“Advice on How Not to Misread the Tiger Mother” by erin Khuê Ninh

We are excited to present online our “Amerasia Forum” on Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was recently published in the print version of Amerasia Journal.  We are cross-posting the essays with the “Across the Desk” blog on the Hyphen Magazine website.  Click to “Across the Desk” to read Grace Wang’s essay, “On Tiger Mothers and Music Moms.”

Here, we are posting erin Khuê Ninh’s piece, “Advice on How Not to Misread the Tiger Mother.”

“Advice on How Not to Misread the Tiger Mother”

by erin Khuê Ninh

On the book tour circuit, Amy Chua’s strategy has been to disavow just about everything her infamous Wall Street Journal article seemed to say.  “I do not believe that Chinese mothers are superior,” she declared to Stephen Colbert.  To PBS’s Need to Know, she described the book’s arc as revealing her “eventual transformation as a mother,” while, to Good Morning America, she insisted that she believes “people get to great places so many different ways: lenient parents, strict parents. . .”

To invoke Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is inevitably to include in that gesture the media reframing from which it continues to be inextricable.  I respond to this book, then, as a “text” that far exceeds its covers.  Measuring its pages against the prodigious spin campaign that surrounds the book, I will take up two considerations here: First, Chua’s oft-made claim that she has been misread, even ill-used, her words and meaning taken out of context; and second, regardless of her shades of intent, the question of what harm her text may do.  In interview after interview, Chua has deflected responsibility for her statements about parenting by insisting (with impressive incredulity each time) that her book is a memoir—not a how-to guide.  Though the book’s marketing belies this—the “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” lead-in of the Wall Street Journal piece well met by the “how to be a tiger mother” in block letters on the volume’s back cover—fault for that wildly successful publicity campaign is laid at the feet of the publisher, while the author demurs.  It remains for us to ask, then, what manner of memoir did Chua write, that it should be so easily packaged or taken for a parenting manual?  And if the superiority of her methods is not its point, then what is?

To call Battle Hymn a memoir is quite apt, by many counts.  Memoir most commonly refers to a “non-professional or non-literary textual production,” often deemed an aesthetically deficient subset of autobiography, authored by public figures. ( See Julie Rak, “Are Memoirs Autobiographies? A Consideration of Genre and Public Identity,” Genre 37 [2004].)  As penned by celebrities such as Bristol Palin, a memoir may burnish images or monetize status.  Chua, though not a celebrity in her own right, arguably monetizes the status of Harvard and Yale name recognition. (More on that later.) As penned by politicians or tycoons, the powerful and public names of commerce, politics, and war, memoirs serve as ways to impart or dispute historical accounts.  While the latter retrospectives can be feats of candor and critical self-examination (Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam comes to mind), they can also be paradoxical exercises in hindsight without re-examination written

in order to celebrate their [own] deeds (always more or less misunderstood), providing a sort of posthumous propaganda for posterity that otherwise is in danger of forgetting them or of failing to esteem them properly.  Memoirs admirably celebrate the penetrating insight and skill of famous men who, appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, were never wrong (Rak, 490).

Here, George W. Bush’s Decision Points comes to mind.

Granted, Chua is no Bush or McNamara, either, and she discourses here on domestic rather than professional affairs, supposedly private matters as opposed to the stuff of public record.  And yet, in an era of mass anxiety around helicopter parenting, failures of the U.S. educational system, and the specter of a Chinese economic juggernaut, Battle Hymn hit a vein precisely because it addresses itself to public concerns, offering up the domestic to public oversight.

Continue reading “Advice on How Not to Misread the Tiger Mother”, after the jump…

Despite some obvious differences, however, it is highly instructive to liken Chua’s memoir to that of our routed former president.  The writing of each is prompted, after all, by ego-rattling failures.  Though Chua’s front cover and interviews promise a chastened transformation (“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones,” Chua has said.  “But instead, it’s about. . .how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”), the book does not deliver.  In actuality, it is a story of a horrified parent’s self-assurances that she could not have done otherwise, and that in the end, her way (though not perfect) was still better than the alternatives. In its last several pages, the book leaves us with this conversation between mother and daughters:

“. . .I wonder what would have happened if. . .I’d let you choose your own instrument? Or no instrument at all? . . .”

“Don’t be ridiculous!,” said Lulu [the humbling thirteen-year old, whose refusal of the violin prompts the memoir]. . .Of course I’m glad you forced me to play the violin.”

“Really!,” [Chua] said. . .Because come to think of it, I think those were great choices we made too. . .All those Western parents with the same party line about what’s good for children and what’s not [don’t know what they’re doing, and because of that Western parenting]. . .I’m telling you this country is going to go straight downhill!” (227-228)

If Tiger mistakes were made, it is hard to say by Chua’s account what they were or when they happened. “In retrospect,” she is apt to say, “these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme.  On the other hand, they were highly effective” (28).  The book’s conclusion is occupied not with the changes in Chua’s parenting methods (about these she is so vague as to be cryptic), but with Lulu’s success in her new pursuit: tennis, turbo-charged thanks to the drive and discipline she learned via the violin.  Given that this is the core to the original thesis of Chinese mothering, that technologies of self acquired through enforced classical music training will teach children to excel in other pursuits later, it is indeed hard to tell what mistakes Chua has owned up to.  The narrative performance of Battle Hymn is best understood, then, as an attempt to avert an impending historical account, to address biological and social posterities who are in danger of failing to esteem the Chinese mother properly, because, appearances notwithstanding, she was never wrong.

