Wednesday, June 8, 2011

'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' Part 1

Today (or rather yesterday, since it is now almost 1 a.m. in the morning), during dinner, my mom gave us some belated gifts. My brother's was to celebrate his graduation from high school and going off to college (appropriately one of my favorite books: Dr. Seuss's Oh, The Places You Will Go!). Mine was a bit of a going away present before China: Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Apparently my mom's friends (either from work or from Bible study) strongly recommended this book once hearing that I was going to China to teach English. Curious and excited, I read the summary inside the book flaps and my interest was piqued. The book is about how a mother decided to raise her Chinese-Jewish daughters the "Chinese way".

In fact, this is how the book opens:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play nay instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

I already was aware of the gaping divide in philosophy concerning how children were raised/educated between Chinese and Western cultures. All of my Chinese language classes have been taught be graduate students from China and one of my favorite parts of class was when they would impart some knowledge of their culture.

One of the things I remember from my first semester of Chinese was our teacher telling us how you couldn't date until you were in college. If your teacher found out, i.e. - seeing you holding hands or kissing, they would hold a parent-teacher conference to fix everything right away.

Another thing I remember, this time from my second semester and a different teacher, is when the kids are asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?", the kid who puts artist or teacher will get a lower grade than the kid who wrote doctor or lawyer.

There are two things about me that make this last piece of information particularly striking to me:
  1. I am very passionate about education, and
  2. I am very passionate about free will and creativity.
So while I can understand the want for a child to succeed and achieve their full potential, I also think that a child should be able to make choices and have fun.

I started reading the book around ten o'clock and am already half way through book. I am fascinated, horrified and (on some level) empathetic to this woman who is describing how she raised her daughters in a Chinese fashion. I can't put it down. (Which is unfortunate since I have a dentist appointment at 8 a.m., my internship at 10, and then lunch with my mom and her friend at 1.)

When I read about this woman's choices, I can't help but be a little horrified and know one thing absolutely: If Amy Chua was my mother, I would without a doubt hate her.

There is never a day, birthday, sick day, vacation or otherwise, that she does not have her daughters practice their instruments (piano and violin) one to three hours a day. When her daughters get less than an A, than first place, she buys practice books and flash cards and drills them till they are absolutely perfect. And when her daughters (usually the younger one) fight back, it's screaming, yelling, punching, biting, until Chua usually wins out in the end.

There are times when she describes the fruits of her labor, and they are beautiful. Her daughters by the age of seven, nine, thirteen, are accomplished, praised, have multiple awards and titles for their talents and knowledge. And I must admit, they are enviable.

I could go on how this brought up thoughts of my own upbringing and accomplishments, but the minutes keep going by, so I will save it for another time.

The last chapter I read, though, was about Chua's mother-in-law and her death. The mother-in-law, Florence, is a woman that I can definitely say I would have loved her. An established art critic who was the life of the party and loved life and color and experience and encouraged her granddaughters to explore and rebel and be creative, much more soothing. The girls obviously adored her. But Florence became ill, an acute case of leukemia and sadly passed away. The girls gave their own small eulogies at the funeral, and from the snippets provided I could tell that both speeches were both beautiful.

Of course, Chua shared the secret behind this. It started with a tangent of one of Chua's birthday, where both her daughters presented her a card each of her own hand. And these were what you might expect from elementary aged kids. Kind of sloppy, maybe a little rushed with a simple "Happy Birthday" written in the fold. And Chua rejects both cards, shaming her children for their mediocre gifts and asking for better ones.

When the eldest daughter says how she wanted to make a better one but she didn't have time between school and practicing the piano for three hours, Chua merely says "You should have gotten up earlier."

I was actually sick at this point. I couldn't imagine saying something like that to a child. But connecting this to the grandmother's funeral, Chua had told Florence about the event and Florence laughed in astonishment but warned Chua, "But they'll be mad at you."

Chua shared this story in order to tell the reader how she rejected her daughters' first attempts at their eulogies.

Sophia's first draft was terrible, rambling and superficial. Lulu's wasn't so great either, but I held my elder daughter to a higher standard. Perhaps because I was so upset myself, I lashed out at her. "How could you, Sophia?" I said viciously. "This is awful. It has no insight. It has no depth. It's like a Hallmark card--which Popo (Florence) hated. You are so selfish. Popo loved you so much--and you--produce--this!"

For the record, Sophia is thirteen.

Sophia took none of my suggestions. Slamming the door after I left, she locked herself in her bedroom and rewrote the speech herself. She refused to show it to me, wouldn't look at me, even after she had cooled down and changed into a black dress and black tights. And later, at the service when sophia was at the podium speaking, looking dignified and calm, I didn't miss the pointed lines:
Popo never settled for anything--a dishonest conversation, a film not quite true to the book, a slightly false display of emotion. Popo wouldn't allow people to put words in my mouth.
It was a wonderful speech. ... I could just imagine a beaming Florence saying, "I'm bursting."

On the other hand, Florence was right. The kids were definitely mad at me. But as a Chinese mother, I put that out of my head.

I couldn't imagine even having this mindset. Emotion is such a part of who I am and what drives me, that pushing away people's feelings in order to perfect a eulogy just seems... heartless to me. And to ignore her daughters' animosity.

Even though none of this should surprise me, from what I gather from class and Chinese natives describing similar situations, the glimpse into this mindset chills my blood. To me it's so cold and machine-like, no human or loving qualities at all. While Chua does reference some times when her daughters seem grateful, I can't for the life of me remember one instance as clearly as I do others.

I have hope for the second half of the book, since the cover does read:

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, I think I will head to bed, and continue this when I've read more of, possibly even finish, the book.


  1. I read an article about the mother who wrote this book and was shocked/horrified by some of it like you. I'm looking forward to reading your take on the 2nd half!

  2. Thanks for the introduction to the book and your blog - I look forward to reading about your trip!