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Battle Spawn of the Tiger Mother (not a book review)

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

As the offspring of two Chinese parents who were never able to agree on the definition of “good parenting” but always put me and my brother’s wellbeing and passions very high on their list of priorities, there was lot that I could hate about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, from the schlocky dime-store Amy Tan-sounding title right down to the continued poor stereotyping of Chinese-Americans as a proud race of dragon-tamers who cling onto the clandestine ways of the mystical kingdom they can no longer return to (from one of our own, no less!).

Before I decided to take the plunge, I’d already been privy to ample context. Various news outlets outlined the story of Mrs. Chua’s oppressive, nigh-fanatical measures used to raise her two daughters, inciting polarizing statements made towards Mrs. Chua’s philosophies and, in some cases, her mental stability. Reading customer reviews on the book’s amazon.com page provides a great visual reference for the outpouring of opinion, as the number of 5-star to 1-star reviews–as well as everything in between–creates an expected bell curve not unlike the ones Mrs. Chua’s children will one day encounter at their respective Ivy League establishments.

When I first started reading Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I went in with preconceived expectations of completely disagreeing with the methods of her well-documented madness and to abhor this woman from the acidic depths of the hate-vessel I call my heart. That might’ve been some of the impetus behind my decision to read her book over Greg Bear’s Cryptum; like any person of opinion, I require vindication, or proactively substantiating my opinion in one long figurative pat on my own back.

After reading it, I can still firmly attest to my earlier prediction of disagreeing on just about every facet of parenting she could slingshot at me in 256 pages holding up. But, much to my quaint and pleasant astonishment, I don’t hate her. More specifically, I can’t.

I’m not sure when our society, domestic or otherwise, suddenly decided to unanimously fixate on this so-called “science” of child-rearing and development, but I remain confused as to why rational and clear-thinking adults will devolve into packs of rabid Christmas shoppers when new theories on parenting and youth education pop up. From what I’ve witnessed in my 27 years of parental theory-free existence, there is no better way to divine a grown parent’s true personality than to ask them about their children. There are certainly scarier things than a knitting circle of middle-aged women comparing their children’s achievements and then talking about parenting in the same tone an auto mechanic would use to describe oil changes, but I haven’t come across them yet.

As mentioned above, both my mother and father, with the exception of my consistent 2.5GPA through high school, have never seen eye-to-eye on how to properly raise my brother and I. My father, due to the way he was brought up, placed huge emphasis on grades and SATs, frequently resorting to monetary or material rewards to unsuccessfully goad progress. My mother, in large part due to her household growing up and her subsequent rejection of what she saw, placed firm emphasis on being a person of resolute morals and strong conviction; “strengthen your heart, and your brain will follow suit; true intelligence comes from the heart.” In hindsight, I think my mother had the more bad-ass of technique, because her vastly more macrocosmic world view also lumped in good grades as evidence of a person’s convictions. Loop-hole! GJ, ma. Regardless of momentary successes and/or failures in the past or how much I actually paid attention to them, their lessons stuck with me to the point that I echo my father’s sentiments now and then on a purely subconscious level.

Reading Amy Chua’s brisk prose, I slowly came to the realization that, like her parents before her, she simply wants to impart on her children the abilities she believes they will require to make a name for themselves and raise children of their caliber. I think one key element a lot of the public who has yet to read the book is missing is that at no point does Chua ever proclaim that her parenting style is better or more effective than others. Throughout the book, Chua expresses the heartache she feels, particularly towards her younger, more rebellious and strong-willed daughter. Numerous times, Chua points out the pride she feels alongside her children as they come to the realization that they’ve overcome something they perceived to be unsurmountable. Chua also makes a clear argument not for why her methods are correct, but rather why she chooses to use them. Unlike other children, and possibly lots of people from my generation, Chua never internalized her parent’s stricter punishments. A precocious child, from what I’ve gathered, she was always able to delve deeper into her parent’s anger and ask herself what prompted her parents to react towards her as such. Throughout the book, she focuses purely on the positive aspects of her upbringing at the hands of her parents and how they shaped her into what she is today. In light of this, there’s some arguments that can be made in that as a child, Chua’s ability to accept criticism with a level head wasn’t so much innate as it was more artificially manifested through brainwashing imposed upon her by her equally strict parents. Then again, I would argue that’s some damn good brainwashing going on. Chua’s parents were definitely onto something.

