

My friend was incredulous: “I can’t quite tell where the performance ends and where [the New York Bureau Chief] begins.” I was explaining my fascination with Charlie Rose, telling him why I’ve dedicated my time (albeit a small amount of it) to Back At This Table. People in the bureau chiefs’ age bracket are supposed to thrill to Stephen Colbert. Was my embrace of the Rose show a kind of ironic rejection of the ironic? The next phase in the meta-meta-meta evolution of hipster taste?

It’s not, and last week’s episode with Amy Chua (which I predicted would occur over a month ago) reminded me of all the very genuine reasons why I love watching Charlie Rose. At his best—and he was at his best in this interview—CR is both a dazzling performer and a master accompanist, the talking-head-show equivalent of Max Roach or Steve Nash—a virtuoso who enhances the abilities of those around him.

Charlie’s interview with Amy Chua rockets through its first round. Chua chatters away her very-talked-over points about how Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir (her models were Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Dave Eggers—uh, huh) and not a parenting how-to guide. Charlie parries with her and throws the occasional counter-punch: “That seems mild compared to what you did!” Six minutes and thirty seconds into this 37 minute interview, all of possible subjects seem to have been covered. “What are they going to talk about for another 30 minutes?” I wrote in my notes. Charlie looks to have more than met his match.

It was all a classic rope-a-dope. Once Chua talks herself out, Charlie controls the interview. He challenges her: “Where does happiness come through in this book?” Then asks, haughtily, “You’re saying, read it properly to find the happiness?!?” Chua responds by going on the defensive, spinning the kind of answer-on-the-fly one gets good at bullshitting during law school. Charlie cuts Chua off, his voice rising from below, “I don’t think you would have written it if it weren’t a love story.”

This flurry of hard and soft, confrontation and affirmation, comes in the space of just a few seconds. It’s a brilliant tactic. Charlie forces Chua to answer tough questions but doesn’t repel her in the way that “gotcha!” interviewers like Deborah Solomon often do their subjects. Chua is—at her core—a student who wants nothing more than to please her teachers. Charlie quickly occupies this role and then presses Chua like a Harvard law prof. “How did you convey love?” Charlie asks his pupil. “”There haven’t been that many Nobel laureates from China,” he states, getting little Amy to concede that there’s something off about Chinese culture. (Couldn’t decades of autocratic rule and an aggressively anti-intellectual policy have had something to do with it? Charlie wins a point that should have been easy for Chua to challenge. He’s dominating this shit.) Then he makes his most teacherly declaration. When Chua admits that her daughter Lulu was a rebel from birth, Charlie says “Exactly right! That’s my point!” Does Charlie have the answer sheet to the secrets of human behavior? By the end of the interview, both he and Amy Chua seem to think so.

Charlie is so confident that he closes by confiding in Chua (and in us) that “probably this table has been the subject of more conversations with more people—five nights a week, twenty years—with more people of achievement than anywhere.” (It’s hard not to love the idea that the table itself is “the subject” of these conversations. Certainly, your bureau chiefs are rejoicing.) And what have these people of accomplishment told Charlie? That success is all about…wait for it…hard work! The revelation is probably not worthy of the buildup, but by that point Chua is just swooning. She ends the interview with a morning-after giggle that we’d have to second: “Thank you so much, Charlie, it was really fun.”

Charlie, Rahm, and the Tiger Mother

January 26, 2011

By the New York Bureau Chief

Amy Chua has never been on Charlie Rose, but given the hype surrounding her new monster-parent memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and her eagerness to shill for a higher Amazon ranking, doesn’t it feel like an appearance is inevitable? Who better than our man to probe the depths of Chua’s monomaniacal quest to rear math-test-acing, Carnegie-Hall-headlining, awesome-birthday-card-making children?

In fact, Charlie has already explored the question of how to raise the most high-achieving offspring possible. In his 2008 sit-down with America’s most famously type-A brothers, Zeke, Ari, and Rahm Emanuel, he asked repeatedly what their parents had done to instill in them the smarts and drive to rise to the top of medicine, politics, and entertainment. One might assume that the Emanuel parents would’ve fit the Chua mold—a tough immigrant father and a ball-busting first-generation American mother have “Chinese” (as Chua defines it) written all over them. But Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel knew better than to shove success down their children’s throats. A side by side comparison of the Tiger Mother and the Tiger Brothers:

On parental involvement:

Tiger Mom: To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

Rahm: Our most formative years were [when] we went to Israel and spent the entire summer there with no plans, nothing to do. We’d be on the beach, we’d be traveling…not a lot of involvement.

Ari: The summers gave us the ability to be together and love each other, but we also had to figure our lives out. [Our parents] gave us a lot of leash.

On working all the time:

Tiger Mom: Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.

Zeke: We used to spend a lot playing in the house, playing outside the house, [playing] on the beach.

On the keys to success:

Tiger Mom: Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

Zeke: I think the most important thing for our success if you ask me, was [our parents'] willingness to let us explore.

On failure:

Tiger Mom: If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.

Rahm: It was our ability to learn from failing—not our competing to win, but the ability to pick yourself up when you failed.

Ari: It’s okay to take risks and fail.

But there is one similarity between the Tiger Mother and the Tiger Brothers, a trait for which the Emanuels have become legend:

Tiger Mom: My father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well.

Rahm: In our house a swear word was a term of affection.


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