Friday, April 29, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Part 1

Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been a much talked about and very controversial book. It is certainly the topic of discussion regarding how Chinese people raise their children.  For years, there has not been a book from a Chinese author that has caused such a stir.  The last book was from Jung Chang (張戎), called Wild Swan.  This book like Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, was about personal journeys of Chinese women, their experiences of the East and the West.  They are a matter of personal taste, but I haven't read Wild Swan, but regarding the Joy Luck Club, I have read the book and watched the film.

When I read in the press about this Tiger Mother book, I was actually quite excited and judging by the title, I kind of guessed what it might be about.  There were a lot of negative reviews and comments in the media.  I myself had my own opinions and prejudices.  I guess many other Chinese or Asians had them also.  I guess parenting is a private affair for Chinese people and it is certainly not something you tend to read about.  If you are Chinese, you'd know about it and the usual mention in stereotypical jokes.  Until now, it has all been an open secret, but now people the world over get a brief look into Chinese parenting ethos.

Amy Chua (蔡美兒) had a list that she enforced on her two daughters that they must not do.  
  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin
This list cause a furore with all who had read or heard about the contents.  It was shocking and it was something generally not heard of outside Asian communities.  There are split opinions, some feel her approach is wrong in a liberal and democratic society.  However, there are those who feel Chua hasn't gone far enough.  Many people thought this book was a manual as to how to bring up children, it is not.  You have to read it to understand what Chua wanted to say.

Amy Chua was born to an immigrant Chinese family who were very traditional.  Chua eventually married an American-Jewish man, but it is somewhat odd that she intended to bring up her daughters her own way, the traditional Chinese way.  Yet, the daughters were raised as Jewish.  Being Chinese and Jewish is nothing new (I'll explain another day), but it certainly gave her daughters unique personalities.  The Chinese and Jewish parenting methods differ greatly.  Chinese parents are generally conservative and strict.  Jewish parents are often more open and allow children the space to develop.  But there are no right or wrong here.  If you look at the list of the most influential players on the world stage, there are no shortage of people of Chinese or Jewish backgrounds.

Yes, Chua was very tough with her daughters.  I could imagine growing up with such a mother was very tough.  Imagine being with friends, but generally being different.  In a way, it looked really extreme when compared to the liberal attitudes in the West.  If this was in Asia, then it would be not a big deal.  Chua wanted the best for her daughters, she cared and that is why she went to these great lengths.  Sometimes she went to far.  The relationship with her youngest daughter Lulu was strained at times, because she insisted on fighting fire with fire.  Whilst they were growing up, it was always about living to a strict schedule, e.g.  school, homework and practice their musical instruments.  There was no breathing space and this continued whilst on family holidays.  The daughters will practice before they will be allowed to engage in any sort of leisurely activity.  Often this will mean the practice sessions will over-run and the intended schedule would be ruined as the attraction had closed for the day.  I give credit to her husband.  He's been supportive and had the patience of a saint.  I can see that he didn't always agree with Chua's actions and even he feels at times, his wife had gone too far.

My fist impressions of Chua was that she was self-opinionated, pushy and lacked understanding of the way things when her children were concerned.  I also thought she was quite shallow in that she had little understanding about the arts and she didn't really respect the opinions of people that were quite different from her own.  Chua believed classical music was the path children should pursue.  That classical music was a civilised activity, I agree with this.  However, when she was going through the third piano teacher for her eldest daughter.  I thought she was shallow in dismissing the ideas of this particular teacher.  I say this, because this teacher had a deep way of thinking regarding music, but it was about appreciating arts in society and not academic or status related.  This way of thinking is quite common in Chinese society, where the unconventional artist is not tolerated.  In the West, this sort of thing is a gift.  It is obvious that her family had little appreciation for animals and it wasn't until she had her first dog (her suggestion) that she started to appreciated dogs.  It showed that she has no understanding of animals, when she declared she had plans for her dog.  I guess in her traditional psyche, pets must have a function.  In the West, pets are to be appreciated beyond their practical abilities.  It was odd that she actually wanted second dog and by the end of the book, a third.  I have no idea if they ever did get a third.  

You have to appreciate though Chua.  She did a fine job balancing home and work life.  Her daughters might not have appreciated her efforts back then and readers might have felt she was stretching herself too thinly.  She did it for her daughters.  Not many successful career women could do that.  She might possibly be an inspiration to the stereotypical Chinese Super Woman (女強人).  If only, if only they had the desire to make children as well as money and obtain power and influence. 

End of part 1...

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