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Monday, January 17, 2011

Tiger Mother Infuriates This Rabbit Mommy

(Image from Indiebound)
What do you call a mother who forces her 10-year-old to practice playing the violin seven hours a day, then screams at her, says she's "trash," and accuses her of shaming the family if she dares to complain? I'll tell you who I'd be calling - Child Protective Services. But, according to Amy Chua, author of the new memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the scenario I described is just another day in the trenches for a Chinese mother (which she defines as someone who parents in a Chinese manner, regardless of ethnicity or nationality). What we Westerners would label abuse, they identify as "parenting." Lest you think Chua is exaggerating or making assumptions based on cultural stereotypes, let me tell you straight up: the mother I'm talking about is her. And, although her parents immigrated from China (via The Philippines) in 1960, she's American. Having been reared in a strict Chinese household herself, she chose to bring her daughters up in the same unyielding manner, a process which included bullying them both into becoming musicians. Honest and unapologetic, her book chronicles the years she spent trying and - in the case of her youngest - failing to make her girls into exactly what she wanted them to be.

Chua, a Yale law professor and author of two previous books, is married to Jed Rubenfeld, also a law professor and writer. Although Rubenfeld had the gall to believe kids should enjoy childhood, he allowed Chua to rear their young daughters in a traditional Chinese way (whether or not he is in real life, Chua portrays him as a spineless doormat). This, according to Amy, involved pushing their girls into not only getting perfect grades but also playing the piano and violin. A weekly lesson or two was not enough for Chua, who aimed to get her daughters into Julliard and beyond. While Sophia, the eldest of the girls, practiced more or less willingly, the youngest wanted nothing to do with music. Stunned by the child's rebellion, Chua yelled, screamed, threatened, mocked, shamed, bribed and otherwise coerced young Lulu into playing the violin. And not just at home, but on vacation, in intense lessons with world-class musicians, in auditions before stern judges, during "wasted" school periods - for hours and hours and hours every day.

As a result of Chua's constant pushing, the girls did become accomplished musicians, collecting awards, honors and accolades that bought their mother's affection. Chua remembers Saturdays, which the girls spent taking lessons at the Neighborhood Music School, as "the highlight of my week" (45, emphasis added by me) and the Spring her daughters performed to great admiration as "some of the best days of my life" (49, emphasis added by me). When Lulu finally breaks down, an event which causes Chua to (very reluctantly) let her quit violin, Chua recalls how she, not Lulu, "wandered around the house like a person who'd lost their ... reason for living" (213). As much as the author insists that "everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters" (148), it's pretty obvious from the descriptions of her obsessive, controlling, self-serving behavior that the only person she does anything for is herself.

Considering the subtitle of the book ("This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old."), I expected Chua to experience the kind of epiphany that makes her realize she's ruining her life with her own ridiculousness. And it is. Kinda. Because her daughter's unhappiness does eventually wake Chua up, but not enough to make her admit that by stubbornly insisting on perfection, she might have destroyed her child's life. There's no self-deprecating humor here, no humble admittance of mistakes, just a half-hearted acknowledgment that Chua's dictatorial parenting style might not work for every child.

Since I can't stop ranting about this book, you might think I detested it. Not so. I found it fascinating. Fascinating in the same way I think TLC's My Strange Addiction is fascinating, but still ... It's always interesting to get a glimpse into someone else's psyche. Plus, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is inarguably compelling, well-written and provocative. So, no, I didn't hate it. I just have issues with the behavior and conclusions Chua discusses in the book. While I do agree with Chua that American parents are often alarmingly overindulgent, I also don't think saying, "All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that" (63) is enough to excuse Chua's monstrous behavior. She may be Chinese (-American), but she is also (presumably) human (not that you'll see much evidence of that in her book). This, in the end, was what I found most disturbing about the book - not the writing, the editing, the construction, the content, or even the cover art, it was the author herself. I couldn't stand her. What I really wanted to do was rip the "It's All About Me" sticker off her forehead, crush her rose-colored glasses under my heel and force her to face reality. Call me a consummate Westerner, but I can't stand people who willingly shred a child's self-esteem in order to bolster their own. I guess I'm just American like that.
(Incidentally, I was born in the Year of the Rabbit which, according to the ultimate authority [i.e. Wikipedia] means I am sensitive, flexible, and amiable, pretty much the exact opposite of a Tiger. Might that have something to do with my strong reaction to this book?)
(Readalikes: Although I've only ever read her fiction, Amy Tan's books come to mind.)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for one use of strong language (no F-bombs) and the verbal/emotional abuse of children

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother from the owners of TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written. Thank you!


  1. Amazingly true and well written review, I agree 100% and loved your use of quotes to emphasis the point. Really interesting!

  2. Wow! I think your arguments are well reasoned, and I can certainly understand your reaction. I think I'll be more strict than most parents I know, there's definitely a balance that needs to happen!

    Thanks for being on this tour!

  3. I read an article by this woman the other day that was apparently about this book or an excerpt from it but I somehow missed it was actually a book, lol.. I've also seen this book around and didn't know that's what it was. I don't think I can read this book. It sort of brought tears to my eyes just reading your review. Unfortunately, that is how many Asian parents raise their children and there is NO telling them otherwise. It is extremely unhealthy to grow up without self-esteem and I think this kind of parenting leads directly to that. Great review though!

  4. I find this very interesting and will definitely put this book on my list. However, what I found even more ironic is that I plan to read the husband's (Jed Rubenfeld) new mystery in my next couple of books. It comes out this week and it has been getting very good notices from mystery bloggers. Anyway, when you mentioned the husband's name, I thought, isn't that the guy that wrote that mystery I'm about to read? Weird.

    As to the parentin style, for me, I never responded well to yelling and ridicule. Why would I expect a kid to? I probably went the other way with my parenting, but seriously? Who can perform with yelling?

  5. i've been dying to read this so i can be as fascinated as you were. awesome review, you've already made me despise her while making me excited to read the book at the same time

  6. Zoe - Thanks :)

    Trish - Absolutely. Balance is the key.

    Jenny - Having lived with Asian families, I know Chua's right about the differing parenting styles. However, I don't think that's an excuse for behaving abusively toward a child. I just can't imagine valuing achievement over the emotional health of your child.

    Kay - LOL. I do wonder about Rubenfeld now that I've read his wife's book. She paints him as such a wimp. I wonder what he's really like ...

    I agree - how can ANYONE be expected to achieve ANYTHING with someone yelling at them all the time? Sheesh.

    Nich - Ask and ye shall receive! Laurel grabbed the book tonight so she can give it to you. Can't wait to hear what you think.

  7. Two interesting articles on this subject - one is written by Chua, the other is a reaction to the first:

    Chua's Wall Street Journal article:

    One Reaction:

  8. I just read an article about this mother and appreciated reading your review of the book. Thanks!

  9. Great review! I am really looking forward to reading this book, since my husband is a Chinese immigrant. Even though we probably have a more "western" way of parenting our children, I've seen the other extreme that this author talks about in her book. When visiting my sister-in-law in HK years ago, we stayed at her house and was surprised by the amount of lessons she had her daughter in. By the age of eight she could play the piano, speak FOUR languages (Cantonese, her native language, English, French and Manderain)and did very well in school. What is even more interesting is that she has turned out to be a wonderful young college student who is very accomplished, sweet and loves to spend time with her those same people who pushed her so hard. So I'm trying to say that maybe the Chinese way isn't always so extreme as the author presents and can in fact benifit some children in the long run.


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