Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Parents and Verbal Abuse

Why Chinese Mothers are Superior is doing the rounds on the interwebs. Seems to have caused much uproar. Here is one article denouncing the author as an abuser and racist. Here is another refuting the claim that all Chinese mothers are like this.

Amy Chua relates to us the story of a dinner where one of the guests actually broke down cried when she heard that Amy had called her daughter 'fatty' or 'garbage'. Clarissa seems equally outraged. This to me seemed rather odd.

I think this is because the definition of verbal abuse is different in different cultures. My mother has called me names in anger, as she has done to my brother and our cousins (yes, cousins too). So have I to my younger siblings. I never saw this as 'abuse' and I doubt if any of my siblings did either. I don't think this had any bad effect on me as a kid. It was common practice at school for teachers to say things. We said things back to them during lunch hour and got on with our lives.

Words and behaviours do have different connotations in different cultures. Unlike physical abuse, verbal abuse is subjective. It hurts only to the extent that it's defined to hurt you. A child in America grows up learning that a parent calling you 'garbage' is bad and abusive. A child in India might not even think about it for more than a minute.

This is not to say that abuse doesn't exist. A couple of my cousins are short and dark-skinned and hear no end of it. I find that immensely abusive. Another cousin hears no end for being fat. (It is funny that while I can't image her being truly hurt at being called 'fatty' she does get very upset when family memebers discuss her weight in calm, contained voices. So it's the way of saying things that counts too.) I grew up with a complex that I was short and not socially adept because my family constantly reminded me of this. This did have a bad effect on me as a kid.

In short, one does have to be culturally sensitive in defining verbal abuse. A word or tone of voice in one culture/language doesn't mean the same in another culture/language.

1 comment:

  1. The thing to remember here is that Chua didn't publicly call her daughter names where this might or might not be acceptable. She did it in the US where it is not. As a result, this instance of name-calling cannot but be perceived as humiliating by the girls themselves. These are kids who probably know nothing about China. They live in America and so does their peer group. Not being ridiculed or despised by your peer group is central to kids. This is why immigrant parents who have made a conscious decision to emigrate have a duty to find out how some of the behaviors they might see as normal will be perceived by a culture where they now live.

    The kids didn't choose to emigrate. Why should they pay with social ostracism for their parents' choices? And believe me, a girl who is called "fat" by her mother in public will be really ostracized at an American school. Now that this article has come out, this poor kid will be bullied into the ground. It might have been different in China. Chua chose not to live in China, though.