‘Tiger Mother’ author faces a tough crowd at Politics and Prose

February 21, 2011

The monstrous, horrible Tiger Mother has reportedly entered the building, and the audience is getting restless.

“He’s missing the event of the year,” whispers one Asian woman in the Politics and Prose bookstore Friday evening, about a “he” who is presumably her husband.

“Is it the event of the year?” her friend asks.

“For Chinese people it is,” she says. “The event of the year.”

Up at the front, Lorin Kleinman turns to her seatmate. “What did you bring to throw?” she asks. “I brought eggs.” She is joking.

By 5:30 p.m. the parking lot is full for the 7 p.m. reading of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” By 6 p.m. every chair is taken, and people begin protectively reserving floor space with their jackets. An announcement is made: The event will be broadcast throughout the store on closed-circuit televisions. Those who cannot see the monstrous, horrible Tiger Mother in person will, the announcement assures everyone, be able to hear the monstrous, horrible Tiger Mother’s voice.

And then, as if summoned by the collective subconscious, by the sum total of all parental insecurities and American inferiority complexes, the Tiger Mother appears. Amy Chua has a bubbly laugh and very nice hair. She weighs maybe 100 pounds.

She smiles.

The audience bares its teeth.

“It has been,” Chua says cheerfully, “a pretty intense month.”

By now you have heard the back story. In January, a “Tiger Mother” excerpt appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The article was headlined “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”; the ensuing explanation seemed to be “Because they are wackadoo.”

Chua, a Yale law professor, describes forcing her daughters to practice piano for hours without bathroom or water breaks, and requiring hundreds of nightly math problem sets. She rejects her children’s homemade birthday cards when they do not meet her standards.

The article was mass-forwarded.

The book was mass-purchased.

It has become the single cultural moment of 2011 about which everyone — even those who think that the book is an autobiography by Tiger Woods’s mom — must have an opinion. Hundreds of people are now shoehorned into this bookstore to hear what this woman has to say for herself.

“For the millionth time, no, I did not write the [Journal] headline,” is what she has to say. She did not mean for the book to be read as a parenting manual, is what she has to say. (Later, on the phone, she will also say, “I really do feel like I’m doing damage control” at her readings. “I never expected the book to be taken this way.”)

She’d hoped the book would be received as a funny, self-deprecating memoir. Like a David Sedaris book.

It was not.

“From a clinical standpoint, have you ever considered getting some help?” asks a woman named Grisel Martinez during the question-and-answer session.

“I feel like you are being disingenuous,” says a young Caucasian guy, after Chua says that she knows nothing about child psychology. “For you to claim that you don’t know anything about filial piety . . . do you know that Asian girls have high suicide rates? People are not here to see you as David Sedaris.

No, of course not. People are here to judge. Or at least pretend to judge, while surreptitiously picking up parenting tips. By all accounts Chua’s daughters — now teenagers — are well-adjusted girls who love their mom. In the competitive sport of parenting, the most horrifying aspect of the book is the possibility that she might be right. Maybe the way to help children do better in math is to make them do math, rather than make them talk about how math makes them feel.

If “Tiger Mom” had been written by a woman of a different nationality (“Why French Women’s Kids Don’t Get Fat”), it might not have raised so many hackles. But this book came on the heels of that weirdly racist Citizens Against Government Waste commercial — the one where the futuristic Chinese professor cackles maniacally over the downfall of America — and at a time of concern about the U.S. economy and American children’s ability to compete.

Finally, a book that both permissive lefty parents and frightened righty wing nuts can both get behind hating.

Only it’s considerably harder to hate Chua in person, when she’s rolling her eyes apologetically at certain passages, as if to say, “Yeah. I know. This one’s awful.”

“You are my David Sedaris,” one young woman tells Chua. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants; she feels that the book captured the love, pain and humor of her childhood.

“I think the chord you struck was one of guilt and jealousy,” says one woman, who identifies herself as a single, struggling mom. She would like to be more Tigerlike, she confesses. She just doesn’t have the resources or energy.

Afterward, a reporter caught up with Justin Schubow, the angry questioner who brought teenage suicide and filial piety into the discussion. “She was very skillful” at charming the audience, he says, but he is still disgusted. “To me, [the memoir] is all about her personal status and overcoming her own issues.”

However, he admits, he has not read the whole book.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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