The Tiger Mother, Misunderstood

“No one wants to be a pariah,” declares Yale law professor Amy Chua in her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (public library), a memoir of her experiences parenting her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, as a traditionally strict Chinese mother set adrift in liberal New England.

Yet a pariah she became, when excerpts from the book were published in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, a few days before the book’s release. In the article, audaciously titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” — a headline Chua denies writing, pointing a finger at WSJ editors — Chua describes how she forbade her daughters from having sleepovers, playdates, or getting any grade less than an A, and recounts calling one “garbage” while not letting the other have food, water, or even a bathroom break during an hours-long piano practice session. The piece went viral, lighting up a firestorm on comment boards, blogs and social media, with some calling for the author’s arrest on charges of child abuse. She was subjected to cross-examination on news segments and talk shows, received an anonymous parcel containing a shredded copy of her book, and was forced to hire a personal security detail after receiving death threats.

I was born in Canada to traditional Hong Kong immigrants and am myself a product of “Chinese” parenting, probably better known in the West as the authoritarian parenting style but infused with Confucius-flavored narcissistic personality disorder and typically served off the wrong end of a bamboo feather duster. Now a father myself, it took years of being annoyed and occasionally horrified at the tiger mother-tagged articles popping up in my parenting news feed before I finally caved in and picked up a copy of the book to see for myself what the fuss was about.

It was not what I expected.

That Chua was playing with fire is indisputable. Her own husband, Jed Rubenfeld, even warned her as much: “Amy, you are going to get slaughtered for this.” And, whether she intended it or not, her timing was impeccable. Child development experts in the prewar West preached rigidity and distance, warning parents that coddling children would stunt their development. That dogma was upended by Dr. Benjamin Spock in his 1946 book “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” (public library). Arguing for a warmer, instinctive and child-centric approach to parenting, it became one of the most popular books ever published in any genre, revolutionizing the way baby boomers and Generation Xers were raised.

Meanwhile, market reforms initiated in the late 1970s paved the way for China’s rise as an economic superpower, even as major American manufacturing industries declined and collapsed. In 2009, two years before “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” was published and in the midst of the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression, Shanghai Chinese students took the Programme for International Student Assessment for the first time and clobbered everyone, ranking first in all three subject areas in a field of 74 participating countries and wiping the floor with the Americans, who finished 17th, 23rd, and 31st in reading, science, and math, respectively.

The irony of yet another humiliation by an increasingly influential yet officially communist country wasn’t likely lost on the book’s target demographic: Western parents of school-age children who themselves grew up during the Cold War and were raised on the virtues of individualism and liberty. Against the backdrop of American Exceptionalism in the throes of its deepest self-esteem crisis in decades, it didn’t take much for Chua’s writing style, inflammatory at times and peppered with name-dropping — Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Carnegie Hall, Juilliard — to set off parents already uneasy at the prospect of a future for their children in which a run-of-the-mill college degree no longer guaranteed anything except for an armored truckload of nondischargeable debt.

A student arrives for Saturday class on April 1, 2017 at Little Stanford Academy, a private after-school tutoring center in Arcadia, California. A flood of real estate investment by newly wealthy mainland Chinese helped push the median home value past the $1 million mark in 2014, earning this Asian ethnoburb the moniker “The Chinese Beverly Hills.”

For one thing, it was almost immediately apparent that the excerpts in the WSJ article had been lifted from the most controversial passages in the first quarter of the book, which when read in context appear to have been deliberately written provocatively to set up the rest of the story. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, as the saying goes, and it seems that whoever cherry-picked the excerpts for the article was specifically trying to get a rise out of people. In any case, it worked, and spectacularly so: readers left more than 10,000 comments on the WSJ site while the book was a veritable blockbuster, reaching #4 on Amazon and spending 11 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

And then there’s Chua’s husband, portrayed in most critiques as a minor supporting character and subsequently blasted for not taking more than a lame-duck defensive stance against the torrents of verbal abuse hurled at his daughters by their mother. According to Chua herself, Rubenfeld had been brought up under the very Western parenting ideals she rails against, yet somehow managed to not only graduate from Princeton and attend Juilliard and Harvard Law, but went on to become a federal prosecutor, and, like his wife, a best-selling author and professor at Yale. By Chua’s own admission to their daughters: “After all, Daddy turned out fine.”

It is also Rubenfeld who reminds Chua what happened to her father, Leon, an accomplished electrical engineer and computer scientist. Born in the Philippines to Fujian Chinese parents, the elder Chua had suffered at the hands of his own tiger mother, whom he “barely spoke to” and “never thought about … except in anger,” forcing the author to admit that Chinese parenting “doesn't always succeed,” something that she “never wanted to think about.” Chua’s inclusion of both her father and her husband in the narrative pokes a sizable hole in the contention that she is out to show parents of the non-tiger variety that they’re doing it wrong.

The last third of the book is devoted to Lulu’s rebellion, a battle of wills that comes to a head during a family vacation in Moscow. In a café by the Red Square, while being browbeaten for refusing to try caviar (“Lulu, you sound like an uncultured savage”), Lulu finds the weakness — the heresy of public disobedience — in the ultimate power of the Tiger Mother, torpedoing it into oblivion with an airborne drinking glass in front of horrified patrons. Forced into submission by a raging 13-year-old who just wants to play tennis and be left alone, the Tigress consoles herself as she licks her wounds: At least tennis has Asian street cred.

Some of Chua’s most vehement critics are Asian-Americans for whom the vignettes in the book hit uncomfortably close to home, and Chua’s thrusting herself into the public eye made her a convenient piñata. But for all her hubristic bravado, instead of doubling down at the Moscow café like a true Chinese mother, Chua came to her senses and stepped back. In doing so, she set one heel toward the dark abyss of one of her self-confessed greatest fears: the loss by her children of the social and materialistic status that her and her parents’ generations had worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, to achieve.

As someone who was ready to light up the torch and dig the pitchfork out from the shed over what I read about the book before I actually read the book itself, it was almost disappointing that the uproar over “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” turned out to be a whole lot of ado about little. If nothing else, at least by Chua’s account there is now one crazy Chinese mother fewer running amok, which even her staunchest critics would agree is probably for the better.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By Amy Chua
237 pp., Penguin Press, 2011