Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Memoir Junkie 2: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Disclaimer: This is part review and part reflection on my behalf…kindly bear with me!

Having been raised as an Asian in America, I was immediately intrigued and attracted to this memoir by Yale law professor Amy Chua. Indeed, it sat on my virtual reading shelf for quite some time, till last week when I finally got down to it, and I must say it was worth the anticipation. My first reaction to this personal account was that it was funny and depressing at the same time. Now this may seem impossible, but I have my reasons.

Amy Chua’s book is a clear self-parody about her parenting style. The title itself describes her as a “tiger mother”, where “tiger” refers to her Chinese zodiac sign and, incidentally, her personality. The book is divided into three parts and each part starts with a quote dictating the personality traits of people of the year of the tiger. Overall, Battle Hymn is a collection of anecdotes about Chua’s two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, and memories of her own childhood and parents. It is an explanation as to why, despite being a second generation Chinese American herself, she chose to stick to the “Chinese parenting model” and about why it worked with Sophia, but was a devastating failure with Lulu.

Tiger Mom Amy Chua with her cubs (Sophia (L) and Lulu(R))
The book mostly revolves around Chua’s strenuous and endless practice sessions with Sophia and Lulu and their respective instruments, piano and violin. She explains that excelling in classical instruments may be only path to escaping her worst fear: generational decline! So, what makes this funny instead of boring? This is the easy part of my explanation; it is always funny to witness the struggle of a parent to get their kids to obey. And though many people may deny that this is a laughable matter (I quote my mother “wait till it’s your turn”), everyone laughs. The things Chua does to force her girls to give their best and keep succeeding is to most Westerners: appalling and to all Asian Americans: obvious. These things include (in no particular order): never complimenting the kids in public, always taking the teacher’s side if there is ever a conflict between teacher and student, never giving in to complaints and signs of weakness or loss of confidence, worrying about the child’s feelings and dreams for themselves, etc. In short, it makes tiger parents seem like the cruel stepparents of Disney princesses. But whereas in Disney movies the princesses waltz away with a prince, all Asian parents know there is no such thing as princes and fairytales, there is only hard work and practice. The book is a page-turner; as a reader we always want to know if Sophia won the competition or what new tantrum Lulu will throw to outdo her-and I quote Lulu here- “Voldemort” mother. The only lagging passages for me were those that went into detail about the technicalities of a certain piano or violin piece, and this was probably because I am not a pianist or violinist.

It has been scientifically proven that playing a musical instrument enhances mathematical abilities. Chua has proven that it builds character, disciplines children, and gets them into top universities. Now only if my father would have read that article about how Einstein played violin earlier (a flaw in my upbringing or an explanation as to why I could never integrate numbers and variables?). I only played flute in the 7th grade and didn’t do so well in my higher mathematics classes. I should note that Sophia studied piano since she was three, played at Carnegie Hall at 14, and is now in Harvard.

Various covers of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Of course, there are different types of strict parents; at least Chua’s children achieved quite a few amazing goals. She pushed them beyond their limits (are there any such things?) and instilled in them confidence, discipline, and flawless, Ivy-worthy college applications. This is where the depression comes into picture. Reading about the successes that these two girls achieved at such a young age, I, as an Asian American of sorts, couldn’t help but think what Chua did wasn’t entirely wrong. She got somewhere with all the, for lack of better term, “harassment”. Whereas, with me, well, let’s just say I got quite a lot of higher education and bitterness towards “the system” and that’s about it. This book, no doubt, evoked many childhood memories. I vividly remember the times I had to make weird excuses as to why I couldn’t attend a sleepover even though my friends could see I clearly wanted to join the party. Being an Asian kid isn’t easy and the top grades come with a price. In case of the common “sleepover incidence”, it puts us in an awkward position: 1) either lie to your best friend (you have to go out with your family that day (to the library to get more Math practice books), don’t want to come because you need rest (fat chance, how about finishing that AP Bio lab and English essay?), etc.) or 2) admit you have overprotective parents who think any time away from textbooks is time wasted.

Take Case 1: The worst that can happen is that your dear friends will desert you and this fear will forever nag you.

Take Case 2: In this incidence many exponentially disastrous situations can result. If your friend tells her mom, the following may ensue: a) her mom may call yours to “talk things over and ensure that it’s all just good fun” (you’re busted), b) her mom may take offense and blatantly accuse yours of not trusting her: “Asian parents think they are so great and we are irresponsible” (busted again), c) if your friend’s mom is hyperactive, she may do what comes to most Westerners’ thoughts when they get a hint that a stranger’s child is in slight discomfort due to their parents: call Child Services (you are dead).
I didn’t want to know what would happen if I asked my father if I could go to the sleepover. Indeed, to this day, I don’t know what would have happened, but I have a feeling I would have had some rather sleepless nights and endless lectures of how I wasn’t “serious”.

See how it’s foolproof on the parent’s side? I have now become an objective scientist (I am absolutely squirming as l use this terminology) that can analyze any situation using the scientific method. I have set up an experiment using you, the reader, as a “test”: if you couldn’t handle reading the above paragraph, this book isn’t for you! For everyone else, dig in. Chua invites you into her life and while I don’t recommend adopting all her tricks, there is a lot to be learned about extremism and how things can backfire, even on a “tiger mother”.

Overall, I think this book is a fun read for anyone who has ever wanted to peek inside the home of overachieving Asian Americans. Now, if only there was a book on how Western parents turn out the most Nobel laureates. I’m waiting…


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