Sunday, April 3, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Given the amount of media attention this memoir has garnered, I've decided to give Amy Chua's memoir of raising her two daughters its own post.  If anything, the hullabaloo over this book has shown me how ridiculously unreliable book reviews and commentary can be when confused with a journalist's personal agenda.

From what I can see, most of the reviews of this book are shocked, shocked to hear a mother crowing over her coercion and borderline abusive behavior.  Ms. Chua forces her daughters to practice their respective instruments for hours each day, (gasp!) refuses to accept a grade lower than A (unless it's in gym), rejects her daughters' pathetic birthday cards, and mocks the tendency of Western parents to allow their children to follow their passions (whether it be soccer or Facebook for fourteen hours a day).  All this is done in the spirit of being a Chinese parent, because this is how Chinese parents do it, and it's far better than how you sloppy Americans parent.  So there! says Chua.  Goodness, how dreadful, I thought.  And then my local library came through with the book, and I finally read it for myself.

Now let's rewind a little -- this book is not meant to be taken quite as literally as most of the media has apparently taken it.  Part parody, part confessional, part memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the story of a very driven and extremely controlling woman who happens to be Chinese.  (Incidentally, her husband is Jewish).  It seems to me that this book is more about how this woman, whose tough parenting methods worked beautifully with her talented and self-motivated elder daughter, hits a brick wall with her younger daughter.  Sophia, the firstborn, takes to her instrument (piano) like a fish to water and thrives on the pressure as it intensifies. However, the younger daughter, Lulu, is a lot more like her mother.  Perhaps even more gifted than her sister, Lulu is given violin lessons and shows great talent.  However, Lulu doesn't allow herself to be pushed around, and the book features episode after episode in which parent and child lock horns.  Lulu is a driven as her mother, and as set on being successful and high-achieving, but she wants to drive the bus.  I don't want to give away too much, as this book is a really fun read (as are the photos, which generally feature Chua, arms folded, hovering threateningly over daughter and instrument), but I don't really understand why readers come away with a feeling of loathing for her.  After reading her book, I felt a bit sorry for her, but I also was satisfied with the way she accepts her limitations as a parent and learns to adjust herself a bit.

Really, this book is not about how Chinese parenting is better than Western parenting, and Chua admits as much (though she states that it was supposed to be about that).  It's about an individual family, and their parenting, and the successes and shortcomings of their parenting. However, there is quite a bit of constructive takehome lesson here.
  • "For Chinese people, when it comes to parents, nothing is negotiable.  Your parents are your parents, you owe everything to them (even if you don't), and you have to do everything for them (even if it destroys your life)."  Extreme statement, perhaps, but the essence of this is something I could get behind.  Chua doesn't simply pay lip service to this -- when her mother-in-law is too ill to live alone, Chua insists that she move in with them, even though the two do not really get along well.
  • "The Chinese model turns on achieving success.  That's how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated." 
  • It helps a lot if your children know exactly what you expect from them -- if you're providing them with the tools to achieve it.
This book is a quick, fun read -- but please, don't take it too seriously.

1 comment:

  1. I read it and honestly didn't find much parody in it. I'd heard all about how the original WSJ article was one snip, needed to be read within the context of the book, etc. I actually found that article to be pretty representative of the book.