Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.
Over Thanksgiving, I finally read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I really enjoyed and which gave me a lot to think about. Spoiler: it’s not nearly as controversial as the Wall Street Journal excerpts would have us believe. Sure, some of Chua’s parenting is over the top, but none of it constitutes child abuse, and it’s clear that she loves her children dearly.
In fact, at some point in the book, I stopped identifying with the girls (even though we’re all halfies) and started finding myself in awe of Chua. As hard as she worked her daughters, she worked herself 10 times harder. It made me think about my own “Tiger mother,” and my rabbit (according to the Chinese Zodiac, anyway) father, and all the hard work they’ve put into their careers, their business, and me.
(Friend and writer Ben L.J. Brooks was having similar reflections over the holiday, and he shared them in this wonderful, inspiring post, simply titled “Thanksgiving.”)
Anyway, on to the book:
In Chinese culture, it just wouldn’t occur to children to question, disobey, or talk back to their parents. In American culture, kids in books, TV shows, and movies constantly score points with their snappy backtalk and independent streaks. Typically, it’s the parents who need to be taught a life lesson — by their children.
This is something my mom hates about American TV. (Specifically, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, haha.) I’ve always gotten in trouble with her (yes, even now) for “talking back.” In fairness, I’m not always guilty, but I’m probably not always aware either. (Sorry, mom! I’ll try harder.)
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.
Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.
“… you can only be really great at something if you love it. So it’s good that you love tennis.” But just because you love something, I added to myself, doesn’t mean you’ll ever be great. Not if you don’t work. Most people stink at the things they love.
I think these are fair points. I certainly don’t tend to enjoy or take pride in the things I’m terrible at. (Except singing. Enjoyment, yes. Pride, definitely not.)
But of course, it’s rare to be good at something without a lot of practice first. That’s why sometimes – sometimes – parents and teachers have to “force” kids to do things they “don’t like.”
(That’s also why first drafts aren’t always fun.)
Like every Asian American woman in her late twenties, I had the idea of writing an epic novel about mother-daughter relationships spanning several generations, based loosely on my own family’s story.
(Seriously, though: I am going to write that book someday. But mine only deals with two generations.)
Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud. By contrast, I don’t think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. Jed actually has the opposite view. “Children don’t choose their parents,” he once said to me. “They don’t even choose to be born. It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.” This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.
I can see both sides to this argument. In fact, I think both are true. (Paradox!)
My parents perfectly embody that contradiction. I would say overall my mom believes the typical Asian view, that kids owe their parents, and my dad believes the typical Western view, that parents owe their kids (or at least that kids don’t owe their parents). And yet when it came to my college education, my mom said that since it was their expectation that I go to a top tier school, they should pay for it. By contrast, my dad (who went to the same university I did) said that he’d worked his way through college and expected me to do the same.
(In the end I got scholarships/grants, they paid for some, and I worked for some.)
“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery. Those are people who crossed an ocean to come to this country.”
Couldn’t agree more. (Are you that brave?)
“It just always seemed that if you had to ask for something, it wouldn’t be worth anything.”
Unfortunately, I have long thought this too. I say “unfortunately” because we live in a society where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You do have to learn to advocate for yourself, even to “sell” yourself. In jobs, relationships, etc. Humility is an admirable trait, but not always a useful one.
That said, there’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance, between advocating for yourself and just being a schmuck. Try not to cross it.
There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that. Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
That’s pretty much the long and short of the parenting part of the book (which is maybe the first third or half). The long and short of my thoughts are this:
Part of me wishes my mother had been “more Chinese” with me, and part of me is really, really glad she wasn’t. I like to think I got the best of both worlds. But if I’m being honest, I could be — should be — “more Chinese” with myself.