(Taking the title a bit literally: Amy Chua, from The 2011 Time 100)
Amy Chua’s memoir of parenting her two daughters was published in 2011 and caused something of a furore. Many readers were shocked; some felt her methods were abusive. Chua’s thesis is that there is ‘Chinese’ parenting and ‘Western’ parenting. ‘Chinese’ parents – who don’t have to be ethnically Chinese, she points out – have high expectations of their children in terms of academia and certain approved cultural activities, such as playing a classical instrument. They drive their children hard to achieve success in these areas, using any means – including shaming them – to do so. ‘Western’ parents, on the other hand, prize their child’s happiness and don’t push them to do anything they don’t want to do; they excuse poor academic performance (‘Maths is obviously not your subject’) rather than forcing their children to work harder. In fact, ‘Western’ parents are themselves ‘lazy’, Chua claims, because they won’t put in the hours required for supervising their children’s music practice and schoolwork, and for researching extra resources and the best teachers. Furthermore, these slack ‘Western’ parents shy away from the inevitable conflict that arises from insisting a child practise a musical instrument for three hours a day. I think you can already see that there is a massive problem with classifying all parents in this binary way. Maybe in the US it’s rather different, but in my albeit limited experience, most parents seem to fall somewhere between these extremes.
Chua decides to raise her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, the way her father, a Chinese immigrant, brought her up. Her husband acquiesces, though his white Jewish childhood was very different and much more relaxed. Chua doesn’t discuss him much, but he basically gets to be the ‘fun’ parent in the family. Meanwhile Chua builds a life for her daughters which prioritises academic work and practising the musical instruments she has decided they should play: the piano for Sophia and the violin for Louisa. If they demur, she does not hesitate to use threats and blackmail to force them to comply. True freedom, Chua argues, can only be attained with the first-rate education that permits you to choose what you want from life.
A memoir can only ever be partial, and in emphasising that her approach to parenting was ‘Chinese’ in a ‘Western’ society, Chua inevitably has to focus on what she did that was different, unusual, even extreme in comparison with US norms. She includes anecdotes in which she threatens to burn Sophia’s stuffed toy animals unless she plays perfectly; on another occasion she refuses to let Louisa leave the piano stool until she can play a phrase successfully – not even to go to the loo. She forbids the girls TV, computer games, play dates and sleepovers. She insists that she choose their extracurricular activities and that they practise music for hours every day, sometimes up to six hours. She will not countenance less than an A grade and less than first place in any school subject, bar gym and drama. At one point she announces that she doesn’t even care whether her daughters like her or not – their educational success is that important to her.
So far, and even allowing for a possible overemphasis on what is different about ‘Chinese’ parenting, this seems pretty grim, but Chua complicates the picture by being utterly charming. She has a fine sense of comedy and clearly a great deal of love for her whole family. She pokes a lot of fun at herself and she never mocks others, which is endearing. It’s hard not to feel that she is cherry-picking ‘good’ stories and skipping over the less obviously entertaining times when everyone is boringly having fun (in fact, in an interview for Channel 4 she says that her daughters complained that she’d left out all the nice bits of their childhood). I couldn’t help smiling at amusing vignettes at least as often as I felt unease at the tough love, and the final chapter, in which her daughters discuss her and her parenting, suggested that she wasn’t as authoritarian as her stories might imply.
Still, Chua’s approach is not without danger. Sophia is generally prepared to go along with her mother’s programme but despite her love of the violin Louisa often rebels. Increasingly, her relationship with Chua is characterised by hostility. On holiday in Moscow, Louisa finally erupts and shouts at her mother:
‘You don’t love me,’ Lulu spat out. ‘You think you do, but you don’t. You just make me feel bad about myself every second. You’ve wrecked my life. I can’t stand to be around you. Is that what you want?’
A lump rose in my throat. Lulu saw it, but she went on. ‘You’re a terrible mother. You’re selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. What – you can’t believe how ungrateful I am? After all you’ve done for me? Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.’
She’s just like me, I thought, compulsively cruel. ‘You’re a terrible daughter,’ I said aloud.
Chua realises that if she doesn’t change tack, their relationship will be irrevocably damaged. With enormous pain, she allows Louisa to give up playing the violin, to relinquish the prized music lessons with Miss Tanaka and to start playing tennis. (Though even here, she admits, she tries to interfere and control until Louisa forces her to stop.)
The question I was left with at the end of the book was why she had decided to write it. Chua herself seems to have wondered this too. She began working on it immediately after Louisa confronted her in Moscow but then, according to the last chapter, she didn’t know how to finish it. After all, what point is she making? Although often rueful and self-mocking, she steadfastly believes in the rightness of her approach:
I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in terms of how much they can take.
But by choosing to focus on the misery, the relentless hours of work and arguing, the depths to which she’ll stoop to get her way, the amount of money involved, her writing consistently undermines any successful advocacy of this parenting method. Increasingly, Chua seems to wonder herself what it’s all for. After all, she doesn’t want Sophia and Louisa to become professional musicians (no word on what they want...). Her insistence that she has no regrets about the harshness of the upbringing she inflicted on Sophia and Louisa is more than a little ambivalent. So is her declaration that she is only interested in what is best for them, and that it’s not all about her. I felt she did see them as an extension of herself (and that viewpoint made it easier for her to be hard on them, for she is always tough on herself).
So Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is no parenting manual, nor is it mea culpa sort of memoir. If the purpose of the book was to encourage more people to adopt a ‘Chinese’ approach to parenting, Chua’s depiction was far from attractive. If she wanted to explore this method of parenting, she seemed insufficiently self-reflective and unwilling truly to challenge and interrogate her assumptions. Her quoted sources seemed rather too selective, her tone too self-assured. What perhaps the memoir reveals most clearly is how an immigrant may struggle to reconcile their own values with those of the prevailing culture in their new homeland, and I wish she had explored this angle a little more explicitly. As a second-generation immigrant, Chua is exposed to two sets of cultural values which are sometimes in conflict with each other. Her choice – and her insistence throughout the book that she is Chinese – inevitably brings up questions of integration and identity. It is rejected by both her daughters, most forcefully by Louisa: ‘I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head?’
The contrast between the charm and comedy of Chua’s tone, and some of the behaviour she describes, was often unsettling (and probably responsible for the controversy around the book). It is hard to know how mean she ‘actually’ was; I suspect that she really was not that bad. Like many readers, I enjoy reading about experiences very different from mine and I did find this an interesting book about a very different way of parenting, though I won’t be rushing out to book violin lessons for my daughter in the near future...
(Amy Chua and her daughters in 2010, all looking happy; from this interview, in which we hear a bit more from Sophia and Louisa)