Thoughts on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I received this book April 7th (Tuesday) at 10:03PM. A little over 14 hours later, with a few hours of sleep in between, I finished the book near the end of the school day. It’s taken 2 weeks to write a response. Typical.

Pre-Impression:

I read the Wall Street Journal article about BHOTM shortly after the book was released and heard the stir it caused on the Asian forums. And hanging out with a predominately Asian crowd in middle school, the terms “tiger mother” began creeping into my conversations.

In particular, I remember being in media class and talking about tiger parenting when our teacher barged in, asked what we were talking about, and then told us that she had read the book twice and loved it because “children needed to be pushed to their maximum potential.” Everyone was silent.

About a year later, I read Paper Tigers, which said this about Chua’s book:

Battle Hymn provides all the material needed to refute the very cultural polemic for which it was made to stand. Chua’s Chinese education had gotten her through an elite schooling, but it left her unprepared for the real world. She does not hide any of this. She had set out, she explained, to write a memoir that was “defiantly self-incriminating”—and the result was a messy jumble of conflicting impulses, part provocation, part self-critique. Western readers rode roughshod over this paradox and made of Chua a kind of Asian minstrel figure. But more than anything else, Battle Hymn is a very American project—one no traditional Chinese person would think to undertake. “Even if you hate the book,” Chua pointed out, “the one thing it is not is meek.”

I was expecting a brutally honest book that had completely been taken out of context by the media. I was expecting  a book in which I could see a bit of my culture, a book written by someone who finally had the courage to expose to mainstream American media what the rest of us had experienced. For the most part, I got what I had expected, but there were still a few surprises.

Amy Chua is from my generation, not my parents.

She was born and raised in America. Her parents were the immigrant generation. Hence her flawless English. Hence the Ivy-League professor/lawyer status. Hence her marrying a Jewish person. Hence her not speaking Chinese. Here was her rationale behind “tiger parenting”

The immigrant generation (like my parents) is the hardest-working. Many will have started off in the United States almost penniless, but they will work nonstop until they become successful engineers, scientists, doctors, academics, or businesspeople. As parents, they will be extremely strict and rabidly thrifty. (“Don’t throw out those leftovers! Why are you using so much dishwasher liquid? You don’t need a beauty salon—I can cut your hair even nicer.”) They will invest in real estate. They will not drink much. Everything they do and earn will go toward their children’s education and future.

• The next generation (mine), the first to be born in America, will typically be high-achieving. They will usually play the piano and/or violin.They will attend an Ivy League or Top Ten university. They will tend to be professionals—lawyers, doctors, bankers, television anchors—and surpass their parents in income, but that’s partly because they started off with more money and because their parents invested so much in them. They will be less frugal than their parents. They will enjoy cocktails. If they are female, they will often marry a white person. Whether male or female, they will not be as strict with their children as their parents were with them.

• The next generation (Sophia and Lulu’s) is the one I spend nights lying awake worrying about. Because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents, this generation will be born into the great comforts of the upper middle class. Even as children they will own many hardcover books (an almost criminal luxury from the point of view of immigrant parents). They will have wealthy friends who get paid for B-pluses.They may or may not attend private schools, but in either case they will expect expensive, brand-name clothes. Finally and most problematically, they will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice. In short, all factors point to this generation

Pretty thorough analysis if you ask me, more consideration than I’ve ever given the issue. Amy Chua was trying to prevent her children from feeling into this cycle, and tiger parenting seemed like the most straightforward method.

Good enough wasn’t good enough.

I found myself frustrated a while ago at the whole concept of “good enough.” Not “you’re-never-good-enough” good enough, but “you-don’t-have-to-be-great-just-good-enough” good enough.

  • Your grades don’t have to be that good–just good enough to get an 89.5
  • Your work doesn’t have to be that good– just good enough so it doesn’t look BSed.
  • You GPA doesn’t have to be that good–just good enough to beat the next person
  • You don’t have to put in that much effort in clubs–just enough to

It’s tiring having to constantly calculate and recalculate how much effort is enough. But when you live in a system that ultimately doesn’t care how far you achieve above the bare minimum, it seems like the best option. (read: requires the least effort)

Musical instruments (the fine arts in general) are different. At the higher echelons of achievement, everyone has invested an astronomical amount of time into asymptotically approaching perfection.

The mere-exposure effect is real.

In psychology, the mere-exposure effect states that simply being more exposed to something will result in you liking it more. I first heard it in terms of advertising, but I’ve found it true in terms of people, school subjects, basically everything. Including musical instruments.

Did Chua expose her daughters to music a lot? Yes.

Was it painful at times? Yes.

Did they end up enjoying it? Yes. *insert many caveats.

Did they eventually become good? Better than good.

So did it work? Yes.

Chua’s idea was  that as you get exposed to something more, as you become better at it, as you feel more accomplished, you start liking it more and doing it better. Tiger parenting only works effectively at a young age, before children get that intrinsic motivation.

Her eldest daughter Sophia has a blog

In addition to writing this response on the NY post, Chua’s oldest daughter (the obedient one) has a blog with thousands of followers and millions of views. I am jealous. She hasn’t updated in over a year, but there’s more than enough posts to keep one occupied.

…And I have spent the past hour reading posts on her blog. Recommended: this post about the gao kao and this post about beauty. 

“If you’re trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.”

A quote from a Paul Graham essay.

I’m easily won over by books I read, people I meet, ideas I encounter. I have a hard time coming up with my own ideas, but I’m fantastic at synthesizing sources together. This book was no different.

But as much as I saw the merits of tiger parenting, I don’t think I could pull it off. Just look at the notes that Chua left her daughter

Perpetual Mobile

Opening:

*On crescendo, energy goes up!

*Also, it goes up 3 times, make them different – maybe LESS on last one

* Last measure of line 2 is DIFFERENT HARMONY – so bring that out

Line 3: Bring out melody notes, less on repeated notes. Then “rolling down”

Line 4: Make sure to play important notes with MUCH LONGER BOW

Line 5: Bring out WEIRD notes

Line 6: So many As! Boring – so make them quieter and bring out the OTHER notes.

Line 7: Huge long 2-octave scale – start LESS and make a huge crescendo!!

Page 3

Line 5: At the f, use almost the entire bow – make it exciting! – then diminuendo to tiny

Line 6-7: Follow pattern – less, then suddenly EXPLOSION at f!

Line 8-9: same thing – quiet and then sudden EXPLOSION at f!

Line 10: Bring out TOP 2 notes, bottom note less important.

(This is her, not her daughter’s teacher.) I’ve been playing the piano for a pretty long time, and I’ve never gotten instructions like this, and definitely not on a daily basis. I can’t imagine writing out notes like this either. I do respect Chua for what she does though, and most of the criticism she receives is taken out of context.

This was a really short read (a little over 100 pages), and I’ll probably need to do a second reading to fully absorb everything.

Until then, rawr.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

  1. Thank you for sharing her daughter’s response, it’s pretty eye-opening
    BTW I’m still reading your blog :D one day you’ll have millions of viewers tooooo

    Like

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother | The Real Melting Pot

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