Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So I finally read "...Tiger Mother"

Given that Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out in January, this post is not exactly topical, but I figured it was better late than never. Plus I did have a bit to say about Chua and her book at the time (here, here, here and here), without actually having read it, so perhaps this will complete the circle.

Amy Chua is a woman who has garnered an enormous amount of hatred in the last few months. The problem is this: the vast majority of the people directing the hatred at her have not actually read her book.

Instead, what most people base their Tiger-Mom-expertise on is the Wall Street Journal article which rocketed Chua to fame. Thing is, that article takes bits and pieces of her book out of context, slaps a provocative title on it (Why Chinese Mothers are Superior) and garners both fame, dollars and death threats for Amy Chua. The WSJ piece comes across as simultaneously an assault on the alleged moral laziness of "Western" parenting, and an unabashed glorification of sadistically hardass Asian parenting, the kind that presumably leads to straight-As in math, a place at a prestigious university, and possibly a stress-related burnout and therapy by age 24. But that's not really the entire story of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Chua complained about being taken out of context, and she's right. And for anyone who actually wants to dig even a centimetre below the surface of this issue, it's not too hard to see why. Firstly, check the front cover, underneath the title. It reads:
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
So straight away, it's apparent that there's more to this than "Chinese mothers rule, Western mothers suck."

Secondly, anyone with basic levels of comprehension should be able to discern that there is a cheekily humorous streak that runs through the excerpts in the WSJ article, in passages like this:
Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.

So my assumption from day one was that what to some came across as cruel arrogance in that article was at least partly Chua exaggerating for effect. Which is why I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt, and defended her on a few other blogs where commenters tore into her for all kinds of things, either real or imagined. (Those things include being married to a white guy, and being born in the Philippines and thus being insufficiently Chinese.) I just figured that it's best not to rush to judge something you haven't actually read yet.

The book itself is very easy to read, while occasionally causing great discomfort at the extremes Chua describes going to in order to bend her rebellious younger daughter to her will. She seems to be often brutally honest about this, and in writing it was almost certainly aware of how horrible it sometimes makes her sound. Indeed, much of it is obviously self-parody. But most of all, understand that this is a warts-and-all story of a journey through parenting, in which Chua gradually comes to the realisation that Chinese parenting (or at least her idea of it) is far from perfect.

That's a key point. This book is not a parenting manual. It is a memoir, which details both ups and downs, and which ends up questioning many of the assumptions that are stated at the beginning of the book.

I certainly didn't finish the book thinking Chua was a great parent, or deciding that this kind of Chinese parenting model would be the right one for me. But it did make me think a lot about what kind of parent I'm going to be in the future, and what kind of discipline and encouragement I will apply to my offspring. Particular for me as a person whose social circle contains a large number of Asian high-achievers, but whose own more relaxed upbringing has led me down a path that is rather less orthodox, yet just as rewarding in different ways.

Any artist or writer needs to be mindful of how their work will be interpreted by the public. And it is true that Amy Chua's work has stirred up a heap of anxieties from Asian-Americans worried about the perpetuation of the model minority stereotypes, and from traumatised survivors of Tiger parenting. As well as a fair share of racists looking to vent their resentments towards Asians and their academic achievements. My main gripe with Chua is that she has made Chinese parenting synonymous with Amy Chua parenting. And while there are many Chinese (and other ethnicity) kids who identify with the hardassed-ness Chua describes, that quality may have manifested itself only in certain ways, to a less extreme extent. In a sense, it may also serve to devalue the intelligence of Chinese youngsters in the public perception, promulgating the view that rather than being smart or creative, they are merely super-efficient products of some kind of parenting sweatshop.

But by the same token, virtually any person whose writings appear in the public domain would agree that you can't control how others take you out of context. And it's not Amy Chua's fault that a lot of people only know how to interpret things in the worst way possible.

I enjoyed reading the book very much, but I'm not in any rush to be a Tiger Parent. And personally, I'm very glad that my own mother was and is nothing like Amy Chua. But those of you who are looking for a villain in this story would be better off pointing fingers at the Wall Street Journal, which presented Chua's story in the most controversial and sensationalist light possible.

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