My Mother the Tigress

I called my Mother on Skype this morning to discuss the excerpt of Amy Chua‘s new book published on the Wall Street Journal over the weekend.

Reading Chua’s article, my Mom said, was like reading documentation of her own child rearing techniques.

“I still remember our fights,” she wrote in an e-mail to me before we spoke. “I was the terrible mom [who] always wanted my own way. We fought and we made up and we fought again … I remember the fights we had and yes, you did tear up a lot of things.”

I tore up piano sheets when my Mom – who had gone to take basic piano lessons herself so she could oversee my daily practicing – sat next to me, demanding I play the piece until it was perfect.

I threw books at my Mom, when she made me write book reports during the summer holidays while the rest of my classmates were away at overnight camps – camps I was not allowed to go to.

We were not the only ones discussing Chua’s book – due to be released on Tuesday. Her story is causing an uproar on blogs, on Twitter, all over the Internet. The excerpt is brilliantly timed marketing scheme. Love it or hate it, her book is now going to be a bestseller.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” highlights the differences between Western parents and Chinese parents. Western parents are too overly concerned with a child’s self esteem, Chua argues, while Chinese parents will push their children to perfection – criticizing, not praising an A-minus grade. And what if a report card came back with a B? There would be “a screaming, hair-tearing explosion” followed by dozens of practice tests, Chua writes.

This kind of parenting apparently makes Chinese mothers “superior” to Western mothers. There’s no shame in threatening and punishing your child – it’s a way to make sure they are trying their absolute best.

And so Chua’s children, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), were raised with these rules: no TV, no pets, no computer games, no sleepovers, no play dates, no grades under A, no parts in school plays, no complaints about not having parts in school plays, no choice of extracurricular activities, nothing less than top places in any school class except gym and drama, no musical instruments except piano or violin.

Myself and a lot of my friends could relate to having some of these rules imposed on them by their Chinese mothers. But Chua goes to all kinds of extremes.

In her book, she talks about the time she rejected her daughters’ homemade birthday cards, and the time she threatened to burn their beloved stuffed animals if their music didn’t show improvement. In the excerpt, she writes about the time she forced Lulu to practice a song on the piano called “The Little White Donkey.”

“Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.

“You can’t make me.”

“Oh yes, I can.”

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

In the end, after practicing over and over again, Lulu suddenly got it. And she was beaming.

Mother and daughter quickly kissed and made up. Afterward, they celebrated by snuggling and giggling about the whole thing.

“Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t,” Chua writes.

I can totally relate to this model of parenting: Being forced to do something like piano or swimming until I got it right, and then being grateful to my Mother for pushing me to do so. But there were no threats made about giving away my toys to the Salvation Army, and certainly I was not deprived of food. Never would that happen. I don’t think my mother ever called me “pathetic” or a “coward.” That seems just too cruel.

Though the stories are lively and witty, the fights she describes and the words she exchanges with her daughters are horrifying.

Blog posts like this one titled “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian Americans like me are in therapy” questioning Chua’s assertion that her actions define the “Chinese way” of parenting and a seemingly premature conclusion that her own daughters are examples of her success.

And then a response by Taiwanese American Christine Lu, whose sister was a textbook case “success” story. But she killed herself in 2004 and Lu asserts that the pressure to succeed was just too much:

“Mine is an extreme example of course. But 6 years since her passing, I can tell you that the notion of the “superior Chinese mother” that my mom carried with her also died with my sister on October 28, 2004. If you were to ask my mom today if this style of parenting worked for her, she’ll point to a few boxes of report cards, trophies, piano books, photo albums and Harvard degrees and gladly trade it all to have my sister back.

As a responsibility to herself as a “superior Chinese mother”, I think Amy Chua should do a bit of research outside her comfort zone and help readers understand why Asian-American females have one of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S.”

There’s a difference between wanting the best for your child and wanting the best for yourself, my Mother said to me on Skype this morning.

“Did I want you to learn how to swim for my sake?”  My Mom asked. “How about your math tutor? Did I enroll you in those courses so I could feel better about myself?”

Clearly, the answers are ‘no.’ Swimming is not a hobby, it is a life saving tool that every child should learn. My Mom never learned to swim growing up in Hong Kong. She wanted to make sure I had such a skill. I even ended up being a lifeguard and swim instructor in high school. As for math, it’s never been my forte, but the tutoring prepared me for high school math classes that I otherwise would have struggled with if not for the extra curricular classes my Mom signed me up for.

So perhaps the most disturbing question that lingers is one about Chua’s motives. She claims to love her children, and I’m sure she believes she does. But a glimpse into her past reveals seeds that were planted long ago, perhaps influencing Chua’s methods today.

A review published by the Associated Press today tells the story of the author as an eighth-grader placing second in a history contest. She had invited her family to the ceremony where another student was given the first place award.

“Afterward,” Chua writes, “my father said to me: ‘Never, never, disgrace me like that again.'”

A child’s successes and failures are ultimately their own. For a parent to make pride and face the most important factor in a child’s motivation to achieve is selfish and pathetic and self-indulgent and all those things Chua said about her daughter when she worked so hard to play “The Little White Donkey” on the piano.

I can play the piano, I can skate, I can ski, I can swim and I passed Grade 12 Math. This is thanks to huge investments, emotionally, mentally and financially, from parents who cared about me and not about face. Thanks Mom and Dad.

3 thoughts on “My Mother the Tigress

  1. Mr. Han: You have taught me very important lesson, Xiao Dre. Life will knock us down, but we can choose whether or not to stand back up.

    – Jackie Chan, The Karate Kid (2010)

  2. If you think “you can”, your probably can. If you think “you can’t”, your probably can’t. You set your own limit in life. Think big and you will achieve big. Think small and you will achieve small.


  3. Thank-you Ms. Ma, for bringing some sanity back to this discussion which has especially intrigued me after a visit to my home this weekend by a very disappointed mother from Mainland China and her very intelligent, talented and creative son who just got his first C from one of our elite schools.

    Ms. Chua has chosen to live in a very limited world and then feels she has the expertise to speak on the behalf of all Asians. Although I am in polite terms the “westerner” I have been honored to have been welcomed in many homes in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam as well as homes of Asian Americans here and privileged to be called “uncle” and fill the role of godfather to many Chinese and Vietnamese children.

    Although for an American, my experiences around the world and particularly in Asia and Africa are unheard of, I would not call myself a cultural expert, but from what I have seen; your family seems much more representative of the modern Chinese family.

    On a lighter note I must say when it comes to writing Ms. Chua has much to learn from you and I look forward to your first book because you truly are a gifted writer. You share your experiences in a more believable manner. Are we really to believe this Asian tiger is giving her daughters Hanukkah presents if the get A’s in school?

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