Mom just wants you to be happy — and per­fect

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH CHANG El­iz­a­beth Chang is an edi­tor of The Washington Post’s Sun­day Mag­a­zine.

The cover of “ Bat­tle Hymn of the Tiger­Mother” was cat­nip to this av­er­age par­ent’s soul. The mem­oir, the text says, was sup­posed to have proved that Chi­nese par­ents are bet­ter at rais­ing chil­dren than Western ones — but in­stead it por­trays “a bit­ter clash of cul­tures, a fleet­ing taste of glory” and the Tiger Mother’s hum­bling by a 13-year-old. As a hope­lessly Western mother mar­ried into a Chi­nese fam­ily, liv­ing in an area that gen­er­ates im­mi­grant prodi­gies as re­li­ably as clouds pro­duce rain, I was ea­ger to ob­serve the come­up­pance of a par­ent who thought she had all the an­swers.

And, in many ways, “ Tiger Mother” did not dis­ap­point. At night, I would nudge my hus­band awake to read him some of its more re­veal­ing pas­sages, such as when author Amy Chua threat­ened to burn her older daugh­ter’s stuffed an­i­mals if the child didn’t im­prove her pi­ano play­ing. “What

BAT­TLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER By Amy Chua Pen­guin Press. 237 pp. $25.95

Chi­nese par­ents un­der­stand,” Chua writes, “is that noth­ing is fun un­til you’re good at it.” By day, I would tell my own two daugh­ters about how Chua threw unim­pres­sive birth­day cards back at her young girls and or­dered them to make bet­ter ones. For a mother whose half-Chi­nese chil­dren played out­side while the kids of stricter im­mi­grant neigh­bors could be heard la­bor­ing over the vi­o­lin and pi­ano, the book could be wickedly grat­i­fy­ing. Read­ing it was like se­cretly peer­ing into the home of a con­trol­ling, ob­ses­sive, yet com­pul­sively hon­est mother — one who some­times makes the rest of us look good, if less re­mark­able and with less im­pres­sive off­spring. Does be­com­ing su­per-ac­com­plished make up for years of stress? That’s some­thing my daugh­ters and I will never find out.

“I don’t re­ally have time for any­thing fun, be­cause I’m Chi­nese,” one of Chua’s daugh­ters told a friend.

Chua is a law pro­fes­sor and the author of two ac­claimed books on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, though read­ers of “ Tiger Mother” get only a glimpse of that part of her life, with airy, tossed-off lines such as “Mean­while, I was still teach­ing my cour­ses at Yale and fin­ish­ing up my sec­ond book” while also “ trav­el­ing con­tin­u­ously, giv­ing lec­tures about de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion and eth­nic con­flict.”

Her third book aban­dons global con­cerns to fo­cus in­ti­mately on her at­tempt to raise her two daugh­ters the way her im­mi­grant par­ents raised her. There would be no play dates and no sleep­overs: “I don’t re­ally have time for any­thing fun, be­cause I’mChi­nese,” one of Chua’s daugh­ters told a friend. In­stead, there would be a to­tal com­mit­ment to aca­demics and ex­per­tise at some­thing, prefer­ably an in­stru­ment. Though Chua’s Jewish hus­band grew up with par­ents who en­cour­aged him to — imag­ine! — ex­press him­self, he nonethe­less agreed to let her take the lead in rear­ing the chil­dren and mostly serves as the Greek cho­rus to Chua’s crazed ac­tions.

In Chi­nese par­ent­ing the­ory, hard work pro­duces ac­com­plish­ment, which pro­duces con­fi­dence and yet more ac­com­plish­ment. As Chua notes, this style of par­ent­ing is found among other im­mi­grant cul­tures, too, and I’m sure many Washington area read­ers have seen it, if they don’t em­ploy it them­selves. Chua’s older daugh­ter, Sophia, a pi­anist, went along with, and blos­somed un­der, this ap­proach. The younger daugh­ter, Lulu, whose in­stru­ment of Chua’s choice was the vi­o­lin, was a dif­fer­ent story. The turn­ing point came when, af­ter years of prac­tic­ing and per­form­ing, Lulu expressed her ha­tred of the vi­o­lin, her mother and of be­ing Chi­nese. Chua imag­ined a Western par­ent’s take on Lulu’s re­bel­lion: “Why tor­ture your­self and your child? What’s the point? ... I knew as a Chi­nese mother I could never give in to that way of think­ing.”

