The cover of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” was catnip to this average parent’s soul. Although the memoir seems to have been written to prove that Chinese parents are better at raising children than Western ones, the cover text claims that instead it portrays “a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory” and the Tiger Mother’s humbling by a 13-year-old. As a hopelessly Western mother married into a Chinese family living in an area that generates immigrant prodigies as reliably as clouds produce rain, I was eager to observe the comeuppance of a parent who thought she had all the answers.
And, in many ways, “Tiger Mother” did not disappoint. At night, I would nudge my husband awake to read him some of its more revealing passages, such as when author Amy Chua threatened to burn her older daughter’s stuffed animals if the child didn’t improve her piano playing. “What Chinese parents understand,” Chua writes, “is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” By day, I would tell my own two daughters about how Chua threw unimpressive birthday cards back at her young girls and ordered them to make better ones. For a mother whose half-Chinese children played outside while the kids of stricter immigrant neighbors could be heard laboring over the violin and piano, the book can be wickedly gratifying. Reading it is like secretly peering into the home of a controlling, obsessive yet compulsively honest mother — one who sometimes makes the rest of us look good, if less remarkable and with less impressive offspring. Does becoming super-accomplished make up for years of stress? That’s something my daughters and I will never find out.
Chua is a law professor and author of two acclaimed books on international affairs, though readers of “Tiger Mother” get only a glimpse of that part of her life, with airy, tossed off-lines such as “Meanwhile, I was still teaching my courses at Yale and finishing up my second book” while also “traveling continuously, giving lectures about democratization and ethnic conflict.” Her third book abandons global concerns to focus intimately on Chua’s attempt to raise her two daughters the way her immigrant parents raised her. There would be no play dates and no sleepovers: “I don’t really have time for anything fun, because I’m Chinese,” one of Chua’s daughters told a friend. Instead, there would be a total commitment to academics and expertise at something, preferably an instrument. Though Chua’s Jewish husband grew up with parents who encouraged him to — imagine! — express himself, he nonetheless agreed to let her take the lead in rearing the children and mostly serves as the Greek chorus to Chua’s crazed actions.
In Chinese parenting theory, hard work produces accomplishment, which produces confidence and yet more accomplishment. As Chua notes, this style of parenting is found among other immigrant cultures, too, and I’m sure many Washington-area readers have seen it, if they don’t employ it themselves. Chua’s older daughter, Sophia, a pianist, went along with, and blossomed, under this approach. The younger daughter, Lulu, whose instrument of Chua’s choice was a violin, was a different story. The turning point came when, after years of practicing and performing, Lulu expressed her hatred of the violin, her mother and of being Chinese. Chua imagined a Western parents’ take on Lulu’s rebellion: “Why torture yourself and your child? What’s the point? ... I knew as a Chinese mother I could never give in to that way of thinking.” But she nevertheless allowed Lulu to abandon the violin. Given that the worst Lulu ever did was cut her own hair and throw a glass, my reaction was that Chua got off easy in a society where some pressured children cut themselves, become anorexic, refuse to go to school or worse. No one but an obsessive Chinese mother would consider her healthy, engaging and accomplished daughter deficient because the girl prefers tennis to the violin — but that’s exactly the point.