The term ‘brainwashing’ evokes negative imagery like Orwell’s “He loved Big Brother” refrain, but the fact of the matter is that brainwashing happens whether the parent is aware of it or not. When a parent picks up after their children’s dirty clothes when the hamper’s just an arm’s length away, they’re brainwashing their children in thinking that someone will be around to always clean up their mess. When a parent spanks a child for being naughty, they’re brainwashing their child to believe that violence can be used to get what they want. And when a parent makes an offhand, seemingly harmless comment about homosexuality, they’re brainwashing their child into recognizing palpable differences between what society considers to be “normal” versus “abberant” behavior. Chua is guilty of brainwashing her children in the same way we’re all guilty of brainwashing a younger, more impressionable person in our life through our actions, intended or not.

Chua also provides the Western reader with insight into why Asians are typically the most academically successful cultural group in the American educational system and it sure as shit doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. As someone who’s invariably tapped in to the Asian networks of south Orange County and spent two years cavorting with Asians at UCLA, I’ve met very few “smart” Asians as opposed to those that are genuinely intelligent (for the record, I’m excluding myself from this cross-section, thankyouverymuch). Most of these kids are biology, math, and not to mention musical whizzes. They can postulate on string theory, diagnose thirty different types of cancer, and they all learned to play Rachmaninoff years before their WASP peers, and for all of their success and progress, little has anything to do with intelligence. Some will occasionally catch me off-guard with an insightful comment that contains equal parts humor and truth, but most of the time, they’re lucky if they can form a coherent, original thought. No one is born “good at math” or “smart” in the academic sense.

The real reason Asian students are so successful is not just because their parents instill in them this drive to succeed and create an environment that fosters this competitive mindset; going one step further, Asian parents also introduce strict doctrines to their children that objectively define success and through rote repetition and studying, bequeaths upon their children a tried-and-true funnel in which to pour all of their potential into. Chua outlines the pattern of Asian immigrants in America as one of the contributors to this outlook on academics. The first generation, having escaped a life of abject poverty, are driven to make something of themselves in a capitalist society rife with opportunity. Because their lifestyle is deadlocked in the “survival” section of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they stress the importance of making money to their children and push them to their potential, which means they end up becoming doctors, lawyers, or businessmen. In the following generations, American-born Asian families become more and more acclimated to this individualistic notion of the self and sooner or later, they decide to rebel against the outdated, old-world machinations of their parents or embrace the concept of finding one’s own passions through assimilation into American society. This creates a downward slope in family riches and resources as this highly individual, American style of thinking is propagated from parent to child to grandchild. For Chua, this is where she sees modern American families at: soft, indecisive, and lacking focus and drive. Amy Chua wants her children to be rich and successful, yes, but above all, she wants to break any silly notions of entitlement free from their minds. At the risk of sounding like a broken parrot, I hardly agree with her methods, but her reasoning is strong and I think there’s some positives to be extracted from all the accompanying sturm and drang.

People who are referring to Amy Chua’s parenting methods as “typical Chinese” need to read more news and commentary, because China’s gone through some changes as well. The One Child Policy, coupled with high demand and low supply, exacerbated by a population problem, compounded by the Chinese obsession with “face”, and fully supplanted by costs of living that have tripled in less than three years has created an army of “little emperors”; spoiled children who have every whim tended to by parents and grandparents, who in turn have placed all of their hopes and dreams on their child’s shoulders in order to one day live vicariously through him or her. Sorry, China, but I’d take even Amy Chua’s style over yours any day.

That’s not to say I will, though. I will never, ever use Amy Chua’s child-rearing techniques, even under subtle suggestion from a dark, ancient entity. Contrary to what Amy Chua might think she’s doing for her children, never allowing one’s daughters to attend any social gatherings or slumber parties is ridiculous, especially at such a crucial point in a person’s development of social awareness and interaction. And, Amy? Nobody forced you to birth these two girls. They owe you a fraction of what I owe you, which is nothing.

And, in keeping with my original knee-jerk sentiment, I hate, hate, HATE the title of your book, lady. It annoys me how, in order to gain acceptance in the West, Chinese and Asian authors at large have to resort to pigeon-holing themselves into these neat little cultural boxes. The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The Woman Warrior. And now, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Sell your product based on the strength of the content, not through cheap exoticism and outdated Orientalist-pandering attention catchers.

All in all, I’m glad I read this book. It made me upset at times, but it mostly forced me to think on my upbringing and, in a time far, far away, how I’m going to raise my children (I shudder to think). My parents lessons have and always will stick with me. For better or worse, I owe a great deal of my successes and interactions with others on the strength (or shortcomings) of how they chose to raise me. They gave me what they believed to be a tool kit that I would use in the years to come in dealing with life’s ups and downs. Not the best tool kit, nor the worst, but simply the tools they believed to be most appropriate. It’s parenting, and no one, not even Amy Chua, can say their method is the best. So, for all the people hating on Amy Chua, read her book first. Know what you’re bitching about before you actually do it. That’s one thing my mother taught me.