Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Review: A Memoir of East vs. West Parenting

There has been a lot said and written about the Wall Street Journal excerpt of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was published as a column as Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, but few who have commented on the column or who have criticized Chua have actually read her book. I wanted to give Chua the benefit of the doubt as she defended herself as she increasingly became a target of increasing attacks and criticisms – again, by many of those who had not even read her book.

For the most part, I’d say the original excerpt contains the most sensational parts of the 220+ page memoir, which does get to most of the essence of the book. The book is a fairly easy read. I’d find myself agreeing with Chua here and there and was also struck with amazement (in a bad way), as to how strict of a mother she was. More often than not, I tended to side more with Chua’s overall thinking (if not her actual tactics) than against it as I reflected upon my own upbringing, which I don’t think was all that strict. (I think it was more strict than my friends while growing up, who were all white – since I was born-and-raised in Western Massachusetts where I could count the number of Asians or minorities on two hands in my graduating class of 273.) Maybe if my parents were more Tiger in their nature, I would have gone to MIT instead of Cornell, which my brother did two years later.

While plowing through the book, I was expecting, maybe stereotypically so, a more traditional accounting of an Asian American Model Minority Mom focused primarily on her kids’ academics. However, most of Chua’s focus of the book is on her oldest daughter Sophia’s piano and youngest daughter Lulu’s violin playing and not on their academics (though they excel at academics as well). It didn’t seem that Chua necessarily wanted her daughters to become professional musicians. While growing up, Chua did play the piano, but not at a virtuoso level like her kids. Did Chua just want her daughters to be “world class” in something, as a way to compensate for herself that she found lacking? Her daughters overall did seem to enjoying playing the piano or violin, except towards the end when the younger daughter Lulu was rebelling.

I know my mother has expressed some regret that I did not learn the piano, even though my parents made me switch from playing the trumpet to playing the violin in the 4th grade. I didn’t mind; playing the trumpet was kind of physically exhausting – basically blowing a horn with puckered lips all the time. I was never really good at the violin; I had one year of lessons. For the most part, I did enjoy the violin, but certainly didn’t practice that much – only what was needed for me to play sufficiently in orchestra. Plus, there were already other and better Asian Americans who played the violin better than me who took the instrument a lot more seriously than me. My brother played the clarinet in middle school and for part of high school.

It did seem that Sophia (who has since been accepted by Harvard and Yale) was intrinsically interested and motivated in playing the piano and appreciated all the guidance and discipline that her mother instilled. Sophia even had written a lovely rebuttal to her mother’s critics in the New York Post defending her Mom. However, even Chua’s parents expressed concerned about Chua’s regimented practice – especially when the family went on vacation abroad (I thought that was just plain crazy – having to find a place to practice piano in a foreign city as well as bring along a violin).

For all the controversy of “Chinese” versus “Western” rearing, if I were a parent, I’d probably lean more towards Chua. I related the most to this passage in Chua’s memoir as I reflected my parents’ voyage to America and my own upbringing:

The immigrant generation is the hardest-working (like my parents). Many will have started off in the United States almost penniless, but they will work nonstop until they become successful engineers, scientists, doctors, academics or businesspeople.

The next generation (mine), the first to be born in America, will typically be high-achieving. They will usually play the piano and/or violin. They will attend an Ivy League or Top Ten university… If they are female, they will often marry a white person.
….
The next generation (Sophia and Lulu’s) is the one I spend nights lying awake worrying about. Because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents, this generation will be born into the great comforts of the upper middle class. … They will have wealthy friends who get paid for B-pluses.

My brother and sister-in-law (also a Taiwanese American) recently became parents with the birth of  their daughter, and I wonder what kind of parents they will be, how their daughter will be raised and how well she will do academically (given that both parents are highly educated from Tiger Mom approved name brand universities).

I was really struck by Chua’s statement, “If they are female, they will often marry a white person,” which I think is actually factually incorrect overall (though I cannot say definitively that this is truly the case in academia). Now Asian American women may marry a non-Asian male more frequently than an Asian American male marrying a non-Asian female, but overall, most Asian American women do marry Asian American men – and increasingly so as more Asians immigrate to the United States.

As one friend and detractor of mine had commented, if Chinese culture and parenting is so great, why did Chua marry a white guy? It’s true, Chua does contrast her parenting style with her in-laws and how her husband was raised. Chua’s husband, who is mostly absent in Chua’s memoir, was raised the Western parenting way and turned out perfectly fine. Yet, Chua for most of her memoir consistently berates “Western” parenting over “Chinese” parenting.

Chua did express some concern of her parents’ reaction about dating and then marrying a white man. Chua doesn’t necessarily come across as the stereotypical Asian American female that only dates and eventually marries only white men. In fact, elsewhere in her memoir, she contemplates “A tiny part of me regrets that I didn’t marry another Chinese person and worries that I am letting down four thousand years of civilzation.” I once had a very uncomfortable drive back to college when my father expressed explicit preference that I eventually marry a Taiwanese, Chinese or at least Asian woman rather than a non-Asian and can’t help but also share sometimes thinking about letting down thousands of years of civilization with my father long gone (though that thought is somewhat alleviated with my brother and his wife and their lovely Taiwanese American daughter).

Looking back, I am kind of surprised at how relatively lenient my parents were. The only thing my father was pretty persistent in was trying to get us to learn Chinese, especially during our summer breaks, but that was always kind of a losing proposition – especially as my brother and I entered high school and stopped going to Chinese school on Sundays. My brother and I watched a LOT of TV. We hung out with friends and I even went on sleepovers here and there.

