During my French Riviera vacation, I polished off Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. I first heard about this book from Amy’s WSJ article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and literally laughed out loud while alone in my dorm room. I told myself the day after exams were over, I’d indulge in this book.
I finished the book in just a few days, in between eating gelato and soaking up the sun (which my tiger mom does not approve of). I loved the book. It’s a quick read and highly entertaining. Parts of it really resonated with me and my upbringing, but in other parts, I did think, “this lady is crazy” – particularly the part where she made her kids practice on vacation. I do think it’s a must read for all the kids in America who thinks their tiger mother is insane.
The book, as Amy has stated many times, is a memoir of her own parenting journey and is meant to be more of an entertainment than anything. I find it rather preposterous that people took this as a parenting guide and criticized it to no end. The parenting style aside, circumstances and resources differ greatly between Chinese families, and try as a tiger mom might, there are still plenty of Chinese kids who do not achieve as a Tiger mom would expect. We can’t all be concert pianist, violinist, have perfect score on SATs and go to Ivy League universities. Tiger Mom parenting comes in different variation, and the important thing is the values that a Tiger Mom upbringing instill in a child that ultimately allow them to craft their own path in life.
I am glad to have been brought up by a Tigher Mom, and this is my own Battle Hymn from the other side.
Before reaching the legal age of 18, I spent half of those years in Taiwan – the natural habitat for Tiger mom- and the other half in the USA. My mom is a classic Tiger Mom, although I am the one who was born in the year of Tiger.
I do not remember my first piano lesson – because that’s how young I was. I guess I was 3. My life in the following 8 years went something like this: 7:30am – school. Depending on the day, school finished between 3:30 and 5:30pm. Then, time after school and evenings were filled with: piano lesson, piano practice, art class, writing class, abacus class (not kidding), math tutoring (I was bad at math, but somehow ended up majoring in finance and economics), calligraphy class, speed-reading class, English school, etc. Basically, any lesson that you can think of, I did it at one point or another in my life. Then after these lessons – homework and studying and bedtime at 10pm.
My mother worked from home when I was young, but when she had appointments to attend to, she dropped me off at the local children’s library – my favorite! I was an avid reader and hated the 3-book per check out rule at the library. When we took vacations, everything had an educational purpose of some sort – museums, exhibitions, historical something or another. We did not go lay on the beach and hang out, thus why my sister and I are now making up for lost time. My birthday presents were also educational – in second grade, I got a pink pencil sharpener that shaped like a dog, and in 3rd grade I received a Children’s English dictionary.
I came home one day in 1st grade with a 89% on my math test and my mother went ballistic. I had math tutoring from then on until I moved to the US, where I became a math genius relative to my American classmates. We had screaming matches at home regarding playing the piano, but unlike Amy, my mother gave up the fight when I was 11. I stopped piano for one year, but took it up again when I moved to the US, where I became a piano virtuoso relative to my American peers. The virtuous circle worked when I moved to the US.
At age 10, two years before moving to the US, I read a series of books about a Taiwanese girl’s journey to Harvard Kennedy School. I wanted to just be like her. My busy life in Taiwan as a child didn’t render me unhappy, it gave me the motivation to dream big and aspire to great things in life. My friends and I used to talk about our dream of going to an Ivy League school, and various vocations that we may pursue.
And then, I moved to the American suburb. No one cared about school. It was uncool to talk about academics, much less dreams of Ivy and changing the world. American teenagers are brutal beasts. They make fun of people for the way the dress, the way they talk, the way the stand, the way they sit. My ability to speak Chinese was met with curiosity that I did not know how to handle at age 12. “Say my name in Chinese, say xyz in Chinese” – my classmates would hassle me. I felt less like a talented bilingual student, but more like a circus monkey. In addition, mandated uniform in Taiwanese schools gave me an awkward fashion sense, top with bad English and the desire to talk about school – I’ll leave it to your imagination on how my first year in the USA went.
The home front was also less than rosy. Unlike Amy Chua and her parents, my parents were clueless on how the educational system works in the US and all the steps to get me to an Ivy. Working as hard as you can only takes you so far in a substandard public school system in suburbia America. Case in point: first day of my 6th grade math class, the teacher did a drill on the time table. My reaction – wait, WHAT? My mother had drilled this time table in me since I was in the 1st grade. I did the whole drill in barely 20 seconds. The teacher came over and asked me why I wasn’t doing mine, in which I responded, “I’m done”, and then proceeded to wonder how these kids don’t know the time table in 6th grade.
My own tiger mom didn’t understand how I had so much free time, yet she didn’t know how to fill my time with activities. Haunted with the first year of my time in the US, I was determined to have a social life and not be a weirdo. The culture divide created tension and confusion. My tiger mom didn’t know how to be one anymore in the foreign land. She went soft because she didn’t know what to do, and I took advantage of it and participated in musicals, attended sleepovers and had a social life that in retrospect was a lot of time wasted. Though I realized the Ivy dream may not happen, I did as much as I could to get ahead given limited guidance and resources. It took a few years of detour, but I am finally fulfilling that Ivy dream I had as a 10-year-old girl. side note: I am well aware that non-Ivy institutions can provide just as good of an education. I had a decent one from my undergraduate university.
Although the path I took is most likely not what my tiger mom had planned for me (no tiger mom in their right mind would encourage their kids to join the Peace Corps), the intrinsic value that came from a tiger-mother upbringing stayed with me. I strive for my best in any situation given resources at hand. I took challenging classes instead of ones that would boost my GPA, I did interesting work that enriches me as a person rather than a cookie-cutter life. I choose to live life off of the beaten path, and wouldn’t be able to do it without values & discipline instilled by my tiger mom.
I love my parents and appreciate their tiger parenting style. If anything, I wish they hadn’t gone soft in my high school years. I did not have an unhappy childhood, instead, a productive and enriching one. And you can bet anything that I will be a fierce Tiger Mom myself!