Sunday, February 27, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chua

Back before Calvin even arrived, when I was gearing up to be his Mama, I found myself intrigued by the stereotype that Asian kids are "so smart".

I didn't want to be the one to break it to you, but adoption will do this to a person. It'll loop a slippery length of rope around you and reel you into a brand-new pot of things to stew over. You'll be immune to resist the pull. I dare you to try.

I hadn't even locked eyes with my almond-eyed boy and there I was, flipping my pillow over and over, hoping that the cool side would carry my worries away on a crystalline exhale. Would people have unfair expectations for my boy? Would he feel the weight? Would he shrug it right off? Would we play into the whole darn thing?

The reality is, many of us have this perception of Asian children. Fair or unfounded - that's not really the point. The point for me has always been, what is the seed from which this stereotype germinated in the first place? Where did it come from? Who started the rumor?

I know enough about the world to know that smart people hail from here and from there and from everywhere in between. I was never comfortable with the idea that Asians are simply smarter.

It should be clear by now why Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, appealed to me. This memoir recounts her upbringing and the manner in which she set out to raise her two daughters.

She takes great pains in recounting the Chinese approach to mothering - filled with vinegar, lit by kerosene, mean as a snake.

OK, so those aren't her words, and she might even dispute them, but the point is, she really, really wants the reader to know just how awful she was. Two chapters in, I was muttering, "I get it! Enough!" But I sure didn't put the book down.

I understand her main premise: Chinese mothers (and fathers) simply expect more from their children than do Western parents. Mediocrity is not an option. Don't waste our time being "pretty good" at something - anything.

If a Chinese child gets a B - which would never happen - there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them....That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.
I'm a big, big believer in setting the bar up in the clouds. I have seen many children flounder under the shy curse of low expectations. I can look back on my own successes and see someone pushing me from behind. I can look back at my failures, my mediocrity, and I'm there alone, bored to tears, praying for piano lessons to just drive off a cliff, already.

I think it's possible that if I had been pushed in every area of my life, I may have been more successful. And the same goes for you.

As it turns out, I just wasn't meant to be a piano virtuoso. I quit after a year, and I can't remember a single note. I tried it, gave up, and moved on to things I was passionate about, things I was really, really good at.

But my Big question is a little one: How are we defining success?

Does performing at Carnegie Hall trump family relationships laced with encouragement, support and - gasp! - fun? Does success feel different when you arrived kicking and screaming, slung like a sack of potatoes across your mother's back, exhausted and angry? Do you ever learn to carve your own groove? Do you learn to know what makes your own heart beat faster? Doesn't a grade-school Summer spent on a nylon lounge-chair with a stack of library books and a bowlful of cherries have its merits?

I also wonder about her propensity for pigeon-holing Western families and children as weak and broken. Chua clearly views the world in which she lives - the world she chose to marry into - through a lens of superiority. Her Western world - or the one in which she stands - is upper-class, highly-educated, refined to the nines. It's Upper East-side. And that's fine, but that's not "The Western World". I want to know more about the role faith does or doesn't play in her life. I want to embark in an all-out sociological case study.

But dinner's in the oven, so that will have to wait.

Amy Chua wrote her book candidly, and she was brave to do so. I have to believe that she understood the firestorm that would ensue. It was a fascinating, well-written read, with a quick-clipping pace and true glimpses of vulnerability and growth stirred into the self-indulgences.

The book is already selling in droves. Restated - it's a smash success. At least in the way that some define success.

Read the book. Tell me what you think.