Review of "Tiger Mother"
by Chia-Ti Chiu
I remember getting a widely-forwarded email years ago in which the subject line read, "You know you have Asian parents when…" And proceeded to nod my head and roll my eyes at every single bullet point. Did my parents wrap aluminum foil around the stove? Check. Urge me to play an instrument? Check. Spoke of Yale and Harvard as if they were the holy commandments? Check. Expect and demand only A+s? Check. Made me do SAT prep starting from the summer I was eleven? Check, check check. (Okay, maybe that last one wasn't on the email list, but it did happen to me. Needless to say, I did not have very enjoyable summer vacations). In my immigrant family, it was my dad who laid down the law with a heavy and often tyrannical fist; my mom receded somewhere in the background vacuuming or cooking dinner. She was no Amy Chua, who has now gained notoriety with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
I first stumbled across an excerpt from the book in the Wall Street Journal. I remember cringing, thinking, "What a picture this paints of Asian women." More fodder for the stereotype mill. I sat through blog attacks from Asian Americans who were incredulous at Chua's story. "This is why I am now in therapy," writes one such bitter child of immigrants. I listened as my own 1st generation friend – a mom of twins –exclaimed, "Who has that kind of time to sit next to her daughters for hours on end at the piano? Does she have a life? Who has that kind of energy?"
Who has that kind of time? Energy? Blinded desire? Dare I venture, someone with a few issues lurking from her own strict childhood? At one point in the book, Chua shares,
Here's a question I often get: "But Amy, let me ask you this. Who are you doing all this pushing for – your daughters" – and here always the cocked head, the knowing tone – "or yourself?"
My answer, I'm pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.
I'm pretty sure? What's the hesitation, the doubt? Chua insists that she sacrifices all for her daughters – really, why else would she put in such grueling hours to force her children to practice playing their instruments when all they do is resist? This sounds a bit like martyrdom to me. Inside of confronting her own inner demons, she unleashes the same blind discipline that her parents used onto her own children. It would be one thing if she personally experienced the intensity of playing a classical instrument, knowing how disciple and practice leads to perfection. But it painful to see her force her unrequited dreams onto her daughters; pitiful to see her live vicariously through their virtuosity. When she goes to see her daughters perform in concert, she cannot enjoy their time on stage. She cannot even hear the music – either she is gripping the armrests, navigating through the piece in her mind as if she herself was on the piano bench or else she will "rock back and forth and hum robotically." It's like those moms on the reality show, Toddlers & Tiaras, who say, "Oh little 3 year old Michelle loves to compete in this beauty pageant" while the glitter eyeshadow around narrowed eyes cannot mask the mom's naked desire to be on that stage. Chua admits that she couldn't stand the pressure of competition, so I find it completely ironic that she pushes her daughters so hard.
Chua cites her fear of "generational decline" as the main impetus to make her daughters play classical instruments, learn Chinese, and even lift heavy things just for the sake of lifting heavy things. She does not want to raise spoiled, rich children. She rides them like her parents rode her, yet in the end, she is "humbled by a thirteen-year-old." While her oldest daughter Sophia was obedient, quiet, and disciplined, her youngest Lulu was not having any of Tiger Mom's crazy control. At 3 she defied her mother by having a stand-off outside in the middle of winter wearing only a thin shirt. She constantly chafed again the hours and hours of violin practice, clenched her jaw against Chua's ultimatums and threats. Finally, at 13, on a family vacation to Moscow, Lulu breaks as Chua tries to force her to eat a single caviar egg. She shouts at her mother:
'You don't love me…You just make me feel bad about myself every second. You've wrecked my life. I can't stand to be around you…You're selfish. You don't care about anyone but yourself.'
She's just like me, I [Chua] thought, compulsively cruel. "You are a terrible daughter."
Lulu grabbed a glass from the table and threw it on the ground. Lulu was trembling with rage, and there were tears in her eyes. "I'll smash more if you don't leave me alone," she cried.
I got up and ran. I ran as fast as I could, not knowing where I was going, a crazy forty-six-year-old woman sprinting in sandals and crying. I ran past Lenin's mausoleum and past some guards with guns who I thought might shoot me.
Then I stopped. I had come to the end of the Red Square. There was nowhere to go.
I'm reminded of my own 65 year-old-father, who has held a grudge against my 25-year-old cousin for calling him by his first name and not addressing him as Uncle. He has held this grudge for 7 years. We only found out when my cousin went to visit my parents, and my dad refused to shake his hand; instead, he stalked out of the room. My father refuses to be accountable for his part in the isolation, refuses to accept an apology. He believes everyone is against him. Talk about emotional immaturity. Chua displays this same immaturity by running out of that Moscow restaurant – she doesn't know how to deal with being out of control or vulnerable. In the novel, Chua doesn't talk much about the effects her upbringing had on her physiological or emotional development (that might have made a more well-rounded novel). But that day in Moscow, it seemed like her childhood ghosts were propelling her feet out that restaurant.
Perhaps I could empathize more with Chua if she did not seem so hell-bent on pushing her agenda onto her children. Perhaps I could forgive her more if she took more than 8 weeks to write the first two-thirds of the book – and what felt like 3 minutes to wrap up the last third. It's clear that Chua didn't know how to end the book, so turns to her daughters to reassure readers that my mom didn't mess me up, I swear. Chua's writing is not very strong, and the only thing that propels the story line forward is thinking, "Can this woman behave worse than the last chapter?" Unfortunately, that answer is "Yes." I just hope that there is no sequel in store.