Friday, July 6, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By Amy Chua

Ah, the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Reminds me of a story...

One Christmas during elementary school my parents bought me a guitar. I was ecstatic! My mother signed me up for lessons at a place downtown called Hi-Note and I hauled my new guitar in a pillowcase down there week after week to get private lessons with a teacher there. Problem was, I hated, hated, HATED my teacher. She scared me and didn't really inspire me to play. I was too embarrassed to tell my mom that my teacher scared me so I simply told her I wanted to quit.

She let me.

To this day, it is one of my greatest regrets. I wish I had had the vocabulary to express that it wasn't the guitar I wanted to quit but rather the teacher. But there is a part of me that also wishes that my mother had forced me to continue. I would have done so kicking and screaming, but it would have worked out in the end (or at least I imagine it would have). Long story short, with all due respect to my mum, I suspect that there are advantages to having a tiger mother.

I heard about this book about a year ago when the media circus surrounding Amy Chua's "defense of the Chinese parenting technique" sent Western parents into a feeding frenzy of contempt and scorn. Having spent the past decade living in Taiwan and dealing with parents of Chinese decent (Taiwan is 98% ethnically Chinese), I was more than a little intrigued about what Chua had to say and was curious to see how close she was to what I see from the parents of my students. More on that in a moment.

First, the nuts and bolts of this book have been discussed to death in the media and on blogs all over the Internet and I have no intention of summarizing the book here. The crux of Chua's argument (at least in the first two thirds of the book) is that, by and large, what she calls the "Chinese Parent" is far superior to the Western parent in producing math whizzes, musical prodigies and all-around model children. In the beginning, Chua lays out the checklist of things Chinese parents simply never allow their children to do:

  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a play date
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get a Grade less than an A
  • Not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • Play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • Not play the piano or violin

I can say with a degree of certainty that the above checklist describes a good number (though not all) Chinese parental expectations in Taiwan. So if anyone out there who doesn't live in or near a Chinese (or Taiwanese or Korean or Japanese) society and is appalled at that list, check yourself at the door. She's right. It's true. This is not tongue in cheek humor. This is very much the expectation for all Asian parents, more or less. Deal with that and let's move on. 

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a very interesting and often thought-provoking memoir about Chua's experiences as a Chinese-American mother raising her children (Sophia and Lulu) in the traditional Chinese fashion. Sophia and Lulu were brought up in a strict, no nonsense environment that stressed excellence and achievement over all else (happiness included). This included five to six hours of piano (or violin) per day, every day, even when they went on vacation and a strict and unbendable academic schedule that allowed the children absolutely no time for social engagements.

But one must remember that it is a memoir. A humorous memoir. A humorous memoir about parenting.  Sure, it's a humorous memoir rife with the sort of family tumult and turbulence that one only sees in the most dysfunctional families in film. But it is humor and it is a memoir. Furthermore, the last third of the book is an open admission that the Chinese parenting model isn't necessarily the best (I am a firm believer that theoretical models, especially those of the social science variety are best left in textbooks and classrooms. They never work in practice. See: communism, Chinese and Soviet application of, but I digress). It is not a guide on how to raise your child in the Chinese fashion no matter what .

Despite what so many media hounds and angry soccer moms seem to think, Chua's book, while often pretentious and snobby, isn't a validation of the Chinese model nor is it a crusade against Western methods. Rather it is one woman's experience as a mother. Chua started out with a particular goal for her children and dedicated herself and her children's childhood to achieving that goal and I believe her when she says that she did it all for her children. I know because I see it every day with the parents of my students. 

That being said, I think Chua went overboard, even by Chinese standards. I'm not vilifying her, I'm just expressing what I think based on what I've seen. While I have absolutely no doubts that Amy Chua is not even close to the most ambitious Tiger Mother in the world (the worst example most definitely lives somewhere in Mainland China and I would never, ever want to meet her or her mutant, freaky children) she is not a typical example of a Chinese mother, either. The checklist above is most certainly standard fare among Chinese parents, however I have never met a parent during my decade in Taiwan that took excellence, achievement and perfection so seriously or so far. Nor have I ever met any parent that has dedicated so much time, effort and money toward their children's education.

What Chua fails to mention is the aloofness that Chinese parents often have for their children. Succeed, yes. Parents will give children the resources in which to achieve that success. But children must do it by themselves. Parents are busy. They have jobs working for bosses that couldn't give a damn about Junior's piano recitals and I don't think I have to explain that Asians tend to work longer hours and take less vacations (if any). This system works because of the ingrained system of shame inherent in Asian cultures (guangxi). Parents push their children because they don't want to lose face among their friends and neighbors (also because until recently, there was no notion of pension in Asian countries and children were seen as insurance policies for aging parents. Push the children into high paying jobs so that the parents can live in relative comfort in their old age. Furthermore, children lose their hair and become suicidal while studying because they do not want to shame their parents or lose face among their peers. Simply put, Lulu (Chua's second, rebellious daughter) wouldn't exist in a traditional Chinese society. Lulu is a product of the west. And that's OK.

