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.
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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 Amazon.com:

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!

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.

And yet, I think Chua’s descriptions of her family’s massive classical-music expenditures are not meant to distance us. I think Chua guilelessly intends them as an exemplar of the proper use of the copious disposable income enjoyed by the de facto audience for this book—other upper-upper-middle-class-plus parents. When she suggests that “Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese ones,” it seems that she is talking less about America and China than about the various parenting styles in both the super-nice and the slightly less super-nice avenues of New Haven, Connecticut. As she rails, in an unusually shrill passage:

Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, “As much as it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts. It’s the hardest thing in the world, but I’m doing my best to hold back.” Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me.

But of course, sometimes children—particularly those from cultures in which children are not routinely given names such as “Harvard Wong”—fail in spite of their parents’ diligent efforts. Amid the debate within elite motherdom about Chua’s book, it’s far too easily forgotten that the professional class tends to have a blind spot. Clearly, Yale law professors who write books on economies in developing-world nations do not often ride the bus in America’s cities, for there they might see, as I once did, a Guatemalan maid earnestly working with her son on his math homework and, heartbreakingly, giving him all the wrong answers. (But, my Credit Suisse tablemate would say, he won’t go to Harvard, because she didn’t READ to him! She didn’t READ to him!)

That said,Tiger Mother will long haunt me, for a couple of reasons. For Chua, the violin has always symbolized not just “respect for hierarchy, standards, and expertise” (she’s a regular Edmund Burke; not a bad thing), but “excellence, refinement, and depth—the opposite of shopping malls, megasized Cokes, teenage clothes, and crass consumerism.” And indeed, what thinking parent can fail to be grossed out by contemporary American culture? I do admire Chua’s fortitude, being the sort of lax, self-loathing parent who kicks herself for letting her children be exposed to all the standard Western evils. Just last week, my 8-year-old, Suzy, saw Yogi Bear in 3-D (starring Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo), played a computer game in which she clipped a dog’s toenails, and watched back-to-back reruns of the less-than-elevating Damon Wayans family sitcom, My Wife and Kids. While watching the show and cackling with hilarity, Suzy finished completing her extra-credit report “OWLS by Suzy.” Sample passage:

Some things that I know about owls are that they have large eyes, a large head, and that they are carnivores. Owls come in all different colors, shapes, sizes and they all have a different name. For example the Barn owl, the Elf owl, the Great Horned owl, and the Snowy owl, they all come from the same family, THE OWLS! Okay, that is pretty much all I know about OWLS.

Just having finished Chua’s book, I stared at the page, wondering, She’s only 8, but still, isn’t this … terrible? Why are our kids so cheerfully lazy? Then again, how much should I care?

Because as much as I cavil about Chua’s fears of generational decline, I admit that my own murky hopes for my kids are even more open to question. Truth be told, I am not sure what I want for them. Harangued by my own Tiger Dad, I grew up believing in crack math skills and followed—at least initially—a stereotypical Chinese path of acing my tests; getting into the world’s most prestigious science university, Caltech (early admission, no less); majoring in the hardest, most rarefied subject, physics … And then what? Almost 50 years old now, some 30 years after graduation, I look at my Caltech classmates and conclude that math whizzes do not take over the world. The true geniuses—the artists of the scientific world—may be unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but the run-of-the-mill really smart overachievers like me? They’re likely to end up in high-class drone work, perfecting new types of crossword-puzzle-oriented screen savers or perhaps (really) tweaking the computer system that controls the flow in beer guns at Applebee’s. As we know, in this tundra-like new economy, even medical degrees, and especially law degrees, may translate into $250,000 of unrecoverable higher-education debt and no job prospects, despite any amount of hard work and discipline (“60 push-ups! 90 push-ups!”).

In the end, of course I think all the mommy-wars-style fuss about Chua is misplaced (said one irate Westside mom to me: “I think she has damaged her children. Damaged them!”). “Bad Mother” Ayelet Waldman wrote an amusing rebuttal in The Wall Street Journal, semi-bemoaning her own exploits as a lazy Jewish mother. But at the end of the day, no one can be seriously worried about the fate of the children of Michael Chabon. Or mine, for that matter. If my kids flunk their SATs (OWLS!), they can live at home with their mother, which I would rather enjoy. We who chatter on about parenting are deeply privileged: our children all have copious safety nets; all this mothering noise is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Disney cruise ship.

