Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
by Amy Chua

Amy Chua wants you to know she's no wimp when it comes to raising kids. Here's some tips she has on raising kids the "Chinese" way:

  • Take your children to Chuck E. Cheese's and let them play any game they choose, then make them watch as you burn their tickets
  • Ice cream is a great motivator for kids; promise them that if they do everything you ask, they can have some when they turn 18
  • Inform your child that televisions receive all of their power from flawless renditions of Brahms' Violin Concerto in D
  • Only let your children have a pet dog if they can tame the most rabid dog at the pound
  • Should your child express interest in spending more time with his or her friends, simply pack up and move several hundred miles away
  • To ensure academic excellence, inform your children that there is a mark higher than an A-plus and then shame them for failing to attain it
  • Replace their frail little limbs with less fragile prosthetics
  • Remember, you may have to put up with one or two suicides before you finally craft that perfect child you've always wanted

Actually this was from an Onion article, but nonetheless Chua's new memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is framed mostly as a critique of "Western" style of parenting, an advocacy piece for "Chinese" style parenting, a how-to guide, and a study of parenting in America. Flipping to the back, you can even see her sources for statistics such as this:
"Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out ther showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it come to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that 'stressing academic success is not good for children' or that 'parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.' By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way."
Reading this on page five, one would be quick to ask: is this supposed to be seen as something academic and serious, especially from a writer such a Chua, whose last two books were nonfiction studies of ethnicity and economies? Indeed, the book is filled with lists as if in evidence of how "Chinese" parenting is superior to American parenting. As David Brooks writes in the New York Times: "Chua plays into America’s fear of national decline. Here’s a Chinese parent working really hard (and, by the way, there are a billion more of her) and her kids are going to crush ours."

Chua and her publishers meant this book to be threatening. As a quick glance "study" it seems so; as a memoir, it drips with boasting. From Chua's writing we learn that her daughters are highly accomplished. They go to private schools. They have piano and violin lessons. They have vacations in Russia, Poland, China. Of course all this is possible since both Chua and her husband (professor and novelist Jed Rubenfeld) make high income, and their kids (due to this very fact of class) are automatically given privileges many others never see. What Chua misses is not that her parenting style is a matter of race, but it's a matter of class.

While I'm not Chinese, I know what Chua is getting at. What Asian immigrant parent doesn't want their kids to become doctors or play violin and get straight A's? Yet as part of a working class family, the best I ever did was get straight A's. As a child, we could never afford renting a violin, let alone paying for lessons. Likewise, the only time we went on vacation was visiting my grandparents once; we don't waste money on private schools because there's public school. While they dreamed of me becoming a doctor, I ended up--oh my god--a failing writer. What Chua ignores are class matters; she doesn't even question the definition of "Americaness;" she doesn't come close to seeing the magnitude of differences in family dynamics.

For a better and more professional study of parenting, I would highly recommend Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life in which she dissects and study parenting styles among class. The study (I admit, she was a professor of mine during her brief stay at UMD), is more insightful and less offending Chua's memoir, which finds its strength in stereotypes, blinded classism, and the occasional dehumanization. On a gender ambiguous piano teacher, she writes: "We couldn't tell if MJ was male or female , but it always wore a suit and bow tie, and I liked its matter-of-fact style." (emphasis added by me).

While framed partially (by the publishers especially) as a field study and critique of parenting style, Chua's strength here is that this is also (and mostly) a memoir and a story. Reading it, she can be both heart breaking and sharp witted, and one can't help but laugh at her endevors in parenting and her eventual humbling. She writes with truth as she exposes that she is mostly a bitch (she once tells her kids, "Oh my god, you're getting worse and worse" and then later throws her children's presents to her away) and that family happiness--whatever the culture--is hard to come by.

As a memoir is nearly works. But as Chua says herself:
"Like every Asian American woman in her late twenties, I had the idea of writing an epic novel about mother-daughter relationships spanning several generations, based loosely on my own family's story....Unfortunately, I had no talent for novel writing."
Chua's writing here (be it memior or how-to guide [which she swears it's not] or cultural critique) has no real substance. Where it lacks in actual cultural critique and insight, it also lacks in true style and voice. Chua is no novelist, no writer. At the end, she just proves to be another upper class American. While the writing is brisk and quick to read, there is no joy here.

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