A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reflections on Tiger Mother Part 1

Earlier in the week, I happened to mention on Facebook that I was tackling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. My friend, T, wondered why I was reading that book. She thought, perhaps, half seriously, that I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for parenting tips.
My reason is really a lot less utilitarian. Like everyone who has read it, I was suckered by the controversial but successful publicity campaign that began in the Wall Street Journal article. The firestorm that ensued guaranteed that the book would be an international marketing success. And so it is.

When I began reading Tiger Mother, the question of why the book was written was a recurring thought. Even though I've finished the book, that question continues to linger. Tiger Mother is not your usual self-help parenting book (I would dispute that label entirely), rather it is a candid and some times humorous memoir of one woman's highly driven parenting of two remarkably accomplished children. Prior to the bruhaha that surrounded the book's release Amy Chua was known mainly as a law professor and author of a couple of political books.

So who is Amy Chua and why has she written this book? Why now?But more importantly, why should we care?

For me the key to understanding the book,  is to position Amy Chua within her immigrant narrative. In that narrative, immigrants encounter a kind of displacement by choice. Often, they may embrace much of their adoptive country and yet there are vestiges of the old country that remain, as it were, in the soul. It's telling that Chua admits early on that she had wanted to write an inter-generational immigrant epic in the tradition of Joy Luck Club and Wild Swans.

On the surface, Chua and I have a lot in common. We are both immigrants and overseas-born Chinese, hailing from the same region. We now live in anglophone countries, western educated and are married to non-Asians. We are also, as it happens, mothers of two girls. But that's where the similiarities end. No doubt, Amy Chua's CV is far, far more impressive.

So why in the world did she write this book?

If one were to break the book down to its brass tacks, it appears that her claim to parental expertise is derived from her genetic/cultural upbringing. Being a Chinese... whatever that word conjurs up to the user... is at the core of her identity which seems to be the impetus for adopting the "Chinese way" to parent.

I scratch my head at that one. I'm rather a sceptic of the "Chinese way" because, well,  I don't believe that a single "Chinese way" exists. Chua assumes that her brand of "the Chinese way" works because it has worked for her... more or less... Still, I don't find her personal experience definitive or compelling evidence that the Chinese way is superior. It's ahistorical, anecdotal, too narrow and extreme... largely dependent on the parent's ability to manipulate their child. And really, the world is globalizing so quickly that is becomes meaningless for anyone to reduce this kind of authoritarian parenting to some kind of parochial grandstanding.

When I was growing up in Singapore, it was "the Singapore way". Living in a competitive, cramped island with thousands competing for piddly numbers of university places, everyone had to pull their weight to get anywhere. A university education was the ticket to a good job. And everyone was after a good job.

During my university years and beyond I worked casually as a private English tutor to migrant children, ie. Chinese children. It was a job that had it's perks and drawbacks requiring a great deal of driving around to students' homes.
The most fascinating aspect of it was being able to go inside the homes and see how "Chinese" people parent, which was almost as diverse as how Australians parent. Some children I tutored didn't have any parenting at all because mum and dad were back in their country of origin "doing business", while an older sibling or a relative nearby took charge of household affairs.

My experience of course, like Chua's, is purely anecdotal. It isn't proof of anything in general terms. Some parents are always going to be more hands-on than others.

This kind of peppery talk reminds me of the kind of harmless gossipy stuff I used to hear from relatives and acquaintances as a child: How foreigners are lax and liberal with their children... blah, blah, blah... that sort of stuff. It's a gross generalization and probably based on watching "The Cosby Show" or "Family Ties" than any real notion of how people in the west actually lived.

Back then it was just talk. But for an academic who should know better to turn this into a premise of a book without any substance, is absurd.

What it demonstrates is that parenting... like culture is a deeply emotional issue because it goes to the core of our individual identity.

Ironically of course, whatever superior parenting techniques that Chinese parent Amy Chua may lay claim to, Chua is herself the product of  a western education and her children the beneficiaries of western culture. University education, scientific advancements, classical music are all the result of developments made by individuals of western parents.

Tiger Mother irritates and amuses. I daresay it's meant to. Political incorrectness is one thing but there's an over-the-top bravado on display in the book that rubs me the wrong way.

To be continued.

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