And yet … My dirty secret is that I too teach my daughters to play piano. True, our lessons are no more than John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play—Book One—in which the fingers are numbered. Unlike Chua, I coerce my average children into playing by crooning things like “You can just tromp along through the piece in your muddy boots” and “It doesn’t have to be good.” We mothers teach what we know, and this is the same sloppy, low-impact way I do drafts as a writer. (I follow the old writer’s chestnut: “When you face writer’s block, just lower your standards and keep going.”)

But I’d be lying if I claimed that, in spite of our amiable afternoons, I don’t have an ache somewhere in my heart that my children will not be playing Carnegie Hall anytime soon. I tell myself I would like them to have at least the facility to enjoy music when they grow up, to keep playing past the age of 18 at least to amuse themselves. Still, as I sit at the keyboard, I feel I have failed to live up to my youthful potential (my siblings and I also had Chinese-style rigorous piano training as kids; I studied for 15 years). I can’t do the lightning-fast scales I did at 16. I feel like a Gollum; I feel like I have eternally fallen.

It seems Chua, whether she intended to or not, has also given voice to a kind of regret about failing to live up to the ineffably beautiful. To me, this wistfulness feels more Chinese than all the rote drilling. Because never mind the admirable work ethic, even Chua admits:

The Chinese never achieved the heights of Western classical music—there is no Chinese equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—but high traditional music is deeply entwined with Chinese civilization.

Why don’t precocious Asian children drill the work of legendary Asian composers? Well, because there are none. I think of the weirdly manic drill instructions Chua left daily for her daughters (based on attending their private sessions), such as:

(a) Use ½ the bow pressure & faster bow on chords. Lower elbow. Keep violin still! (b) Drill little notes (da da dum) to make them clear—drop fingers more quickly and relax them more quickly

[Measure] 21: (a) triplets on the string—25x each! (b) make 8th notes clearer—drill! RELAX fingers after tapping!

I think of Chua proudly excerpting an essay written by her daughter to showcase what she’d like to characterize as Sophia’s artistic side, but, ironically, revealing ideas and their expression that might easily have come from a flabby Western drama class (not at all surprising for a teenager). I think of Chua admitting, about one of Sophia’s concerts:

When the big day finally arrived, I was suddenly paralyzed; I could never be a performer myself … As I watched her performing the piece … she looked tiny and brave at the piano—my heart ached with a kind of indescribable pain.

I read Tiger Mother as a kind of Amadeus, a story of not-quite-requited love for classical music, told by a somewhat monstrous narrator who can understand Mozart only in terms of notes and competition. Maniacally driving Chinese parents are like Salieri—they can name the notes, but they do not have the magic. And as such, I think of my own formerly hard-driving Chinese father, now 89, in his weekly singing classes for the elderly. It seems all his fellow Americans are effortlessly charming, pleasurably singing “Misty,” “Cabaret,” “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” Meanwhile, my father, the former Shanghai genius, insists on singing opera, in six flats, not in his range, and not in his language. The lyrics are in Russian, and I mean the Cyrillic alphabet. He believes anyone can sing in English, so he sings in Russian. But my father cannot carry a tune in any language. He sounds like a braying donkey.

One of the most painful things about being us is how we ache to be as beloved as Mozart, but are stunted. When I think of Chinese parents, I think of people who weep upon hearing Beethoven, but who can’t necessarily bring that joy to others. Perhaps we can do so fleetingly, through our children, while they are still young, decades before they, like me, will sit at a piano, Fallen Prodigies in their 40s, their own kids squalling, dogs barking—once-perfect dolls who berate themselves for losing their youthful technique.

In the end, art isn’t about numbers. In the end, there was only one Mozart, and he wasn’t Chinese. So don’t hate us because we’re hardworking and successful: in a century, no one will be humming us.

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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