The triumphs of the stereotypical over-achieving Asian student are carefully cultivated through strict parenting practices, says Yale law professor
Amy Chua in her new memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
. Billed as an “eye opening exploration of the differences in Eastern and Western parenting,” Chua’s memoir, on sale on January 11, is less of an argument for raising kids the tough-love Chinese way than it is an intimate look into the mind of a perfectionist mother whose mental divisions between “Eastern” and “Western” parenting practices often border on the racist.
Chua decided to raise her kids “the Chinese way.” To her this means hours upon hours of homework and music practice, no sleepovers, no talking back and the inclination to tell her grade-school aged daughters what horrible children they are when they don’t make her birthday cards that are up to snuff.
Chua is determined not to fall into the traps of lax, liberal, Western parents who, she says, “seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly” by valuing their children’s self-esteem and letting them do whatever they want. Aside from her gross generalizations about Eastern and Western parenting—we doubt every Chinese household requires so much of its children, just as we doubt that Western parenting practices are guaranteed to raise ungrateful sloths—Chua’s account of how she is raising her two daughters creates an image of a tyrannical mother that one shudders to think of any child having to endure. However altruistic she claims to be, and however great the results—her eldest daughter, Sophia, played Carnegie Hall at an age when most girls are still playing with Barbies—Chua comes across as the type of harsh, overly-critical parent that no one would blame the kids for dumping in a nursing home at the first opportunity.
While Sophia complies with her mother’s never-ending study demands and nasty insults, the younger, more rebellious Lulu fights back, resulting in epic screaming matches where Lulu, on the cusp of turning 13, gives as good as she gets.
The crux of the tale unfolds in a restaurant in Russia on vacation,
when Chua tells Lulu, who doesn’t want to try caviar, that “you’re like a barbarian … you think you’re a big rebel, (but) you are completely ordinary. There is nothing more typical, more predictable, common and low than an American teenager who won’t try things. You’re boring, Lulu—boring.” When Lulu responds by smashing a glass on the floor, and threatening to throw more if her mother doesn’t leave her alone, the reader is squarely in Lulu’s corner, perhaps even with a fist raised in solidarity.
The book ends soon after, with Chua lightening the pressure slightly on Lulu, allowing her to choose an interest (tennis) instead of having one (violin) foisted upon her. Chua seems to think it will be much smoother sailing from here on in. But having been a teenage girl, we know that what happens at 13 is just the tip of the iceberg. And if Lulu is already throwing glasses, we shudder to think of the range of objects she’ll be able to hoist as she gets older. Chua better learn how to duck.
Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,
The Penguin Press, US$25.95