Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Talk: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a parenting memoir that has created quite the controversy. Author Amy Chua's article in The Wall Street Journal fanned the flames of hype, in what could be one of the most brilliant PR moves ever - or a naive editorial that's unleashed the fury of people everywhere and culminated in death threats for Chua. The eldest Chua daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, defended her mother in a letter published by The New York Post, which to many readers' dismay actually defends her mother and agrees with the way she and her sister were raised.

This book speaks to me on several personal levels:

1. Right or wrong, I've totally bought into the model minority identity of Asians in American culture. This is a double-edged sword because I have natural academic (and musical-ish) talents, but I was raised by white people. My mother would never sit and oversee my homework or music practice because she herself didn't have the fortitude - fortitude Chua has in spades. But I still made straight As (which I was paid for) though I'm definitely not good at math or science.

2. This book touches a lot on the "nature versus nurture" debate. Are Chinese mothers superior because they are Chinese genetically or because of the Chinese culture? Where do some of my stringent and bizarre tendencies come from - birth order, Asian heritage or proclivities that would be present even if I were white? Did I excel in school because my mother bought into the model minority idea, too, and therefore expected me to succeed despite her not being a Chinese mother?

3. I am fascinated by the idea that Chua pushed her children so hard - and that they fought so hard - but their relationships were built on mutual love. I tried for decades to be perfect and never fight with my mother; when the fighting finally started our relationship disintegrated. If I had ever screamed at my mother that I hated her she would've a) hated me back and b) never forgiven me. If she had been Chinese could she have handled it?

4. In true Western parent fashion, my mother asked me when I was tiny if I wanted to play the violin. She was prepared to find me a Suzuki teacher and jump in. However, for whatever reason I declined (at the age of four or whatever) and to this day I regret never learning. I was certainly allowed to indulge my interests (ballet, tap, jazz, choir, art) but I was never pushed to try things I was afraid of or didn't have a natural talent for. 

5. Another theme of the book is sacrifice - both of Chua and of her children. Just the other day one of my friends described me as "brilliant, but she'll never reach her true potential because she's not willing to sacrifice that much of herself." It's true. I'm human and weak and I get tired and depressed - something that "real" Asians don't experience (I'm convinced). I probably do have gifts that I'm squandering because I think the cost is too high. But perhaps I'd have more success and direction if I were willing to buckle down a little more - or if my mother had buckled down for me? I found myself thinking as I read this book, "Gee, if I'd been raised Asian I'd be smarter, thinner and more disciplined. I might not be happy but I'd probably have more direction."

I found Battle Hymn to be funny, warm and honest. Much like my reaction to Black Swan, where others saw torture and self-abuse I regretted giving up pointe, Battle Hymn totally made me want to have children. Surely that's a reaction only a Tiger Mother would have...

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