Currently reading Kim Wong-Keltner’s Tiger Babies Strike Back

book-tiger-babiesHas it really been two and a half years since that nice and controversial WSJ article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” was published? And while I got my hot little hands on the book to read to review on this blog, it seems that San Franciscan author Kim Wong-Keltner (KWW) read it and wrote a response in book form. Although Amy Chua was immediately flooded with responses and backlash, Wong-Keltner’s Tiger Babies Strike Back is a response published 28 months later. I wonder what Amy Chua has to say?

I have read all of KWW’s fiction – The Dim Sum of All Things and its sequel, Buddha Baby, and gross-out (in my opinion) I Want Candy. It is only natural that I would also read her first work of non-fiction because I do read all her writing and because I’m also a “Tiger Baby”… just not one with a child.

The title, if you missed it, is a riff on the fifth Star Wars movie, “The Empire Strikes Back” and the book is loaded with Star Wars references (no Star Trek) and other pop culture references. For example, KWW likens her sadness at a particular time to her feelings when an Ewok died and found a way to incorporate the phrase “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

When I first started reading Tiger Babies, I wasn’t sure of the direction. KWW’s style is not to have a stuffy and prim treatment or response to the subject. While Amy Chua writes elegantly as befitting a law professor at Yale, KWW has imagery and metaphors derived from pop culture and nerd humour and sometimes dipped into gutter humour. The chapters are short and the first part of the book didn’t seem specific to her own suffering/treatment. It seemed more like a empower-yourself treatise – as a Chinese American and woman. As the book progressed, it was more apparently shifting into a memoir, flowing more coherently or engagingly from one life event to the next. There’s no particular external conflict and the major events included having a child and making the decision to move three hours away from her hometown.

While I have my opinions about Tiger Parenting and how I think I might raise a child, I wanted to see how much they would align with KWW’s. These Tiger Parenting books, at the end of the day, are parenting books and I gathered that KWW’s method is the opposite of Chua’s in outward appearances. Still, I found her lessons from having a child as funny, frank and irreverent. She writes about being a hot mess and how she’s touched all of the time and she only has one child to care for. Anyone who takes parenting a little too seriously wouldn’t enjoy it but where I am right now, it rings true.

Some of the major Tiger Parenting points that raised readers’ ire were addressed in Tiger Babies, but not point-for-point. She presented her own feelings as a Tiger Baby to being called “garbage” and “disgusting” and she talks about the details of allowing playdates. Play dates upturn the house in mere minutes but the creative growth her daughter, Lucy, experiences is within KWW’s values for how she wants to raise her daughter. I found Battle Hymn to be largely focused on the daughters’ musical education and success and it was de-emphasized or non-existent for Lucy. Nevertheless, all the Tiger Babies achieved top marks and that doesn’t get particularly addressed in either books.

What I learned is that a new mother makes the best choices she can make under her circumstances and her own upbringing and – save for bad mothers – it is the right thing to do. The reaction of the child is not always going to be favourable and is child-specific. You can only hope that when the child becomes a mother, the cycle has closed somewhat and she gets to thank her own mother, understand her mother’s world in a way she couldn’t before. With any luck, the new mother gets to thank and appreciate her mother.

KWW writes in a way that hits on truths that keep me coming back – from having a similar upbringing that makes me question my self-worth outside of grades and not meeting Tiger Mother expectations to the struggle with leaving home to more curiosity than the next person about fellow Asian Americans and our collective diaspora. But not all of it is the same as since I like to recollect being a most obedient toddler, sitting quietly under mummy’s desk as she studied.

As with self-help/self-empowering books, you look for the nuggets between all the metaphors for the one that will hit the nail on the head. There were two such gems for me, neither really having to do with parenting as that is not yet applicable to me.

A description that resonated with me was KWW likening her social strategy to that of the failsafe built into five compartments of the Titanic, exposing just one section during a social interaction but never all five.

Finally, I came to appreciate the symbolism of the phoenix in Chinese arts:

“…remember that the ultimate shape-shifter is the phoenix. She is a mythical bird who incinerates herself, then rises from her own ashes. She rises again and again, no matter how often she has previously burst into flames…On textiles and porcelains given as wedding gifts, the dragon represents the husband, but the bride is a phoenix. Even in ancient China, it seems, they knew a woman would need to repeatedly rise from her own ashes.”


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