24 Following

Of Letters and of Sciences

Welcome! This is a blog about literature and books that are critical to any social discourse: literary, cultural, racial, gender-based. A blog for humanists, scholars, the curious, and thinkers and thinkeresses.

Chua takes on cultural parenting. The result reads as both repulsive and as a valid cultural study that cuts close to home.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chua
People are right to view this book with a mixture of understanding/interest and revulsion. A dazzling scholar, Amy Chua is no less scholarly a writer in detailing her family life, explaining to those who may not know the cultural gap in expectations, responsibilities, and behaviour between American/Western children and children with parents from other countries.
As one such child, I can attest to this fact. My mother told me point-blank that, in our house, there was never going to be any door-slamming, yelling "I hate you!", or hollering "WHAT????" when asked a question. These were all things I had seen my European American friends do and I was raised from an early age that such disrespect was not part of my house. As a result, I rarely threw (public) tantrums, was rarely a misbehaving kid, had a high and almost inbred sense of duty and decorum, and never went through the "inevitable" teenage rebellion. (It's not inevitable, my parents said; it's American).
So I quite know the background and where Chua is coming from as she chronicles parenthood. She was determined to raise her daughters "the traditional Chinese way"; in short, she'd be a Tiger Mother.
She notes, perhaps most importantly and unsurprisingly, given her outstanding career in multicultural politics, that this form of parenting (Tiger Mothers, for example), is in no way specific to one region of the world. Tiger Mothers, she says, may be from the Caribbean to East Asia; Africa to Latin America to Catholic Pennsylvania to other households.
But Chua takes this no-nonsense parenting to a level that even she deemed was extreme. As children, her daughters were banned from sleepovers, television, etc. TV, ok. But sleepovers??
Chua also details how far her attempts went: at one point, her daughter Lulu is about 4 or so, and because she won't listen to her mother/ is being "rude" and "disrespectful" to her mother by refusing to put on her gloves in winter, her mother makes her stand outside in the freezing cold in her coat, but without gloves. This supposed punishment ends with Chua remarking with some awe that her small child grit her teeth and stubbornly stood in the cold, instead of rushing to apologize and appease her mother. Finally, Chua opens the sliding door and almost has to cajole her strong-willed daughter inside. To paraphrase, Chua muses almost in wonder of this stubborn little creature, that she, the mother, had been "bested by a five year old."
Chua writes that she realizes this incident was extreme, joking that such actions might get Child Protection Services onto her. Her methods change slightly.
While one daughter embodies the obedience, excellence at the violin and at schoolwork that Chua so craves; her youngest, the spirited Lulu, caves less easily. Chua reports saying some things that sound truly shocking to her 8-12 year old: "You are shaming me/ you are being disgraceful/ you are the worst Chinese daughter". (Her daughters are actually mixed, as Chua's husband is Jewish).
In some of the depictions of the more benign but still crazily-overbearing aspects of Chua's parenting, she shows an email she would write to her violin playing daughter as, literally, almost a study guide to her violin practice.  For example, "' Then comes the E minor. LIGHT, LIGHT, LIGHT on your fingers!!!! Move IMMEDIATELY---fast! Light!!---to the next note. Lightly!!!!!!!!!!!!!!'".
While Chua, in hindsight, seems to realize that this and some other methods were harsh and/or can be seen as excessive (she even describes them as such), she never exactly seems to regret many of the choices she made. 
She is quite capable of describing them and how she may have had reservations about them, but she never comes out with a gigantic revelation about how wrong she was.
And, indeed, maybe this is the point: that there is some legitimate merit in the theory behind Chua's parenting and thinking. 
But she never apologizes for the more extreme versions of her parenting, like making her child stand in the cold. She notices that it might be extreme but she never definitively says "I was wrong in some of those extreme cases."
She even gives us an update. After all that she's learned from her daughters (Lulu continues to be spirited and freewilled, even though she resumes piano lessons after quitting in a fury;  while the more dutiful daughter eventually snaps and shows some resistance of her own, yelling at her mother that she's always done everything her mother wanted her to do, and what more can she ask for?), Chua still admits that even though her days as a Tiger Mother have dampened and lessened in their intensity, she still tries to be one in certain ways.  She admits that now, she tries to take her daughter's wishes into account and rarely insists on things in the same way she used.
She tries to accommodate her daughter's wishes.
She seems to have realized that her daughters have wills and dreams of their own.  
However, the book ends with the family not so much with a firm resolution or conclusion but with more of a cease-fire and and a just-stable peace. Chua still admits that she will hear her daughter playing the violin or piano from another room and will, as she describes it, call out to her daughter in a hopeful, almost kindly manner, something like "a little lighter on the E note!". She says, with some lightheartedness, that the intensity has stopped. She respects her daughters to a certain degree, but as she jokingly tells us, she still sometimes cannot resist still giving these little tips, taps, and well-meaning pushes. 
 The change is that, by the end of the book, Chua seems to have settled down and calmed down a little. She hasn't exactly been on an entire learning curve, because she still wants to influence her daughters, but she's learned to do so in a more humane way and has learned to parent through dialogue instead of by mandate.
And, to be fair, that's what every parent wants ultimately: to have a role (perhaps some want a more prominent role than others) in shaping or in guiding their children's lives. Chua is no different from any other parent in that she ultimately wants the best for her children. It's just that she must realize that she may not have all of the answers to what is best for her daughters and that they have a say in their own lives. 
I don't condemn Chua as a horrible person, especially because I appreciate the cultural background behind her thinking, but I do think some of her methods are completely draconian. No sleepovers ever?? Making her daughter stand in the cold? The latter is just cruelty. And borders on the sick. Luckily, she realizes this.
What, I suppose, is missing from Chua's book's conclusion is acknowledgment that wholeheartedly redeems her. She doesn't ask for one, she doesn't offer one, I don't think she thinks she needs one, and she doesn't portray one. In this way, I believe she is still adhering to non-Western parenthood in asserting that what she wants for her daughters is worthwhile; She just seems to have dropped the extremes.
So perhaps, the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother becomes less a battle hymn and more a melody or refrain in her family's life. Like a metronome, the undercurrent and beat of Chua's now-seemingly-calmer wishes are still there, but the melody is no longer a war chant. The family seems to be at peace.
A long review for a complicated book.
Oh, also, for what it's worth, I have resolved to be a "Panda Mother", a little bit like my own mother was to me. I would like my children to be aware of being polite and have a sense of integrity, but my influence over what they want to do with their lives will end there.
Also, "Panda Mother" because I will be extremely cuddly.