Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," on Chinese-American family culture
Friday, January 7, 2011; 8:14 PM
BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER
By Amy Chua
Penguin Press. 237 pp. $25.95
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.
And, oh, what Chua put herself and her daughters through before she got to her moment of reckoning. On weekends, they would spend hours getting to and from music lessons and then come home and practice for hours longer. At night, Chua would read up on violin technique and fret about the children in China who were practicing 10 hours a day. (Did this woman ever sleep?) She insisted that her daughters maintain top grades - Bs, she notes, inspire a "screaming, hair-tearing explosion" among Chinese parents and the application of countless practice tests. She once refused to let a child leave the piano bench to use the bathroom. She slapped one daughter who was practicing poorly. She threatened her children not just with stuffed-animal destruction, but with exposure to the elements. She made them practice on trips to dozens of destinations, including London, Rome, Bombay and the Greek island of Crete, where she kept Lulu going so long one day that the family missed seeing the palace at Knossos.
Sometimes, you're not quite sure whether Chua is being serious or deadpan. For example, she says she tried to apply Chinese parenting to the family's two dogs before accepting that the only thing they were good at was expressing affection. "Although it is true that some dogs are on bomb squads or drug-sniffing teams," she concluded, "it is perfectly fine for most dogs not to have a profession, or even any special skills." On the one hand, she seems aware of her shortcomings: She is, she notes, "not good at enjoying life," and she acknowledges that the Chinese parenting approach is flawed because it doesn't tolerate the possibility of failure. On the other hand, she sniffs that "there are all kinds of psychological disorders in the West that don't exist in Asia." When not contemptuous, some of her wry observations about Western-style child-rearing are spot-on: "Private schools are constantly trying to make learning fun by having parents do all the work," and sleepovers are "a kind of punishment parents unknowingly inflict on their children through permissiveness."
Readers will alternately gasp at and empathize with Chua's struggles and aspirations, all the while enjoying her writing, which, like her kid-rearing philosophy, is brisk, lively and no-holds-barred. This memoir raises intriguing, sometimes uncomfortable questions about love, pride, ambition, achievement and self-worth that will resonate among success-obsessed parents. Is it possible, for example, that Chinese parents have more confidence in their children's abilities, or that they are simply willing to work harder at raising exceptional children than Westerners are? Unfortunately, the author leaves many questions unanswered as her book limps its way to a conclusion, with Chua acknowledging her uncertainty about how to finish it and the family still debating the pros and cons of her approach (anyone hoping for a total renunciation of the Chinese approach will be disappointed).
Ending a parenting story when one child is only 15 seems premature; in fact, it might not be possible to really understand the impact of Chua's efforts until her daughters have offspring of their own. Perhaps a sequel, or a series ("Tiger Grandmother"!) is in the works. But while this battle might not have been convincingly concluded, it's engagingly and provocatively chronicled. Readers of all stripes will respond to "Tiger Mother."
Elizabeth Chang is an editor of The Washington Post's Sunday Magazine.