Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mea Culpa, Tiger Mother

Rains in Asia - Jump, Little Children (mp3)
I Tried - Jess Klein (mp3)

Roughly three months ago, I wrote a fairly damning screed against Amy Chua, a.k.a. “The Tiger Mother.” An excerpt from her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother had been published in the Wall Street Journal, and the Western parenting world had begun to unleash holy hell on her. I was happy to jump on board her angry mob.

My, how three months can change things.

In the following days, information came out suggesting that Chua’s book and her humanity were both more worthy of consideration than originally thought, and I added a concluding editorial note to my blog to suggest as much.

Last month, I attended the screening of a super-popular eduwonky documentary called Race to Nowhere in the middle of high class Atlanta, and that experience drove me to purchase and actually read Chua’s book, which I finished this week.

I owe Mrs. Chua a ginormous apology.

Her short, easily-read personal account of trying to raise two children in a way honoring her culture and her own childhood, an account of success and failure, of being incurably snotty and egotistical, of being agonizingly brilliant and demanding, of being the kind of woman who would stab me several dozen times were she to have to live with me, deserves every dollar it’s made in sales and hype. It’s been several years since I’ve read a non-fiction book that so desperately deserved to be discussed in an intelligent book group.

In dozens of places, Chua is self-deprecating. But because her entire persona and character is of The Impenetrable and Unfeeling Chinese Tiger Mother, the reader has to be willing to read between the lines and see the human behind the book, typing these descriptions of herself, in order to see this.

Even more challenging, we have to get past our judgment and defensiveness about parenting, past our judgment of those who proudly hold themselves and their ways above us and ours.

As I read the book, Chua reminded me of a bully. An intellectual bully, or a parenting bully, any kind of bully whose own insecurities are projected through anger or intimidation. But I think she knows this about herself. I also think she intentionally created a slightly exaggerated version of herself -- one that was a little more overconfident and unfeeling -- for most of the book so as to build up her place as the book’s semi-secret bad guy.

On page 54, Amy describes her husband’s upbringing. It is, in all ways, the Perfect Western Nightmare in the eyes of any Tiger Mother. His parents believed in space and freedom and choice. His parents were divorced. He was encouraged to be creative and question authority. By Chua’s own account, this kind of upbringing should have resulted in a homeless man or a serial killer, but instead Jed is a Yale law professor and novelist and is by any reasonable standard a disgustingly nauseatingly successful guy. Not only that, but he’s a guy who despite being very pasty white and Jewish somehow earned Chua’s own heart.

This, I thought, was her early subtle admission that The Chinese Way was not necessarily The Only Perfect Way. Yet she trudges on with her own path. Which creates much better dramatic irony.

Not to bead a dead analogy, but Chua created in her own character of The Mother -- either intentionally or truthfully -- a very contemporary Western anti-hero. Think Vic Mackey or Tony Soprano or Don Draper or Walter White, people whose flaws are huge and festering and exposed for the world to judge, people we are drawn to because our everyday lives are surrounded by people who are guarded and closed off and refuse to reveal their imperfect-ness to us, and because we ourselves insist on pretending we are closer to perfect than we know ourselves to be.

She might truly be a proud and egotistical lady. She certainly has enough notches of professional and familial success in her belt to have earned a little of it. All the more amazing that she was willing to expose herself as nakedly as she has in this book.

By the end, as her world unravels a little, I found myself very moved. It didn’t get me crying, but I had a few short breaths here and there. My head said she deserved the come-uppance she was getting, but my heart saw the flawed human, the hopeful parent, the bag of inconsistent bones we all are, and I wanted to reach out and hug her.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is an amazing accomplishment, and if you are a loving parent of any culture, or an educator, or in any way deal with kids or their stinkin’ parents, this book is worth consideration.


Sara C said...

I'm convinced; loan me your copy?

cinderkeys said...

I just read it. Very interesting, very good read. Left me wondering if there's a middle way.