Roar of the Tiger Mom

I’m not a Chinese mom.  Not in the ethnic sense, the nationality sense, or even the metaphorical sense, which is how Amy Chua means it when she uses the title in her much talked about, much debated, much loved, and much hated new memoir.  After reading a scathing review of the book, I decided I had to check it out.  My favorite result of my online research were the reviews at Amazon.  The book was averaging about 3 stars.  That sounds mediocre, until you looked at the distribution.  About 40% of the reviews were 5-star reviews and 40% were 1-star, and there were a few people in the middle.  I love controversy!  I ordered it immediately.

And let me say, I loved it.

Title: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Author: Amy Chua
Genre: Parenting

Summary and Review:

This is a great book that has been violently derided in the press. Most of the people who have derided this book online fall into one of two categories.  (1) They have not read the book but are drawing their hatred from excerpts they’ve seen, their own blatant or denied racism, and their secret fear that their own kids aren’t going to be concert pianists when they grow up.  (2) OR they have read the book but completely missed the deadpan humor, the obvious self-mockery and tendency toward hyperbole, and they also secretly fear that their own kids aren’t going to be concert pianists when they grow up.

Here’s my take: this book is a wonderful read from a variety of standpoints.  First, it is a GREAT memoir.  And I completely agree with the NYT article on the plummeting quality of the memoir (Julie and Julia, anyone?)  But this falls into one of the small percentages of memoirs out there with value.  Why?  For the following reasons:

1) It is extremely well-written.  Maybe too well-written, in fact, for her own good, as it seems to have gone over some people’s heads.  (Although one can argue that the ensuing controversy has done her good.)  It is VERY dry, VERY deadpan humor, and if you just take it at its face value, you are completely missing the point and likely to hate both it and the writer.  If you read it as such, though, you will laugh and cry your way through the whole book.

2) It takes a slice of her life and shows the broader cultural implications of her own actions and decisions.  This isn’t just about Ms. Chua; it’s about American immigrant families and the challenges they face trying to follow their own values in a different place.  In fact, Chua happily talks about herself as if she were the mascot and quintessential example of a Chinese mother (despite the sleepover that was allowed and despite the dogs—oh, the dogs).  It’s also about the America into which she moves and the values it espouses, or doesn’t espouse, as the case may be.

3) It discusses the broader implications of our parenting decisions, with honest, funny, sad, and very relatable stories about trying to do what’s best for your kids.

American parents are VERY much into raising self-confident kids.  They do so (and I should probably say “we” do so) by plying our kids with compliments, from the moment they can blurt out a simple sound to the first test they bring home, even if it’s a C-.  Ms. Chua (and by assumption, the Chinese mother) doesn’t do that.  A C- would be seen as a complete failure, and she would have no problem telling her kids that.  And she makes the very convincing case that SHE is the one increasing self-confidence—after all, she is the one telling her kids that she knows they can do better.  To shake their hand for a C- would imply that they are capable of no better and THAT, she believes hurts self-confidence.  And after hours and hours of parent-supervised studying (which one daughter was forced to do after coming in second on the mathematics speed test in elementary school), they will do better.

The methods she uses with her daughters and the rules imposed (no sleepovers or playdates, taking them out of school during “fluff days” or recess times to practice the piano or violin, etc.) may sound draconian, and you are welcome, of course, to believe that they are.  As a former principal at a school with a lot of these days, I will vehemently espouse their importance to anyone interested in listening (which would not, this book implies, be Ms. Chua).  Many of the choices she makes are not choices I would make for my own kids.  But I don’t think we can say with such certainty as so many in the media have been saying, that they are the wrong choices.  And I certainly don’t think we can say they are the wrong choices for all kids.  After all, I’ve been in teaching for a long time, and trust me, a lot of our kids could use some parents who don’t take bad grades lightly and will sit down with the kids to make sure the homework gets done.  It’s all a matter of perspective, of course, but there’s probably room in everyone’s parenting style for a little bit of the Tiger.

One of the things the book’s critics often fail to notice is the sheer amount of time and passion Ms. Chua spends with her daughters.  Despite a demanding full-time job, she is there at every piano lesson and violin lesson, scribbling furious notes.  She is there at every practice session—and there are many—they even rent out halls or find closed restaurants with pianos when on vacation, and when she can’t be there, pages and pages of notes are left for the practicing daughter.  In other words, she is not just yelling at her girls to do better.  She is supporting them with every ounce of energy and every spare minute she could possibly have.

Ms. Chua, in the end, is humbled by her younger daughter, a fiery character who does not take her mom’s controlling attitude all that well.  Months, if not years, of bitter, intense struggle end with a dramatic scene in which she tells her daughter it’s okay for her to quit the violin.  Her daughter surprises her by replying that she doesn’t want to quit, just tone it down a little bit.  And then her daughter shows us something that all parents would be proud of–she takes up a new hobby, tennis, and starts to excel, using the habits and dedication she has learned from the Chinese mothering she has fought against.  When Chua questions the coach about her daughter’s success in the sport, the coach tells her something she wasn’t expecting to hear—that her daughter is applying total concentration and ambition, and is quickly climbing up the ladder from rookie to tennis star.  It’s all Amy can do to keep her Chinese parenting ways quiet as she applies herself to learning everything she can about the sport to help her daughter.  But to her credit, she does hold back.  At least most of the time.

This is a mother’s journey we can all learn from.  And a journey we can all relate to.  She believes in her kids.  She loves her kids.  And her kids love her back.  And she gives everything she has to her kids…more energy than I could ever imagine pouring out.  But she also learns from them.  They are a close and loving family, and their story is a beautiful one.

And the part when they get the dogs, something she has clearly stated is NOT a Chinese mother thing to do?  You can almost see the family balance shifting.  And the enormity of this event in their lives is signaled by the book entering a “Part 2.”  I was rolling on the floor with laughter.

Thank you, Amy Chua, for such an inspiring read!

4 Responses to “Roar of the Tiger Mom”

  1. I see myself in the Tiger Mom. I was born with this unusual gift to excel at everything I attempt and I attribute my confidence from my Father who could not read or write, but had a photographic memory, He fed 10 children.. (well)..and I had to at least be the same or better, which was his wish for me. Today I am attempting to obtain my Masters in Psychology. Unfortunately my children thought of me as an alien and stop trying in their late teens. In one, I heard music (Flute), the other a Gold Medal in (Water Ballet). To all Tiger Moms..are you ready for this..In their 20s my children said..Mom you should have made me stick it out!! America’s mothers need this book! God bless you.

Trackbacks

Please reply -- I love comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: