By KAI SAM NG
Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother might be shocking or just plain wrong, but if her initial goal was to sell books she has marvelously succeeded. “Tiger mom” is now a phrase that has spread beyond Chua’s dreams as part of our modern lexicon, used pejoratively to describe any mother who instills discipline for successful children. But let’s cut to the chase: Nowadays, people use “tiger mom” with racial undertones, evoking unspoken stereotypes of Asian women like a shortcut to avoid actually mentioning the stereotype itself.
I can’t tell you to stop saying a word, or command you to use it in different way — it is a free country, after all. But a free country also means I can snarkily ridicule things I don’t like, and until my editors fire me for being annoying I’ll continue to do just that. I’m also not going to defend Chua, because any person who recklessly generalizes entire cultures — “Chinese parenting” is superior to “Western parenting” — is unworthy of defense. If we can’t take the fundamental assumptions of her latest book at face value, then we shouldn’t assume her other contributions either at face value. Being an authoritarian is Amy Chua’s description of Amy Chua. If she described herself as the “unchill mom,” Chua is still describing Chua.
But with Chua’s encouragement, much of the mainstream media has exploded the term from its strictly ascribed boundaries of parenting into a cultural conversation that doesn’t exist. Chua, in a later interview following publication of Battle Hymn, smugly told The Guardian that “When I show this book to immigrants and immigrants’ kids, they were like, exactly, this is how it is. It’s funny, they relate, it’s not controversial for them.” Rather than question this association, the media went along with it. If you write something generalizing the negative reaction to Chua as American “fears about losing ground to China,” for example, then you should reconsider publishing it.
Putting Chua on a pedestal means accepting her equivalence of “Chinese parenting” — whatever that is — with anecdotes like telling her daughter if she doesn’t master a piano piece that she would take her “stuffed animals and burn them.” Subsequent news stories on these anecdotes describe them as cold, coercive, draconian and domineering. We have a stereotype for this: It’s called a dragon lady. And thanks to most people buying that logic, every Asian woman in America with children now runs the risk of being labeled a tiger mother. I’ve had friends who know nothing about my childhood — jokingly — describe my mom as a tiger mother. I don’t feel offended, but like well-meaning people asking me where I’m “really” from it’s pretty annoying.
Speaking of my mother: My mother grew up in the slums of Macau and when she turned 16, her father died. She dropped out of high school, weaving baskets to support her family. Later, she took a job at a bank to count money and went to night school. She worked up the ranks, teaching herself English and a little German to read computer mainframe manuals. She taught herself assembly code to work with those computers. By the time I was born, she was a computer programmer at the bank where she, years ago, worked as a simple money counter.
Chua would probably categorize my mom as “Western.” When it came to raising me, my mom did make me play the piano and violin, but she explained to me the importance of learning, rather than using force or threats. She told me to do my best, and never denigrated my achievements as “not good enough.” She rather I genuinely enjoy something than have it forced upon me.
Why didn’t my mother raise me in the same way that contributed to her success? After all, my mom’s own upbringing seems to confirm Chua’s assertions that the “Chinese culture” of discipline, drive and ambition contributes to success. It’s really simple: My mom was under the pressure to support her family and care for her younger siblings; something, of course, that Chua doesn’t mention much in Battle Hymn. For Chua, the drive to success is simply the parental imposition of pressure, not something as basic as putting food on the table. In this way, Chua masks complex economic realities: Chinese parents don’t work hard because they want their children to be “math whizzes or music prodigies,” they want to open opportunities for their children that they never had. This is not a “Chinese” or “Western” thing; this is a fundamentally human thing. Lackluster book sales of Battle Hymn in China and its title there, Being a Mom in America are both revealing on how tepid her argument linking “success” and “Chinese culture” really is.
Misattributing success also works the other way too in misattributing failure. For every success story like my mom’s, there is probably someone who worked just as hard and wasn’t successful. While Chua plays minstrel to the model minority stereotype, the assumption of Asian Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is at the core of denying Asian-Americans fundamental educational services like ESL and Special Ed: we “learn faster,” so we don’t need those services as much. Chua also says nothing about the enormous cultural, language and economic barriers that Asian Americans face, and how they denigrate the mental health of students. However, this might be on purpose: A study undertaken at my high school showed how Chinese students suffered serious emotional blows from dealing with that pressure. This year, she and her husband touted in their new book those same Chinese students are exemplary of Chinese success.
Ultimately, whether she’s right or wrong, let’s not pretend Chua represents anybody else.