This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

After I read WSJ article based on this book, I couldn't wait to read it.

But I had to wait since I was like 300-and-something on the Wake County library wait list. I finally got it last week and dumped the book I was struggling to get through.

I loved loved loved this book. It certainly isn't what some of you may think...but it also is what you think. It is a book about a different philosophy of upbringing that most of America (maybe other countries too) will find beyond imaginable: a harsh, strict raising of children with rote instructions for education, behavior, and arts. While my parents were not as hardcore as Ms. Chua, there are certainly a lot of elements that I can relate to, not only from my parents but from my family in the Philippines.

There is no questioning authority. There is no play before work. There is only "do as I say, not as I do" when it comes to your elders.

While I had a mix of a western way: I didn't have to cook for the family (as my mom and her family did at a young age), I didn't have to do hard labor, or practice organ lessons (yes, I played the organ and stop with the Beavis and Butthead jokes) for four hours every day, I did, however, have responsibilities (compared to my other friends) and very strict curfews, including days that I could go out, or how long I could be out.

I was very bitter about that as a kid but I did not question my parents much. That much I learned. If I did, a major fight would break out and in the end, I almost always lost. It's very strange, the dichotomy of my life: my traditional, Pacific Island rearing, where you respect your elders, work in the house, and go to college and excel while still taking care of the family. The idea of dating is a no-no (how people get married, I have no clue).

Compare that to my friends and the other half of my family (from the states), who could wear make-up, go out freely, cruise the streets and meet up with friends, and call their uncles and aunts by their first name (sometimes even their own parents!). I found it all very unfair growing up and now, as a mom, I use this as ammunition: "You are lucky you can speak to me this way. I would NEVER DARE to say that to my mom or dad!"

Amy Chua is a little bit more intense but to me, not unusual to some of my other friends who had parents that were more traditional than my own. I remember an old BFF from 3rd grade (Philippines), where we reconnected as seniors in a different country (Gosnell, Arkansas) - which is the way of a military life. I was so excited to see her and I went to her home (base housing) and caught up with her over the last nine years. I then asked: hey, you wanna go for a ride around town? And she had a look of horror and hope: she wanted to go but she thought her family wouldn't let her. In the end, they did not and I remember walking away from her house (for the last time) and thinking: wow. that is me. I know how she feels yet I am the one who has more freedom...

Amy Chua writes about this harsh philosophy with her upbringing of her two daughters, Lulu and Sophia. Sophia is the piano player; Lulu the violin. They practice every day, for at LEAST four hours. Chua studies the music they are to play vigorously by listening to the music and then instructing, line-by-line, note-by-note sometimes, how they should play it when they practice.

It's not enough for her children to place second in anything. They must ace everything. And most of their competition? Other foreign-based children. Very rarely are there "Westerners" who are close to being able to compete in the magnitude that her daughters, and their "peers", succeed in.

But it's not without sacrifice and the book documents it well. She makes no apologies for what she does and she also ridicules herself. It is amazingly funny to read and I have become a big fan of Chua, although I probably will bypass her first two books Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - And Why They Fall and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (she is a Professor of Law at Yale Law School).

Most of the book documents the piano and violin work that Sophia and Lulu, respectively, played. A sample of what would take place, when Sophia was five and beginning her Suzuki piano lessons.

According to Sophia, hear are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:
1. Oh my God, you're just getting worse and worse.
2. I'm going to count to three, then I want musicality.
3. If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM.
In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme.

Shortly after this, she writes
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

Sophia, for the most part, was the "easier" one. Not really but compared to the next born, Lulu, she was an angel. Lulu reminds me so much of MiMi. One great story that Chua relates is when she is trying to get Lulu into a very good public school in Manhattan for preschool. In order to get in, she had to take a series of tests:
...the admissions director came back out with Lulu after just five minutes, wanting to confirm that Lulu could not count - not that there was anything wrong with that, but she just wanted to confirm.

"Oh my goodness, of course she can count!" I exclaimed, horrified. "Give me just one second with her."

I pulled my daughter aside. "Lulu!" I hissed. "What are you doing? This is not a joke."

Lulu frowned. "I only count in my head."

"You can't just count in your head 0 you have count out loud to show the lady you can count! She is testing you. They won't let you into this school if you don't show them."

"I don't want to go to this school."

As already mentioned, I don't believe in bribing children. Both the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and development have ratified international conventions against bribery; also, if anything, children should pay their parents. But I was desperate. "Lulu," I whispered, "if you do this, I'll give you a lollipop and take you to the bookstore."


[The admissions director] put four blocks on the table and asked Lulu to count them.

Lulu glanced at the blocks, then said, "Eleven, six, ten, four."

My blood ran cold...the director calmly added four more blocks.

Lulu stared at the blocks "Six, four, one, three, zero, twelve, two, eight."

And this is what Lulu is throughout the book. It's fascinating: both girls end up playing for Carnegie Hall, Julliard, and the Old Liszt Academy in Budapest based on their prodigy-like playing skills.

Something works though, despite the outrage (not from me) that Chua has received about her parenting style: Sophia has two offers for college admissions: one from Yale, the other Harvard. And she has her own blog, New Tiger in Townwhere she gives her side of the story and she isn't bitter. At least not a whole lot.

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