But she nev­er­the­less al­lowed Lulu to aban­don the vi­o­lin. Given that the worst Lulu ever did was cut her own hair and throw a glass, my re­ac­tion was that Chua got off easy in a so­ci­ety in which some pres­sured chil­dren cut them­selves, be­come anorexic, refuse to go to school or worse. No one but an ob­ses­sive Chi­nese mother would con­sider her healthy, en­gag­ing and ac­com­plished daugh­ter de­fi­cient be­cause the girl prefers ten­nis to the vi­o­lin — but that’s ex­actly the point.

And oh, what Chua put her­self and her daugh­ters through be­fore she got to her moment of reck­on­ing. On week­ends, they would spend hours get­ting to and from mu­sic lessons and then come home and prac­tice hours longer. At night, Chua would read up on vi­o­lin tech­nique and fret about the chil­dren in China who were prac­tic­ing 10 hours a day. (Did this woman ever sleep?) She in­sisted that her daugh­ters main­tain top grades — B’s, she notes, in­spire a “scream­ing, hair-tear­ing ex­plo­sion” among Chi­nese par­ents and the ap­pli­ca­tion of count­less prac­tice tests. She once re­fused to let a child leave the pi­ano bench to use the bath­room. She slapped one daugh­ter who was prac­tic­ing poorly. She threat­ened her chil­dren not just with stuffed-an­i­mal de­struc­tion, but with ex­po­sure to the el­e­ments. She made them prac­tice on trips to dozens of desti­na­tions, in­clud­ing London, Rome, Mum­bai and the Greek is­land of Crete, where she kept Lulu go­ing so long one day that the fam­ily missed see­ing the palace at Knos­sos.

Some­times, you’re not quite sure whether Chua is be­ing se­ri­ous or dead­pan. For ex­am­ple, she says she tried to ap­ply Chi­nese par­ent­ing to the fam­ily’s two dogs be­fore ac­cept­ing that the only thing they were good at was ex­press­ing af­fec­tion. “Al­though it is true that some dogs are on bomb squads or drug-sniff­ing teams,” she con­cluded, “it is per­fectly fine for most dogs not to have a pro­fes­sion, or even any spe­cial skills.” On the one hand, she seems aware of her short­com­ings: She is, she notes, “not good at en­joy­ing life,” and she ac­knowl­edges that the Chi­nese par­ent­ing ap­proach is flawed be­cause it doesn’t tol­er­ate the pos­si­bil­ity of fail­ure.

On the other hand, she sniffs that “ there are all kinds of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders in theWest that don’t ex­ist in Asia.” When not con­temp­tu­ous, some of her wry ob­ser­va­tions about Western­style child-rear­ing are spot-on: “Pri­vate schools are con­stantly try­ing to make learn­ing fun by hav­ing par­ents do all the work,” and sleep­overs are “a kind of pun­ish­ment par­ents un­know­ingly in­flict on their chil­dren through per­mis­sive­ness.”

Read­ers will al­ter­nately gasp at and em­pathize with Chua’s strug­gles and as­pi­ra­tions, all the while en­joy­ing her writ­ing, which, like her kid-rear­ing phi­los­o­phy, is brisk, lively and no­hold­sThis mem­oir raises in­trigu­ing, some­times un­com­fort­able ques­tions about love, pride, am­bi­tion, achieve­ment and self-worth that will res­onate among suc­cess-ob­sessed par­ents. Is it pos­si­ble, for ex­am­ple, that Chi­nese par­ents have more con­fi­dence in their chil­dren’s abil­i­ties, or that they are sim­ply will­ing to work harder at rais­ing ex­cep­tional chil­dren thanWestern­ers are?

Un­for­tu­nately, the author leaves many ques­tions unan­swered as her book limps to a con­clu­sion, with Chua ac­knowl­edg­ing her un­cer­tainty about how to fin­ish it and the fam­ily still de­bat­ing the pros and cons of her meth­ods (any­one hop­ing for a to­tal re­nun­ci­a­tion of the Chi­nese ap­proach will be dis­ap­pointed).

End­ing a par­ent­ing story when one child is only 15 seems pre­ma­ture; in fact, it might not be pos­si­ble to re­ally un­der­stand the im­pact of Chua’s ef­forts un­til her daugh­ters have off­spring of their own. Per­haps a se­quel or a se­ries (“ Tiger Grand­mother”!) is in the works. But while this bat­tle might not have been con­vinc­ingly con­cluded, it’s en­gag­ingly and provoca­tively chron­i­cled. Read­ers of all stripes will re­spond to “ Tiger Mother.”

PENE­LOPE DUL­LAGHAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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