Books April 2011

Sympathy for the Tiger Moms

The national convulsion over Amy Chua’s parenting has lead people to hate or fear mothers like me. They should feel sorry for us instead.
Yuta Onoda

Are the Chinese the very worst people in the world? Are we the most off-putting, tunnel-visioned, robotically competitive, and academically frightening? Consider the recent media firestorm around Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book that was excerpted in The Wall Street Journal under the now infamous headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” In case you are the only person in America who hasn’t yet read it, this is Chua’s recipe for raising successful children:

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to 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 #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
   • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
   • not play the piano or violin

Cue the much-documented howl emanating from a gazillion online commenters, many crying child abuse. From my perspective, both Chua’s defenders and detractors misconstrue Tiger Mother, but first let’s acknowledge that of course the book wouldn’t have inflamed readers so much if they didn’t harbor the troubling suspicion that—at least in these nosebleedingly high-stakes times for upper-middle-class children—Chua was right.

Even before Hurricane Amy made landfall, anyone in the chattering class would have had to be blind not to have noticed that, in this game of—at least academic—life, Asian youth appear to be winning. In my little corner of Southern California alone, whole cities (Arcadia, Cerritos, San Marino, Temple City) have public high schools with overwhelmingly Asian majorities; in at least a few, it’s the rich white kids who are dragging down the test scores. Elite Lowell High in San Francisco is almost 70 percent Asian; and while Asians make up about 13 percent of the state, they make up almost 40 percent of the students in our UC system. And, irritatingly, they sometimes do so with a peculiar tone-deaf charmlessness. Consider this Tiger Mother rave from one Hei Liu on

All my kids have to finish what they supposed to do within time limit. If not, they will get to do 30 push ups automatically, if they resist, the 30 push ups will become 60 push ups, and eventually goes to 90 push ups. I do believe strict discipline is the foundation for anyone who wants to be successful.

“It is the parents should study the grammar … then do 30 push ups, maybe 90!” was the snarky comment of my slacker-parent friend Todd.

MORE ON Tiger Moms:
Caitlin Flanagan: The Ivy Delusion
Christina Schwarz: Let's Leave the Children Alone
Oliver Wang: Notes of a
Native Tiger Son

Sure, it’s easy to mock the “Chinese mo’ bettah! Chinese mo’ bettah!” linguistic awkwardness. But just as I was feeling a tad defensive of my people, being myself the scientifically trained daughter of a Chinese father of very much the same ilk as Chua’s, I recalled a recent family visit to Shanghai. There even I experienced a certain stomach-churning horror at some aspects of Chinese culture, particularly when seeing them through the eyes of my Western (just one-quarter Chinese) daughters—and their equally California-bred cousins. In Shanghai, traffic laws are viewed as suggestions only—with the result that one should not step into a crosswalk if one can see cars coming, because they really will not stop (of course, the same goes for the crosswalks of my neighboring Asian-heavy South Pasadena). The children were shocked to witness a car smash into a motorbike just six feet away, tearing the bike’s headlamp off in a splatter of glass and ejecting the rider—after which, the car simply backed up and screeched off. Waiting in long lines for squat toilets, they were appalled to see elderly Shanghainese ladies push blithely past 20 waiting people to gruntingly enter the first open stall. The nadir came with the trip to the open-air market. It wasn’t the live carp jumping around our ankles, the rows of plastic tubs bubbling with squirming eels, or even the alley of Plexiglas-enclosed “chicken rooms,” where burly men in sweaty wifebeater undershirts slaughtered live chickens while chain-smoking. Oh, no. It was the cheerful yanking off of the legs of live, squirming bullfrogs with—ahh!—pliers. Traumatized at the sudden spray of blood around the hapless twitching amphibians, the children declared these the cruelest people in the world.

Thinking global, I leaned forward to give the kids a silky-voiced, tolerance-enhancing lesson in poverty cuisine: “It’s just that you enjoy so much wonderful food in America—fruits, vegetables, bread, yogurt, meat processed so much you don’t recognize it. By contrast, in remote parts of China, people are so poor that all they have to eat is mice or crickets or—or—or bullfrogs, or else they will die.” At which point a Shanghainese painter friend of ours, who, unlike me, is an actual mainland native, politely demurred, saying: “Well, no. This is what I hate about the Chinese. They insist on having the animal killed in front of them so they can guarantee it’s fresh. They need to see the gleam in the animal’s eye so they know the merchant is not cheating them.”

All righty then!

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh’s most recent book is Mother on Fire. Cuts from her CD of original compositions, Pianovision, have been featured on NPR. She wrote the music, with Mike Miller, for Jessica Yu’s Academy Award–winning documentary, Breathing Lessons.

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