This, of course, is why the book is so easily taken for a how-to manual. Like self-help literature (a genre in which titles the words “How to” feature prominently and child rearing is a favorite topic), Battle Hymn is detailed and extensive in describing behavior that is branded and commodified as secrets to success: Tiger Mother or Chicken Soup? Chua’s infamous bullet points, listing activities forbidden to her children, are a sort of recipe.  Her denial of prescriptive intent, meantime, is disingenuous to the point of cynicism.  It beggars the imagination how passages such as this might be taken without a prescription: “Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up” (62).

And as Steven Starker points out, a self-help book “may be the work of a well-known medical or psychological authority, but it is as likely to be an idea created by a publishing house or ‘book packager’.” (See Steven Starker, “The New Oracle: Self-Help Books in American Culture,” Publishing Research Quarterly 4:2 [1988].) The words “Yale professor” accompany Chua’s name in every breath of publicity, for the gleam of authority. (Consider how the same book authored by, say, an obscure accountant, might have been received by literary agents and Rupert Murdoch.)  And yet the theories she expounds in the book have not a whit of academic grounding. As Starker argues, “Unlike. . .professional research articles, which are scrutinized by knowledgeable reviewers prior to acceptance for publication, self-help books are totally unregulated. . .entering millions of homes and minds, without any serious examination as to validity.”  Chua takes the license offered by this secondary genre to make unfettered claims as to the efficacy of her methods: Announcing that, in contrast to “Western parents [who] have to tiptoe” around the matter, “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty—lose some weight,’” she implies that, unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese daughters addressed with such refreshing frankness do not “end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image” (51). As a quick search on Google Scholar reveals, this is patently false.

How dangerous, then, how breathtakingly irresponsible, such “advice.”  As I have argued elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal excerpt stands to do the greater harm in that it circulates Chua’s message most widely in its least tempered form.  This does not mean, however, that the book has nothing to account for.  Below is a sampling of tactics Chua reports having used to discipline her daughters, alongside a revealing (if admittedly acerbic) diagnostic.

The right-hand column of the table includes all five categories of a conceptual framework of emotional abuse in pediatric psychology; the comments from the right-hand column come from Danya Glaser, “Emotional abuse and neglect (psychological maltreatment):  a conceptual framework,” Child Abuse and Neglect 26 (2002).  While it is not my intent here to urge adoption of that framework literally or uncritically, it must not escape our notice that elements in Chua’s vaunted Chinese parenting resonate with each and every category: “Psychological maltreatment means a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or of value only in meeting another’s needs.”  Chua deploys humor consistently in her writing, to insert an irony and distance in our reading experience of her tactics, to numb their sting.  But in Tiger parenting, lines like “you are so ungrateful. . . It’s disgusting (180)” cannot be delivered with a wink and smile. It is with utter seriousness that, in response to Chua’s calling her a “terrible daughter,” Lulu responds, “I know—I’m not what you want” (205).

And yet, for all the damage control Chua has been doing on her national book tour, she has not tried to control the damage of this ringing endorsement: “I can’t tell you how many Asian kids I’ve met who, while acknowledging how oppressively strict and brutally demanding their parents were, happily describe themselves as devoted to their parents and unbelievably grateful to them, seemingly without a trace of bitterness or resentment” (101).

That such parenting strategies can backfire, and tragically so, Chua does register: “When Chinese parenting succeeds, there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed” (212).  In fact, she acknowledges this risk at the very beginning of her book, and supposedly at the beginning of her elder daughter’s life: “I did not want her to end up like one of those weird Asian automatons who feel so much pressure from their parents that they kill themselves after coming in second on the national civil service exam” (8).  Yet despite her own searing brush with disaster, the end of the book finds Chua not so much reformed or thoughtfully reassembled, as confused—and striving to regain her appearance of mastery.

This appearance is purchased with the successes of her children—Sophia’s Harvard admission, Lulu’s tennis rankings—but also at their expense: She has shoved her teenagers into the spotlight, with a hostile or jealous nation’s eyes upon them.  It is their charge as never before to prove her right, to “mak[e her] proud”—to embellish her text—as any stumble in their new panopticon may be emblazoned across the Internet and “dishonor[] this family” (181).

Truly, it is hard to see how the book ultimately serves as an argument for parents to “self-question more” or “listen to your child”—claims she makes to Good Morning America—when nowhere in or outside of her memoir has Chua convincingly managed to learn these lessons.

erin Khuê Ninh is assistant professor of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara.  She is the author of Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature.

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