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Currently reading: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

While many Asian-American bloggers and writers cried foul after reading Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, I cheered for the title and then sat down to read the WSJ article. I didn’t like the know-it-all tone to the excerpt and quickly realized that the “article” was only a calculated publicity-stirring stunt by WSJ and/or Chua and if you only browse to the Amazon site and read just the cover of the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, you’d know that she has her come-uppance sometime after that self-righteous parenting phase. I blogged this opinion the same week the book came out and only now got around to acquiring a library copy to read it for myself.

I cheered because while I don’t think I’d do exactly as what Chua tried to do as a parent, I have some pretty narrow ideas of my own that eschew a lot of “Western” parenting, or what I think my mum did right and my only hope of having kids who don’t shrug and think they are white and not Chinese at all. Here were some of the things I thought I would do:

  • Although I’m nowhere fluent enough, I’d create a Chinese language environment from the first day; mum as a nanny helps since her Chinese is better than English–kid might start school as “ESL” but they pick up English frighteningly quickly
  • Take the kids to Asia both when young enough to form indelible memories and then when they are old enough to consciously remember
  • Carefully select/restrict their extracurricular activities so they are well-rounded with the “best” skills
  • Guide their life/career selections to equally honourable and stable careers but not be restrict to doctor/lawyer paths

All I can do is wax philosophic about what I would do while Battle Hymn is the memoir of a second-generation (like me!) American-born Chinese mother of immigrant parents (me too!) actually did it trying to carry out strict parenting inspired by Chinese parents. Warning: this is going to be a long one.


As it turns out the WSJ article is largely excerpted from the first chapter of the book where she draws you in with snappy lists of rules and statistics, and disclaimers that don’t really endear her to the readers but rather to stir them up. Even if the reader gets beyond the cover and book jacket, I guess you still have to pile on the verbal firepower to keep them turning pages and investing time reading the book.

Early on, Chua provides a brief family portrait of her family background and that frustrated me. Granted her parents were penniless arriving in America, but they were highly educated, not dysfunction (by her account), and could teach Chua and her sisters “do as I say and as I do”. Success among Chua’s generation is much more likely than the circle I am more familiar with. That is, my circle where less fortunate immigrants arrive in the New World penniless, not so highly educated, and pick up odd jobs. They may have held a “white collar” job in China but children born to them here see them only as labourers and it’s all the harder for those parents to teach “do as I say, not as I do”. When you start splitting hairs, second generation born to professionals have an easier time than the second generation born to labourers, who were raised in kitchens, worked the store front from age 8; so I question the role of Chinese parenting in Chua and her sister’s success. However, I do share the paralyzing fear that the third generation Chinese-American/Canadian is born to be “lost” with respect to holding the Chinese cultural values of their parents and grandparents. There is even a Japanese term for Chua’s and my generation (nisei) and her children’s (sansei).

When Chua wrote, “what Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it”, it was like a blast from the past. Because of my own challenges, it was said to me ad nauseum but what is a child to do in response? The elder daughter accepted Chua’s rules and direction as being best for her while the younger daughter fought back. I took a path in between to seem to have accepted it and never truly internalize the values lying behind the effort. The particularly interesting result–I discovered while reading, like it’s a self-help book–is that I was successful early on but was more like a precarious house of cards, an empty shell. It’s true, a Chinese parent delays their own gratification and continues to fight with her child to follow her Chinese values while Chua disparages the (Western) parents who give up. Although the Western parents cite that children have individual rights, Chua wonders if the parents who give up/in aren’t serving their own sanity mostly by backing off.  Chua outs Chinese parents like my mother who not-so-secretly believe they care more for their children than the daughter’s classmates’ parents, and the evidence is glaring by what they are willing to do for their children. (I’ve made a note that this deserves its own blog post, we’ll see.)

The book was like an exposé of the inner workings of Chinese parenting which she discloses is an inherently closet practice: “If it comes out that you push your kids against their will, or want them to do better than other kids, or God forbid ban sleepovers, other parents will heap opprobrium on you, and your children will pay the price. As a result, immigrant parents learn to conceal things. They learn to look jovial in public and pat their kids on the back.” Although Chua’s book is not the first on Chinese parenting, it is highly accessible and it gathers in one place–if only one parent’s view and experience–all the thoughts rather than counting on stumbling across them on the Internet in various blogs and posts. The writing process encourages complete exploration of the topic and I found all the values my mother expressed in print; it was eerie and very familiar. I sat in a café alone reading and chuckling at the truth of her words and NPY saw me and won’t let me down!