Although I have never seen a parent as involved as Chua, during my years in Taiwan I have seen glimpses of what she describes. Parents in Taiwan have the capacity to drive their children to levels of excellence that one rarely sees in Western children of the same age (especially in math, science and classical music). Much of this is rote learning, something that is very much shunned in the West in favor of making learning fun. As well, Taiwanese parents view their children as an investment for the future and therefore spend lavishly on their education. Parents enroll their children in endless after-school programs (cram schools) to give them a leg up among their classmates in everything from English, science and math to music, sports and logic. Due to this over-emphasis on study many Taiwanese children lack basic social skills and have trouble thinking critically, but that's a rant for another book.

But for every overachieving child prodigy I meet and teach in Taiwan there are dozens and dozens of entirely mediocre students. And beyond that there are just as many lazy, incompetent students who would rather sleep through class, flip the bird to their teachers and waste time until they can get home and play online games until they die in front of their computer screen at the age of 26. I would even hazard a guess that the proportion of overachievers, regular achievers and slackers is virtually the same in Asia as it is in the West. We often forget that China, alone, has over a billion people. It is over four times larger than America alone. Add Japan, Taiwan and Singapore to that mix and the numbers are staggering. Of course it produces more prodigies. It's a simple numbers game.

So I'm not sure whether Chua is entirely correct in her assertion that she raised her children in the traditional Chinese way. It is a Chinese way, but not the only way. There are variations. I would hazard a guess that what she has mistaken as the Chinese method is in actuality an immigrant method or a lower-class method. A section of parents who whether for geographical or social reasons feel the need to horse whip their children toward greatness in an attempt to drag their families from what they perceive as the margins of society into the limelight. I don't know. I'm not a social scientist, but I do know that I've never met a tiger mother of Chua proportions anywhere in Taiwan and there's more Chinese people here than anywhere in America.

But I liked this book and I learned a lot. And despite the fact that I am not the product of a tiger mother (far from it) nor do I see either myself or my (Taiwanese) wife being tiger parents I have taken a lesson or two from this book and intend to implement them, namely choosing their extracurricular activities and not allowing them to quit simply on a whim. A little pressure and a little coercion never hurt anyone and acquiring a skill is an invaluable asset later in life whether it's violin, tennis or flower arranging.

But if there is one single lesson I learned after finally reading Amy Chua's parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother it is that Americans (especially those in the news media industry) seem to have problems with reading comprehension, nuance and irony. The shit storm and fallout that pulsed, radiated and mutated from the pages of Tiger Mother seem so unwarranted and completely fabricated once you actually read the entire book (which leads me to assume that a good amount of people who did raise a fuss about this book didn't finish it). Chua's memoir is an truthful account of how she raised her children and she should be commended not only for her candid honestly but also for her ability to change gears mid-race. Furthermore, it is not a vilification of Western parents. I suspect that much of the furor this book garnered has more to do with Western fears about China than it does about Chinese parenting and that's a different issue altogether. If Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother had been written by Amitava Battacharya, it would not have generated the volume of bad press Chua's book did.

Toward the end of the book Chua seems to be obsessed with finding a  way in which to conclude, but I figure that her conclusion is embedded in the narrative. Aside from the fact that the book must have been a therapeutic exercise for Chua and her daughters, whether she intended it or not, Chua seems to suggest that parenting cannot be boiled down to models or tradition or theories. I couldn't agree more. Parenting (I imagine) is an organic process and it's fundamentally uneven, unjust and unscientific. You can impose certain ideals, but in the end each experience, each ordeal is going to be entirely different from the last. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has little to do with raising children the Chinese way and far more to do with the human adaptability, acceptance and love.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Like many others I have heard of this book and heard the author speak. I think that your perspective, as someone living and educating children in Taiwan is invaluable for understanding a little bit about the work. Your first had experience really answers many questions about what parenting is really like, at least in your part of Asia. I would recommend your commentary to anyone reading this book or even anyone who sees or hears an interview with Chua.

annieb said...

I haven't read the book and probably won't, but I really liked your review. Actually, I like all your reviews.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I do think I would enjoy reading this one from the point of view of a teacher rather than a parent. I could definitley do with some parents being more tiger-ish!

Jenny said...

Definitely different cultures raise their children, well, differently, but then you have to break it down even further. Individuals raise their children in different ways. I know American parents who raise their children this "strictly".

Anyway, I enjoyed your review. You're wonderfully analytical.

bookspersonally said...

What an interesting and thoughtful review - love to hear your perspectives as parent, husband, teacher of Taiwanese students, as well as sharing some of the more nuanced aspects of the author's story. The media hype/reaction to this one was so strong and sensational - really played off/into American parenting and economic anxieties.

Shaz said...

Although I don't intend to reproduce - can you hear the universe sigh in relief? :) - I find your reviews of parenting books both frightening and fascinating.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

You're definitely right about Western reading comprehension skills sucking. So many times the media distills a book down into one talking point, and proceeds to whip up a huge shit storm because no one can has time to read the damn book before they formulate an opinion on it.

I've never read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but from the reviews I've read, it really seems to me that the solution here is the same as it is in just about everything: moderation in all things. Parenting is a balancing act, and straying to either side of the spectrum can lead to some fucked up kids.

Jonathan Wilhoit

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