Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

  • Amy Chua
  • Penguin Books
  • 256 pp.

Amy Chua's new book - `Mommie Dearest' with Chinese subtitles - has caused an uproar.

Reviewed by Heather Banks

Amy Chua is her own worst enemy. Raising two daughters, Sophia and Louisa (called “Lulu”), she seems a cross between Leopold Mozart (the ultimate stage father) and Joan Crawford (“Mommy Dearest”). In interviews, she says the book demonstrates her sense of humor, but there is little evidence of it. Rather than finding humor in the contradictions between her expectations and reality, at the end, Chua is looking up the fine points of tennis after her rebellious second daughter has quit the violin and taken up the game; then she interferes by texting the tennis coach. Thus, she continues her pattern of relentlessly second-guessing the girls’ teachers, which she chronicles throughout the book as Sophia and Lulu are literally forced to become child prodigies in piano and violin, respectively. For the “Tiger Mother,” the very concept of playing an instrument or sport seems beyond her comprehension.

Chua’s thesis is that Asian – especially Chinese – parents have a time-tested version of super-parenting guaranteed to produce students who earn all A’s, obey and revere their parents, and excel in whatever fields their parents choose. As a result, the offspring will love and respect their parents throughout life because of being held to extremely strict and exacting standards. She also disdains the self-awareness gained through trial and error that she sees U.S. parents value.

Raised not in China but in Indiana and California, Chua so lacks self-awareness that she undercuts her arguments in describing her own family. She treasures an ancestor’s philosophy tome but does not reflect on the traditional Confucian system of tests that brought him to prominence as an astronomer. Excellence was required not only in rote memorization but also in analysis and creativity such as writing poetry, painting and mastering a musical instrument. Success in examinations resulted in what Americans might call being “well rounded” and led to a government position – but not in one’s home province, to avoid favoritism to one’s clan. Therefore, ancestor Chua lived in the capital, Beijing, not with his family in Fukien.

Generations of Amy Chua’s family of rebels moved away from their elders. All four grandparents left China for the Philippines. The domineering “Dragon Lady” grandmother drove her children away. Thus, Chua’s father went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for graduate study and never looked back. Her “strict but loving parents” wanted their daughters to stay in Berkeley, Calif., where her father is a professor. Instead, all three went to Harvard and Yale; they promised to marry Chinese men, but Amy and Katrin married Jewish professors. There’s a long pattern of family rebellion that Chua notes but ignores.

Amy Chua agreed to bring up her daughters in the Jewish faith. This is one area in which she does not tell us the daughters are expected, if not forced, to excel. Both have bat mitzvahs and read their Hebrew passages well, but we hear nothing of Hebrew School or participation in Sabbath rituals – only about Chua’s struggle with Lulu over playing a Hebrew song for the occasion.

Another omission relates to a promise Chua made to her parents to teach her daughters Mandarin Chinese, as the lingua franca of Chinese worldwide (although the Chua family speaks the southern Fukien dialect). Early on, a Mandarin-speaking nanny is hired. Later, we are told the girls study Chinese two hours a day. Again, this second-generation but fiercely Chinese mother never tells us the results. Do Sophia and Lulu speak fluently in either or both of the Chinese dialects? How well do the girls read and write the language?

A telling example of Tiger Mother’s exaggerated sense of the superiority of her parenting methods and her ethnicity comes from an incident at her daughter’s private school. Not long after Sophia managed to outshine a Korean classmate and star pupil by receiving an “A” grade, the boy and his family returned home to Korea – clearly driven by shame, Chua concludes. Throughout her account, this obviously smart Yale Law School professor seems remarkably unable to acknowledge that other parents – even Anglo-Saxon types and those of other ethnicities – may have similarly high standards for their children. Without a doubt, that’s true at her children’s school, where many students’ parents are probably high-achieving faculty members at Yale, like Chua and her husband.

Her only contact with the school seems to be taking Sophia and Lulu out of class (especially gym) on the pretext of medical appointments but really for extra music lessons or practice time. What do these girls learn? That Mother lies to achieve her own ends.

A sequel written when the daughters are in their 20s or older would be illuminating. Will they, like Tiger Mother, major in what their parent(s) want? (Amy Chua majored in math to please her engineer father; when he saw she was not succeeding, she changed to economics and then law.) Will they go wild, once out from under an existence structured to the level of measure-by-measure commands for practicing their instruments? Dating and choosing spouses is likely to be interesting, given their apparently limited experience with school and group social activities. Will Amy Chua finally see that her own mother’s advice (“slow down and stay cool”) applies to more than public speaking? Will she understand that her own brief musical training and ineptitude at tennis as a child undoubtedly influenced her insistence on forcing her daughters to excel? She seems not to grasp the difference between prize-winning solos and ensemble playing in orchestras and chamber music. Perhaps the best thing for Amy Chua would be to encounter a coach who is firm about the motto: “There is no I in TEAM.” But she probably wouldn’t understand.

Despite having written books on global economics, Chua seems oblivious to the broader U.S. and global society in which she and her family reside, and to traditions and current trends in China. There, parents now worry about the second generation of “spoiled” single children. Worse, the number one cause of death among teens is suicide; many youth who receive bad grades or do not meet parents’ expectations jump from roofs. Abortions are rising rapidly among young unmarried women. “The Chinese way” is neither monolithic nor without fault.

Heather Banks lives in Maryland. She taught in Taiwan for two years and has been involved in the Chinese-American community for several decades.

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