Monday, September 26, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I've just finished reading Amy Chua's hugely controversial memoir "the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". The book by the Chinese-American Yale professor (photo above) on how she raised her two daughters has already generated much discussion, and some of it has even reached China.

In her book, Amy Chua tells us about how she set out to raise her two daughters in a strict Chinese style (or what she considers to be the Chinese style), even though she lives in Connecticut and her husband is not even Chinese. The daughter of Chinese immigrants who came to the States from Fujian through the Philippines, she was raised in a very strict fashion by her parents, always being expected to excel in school and in anything else she did and never being allowed to mess around. After becoming a Yale professor, Chua decided that she was not going to give in to the soft and liberal approach to parenting which "Westerners" favour, but she would stick to the model which she believed had worked so well for her. Her husband, another Yale professor raised in a liberal Jewish household, rather surprisingly agreed to let her have her way ( although "in exchange" the girls were brought up as Jews with Bat Mitzvahs and the like).

In the book, Chua's methods come across as quite extreme. The girls are never (and I mean never) allowed to attend sleepovers, watch TV or play computer games, get any grade less than an A, act in school plays and a host of other things. Their mother chooses an instrument for the two of them (the piano for the older daughter and the violin for the younger one) and forces them to practice hours a day, pushing them to excel as much as is humanely possible. As a result, both of them become prodigious musicians as well as star students. But while the oldest daughter Sophie responds quite well to this upbringing, her younger sister Lulu has a rebellious personality and is much less willing to go along with her mother. By the age of thirteen she has her way and breaks free from her mum's control, refusing to play the violin any longer.

Part of the book's controversy originated from this piece in the Wall Street Journal which contains excerpts from the book designed to shock and a title ("why Chinese mothers are superior") which the author later said she didn't choose and disagrees with. Much of the fuss probably originates with the unease in the US at the idea that there might be one billion Chinese tiger mothers producing super kids, waiting in the wings to take away Americans' jobs and turn China into the new superpower. In any case, I found the book to be extremely readable and sometimes quite amusing, and I finished it in the space of a weekend. Amy Chua's parenting methods certainly come over as ridicolously over the top, especially the way she obsesses over her children's musical progress, which seems to border on insanity (for god's sake, playing the violin or the piano don't even lead to a good job, except if you are going to be a musician, but I suspect she would not consider that a decent occupation for her kids, since you don't need a Yale degree for it.) She later stated that she exaggerated it all in the book for literary effect, which I certainly hope.

Others have already written lots about the obvious downsides to her way of being parent: you are depriving your kids of valuable social skills by preventing them from socializing, you are preventing them from discovering their own interests and developing their own personalities (although she claims that these are Western preoccupations which the Chinese don't share, because they believe children need guidance) etc....

What I am struck by is Chua's attitude towards China and Chinese culture. This woman was born and raised in the States and went to an American school. She has never lived in China and her ideas about Chinese culture seem to be based entirely on her parents, who must have left China something like sixty years ago. And yet she feels completely Chinese, and often speaks about the "Westerners" who surround her in opposition to her Chinese self. It doesn't seem to strike her that Chinese culture and the Chinese immigrant culture in the States which she grew up in might not be quite the same. It reminds me of an article I once read about Chinese Americans who move to China and are surprised to find that they don't fit in at all.

And while she is going on about the advantages of forcing children to engage in rote learning for hours, choosing their hobbies for them and never being happy with anything but As, here in China there is increasing interest in more liberal Western approaches to child rearing (although the Chinese schooling system doesn't make it easier to allow children to take time off from schoolwork).
It also strikes me that Chua's methods might make sense in the context of China, a country of a billion people where most children have to work extremely hard to even have a hope of getting into university, and there is huge competition for everything. However, they don't make sense in the context of a privileged American family whose children will have loads of opportunities whatever happens.

Amy Chua's book has been translated into Chinese, with the title 我在美国做妈妈(being a mother in the US) . With characteristic lack of political correctness, it was added on the bottom of the Chinese cover that: "this book proves it: in the field of educating children, Eastern parents are more successful than Western parents." Some Chinese commentators have pointed out how the book is actually very un-Chinese, because even though many Chinese mothers could identify with the author's obsessive desire for her children to excel, none of them would ever publicly expose embarrassing facts about their family life with such honesty and candor.

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