On the same day that Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother went
viral, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. And while talk
shows, op-ed pages, parenting blogs, email inboxes, and Facebook and
Twitter feeds across the nation began to flood with outraged
invocations of damaged self-esteem, elevated suicide rates, Asian
automatons, "Yellow Peril," and even child abuse, I stayed in bed
reading Chua's story, feeling strangely sentimental.
It wasn't just my hormones. Chua's tale of extreme parenting -- including
those infamous scenes of calling her daughters "garbage" for imperfect
piano playing and rejecting their birthday cards for being sloppy -- made
me profoundly grateful for my own Tiger Mother.
Like Chua, my mother was a Chinese mother who directed an iron will
toward her daughters' success. Growing up, whenever people remarked
upon my grades or awards, I almost wanted to tell them I hadn't had
any choice in the matter.
Because I had the kind of mother who, if I brought home a test score
of 98, would demand an explanation for how those two points had
escaped me. If I scored 100, she'd demand to know why I'd failed to
earn extra credit. Explanation was futile. As my mother would say,
"There's no Chinese word for try."
I generally resist simplistic East/West dichotomies, but this is true.
In Chinese, you can try something out -- as in sampling, tasting, taking
a turn -- but you can't say, "I tried my best" or "But I tried." In any
case, I knew better than to attempt such excuses in English.
I had a duty to excel because, as the daughter of immigrants, I was
privileged: privileged to grow up in a land of peace and
prosperity -- with a Chinese mother. With privilege came responsibility:
responsibility to validate her sacrifices and avail myself of
opportunities that, by her implication, might otherwise fall to
Americans who were lazier, dumber, or more self-entitled than me.
So I tried to fulfill that duty -- but, like Chua's daughters, I wasn't
always happy about it. There were times when I disappointed my mother,
intentionally and not; when I raged and rebelled, doctored report
cards and forged signatures. There were times when we fought like
animals; when she screamed that I was ruining her life and I screamed
back much the same.
The moment I got into the college of her choice, I figured I'd
satisfied enough of my mother's expectations. I partied, slacked off,
had boyfriends who dismayed her. I self-indulgently pursued a degree
in creative writing. I spent most of my twenties abroad, far away from
And I worked on a novel in which a family of strong-willed Chinese
American women reunite for a tour of China in the wake of tragedy. I
wrote about family secrets, hidden political history, what we seek
when we travel -- and the lifelong pressure to be extraordinary. I wrote
about the tolls exacted on these women's relationships with their own
mothers and daughters, and the difficulty of reconnecting when we lack
a common language for failure or weakness -- for what makes us human, as
opposed to, say, tigers.
So my own sentimental reaction to Chua's book caught me off-guard.
That same day, I sent Battle Hymn to my mother, along with a note
expressing my gratitude. And then I had my husband read it, as a
Because I'd just had another realization: According to the Chinese
calendar, our baby would be born in the year of the rabbit. Not a
tiger like Chua, not a boar like my mother, not a horse like me, but a
bunny. Cuddly, cute, and -- the adjective Chua deploys with the greatest
disgust -- soft.
I decided we needed a battle plan.
My husband was game. He hadn't grown up with a Chinese mother, but he
sometimes wishes he had. Once, strolling Prospect Park, we watched a
little kid point out his shadow to applause and cheers of "Great job!"
from his parents. My husband muttered, "'Great job?' More like,
'Correct.'" Here was a sign of a soon-to-be Tiger Dad.
We started strategizing how to raise our kids -- by Chua's
definition -- Chinese. Self-esteem built upon hard-won skills and
achievements, not mindless praise. Discipline and obedience. Respect
for elders -- i.e., us. Regimented chores. Academic drills, Mandarin
lessons, and practice tests after school. That's when my husband asked
what school our kids should attend (here in New York, an issue often
raised before conception). I said they would simply attend the local
elementary, like me, then test into the elite city school from which
My husband looked worried. "What if they don't get in?"
Without hesitating, I said, "We'll beat them."
Right about then, I received a reply from my mother: a correspondingly
loving message, along with a declaration that Amy Chua's depiction of
Chinese mothers was "totally distorted" and that Chua herself was "a
hysterical control freak."
Of course, in many ways, she was right.
I'd gotten a little carried away with Chua's manifesto. After living
in China for four years, I'm well aware that her characterization of
"Chinese mothers" would perplex most of those one-point-three-billion
masses, from the impoverished villages where toddlers often wander
unsupervised amid livestock and littered streams to the booming cities
where overweight "little emperors" (the spawn of China's one-child
policy) often tyrannize their doting parents and grandparents. During
my time there, I was continually struck by how my homegrown notion of
"Chinese mothers" bore almost no relation to the realities on Chinese
And as Chua acknowledges, the traits she attributes to Chinese mothers
are also found among "Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian
parents." In fact, this parenting style would much more accurately be
described as common to striving immigrants -- in other words, to those
whose life trajectories are "uniquely American," as a Time article
astutely observed. But that doesn't have the same ring as "Chinese
mothers." Neither does it play to the current national fear of losing
to China on the global stage nor to long-held xenophobic views of
Asian kids as "hypercompetitive robots," as Ken Chen noted at CNN.
Finally, for me to call my mother a Chinese mother diminishes not only
her American-ness, but her individuality. Unlike Chua, my mother never
outlawed school plays or TV or sleepovers. She wanted her daughters to
engage in society, rather than hold ourselves above it; to develop
social skills, independent minds, a strong sense of personal
responsibility and civic duty. That was more important to her than
raising the "math whizzes and music prodigies" that Chua (perhaps
And whereas Chua tells her daughters that hard work is what
differentiates them from the school janitor, my mother never indulged
the temptation to overlook social inequality. A former journalist and
social worker who earned a law degree while I was in college, she
enforced academic success not as an end in itself, but as a necessary
foundation for the power to challenge the status quo and the freedom
to pursue the passions that can't be decreed, that can only spring
from our individuality.
Maybe it's no accident that I became a novelist, in the same way that
one of my sisters now heads a nonprofit defending immigrants' rights
while the other teaches public school -- careers that Chua might not
consider "stereotypically successful" but have made my mother very
Which is not to say that my mother is superior to other mothers. I can
attest that her daughters are as deeply flawed as anyone -- and that we
all carry battle scars. To be honest, I have no idea whether my mother
represents "Chinese mothers" any more than Amy Chua. All I know is
that the central way she raised us -- holding us to the highest standards
and refusing to settle for less -- is how I want to raise my own
children. And while my mother might loathe the term "Tiger Mother," as
far as labels go, I like it -- with a few caveats.
My husband and I made some modifications to our battle plan. We'll
emphasize basic diligence and rigor, along with personal choice. We'll
probably deploy my mother's line about the word "try," but only if our
kids bring home a grade below, say, 92. We won't care if our kids
can't play piano for their lives, as long as they pursue some kind of
passion. And, lest anyone worry, I can't imagine any scenario in which
I would beat my children, not a failing test score, not even a crappy
Most importantly, I realize there's no right way to be a Chinese
mother or a Tiger Mother or any kind of mother. Every mother is only
human. The best-laid of battle plans will always be works-in-progress,
like our children, like ourselves.
Still, I remain grateful for Chua's call to arms. Her manifesto might
be reckless on some counts, but what's undeniable is that parenting
will often feel like war. And to fight that war, whatever our
ethnicity, we need to cultivate a certain fierce spirit residing in
each of us. That includes the little creature now growing inside me,
these days better known in our house as "Tiger Cub."