On the same day that Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother went viral, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. And while talk shows, op-ed pages, parenting blogs, email inboxes, and Facebook and Twitter feeds across the nation began to flood with outraged invocations of damaged self-esteem, elevated suicide rates, Asian automatons, "Yellow Peril," and even child abuse, I stayed in bed reading Chua's story, feeling strangely sentimental.
It wasn't just my hormones. Chua's tale of extreme parenting -- including those infamous scenes of calling her daughters "garbage" for imperfect piano playing and rejecting their birthday cards for being sloppy -- made me profoundly grateful for my own Tiger Mother.
Like Chua, my mother was a Chinese mother who directed an iron will toward her daughters' success. Growing up, whenever people remarked upon my grades or awards, I almost wanted to tell them I hadn't had any choice in the matter.
Because I had the kind of mother who, if I brought home a test score of 98, would demand an explanation for how those two points had escaped me. If I scored 100, she'd demand to know why I'd failed to earn extra credit. Explanation was futile. As my mother would say, "There's no Chinese word for try."
I generally resist simplistic East/West dichotomies, but this is true. In Chinese, you can try something out -- as in sampling, tasting, taking a turn -- but you can't say, "I tried my best" or "But I tried." In any case, I knew better than to attempt such excuses in English.
I had a duty to excel because, as the daughter of immigrants, I was privileged: privileged to grow up in a land of peace and prosperity -- with a Chinese mother. With privilege came responsibility: responsibility to validate her sacrifices and avail myself of opportunities that, by her implication, might otherwise fall to Americans who were lazier, dumber, or more self-entitled than me.
So I tried to fulfill that duty -- but, like Chua's daughters, I wasn't always happy about it. There were times when I disappointed my mother, intentionally and not; when I raged and rebelled, doctored report cards and forged signatures. There were times when we fought like animals; when she screamed that I was ruining her life and I screamed back much the same.
The moment I got into the college of her choice, I figured I'd satisfied enough of my mother's expectations. I partied, slacked off, had boyfriends who dismayed her. I self-indulgently pursued a degree in creative writing. I spent most of my twenties abroad, far away from her.
And I worked on anovel
in which a family of strong-willed Chinese American women reunite for a tour of China in the wake of tragedy. I wrote about family secrets, hidden political history, what we seek when we travel -- and the lifelong pressure to be extraordinary. I wrote about the tolls exacted on these women's relationships with their own mothers and daughters, and the difficulty of reconnecting when we lack a common language for failure or weakness -- for what makes us human, as opposed to, say, tigers.
So my own sentimental reaction to Chua's book caught me off-guard. That same day, I sent
to my mother, along with a note expressing my gratitude. And then I had my husband read it, as a primer.
Because I'd just had another realization: According to the Chinese calendar, our baby would be born in the year of the rabbit. Not a tiger like Chua, not a boar like my mother, not a horse like me, but a bunny. Cuddly, cute, and -- the adjective Chua deploys with the greatest disgust -- soft.
I decided we needed a battle plan.
My husband was game. He hadn't grown up with a Chinese mother, but he sometimes wishes he had. Once, strolling Prospect Park, we watched a little kid point out his shadow to applause and cheers of "Great job!" from his parents. My husband muttered, "'Great job?' More like, 'Correct.'" Here was a sign of a soon-to-be Tiger Dad.
We started strategizing how to raise our kids -- by Chua's definition -- Chinese. Self-esteem built upon hard-won skills and achievements, not mindless praise. Discipline and obedience. Respect for elders -- i.e., us. Regimented chores. Academic drills, Mandarin lessons, and practice tests after school. That's when my husband asked what school our kids should attend (here in New York, an issue often raised before conception). I said they would simply attend the local elementary, like me, then test into the elite city school from which I'd graduated.
My husband looked worried. "What if they don't get in?"
Without hesitating, I said, "We'll beat them."
Right about then, I received a reply from my mother: a correspondingly loving message, along with a declaration that Amy Chua's depiction of Chinese mothers was "totally distorted" and that Chua herself was "a hysterical control freak."
Of course, in many ways, she was right.
I'd gotten a little carried away with Chua's manifesto. After living in China for four years, I'm well aware that her characterization of "Chinese mothers" would perplex most of those one-point-three-billion masses, from the impoverished villages where toddlers often wander unsupervised amid livestock and littered streams to the booming cities where overweight "little emperors" (the spawn of China's one-child policy) often tyrannize their doting parents and grandparents. During my time there, I was continually struck by how my homegrown notion of "Chinese mothers" bore almost no relation to the realities on Chinese ground.
And as Chua acknowledges, the traits she attributes to Chinese mothers are also found among "Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents." In fact, this parenting style would much more accurately be described as common to striving immigrants -- in other words, to those whose life trajectories are "uniquely American," as a
article astutely observed. But that doesn't have the same ring as "Chinese mothers." Neither does it play to the current national fear of losing to China on the global stage nor to long-held xenophobic views of Asian kids as "hypercompetitive robots," as Ken Chen noted at CNN.
Finally, for me to call my mother a Chinese mother diminishes not only her American-ness, but her individuality. Unlike Chua, my mother never outlawed school plays or TV or sleepovers. She wanted her daughters to engage in society, rather than hold ourselves above it; to develop social skills, independent minds, a strong sense of personal responsibility and civic duty. That was more important to her than raising the "math whizzes and music prodigies" that Chua (perhaps self-mockingly) promises.
And whereas Chua tells her daughters that hard work is what differentiates them from the school janitor, my mother never indulged the temptation to overlook social inequality. A former journalist and social worker who earned a law degree while I was in college, she enforced academic success not as an end in itself, but as a necessary foundation for the power to challenge the status quo and the freedom to pursue the passions that can't be decreed, that can only spring from our individuality.
Maybe it's no accident that I became a novelist, in the same way that one of my sisters now heads a nonprofit defending immigrants' rights while the other teaches public school -- careers that Chua might not consider "stereotypically successful" but have made my mother very proud.
Which is not to say that my mother is superior to other mothers. I can attest that her daughters are as deeply flawed as anyone -- and that we all carry battle scars. To be honest, I have no idea whether my mother represents "Chinese mothers" any more than Amy Chua. All I know is that the central way she raised us -- holding us to the highest standards and refusing to settle for less -- is how I want to raise my own children. And while my mother might loathe the term "Tiger Mother," as far as labels go, I like it -- with a few caveats.
My husband and I made some modifications to our battle plan. We'll emphasize basic diligence and rigor, along with personal choice. We'll probably deploy my mother's line about the word "try," but only if our kids bring home a grade below, say, 92. We won't care if our kids can't play piano for their lives, as long as they pursue some kind of passion. And, lest anyone worry, I can't imagine any scenario in which I would beat my children, not a failing test score, not even a crappy birthday card.
Most importantly, I realize there's no right way to be a Chinese mother or a Tiger Mother or any kind of mother. Every mother is only human. The best-laid of battle plans will always be works-in-progress, like our children, like ourselves.
Still, I remain grateful for Chua's call to arms. Her manifesto might be reckless on some counts, but what's undeniable is that parenting will often feel like war. And to fight that war, whatever our ethnicity, we need to cultivate a certain fierce spirit residing in each of us. That includes the little creature now growing inside me, these days better known in our house as "Tiger Cub."