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.

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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