Bloggers have remarked on the absence of mention of the husband, Jed, but I ate up all the details of his role. While Chua directed the methodical acquisition of skills and enrolled the daughters in Chinese classes, his side determined their religion–the funniest part to me being that Jed is not really religious and the daughters learned Mandarin, the most useful dialect to know but one Hokkien-speaking Chua does not understand. It shows what a second generation does, what I would need to do. At times, Jed sounds like the voice of reason and certainly would not hang back and be a trounced-upon husband of a strong Chinese woman; Chua humanizes herself admitting to crazy generalizations about “Westerners” and “Chinese people” despite her intelligent legal mind. Jed represents silent husbands and the daughters’ generation in pointing out, “I know you think you do people a huge favor by criticizing them, so that they can improve themselves, but have you ever considered that you just make people feel bad?” Her ultimate defense is, “the ultimate proof of the superiority of Chinese parenting is how the children end up feeling about their parents. Despite their parents’ brutal demands, verbal abuse, and disregard for their children’s desires, Chinese kids end up adoring and respecting their parents and wanting to care for them in their old age.” It took me years of self-absorbedness and only now that I’m older, facing the prospect of having kid(s) and seeing my parents getting old to realize this. It was mini-cathartic to see this written.

The book seems to boil down to a story about music lessons as a representative of strict Chinese parenting. The school where the daughters learned piano and violin practiced the Suzuki method that requires parent attendance in class and supervision during practice. It was the perfect opportunity for Chua to micromanage their music careers. The book further boils down to the relationship between Chua and the younger daughter who does not naturally and gracefully flourish by Chua’s rules and, incidentally, has the same personality as the Tiger (zodiac sign) mother. Having been through both piano and violin (entirely unsupervised by my mother), I could understand the learning trials but also did not really cared so much about the achievements. I had been most tantalized by the requirements list in the WSJ journal and observed the virtual absence of mention about the battles over academics and social life. Still, the sacrifices everyone made for music are palpable through the anecdotes and detail that is given: although they are an affluent household, the proportion of resources and time Chua committed sounds staggering. It reminds me of the private school and childhood-long lessons in everything that was invested in me, especially as I now learn the mind-boggling cost of enrolment in extracurricular activities. Chua also wrote something that echoed what my mum would say, “There is no rest for the Chinese mother, no time to recharge, no possibility of flying off with friends for a few days to mud springs in California.”

I liked Chua’s deadpan wit that strikes me as ironic and intelligent at its best. Her writing style is breezy with substance and I was drawn in with the rapid-fire statistics in the first chapter, with her stating that what 70% of Western mothers believe about parenting “roughly 0% of Chinese mothers said the same thing”. She introduced her family with a note of self-deprecation, describing her Chinese-Jewish-American children “an ethnic group that may sound exotic but actually forms a majority in certain circles, especially in university towns” and youngest daughter who later fights the most, “Lulu was deceptively cute”.  One of my other favourite parts I can empathize with was when she was grumbling, “besides I was already disadvantaged because I had an American husband who believe that childhood should be fun”.

Parenting as a topic for a book is as old as the hills but not being at that stage I have read only very sparsely that literature. From my own extended family as a sample, where most family units have two children quite opposite of each other, and my own jaded ideas of parenting, I don’t see the sense of a large swath of the parenting book industry because every parent-child relationship is different. I think empathy is required at the core and only after that is achieved can the parent understand how to push the child to greater heights. Still, since it is so contentious, I love how Chua wrote a book that was so initially reviled for casting a “bad light” and so forth on the culture. I might share a lot of the beliefs but I could not write this book with any credibility without raising at least one child and having a degree that allows you to be called Dr. to not be criticized as a stage mom, a shrew.

Chua explains Chinese parenting in an eloquent and sardonic way that an immigrant who is ESL couldn’t. In a way, I saw the book a bit as her tribute to her parents who very naturally practiced Chinese parenting and have four uber-successful daughters (Harvard/Yale post-grads or athletic prowess resulting in Olympic gold) to show for their efforts. It was also a tribute to her daughters–the brilliant obedient one and the still-lovable willful and rebellious one.

Still, I wondered how natural it was for Chua to be a “Chinese parent”. She was born here!! The mind can be entirely convinced on the “Chinese rules” but the heart has to warm to the success achieved by other methods, right? I was not particularly impressed when she confessed that she did not have heart-to-heart talks with her daughters and talk to them about puberty and the Facts of Life–is she somewhat proud to have continued this immigrant family habit? I don’t see those conversations as contravening with the stated strict rules, but I suppose to reproduce Chinese parenting from the previous era, then you continue ignoring those topics. I bristled when she referred to herself, in all seriousness, as a “Chinese mother” instead of what she really is, at the end of the day, after her humbling and changed ways, a Chinese-American mother.

One thought on “Currently reading: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

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