Wednesday, March 02, 2011
read it: battle hymn of the tiger mother
As per usual, I'm late to this party.... Weeks and weeks ago, Asian and parent bloggers alike went bananas over this WSJ article by Amy Chua’s about her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”.
Although the article painted a horrific picture of what the book and the author were about, I couldn’t help but think of other blogging controversies where someone was quoted out of context and blown completely out of proportion.
At least, I really hoped that was the case. I was disappointed that most of the posts I’d read were written by bloggers who’d not read the book. These posts by Disgrasian and Jeff Yang encouraged me though. I finally picked up the book a few days ago. I finished it in two days. And I really liked it.
Here’s a description of the book:
Chua imparts the secret behind the stereotypical Asian child's phenomenal success: the Chinese mother. Chua promotes what has traditionally worked very well in raising children: strict, Old World, uncompromising values--and the parents don't have to be Chinese. What they are, however, are different from what she sees as indulgent and permissive Western parents: stressing academic performance above all, never accepting a mediocre grade, insisting on drilling and practice, and instilling respect for authority. Chua and her Jewish husband (both are professors at Yale Law) raised two girls, and her account of their formative years achieving amazing success in school and music performance proves both a model and a cautionary tale. Sophia, the eldest, was dutiful and diligent, leapfrogging over her peers in academics and as a Suzuki piano student; Lulu was also gifted, but defiant, who excelled at the violin but eventually balked at her mother's pushing. Chua's efforts "not to raise a soft, entitled child" will strike American readers as a little scary--removing her children from school for extra practice, public shaming and insults, equating Western parenting with failure--but the results, she claims somewhat glibly in this frank, unapologetic report card, "were hard to quarrel with."
I could relate to it in a few ways: as a tiger mom (lite) , as a tiger cub of a tiger mom (lite), and as friend to tiger cub of tiger mom (heavy). Without a doubt, Amy Chua is (or was, if you read the book) tiger mom. She mentions in her book that she uses the terms “Chinese parent” and “Western parent” loosely - that Chinese parents can be non – Chinese and Western parents can be non-Western. Although I agree w/ her to an extent, I can’t help but think that maybe she should have come up with other terminology to differentiate – in this small way, I think use of that term does encourage a model minority stereotype as well as a sense of us (foreign) v. them(domestic). Maybe a Strict mom v. Lax mom conflict instead? I think what she also fails to reflect on is the economics of this. In my (limited) experience, most (not all) of the tiger moms (heavy) I know/knew were moms from affluent/educated families like Chua’s. And tiger moms (lite), like mine, were from educated but not necessarily affluent backgrounds. They differ in that tiger mom (lite) is usually slightly less aggressive and demanding, prone to redirection, instead of confrontation. They do share a high regard for work ethic and an almost visceral contempt for laziness.
Early on in the book, Chua strikes a dissonant chord with me, personally:
“Of course, I also wanted Sophia to benefit from the best aspects of American society. I did not want her to end up like on of those weird Asian automatons who feel so much pressure from their parents that they kill themselves after coming in second…. I wanted her… to have hobbies and activities… not… like “crafts” which can lead to nowhere – or even worse… rather a hobby that was meaningful and highly difficult with the potential for depth and virtuosity.” (emphasis mine)
crafts are neither meaningful or difficult, without depth or virtuosity. (!!??) I know. I had to put the book down at this point and take in some cleansing breaths. Memories of my own parents who pounded fists to tables and screamed “NO!” when I told them I was going to study poetry and fashion design at art school came flooding back.
Funny thing is, later in the book, Chua writes about her oldest daughter’s debut, “This time I’d really gone wild. I’d spoken to Jed, and we decided to forgo our winter vacation for the year. Sophia’s dress for the event was a charcoal satin floor-length gown from Barneys New York…” HA! *snort* How can something so meaningless cost a portion of a family winter vacation? Why/how does she justify that expense?
As I read further and further into the book, I was slightly unnerved to find I had more and more things in common with Chua. I am also married to a Caucasian (ok, he’s mixed – Puerto Rican + insert European country here, but he looks white) and have two mixed kids. Although her parents aren’t Filipino, they spent a chunk of time in the Philippines before Chua was born. After her parents emigrated, Chua also grew up in the Midwest. I can especially relate to her memories/feelings of being an “outsider” in America, with one of my feet planted in the Philippines and another in the US.
When she writes about disciplining her daughters, although oftentimes, a little too harsh for my taste, it is not uncommon to my own disciplinary routine. It’s very common for my kids to lose toys to the donation box as punishment. I was never allowed a sleepover and was only allowed one sleepover in my entire childhood. And it was miserable. Honestly, I don’t trust anyone with my kids for sleepovers – too many tragic stories of abuse from trusted family /friends have scared me away from the idea. Paloma has been on one sleepover. In one big living room, I slept on the couch, while they slept in a tent.
However, I’m thankful that Chua and I don’t share the same determination and focus when it comes to achieving a goal. Times when she mentions asking her daughters to practice for 9 hours, driving for 18 hours to a lesson w/ a dog and a child in a cast, the cost (financial and emotional) of all these lessons from different and exclusive teachers, etc… Although, I can only speak from our economic level… Clearly, Chua and I are not equals there… I don’t know what’s it’s like to have the kind of wherewithal to take a family of 4 on a annual/bi-annual vacation.
I think it’s also important to note that Chua’s final resignation to her daughters’ differences and her parenting style changing accordingly is something that should be attributed to the tunnel vision that siblings acquire. I think there’s something more to be explored re: one’s place in the family – maybe because Chua is the oldest of four siblings, her tiger mom style works “better” with the older daughter and not the younger. Although Chua mentions that all of her siblings are successful, she assumes her mother addressed their conflicts similarly.
However, Chua’s own mother criticizes her for treating Chua’s daughters the same when they are so different. Later in the book, Chua’s daughters also have completely different ideas about who is the “favorite” daughter and why. She retells a portion of her father’s life with his tiger mom. He was the 4th of 6 children, the perceived black sheep of the family who got the short end of the stick. Fed up with the abuse and disrespect, he ends up leaving his family and has nothing to do with them again. All of these perspectives were resonant, revelatory and heartbreaking.
All in all, I found the book entertaining and easy to read and to relate to (in a scary way...) But again, i think that may be because I'm asian and all too familiar with this style of parenting which "worked" for me as a child and some aspects of which work for me as a parent. On the flip side, the thin man read it almost as quickly as i did and HATED it...