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Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). 237 pp. ISBN 9781594202841

 

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Here's the skinny: I hate this book.

I hate it not for what it is (because I have not yet figured out what it is) but because of what it appears to be.

 Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). 237 pp. ISBN 9781594202841

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Here's the skinny: I hate this book.

I hate it not for what it is (because I have not yet figured out what it is) but because of what it appears to be.   

It reads like an overlong diary entry written with no literary merit whatsoever. I heard the author interviewed on the radio, but in preparation for writing this review I have resisted reading anything in print about it, and I bought it (at half price on Kindle) only because the publisher of CHINAINSIGHT asked me to review it. So, here is what it about, I think:

110110_BOOK_AmyChua_TNAmy Chua (pronounced chwah, not chew-ah as heard in the interviews) is a professor of Law at Yale University and a daughter of Chinese parents who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. Like the author, her father is an academic, at the University of California, Berkeley. That information immediately tells us that her parents are educated in Chinese and English, unlike the majority of Chinese immigrants, who came (and still come, in large measure) as non-professionals (read: laborers).

At some point the author determined, apparently with the connivance (my word) of her Jewish-American husband, to raise their two daughters based on a model of the Chinese mother that the author appears to have invented. Throughout the book, Chua strongly differentiates between how Chinese mothers raise their children—with the Chinese model the correct one—and how so-called "Westerners" raise theirs. Mirabile dictu, the last time I looked, Yale was still in New Haven, which is not in China, so one is led to wonder who the "Westerners" are. Chua does grant that some "Westerners" (those who agree with her method of child rearing) can be designated "Chinese mothers." Chua states at one point that "...a tiny part of me regrets that I did not marry another Chinese person and worries that I am letting down four thousand years of civilization [because of that; p. 18]." Her poor non-Chinese husband: what must he think of that? We await his book.

 

Among the activities the daughters were not allowed are [pp. 2-3]:
-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;
-get any 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. 

The author also states that, for a Chinese mother, "...the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal..."and that medal must be gold [p. 5]. " I cringed when I read that, perhaps because I have no gold medals. In fact, I have no medals at all.

Chua goes to extremes to define her daughters as superior to Westerners (but aren't they Westerners?): they are musically talented, beautiful (and the photos in the book do bear that out), obedient, respectful. The elder knew the alphabet at age 18 months and was reading Sartre at age 3 [p. 8]. They are fluent in Mandarin, which is odd because Mandarin is not the language of their grandparents, who moved to Manila from China's southeast province of Fujian. And what does "fluent" mean, anyway? Can they converse on a social level? Order a blood test? Tell the auto shop to check the carburetor? Even native-born speakers probably cannot do the latter two even though they can claim to be "fluent." Anyway, in the Chinese worldview overseas Chinese are rarely considered to be Chinese no matter which of the Chinese languages they know. 

Even the author's dogs are superior (drivers screech to a halt to admire them [p. 159]), as are her friends (one speaks many languages and reads even more, "including Sanskrit and Ancient Greek [p. 109]"). The book is filled with such digressions, some on her sister, some on family vacations, others on people they know, on music. Few add anything to the narrative.

Chua appears to use her own mother as a model of parenting, but even her mother objects to the way she controls her daughters. And control is what it is all about, not a relationship. Mother knows best, at all times on all topics. That reminds me of the elderly Chinese immigrant father in the Hollywood movie "Flower Drum Song" who tells his American-born teenage son something like, "When you are old enough to think for yourself, I will tell you." 

The younger daughter, the violin prodigy, eventually rebels and wins. I cheered for her. The older daughter, the piano prodigy (and the daughters were not allowed to be less than prodigies), does not rebel. The daughters' own memoirs will be revealing counterpoints to the mother's book if they ever write them. Mother, father, daughters: this could be a whole industry of memoirs.

If this book is received as something other than self parody, then Chua gives Chinese mothers (both those in China and those in the U.S.) a bad press as over-bearing, controlling, Western-hating parents. She makes sweeping, unsubstantiated claims about what Chinese parents demand, such as total obedience where failure at anything is not an option [p. 146], and about non-Chinese, "liberal Western parents" who are "weak-willed and indulgent [p. 27]" when it comes to practicing piano or violin. 

I have intimate decades-long relationships with Chinese mothers and fathers and their children, and have only in a single instance viewed such total control over a young life, which was a devastating failure for the whole family, which also has a Chinese (from China) mother and "Westerner" father. In the Chinese community where I grew up, where we did not have violins, nobody had the option of controlling every aspect of their children's lives: they had to spend twelve hours a day laboring in laundries, grocery stores, restaurants, or garment industry sweatshops to put food on the table. There were no foreign vacations. There were no vacations at all. We learned values from our parents, our siblings, our church, our mostly homogeneous community, from our schools and our teachers. We did not attend Julliard or perform at Carnegie Hall; we never even heard of them. We had friends both Chinese and non-Chinese, and we turned out fine, well-rounded, educated, and free. Ah, free; yes, that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I reveal here that I have known the publisher of China Insight since I was 9 years old, a long time indeed. Our Chinese-American families are somewhat entwined, as his wife is my cousin and one of his brothers is my non-medalist son's godfather. 

Although Amy Chua in this tome constantly rubs salt into the wounds of "Westerners" who do not know how to raise their children correctly (meaning her way) or how to be Chinese mothers (not they that want to be), she displays no awareness of an important Chinese tenet: we do not hang our dirty linen in public.

If the author were to acknowledge that this book is not serious, then one might read it on an entirely different level and laugh with rather than at the Tiger Mother, who refers to her own grandmother as "Dragon Lady [p. 15]." But as it stands, one word in the title succinctly sums up her approach to her daughters: Battle. Towards the end of this weary book the author hints at partial defeat and partial acknowledgement that she was not always right. A lot of time, ink, and paper were expended to reach that anticipated conclusion. 

Even as self parody this book will rankle both "Westerners," who will resent how Chua characterizes them, and other Chinese-Americans who will not recognize themselves in Chua's depiction of Chinese mothers.

Notes to the text give an overview of where Chua got some of her ideas about parenting, about the phenomenon of Asian "music moms," the Chinese zodiac (source of "Tiger" in the title), and about Samoyeds, her smarter dogs. 

At the outset of her narrative Chua defines the tiger: "...the living symbol of strength and power, [it] generally inspires fear and respect [p. 1]." Must China and the Chinese forever be stereotyped in print as dragons and tigers? Is that an effort to dehumanize the Chinese? Must we always be defined by paper placemats in Chinese-American restaurants? Aiya!

One of my closest friends was also my English teacher in high school. Whenever I complain about anything—my difficult childhood (weren't they all?), my salary, Chicago's weather, the service in restaurants, poor grammar on the radio—her response is invariable: "Get over it!" 

That's good advice for tiger mothers as well.

 

Editor's Note: Amy Chua's oldest daughter Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld started a blog, "New Tiger in Town" (http://tigersophia.blogspot.com/), in response to the controversy generated by her mother's book.

 

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CHINAINSIGHT (CI) is published monthly ((except July/August and November/December are combined) by China Insight, Inc., an independent, privately owned company started in 2001 and headquartered in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

CHINAINSIGHT is the only English-language American newspaper to focus exclusively on connections between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

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