Battle Hymn of the Tiger Motherreviewed by Philip Greenspun; March 2011
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Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua was the most talked-about book of 2010-2011, at least among nervous upper middle class parents. I read the book because I was told that it featured two Samoyed bitches, Coco and Pushkin, distant cousins to my own beloved Alex and George. I started off with a mild prejudice against Chua because she gave one of her Samoyeds a Russian name; the Russians destroyed the culture of the Siberian tribes, including the Samoyedes, so it adds insult to injury to give a Nenet's dog a Russian name (not to mention giving a bitch a man's name).
Sophia, the eldest child, and Lulu, her younger sister, started life with great genes. They're both good-looking and were able to do party tricks such as read the alphabet by 18 months. On top of this Chua pushed them by hiring a Mandarin-speaking nanny to teach them Chinese (she herself speaks a non-Mandarin dialect), by starting their music lessons at age 3, and by enrolling them in the best private schools.
Acquaintances were constantly asking Chua "How did you raise such amazing daughters?" and thus she eventually sat down to tell the family's story in a relatively thin breezy volume.
The best part of the book is the accurately rendered and often hysterical dialog within the family. The Samoyeds have a party in the kitchen: "A big burlap sack lay in shreds, there were rags and plastic bags all over, and Coco and Pushkin were barking up a storm outside." Tiger Mom gets angry with her eldest daughter Sophia: "You left the pantry door open, didn't you? How many times have I told you the dogs would get into the rice? The entire fifty-pound bag is gone--the dogs are probably going to die now. You never listen. You always say, 'Oh I'm so sorry, I'll never do that again--I'm so terrible--kill me now,' but you never change." The daughter responds "... Don't take out your frustrations on me just because you can't control Lulu."
Most of the book lacks drama. The girls will either be A students at a private school who play at Carnegie Hall before graduating into the Ivy League or they will be A students at a private school who don't play at Carnegie Hall before graduating into the Ivy League. It is tough to get worked up over the possibility that the younger kid might not follow her sister to the stage. The Chua family has plenty of money, a nice house, and both parents have guaranteed (tenured) jobs at one the wealthiest employers in the United States (Yale). Best-selling family memoirs usually have a struggle-against-adversity angle. The #1 best seller in this genre is, for example, Dave Pelzer's A Child Called "It", a heroic and inspiring tale of a boy who survived being stabbed by his mother, locked in a closet, denied food, etc. (all basically false, according to this nytimes article, but very lucrative). Tiger Mother's abuse consists of pressuring Lulu, the rebellious second child, to play Joseph Achron's "Hebrew Melody" at her Bat Mitzvah. Lulu responds "Play violin? At my Bat Mitzvah? That's ridiculous. I refuse. It's completely inappropriate. ... You're not even Jewish. You don't know what you're talking about. This has nothing to do with you."
A relative gets cancer towards the end of the book and the reader is jarred back to confronting reality. Real drama involves stakes higher than whether or not a kid will be the 100th best musician in the country or the 1000th.
Jed, the Jewish father of the prodigies, is a cardboard figure. He appears sometimes as a foil against Chua's manic energy and rage, but we never learn what motivates him. With a wife spending half of her time on a career and the other half sitting at the piano hectoring her daughters, I would have expected some complaints from Jed about being neglected. Or perhaps a little drama as he wandered around the neighborhood with the Samoyeds getting into conversations, and possibly a little more, with some women who were less focussed on the childrens' future. As a law school professor, he would have had access to a constant stream of young single women, but no conflict regarding such distractions appears in the book. Either the man is a saint or readers aren't getting the full story on the marriage.
Aside from its potential value as a child-rearing guide, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother may be valuable to historians as a source for what life was like for the yuppie family around the turn of the 21st Century. The big house, the private schools, the coaching and private lessons, the trips to European capitals. It is all in here.
Chua doesn't claim that her child-rearing techniques should be adopted by everyone. She buys into the (supposedly Chinese) theory that a kid won't enjoy Activity X until he or she is really good at Activity X and therefore it is the parent's job to choose Activity X for the kid and push the kid mercilessly until he or she masters Activity X. Yet she is ultimately ambivalent about whether the full Chinese parenting method can be applied when a child lives in the decadent 21st Century United States.
If Chua isn't sure that she's right, she's pretty sure that most Americans are wrong, with their cult of self-esteem and letting kids do whatever they want. By chronicling the achievements of her children, Chua reminds us that fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.
The best evidence that fat, drunk, and stupid might be a great way to go through life is provided by my own generation. I was born in 1963, sharing the U.S. with 189 million others and the world with 3.2 billion folks. I graduated college in 1982, one year into the U.S. stock market's best 13-year performance within the last 84 years. Jobs were easy to get. Real estate was cheap. Traffic jams were few. An unambitious member of my generation could go to work for the government, enjoy unprecedented union-driven pay increases and a comfortable retirement at age 50. An ambitious member of my generation could get a college or professional degree and ride the Reagan-Clinton boom.
Chua's daughters, by contrast, share the U.S. with 311 million people and the world with 6.9 billion (clock). Chua's book came out at a time when roughly 25 percent of America's youth were unemployed. If her daughters hope to buy a house in a nice walkable neighborhood near good jobs, they'd better be able to afford $1-2 million. If they want to go to a job interview, they should allow up to an extra two hours to fight their way through traffic.
During my lifetime, China has become a lot more like the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. has become a lot more like China. So perhaps we will need Chinese mothers.
I purchased the audiobook to keep me company while stuck in Southern California traffic. A (white) woman friend joined me to listen to the last disc. She asked "Who's reading the book?" I responded indignantly: "You think Tiger Mother needs to hire a stupid white actress to read her book for her?" (i.e., the audiobook is read by the author, who does a competent job and is equipped with a pleasant voice)
It is a shame that the audiobook does not come with photos of the Chua family and their Samoyeds, which grace the hardcopy book.