My father did decide that my brother and I should study French over Spanish in middle school, and he did research what he thought the high school electives I should take, though in retrospect, I don’t think they were very wise. My parents actually did not study medicine, engineering, business or law. My father studied Foreign Languages and my mother was a Geography major who later taught elementary school prior to immigrating to the United States. I did think that if my brother and I had studied something less “practical” than Mechanical Engineering. In fact, I remember one co-worker of mine questioned why I studied Engineering and not film after seeing some videos I had edited in high school for public access television. I thought about it and did not think that would have even been an option that would have been approved by my parents – maybe a self-imposed Model Minority mental block. Who knows, I could have been the next Ang Lee (who, if you read about his background overcame great odds against his father to become a filmmaker, but made history by being the first Asian American ever to win an Oscar for Best Director for Brokeback Mountain).

As I kept reading, I was wondering when Chua was going to find redemption and possibly see some of the errors of her ways. It was only until Chapter 31 (out of a total 34 chapters) do we see younger daughter Lulu start rebelling overtly, loudly and physically during an outburst while on vacation in Russia.

We also see a more down-to-earth and balanced view of Chua towards the end of the book, as Chua discusses how her younger sister Katrin had been stricken by leukemia and may not have survived. Chua reflected on what was really important in her life and her family as she saw Katrin was hanging on to life and how she bonded with her family.

Chua also reflects on how her dad was the rebellious one in his family and after leaving for college, never had a close relationship with his parents. I thought this passage was one of the most or possibly the most self-reflective Chua got to her rethinking about her parenting style might be detrimental to her children:

Compared to his siblings, my father was the family outlaw, risk-taking and rebellious. To put it mildly, his mother didn’t respect his choices, value his individualism, or worry about his self-esteem—all those Western clichés. The result was that my father hated his family—found it suffocating and undermining—and as soon as he had a chance he moved as far away as he could, never once looking back. What my father’s story illustrates is something I suppose I never wanted to think about. When Chinese parenting succeeds, there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed. For my own father it hadn’t. He barely spoke to his mother and never thought about her except in anger. By the end of her life, my father’s family was almost dead to him.

Chua did not want to be alienated by her daughter Lulu much like her father had alienated his parents.

Overall, I think Chua’s main point is that very young kids often do not know what they want. Good parents need to instill a sense of work ethic and dedication. Practice makes perfect. But where Tiger mothering gets things wrong is when a Tiger parent like herself pushes her children so hard against their kids’ interests as they grow up and find their true individual callings which may be counter to what a parent envisioned. Tiger parenting to an extreme can be destructive to the child and to the relationship throughout life.

If I were an economist, I’d say that from an overall societal view, Asian or immigrant way of thinking of raising children is probably better for overall productivity and economic growth. But if I were a psychiatrist and had only a choice, probably the “Western” way of raising children would make more sense.

The ideal way, which may sound very vanilla, is a hybrid approach, which Chua evolves towards the end is how she has moderated her views on child rearing. Though I would have been more convinced of her reformed thinking if it had happened towards the middle of her memoir rather than her contemplating such thoughts towards the last few chapters.

Overall, I’d have to say that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an interesting and easy read. Given the intensity of the discussion around the book, Tiger Mom is here to stay in our vernacular and that the increased scrutiny on Chua will further cause her to examine and acknowledge some of the self-proclaimed errors of her ways – and I think it has.

Since Chua’s publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she has been relentlessly trying to defend and clarify her positions that her book is a memoir and not a how-to-guide and convey a sense of her reformed thinking of child rearing. I think she does a much better job describing her new reformed views in a recent May 2011 USA Today opinion piece on how to reshape U.S. education rather than in her last few chapters of her book:

Today, most Asian countries are trying to find ways to encourage more creativity, individuality and leadership in their children. My memoir —seen in the West as a story about “extreme” parenting — is being marketed the opposite way in China, as a story about the importance of giving kids more freedom. Amusingly, the book’s title in China is Parenting by a Yale Professor: Raising Kids in America, and I was asked by one Chinese women’s magazine to give its readers tips on “how to be friends with your kids.” … Self-discipline and focus are skills that have to be instilled when children are young — and that’s one thing the Asian nations excel at. The great virtue of America’s system is that our kids learn to be leaders, to question authority, to think creatively…

If in their early years we teach our children a strong work ethic, perseverance and the value of delayed gratification, they will be much better positioned to be self-motivated and self-reliant when they become young adults. This is a way to combine East and West: more structure when our children are little (and will still listen to us), followed by increasing self-direction in their teenage years. America’s comparative advantage has always been its openness and inclusiveness. In parenting as in all other spheres, we should let go of convenient but false dichotomies — creativity or discipline, freedom or hard work — and aim to incorporate the best of all worlds.

I think this kind of wisdom and advice may help counter and help Asian American parents raise their kids beyond the Model Minority stereotype – and some of the pitfalls of that stereotype. In the recently much commented blog posting on Wesley Yang’s New York Magazine cover story on Paper Tigers – What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?, playing the violin or piano well, getting great grades and getting into Ivy League caliber schools is not the end-all, be-all of success in the United States. And in fact, that is where success in America often hits a glass or bamboo ceiling shortly after all the academic test taking is over and the real test of life begins.

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Author: John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)