A few months ago I moved back to my suburban family home after some years of independent living. This is not a guide to managing your emotions during such a transition (YouTube yoga clips, journal writing, buying and installing a lock on your door); this is a brief itemisation of why Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother is both amazing and a bit weird, a realisation I’ve had only since moving home and chatting about the book with my own Tiger Mother.
It’s a relieving read for Asian kids.
If you haven’t read the controversial book, or the even more controversial excerpt/exposition in the Wall Street Journal, Amy Chua is a second generation Chinese-American who decides that despite contemporary Western parenting trends she is going to raise her children as strictly as she was raised. She is sure that the reason so many Asian children are successful is not because they are somehow more talented than their non-Asian classmates, but because they are pushed. To tears. Regularly. For years. This may seem pretty obvious to those working in admissions at selective schools around the Western world, but it’s still a pretty radical thing to say. And good on her for doing it. She gave those of us with Tiger upbringing the opportunity to discuss our traumatic childhoods (teasing, rock-throwing, an oversupply of piano lessons) under the guise of topicality (see: this article).
Rote learning is awesome.
Chua is a great advocate for rote learning and by golly do I think this is a debate that needs reviving. Almost every chapter contains some excruciating detail about how she forced her daughters to drill a certain scale or phrase on the piano or violin until it was ready for stage. It’s a mentality I used to resist, but having moved away and come back home, I’ve started remembering childhood traumas with a slightly different perspective. From the age of three or four my sister and I had to keep an exercise book for spelling. On each page we drew wide margins in which my grandmother insisted we write all the new words we encountered in our reading, at least ten a week. At the end of each week we would be tested on the spelling and meanings of not only the words which had been collected that week, but also the previous weeks. This explains why, in my second year of formal schooling I was able to spell “university”. Also, I blame the absence of such techniques for my varying degrees of success at “university”.
Tiger parenting is hard. On everyone.
Throughout the book Chua makes mention of the fact that it’s not easy to be a Tiger mother. All that early rising, hours of sitting in on music lessons, driving four hours to the best tutors, screaming matches, forcing homework and practice—it’s not glossed over. Underneath this “honesty”, you can’t help but notice that Chua basically suggests that she’s more hard working (and though she never says this, but let’s assume this also means she’s better) than non-Tiger mothers. In the touchy-feely world of parenting advice, this is basically warfare, and not just on non-Asians.
“Of course, I also wanted Sophia to benefit from the best aspects of American society. I did not want her to end up like one of those weird Asian automatons who feel so much pressure from their parents that they kill themselves after coming in second on the national civil service exam.”
As with so much of this book, I find myself somewhere between judging Chua for being so goddamn black-and-white about things, and an arms-length respect for this woman who is, quite simply, doing everything she knows how to make the best life for her kids.