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.

So yes, round-eyed readers, I sympathize with a certain distaste one might have about things Chinese. But just as Chua is more winningly self-deprecating than her detractors would have it, so too is her book full of other surprises. Although Tiger Mother has indisputably ignited the dry tinder of college-admissions mania among educated middle-class families (see Caitlin Flanagan’s accompanying article), in fact very little of the book explicitly discusses that subject. This may owe partly to the fact that with two well-connected Yale law professors as parents, the matriculation of Chua’s daughters at their choice of top colleges may not even—if you can imagine such a thing—be in question. But it’s mostly because what really fuels the book is Chua’s driving passion for her children to become brilliant classical musicians—a passion she shares with many Chinese parents: “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It’s also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.” In short, her underlying message is as simple as the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” And herein, for me, lies the—possibly not quite so Chinese—rub.

I think of the time I attended a meet-the-donor dinner for a well-regarded theater in New York. My tablemate, an elegant 70-something gentleman, was a top executive at Credit Suisse. He lovingly showed me photographs of his children, all three of whom had gone to Harvard (which he assured me was full of surprisingly ordinary kids, not elites at all). To what did he attribute his children’s success? Clearly a favorite speech of his, here the fist went down, jingling our wineglasses: “Because I read to them! I came home as late and tired as any Puerto Rican janitor, but I made sure I always READ TO THEM EVERY NIGHT.” A twitchy mother at the best of times, I couldn’t help pointing out that, by his own admission, he had also spared no expense in sending his children to Manhattan’s most exclusive private schools, and in engaging a flotilla of private tutors and nannies to drive them to one-on-one training with the very best teachers for 18 years. Perhaps a better test of the banker’s theory, I argued, would have been to let his kids attend P.S. Whatever with the Puerto Rican janitor’s kids and let them flail on the playground afterward in the same crappy after-school programs … but still to make sure to do that all-important BEDTIME READING.

But no one defends America’s “meritocracy” more heatedly than the stratospherically affluent and privileged. Regarding Chua, not to be too much of a grinch, but what does it actually mean for a 14-year-old to play Carnegie Hall—a venue available to any person or group with the money to rent out the space, and an honor accorded, in this case, for winning a youth competition? While no one can debate whether this teen is a sparklingly precocious pianist, are old-fashioned hard work and sacrifice the only things such a coup represents? Consider the following breathless passage describing Chua’s not-atypical Tiger Mother efforts:

That night, I sent two crucial e-mails. The first was to a violinist and recent graduate of the Yale School of Music named Kiwon Nahm, whom I’d hired on occasion to help Lulu practice. The second was to Professor Wei-Yi Yang, the most recent addition to Yale’s illustrious piano faculty and by all accounts a piano prodigy and sensation … Kiwon—who had debuted at Lincoln Center as a soloist at the age of twelve—generously mentioned Lulu to a former teacher named Almita Vamos. Mrs. Vamos and her husband, Roland, are among the leading violin instructors in the world. They’ve been honored by the White House six times … they teach only very gifted students, a large proportion of them Asian. [Emphasis mine.]

I may be slowed down by being only half Chinese (my mother, though pushy, was German), but to me this path to “very gifted” seems rather tortuous. I have to at least give Chua candor points for not camouflaging the family’s herculean working-of-connections, an exercise beyond the capabilities of those not occupying the meritocracy’s commanding heights. And the financial outlay is pretty steep. If the desired monthly lessons happened to be five states away, Chua would absolutely consider flying. Some of the most memorable characters in Tiger Mother come via the parade of clearly inspired private piano and violin teachers engaged for Chua’s daughters. The teachers are hired to give private lessons not just twice but sometimes three times a day; to sweeten out-of-town trips for the children’s auditions, Amy would put them up in cushy digs and compensate them, to even her husband’s amazement, by the hour (one teacher’s weekend take was $3,000). This is not uncommon for upper-class, high-achieving classical-music children, though a wag might speculate that this activity may result less in creating the next generation of true classical-music stars than—via the welter of Hungarian and Latvian teachers—in propping up some dicey Continental currencies.

I scratched my head also at Chua’s unabashed description of her extravagant arrangements for Sophia’s debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill concert space. Along with buying Sophia a “charcoal satin floor-length gown” from Barneys (“No David’s Bridal for this one!”), Chua reserved the Fontainebleau Room at the St. Regis, ordering up a magnificent feast of sushi, crab cakes, dumplings, quesadillas, a raw-oyster bar, jumbo shrimp, a beef-tenderloin station, a Peking-duck station, a pasta station, Gruyère profiteroles, Sicilian rice balls with wild mushrooms, and a giant dessert station. Chua argues that this is typical of “Chinese mothers,” who go overboard, but, raised myself by a notorious Shanghainese skinflint (who threw even my $1 book purchases across the room in fury), I find this expense less uniquely Chinese than perhaps, dare I say (brace for Internet firestorm), upper-middle-class suburban Jewish?

Chua claims she fears “generational decline,” in which the first generation of immigrants works hard to get a toehold in the country, the second generation (hers) becomes the educated professionals who make the money, and the third generation squanders the money. However, I don’t know exactly which generation the habit of spending half a million dollars per classical-music prodigy would belong to.

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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