05.01.11

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (book review)

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:11 pm by Benjamin Ross

No play dates, no television, no complaining about no play dates or no television, no grades under an “A,” 5 hour violin practice sessions, you’ve probably heard it all by now.  I was a latecomer, having only picked up Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother this past week.  But being “that guy who lived in China” to many of the people I know, I’ve been bombarded for my take since Tiger Mother was released earlier this year. For starters, I agree with a part of what Chua is saying.  American parents are too concerned with their children’s self-esteem and too hesitant to point out their faults. This is all the more apparent within the education system. Even at the graduate level, American professors sugar-coat rebuttals with statements like “Well, that’s not exactly right, but I see where you’re coming from,” as opposed to telling students they are wrong.  When I was an English teacher in China, my students actually complained to me that I wasn’t straight with them when they were incorrect.  It was awkward at first, but once I acclimated, it was both refreshing and surprisingly effective to be able to denounce my students without being afraid they would wilt over and die.  When I would tell a student, “Your pronunciation is completely wrong.  Practice it over again and come back tomorrow,” this usually produced positive results.  There was no confusion.  Nobody lost face.  And the following day, I would see marked improvements.  Ms. Chua argues, and I would agree on this, that children need to be taught to accept criticism and harsh critique, rather than being shielded from reality for fear that it might cause some psychological disorder which didn’t exist 30 years ago.

That being said, I still think Ms. Chua is a self-centered, insecure, control-freak who exploits her “Chinese values” to bask in the fruit of her children’s success.  Throughout  her accounts of grueling practices and shouting matches, she never quite explains how her daughters’ musical triumphs were beneficial to them.  At several points, she questions whether her toils were not for herself rather than her children, but then fails to provide convincing reasons why this was not the case.  I could go on for pages taking pot shots at Ms. Chua’s neurotic disposition, but that’s already been done.  Just ask Google.

But aside from Ms. Chua’s character, I have two beefs with this book that I want to discuss.  Firstly, Amy Chua is not Chinese…well, not Chinese in the sense that she grew up in China.  She was born in Illinois.  And her “Chinese” parents didn’t grow up in China either.  They grew up in the Philippines. Chinese or not, Ms. Chua’s parenting skills, while embodying many Chinese values, are taken to an extreme which would be out of place, even in China.  Throughout the book, she continually refers to “Chinese parenting” as if it’s simply a matter of following a short instruction manual which comes with every Chinese kid.  Ream out your ten-year-old for a sub-par birthday card?  Insist your kid to practice violin 6 hours a day?  Force your kid to take violin lessons in a city 2 hours drive away?  I’ve never even met a kid in China who played the violin at all, let alone 6 hours a day.  Sure, most Chinese parents push their kids harder than most average Americans do.  But the whole bit on dominating international circuits of piano and violin before puberty (probably 75% of the book), that’s an American Chinese tendency.

This brings up my next critique, one that probably isn’t fair to Ms. Chua, but which constantly irked me as I read her memoir.  As Americans, we like to think of the Chinese as the “model minority.”  They win violin competitions, attend Ivy League Schools, and grow up to become engineers and nuclear physicists.  But in our conception of “the Chinese,” we tend to ignore the fact that the Chinese living in the United States are not a representative sample of the Chinese people as a whole…far from it indeed.  The competition in China to emigrate to the United States is fierce, and only the cream of the crop make the cut.*  Qinghua and Beijing University are China’s top two universities, and I have met more of their graduates in Chicago than I ever did over the 4 years I lived in China.  Additionally, the desire to immigrate itself is a selective process, as it takes only the most driven people to leave their home in search of fortunes in unfamiliar lands.  Ms. Chua is not just another kid who happened to have Chinese parents.  She’s the daughter of hyper-educated immigrant parents (her mother graduated summa cum laude with a degree in chemical engineering and her father has a PhD from MIT), who themselves had immigrant parents.

Ms. Chua, like many other Chinese Americans, is the product of the self-selective process which ensures a large percentage of the Chinese who come to America will be among the most intelligent, goal driven, and overachieving members of the population.  It’s stereotypes like these which lead many Americans to believe Chinese are more intelligent, have a better education system, and some day will “overtake America,” whatever that’s supposed to mean…Never mind that their higher education system doesn’t teach practical skills, teen suicide rates are high, and most children don’t know how to swim.

This is not meant as an attack on China.  I could take similar cheap shots at the US.  But rather, my point is that when we start generalizing about “Western” or “Chinese” parenting, and constructing monolithic caricatures about entire hemispheres, it’s easy to let hyperbolic accounts, such as Ms. Chua’s, define our conceptions of an entire culture.  And since we’re on the topic of generalizing, Ms. Chua’s husband, subject of most of her harangue against “soft” Western parenting, is Jewish.  In China, they write books of praise about the Jewish people, extolling Chinese to be more like them!  See how ridiculous this conversation can become?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is well-written, funny, and captures the essence of Amy Chua’s sadistic personality.  It’s good for a laugh, perspectives on parenting, and even some surface-level cultural education. But it’s crucial to remember that this is an extreme account of a woman whose background is anything but typical, for a Chinese or for an American.  For entertainment value and basic insight into the mind of the Chinese parent, I have no complaints.  But for a fair analysis on the merits of “Chinese” vs. “Western” parenting, Tiger Mother probably poses more questions than it answers.

*To be fair, there are also many undocumented immigrants, mostly from more humble origins, and who bypass the official selection process.  Generally, they are less visible in society, and not the ones upon which most of our stereotypes are constructed.

5 Comments »

  1. Teya United States said,

    May 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    The stereotypes of Asian Americans, while they apply to some, do not capture the full picture. I feel that Chua is an outlier. Her social status and parenting style is not representative of the majority of parents Chinese or otherwise. I feel she often fails to recognize this in her writing. She does not go out of her way to point out how many Chinese do not have the same kind of opportunities she has and that she has been able to pass on to her children.

    I think we have different stereotypes of the Chinese (or other Asians) who do not conform to the stereotype that we have of the Asian American Model Minority. However, careful examination of these Asian Americans shows that these differences are largely represented along class lines. It should be also carefully noted that Chua’s experience is that of the upper middle class… a class that few are able to reach.

    Vivian Louie’s Compelled to Excel talks of the pressure on Chinese youth to excel in school. She compares the paths of students to both Hunter College and Columbia. There are marked class differences in this pathway.

    Stacey Lee does good work with looking at Hmong Youth at a elite school and how they are blackened by the teachers when they do not excel in school.

    Finally, Guofeng Li also looks at differences of parenting styles among the lower/working class families.

  2. Jordan United States said,

    May 1, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I was very annoyed by Chua’s “Chinese” parenting when it first came out on the WSJ. Like you said, there nothing typical about her “Chinese” parenting. I can understand that from marketing perspective it was brilliant to label her parenting as “Chinese”. Now, typical Joe Blows on the street going to think ALL Chinese are child abuser who educate their children same way. I have participated on more internet forums on this very topic than I care to admit. Chua really helped perpetuate the harmful “Model Minority” stereotype.

  3. Jordan United States said,

    May 1, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    By the way, how many generations do you need to live in America before you call your parenting style as “American” instead of “Chinese”?

  4. james United States said,

    August 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    not only are her parents from the phillipines and she is from the midwest (not very chinese) but chua does not speak chinese.

  5. Matthew (@thebibliofreak) United Kingdom said,

    April 25, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Your own experiences in China demonstrate a very interesting point – one that is probably alien to a lot of readers of Chua’s book. I think for some people the book extols cultural values so far removed from what most are used to that it’s difficult to empathise.

    My review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

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