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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua
   This book has divided critics into two camps:

  1. Amy Chua should be put behind bars for years and years and years without probation for child neglect and socially ostracized for painting a perhaps-offensive picture of "Chinese mothers" that applies to very few of them.
  2. She should be praised for putting her own life up for the public to see and examine--her account, while perhaps a bit extreme, is heartfelt and funny. Her daughters eventually turned out all right, didn't they?
   I stumbled upon BHOTTM as I was searching for a biology-themed book for a summer project in the bookstore. Having found the text, I had some time to indulge my own summer reading needs. BHOTTM received, and is still receiving, a lot of buzz in the literary world. Considering the world's schism, I decided to give it a go. I also really liked the cover. Let's be honest- who doesn't judge a book by its cover?

   Here's my interpretation: while Chua's story is extreme and pushes the limits, her struggle is sincere and she really loves her children. BHOTTM chronicles her quest to raise her children as she was raised by her own strict Chinese immigrant parents. Chua theorizes that, while the first and second generation of a Chinese immigrant family will be perfect and strictly-raised, the third generation will experience problems of pampering and come out less than perfect. For this reason, she pushes her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, to their limits. Everything she does, she says, is to prepare them for the future.
  So what, exactly, raised the ire of a parents worldwide and caused her to be viewed by some as unfit for parenting? For one thing, she forced her children to, at the ripe old age of three, take up the piano. Merely playing was not good enough, and Chua made them practice at times five hours per day. When the piano proved a bad fit for Lulu, she was made to take up the violin in addition. World-class teachers were hunted down to provide the very best musical educations for the two children--quitting was not an option.  Academics-wise, anything less than straight As were not acceptable. Play-dates and sleepovers were out-of-bounds, and sports and school plays forbidden.
  I actually really liked the book. Chua herself warns readers to take everything with a grain of salt, and says that the book is a memoir and not a parenting guide. She is a wicked wit; biting sarcasm coupled with a retrospectively charming naïveté makes for a delightful book. Not all is piano-practicin' fun and math games, though. Both Chua's mother-in-law and her sister deal with cancer at varying points in the book; Chua deals with this topic in an appropriate and tender way--she is a gifted writer. For this and other obvious reasons, this book is not for the faint of heart.
  While they were easy to ignore, this book did have some flaws and dragged a bit in the last third. It also lost a good bit of 'funny' as Chua documented her serious struggle with Lulu. The transition is a little jarring. Overall, though, I'd give it a 4. Nonfiction, by the way, is a fantastic way to take a break from the Spellsong Cycle long fantasy books.
  Here's one of my favorite bits--an incredible hook:
   Jed was at work... and Sophia was at kindergarten. I decided it would be a perfect time to introduce Lulu to the piano. Excited about working together--with her brown curls, round eyes, and china doll face, Lulu was deceptively cute--I put her on the piano bench, on top of some comfortable pillows. I then demonstrated how to play a single note with a single finger, evenly, three times, and asked her to do the same. A small request, but Lulu refused, preferring instead to smash at many notes at the same time with two open palms. When I asked her to stop, she smashed harder and faster. When I tried to pull her away from the piano, she started yelling, crying, and kicking furiously. 
   Fifteen minutes later, she was still yelling, crying, and kicking, and I'd had it. Dodging her blows, I dragged the screeching demon to our back porch door, and threw it open. The wind chill was twenty degrees, and my own face hurt from just a few seconds' exposure to the icy air. But I was determined to raise an obedient child--in the West, obedience is associated with dogs and the caste system, but in Chinese culture, it is considered among the highest of virtues--if it killed me. "You can't stay in the house if you don't listen to Mommy," I said sternly. "Now, are you ready to be a good girl? Or do you want to go outside?
   Lulu stepped outside. She faced me, defiant.
   A dull dread began seeping through my body. Lulu was wearing only a sweater, a ruffled skirt, and tights. She had stopped crying. Indeed, she was eerily still. 
   "Okay good--you've decided to behave," I said quickly. "You can come in now."
   Lulu shook her head.
   "Don't be silly, Lulu." I was panicking. "It's freezing. You're going to get sick. Come in now."
   Lulu's teeth were chattering, but she shook her head again. And right then I saw it all, as clear as day. I had underestimated Lulu, not understood what she was made of. She would sooner freeze to death than give in.
   I had to change tactics immediately; I couldn't win this one. Plus I might be locked up by Child Services. My mind racing, I reversed course, now begging, coddling, and bribing Lulu to come back into the house. When [my husband] and Sophia arrived home, they found Lulu contentedly soaking in a hot bath, dipping a brownie in a steaming cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows.
   But Lulu had underestimated me too. I was just rearming. The battle lines were drawn, and she didn't even know it.  

I'd be interested to hear what others thought of it. Was I the only one to think it was innocent and (mostly) funny?


  1. Hehe, no, we think it's funny too. We're glad that it turns out the book is truly a memoir, not a how-to. She does seem to have a good sense of humor about herself and her children.

    We also think a lot of the controversy was manufactured -- in part by the Wall Street Journal and the way they chose to portray her book in their pages.

  2. Hey Jelle! I listened to the audiobook of this one back in early June and absolutely fell for it. The audiobook was read by Chua, and I really connected with her as a person. Yes, she is definitely an extreme person, but she is able to step outside of herself and be honest with her faults/flaws. I started following one of her daughters' blogs and you can see that she really does admire her mom and that they have a good relationship. The book had so many funny moments and also some really poignant ones. It is one I will recommend widely -- well worth the buzz, even though it was misfocused.


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