Update: Thanks to reader Victoria and Leda, I did some digging around and realized that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, far from a how-to manual featuring the sort of methods so prominently depicted in the WSJ article, is actually a memoir.
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs.
This was *supposed* to be a story about how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
My apologies to Ms. Chua. I feel relieved, actually, to know that I was wrong. I was getting rather worried for those two daughters.
If you don’t know what I am talking about, here is the link to the WSJ article on why Chinese mothers are superior.
I grew up in China, in a densely populated apartment complex that housed many families associated with the medical school where my grandfather served as a professor of parasitology. Dozens and dozens of Chinese mothers lived in that complex, the strictest of them all was none other than my own grandmother.
I went to regular schools. But at the same time, she educated me at home. When I was five, she had me copy lessons from first grade Chinese textbooks. I did not enjoy that particular activity and once spent a futile half hour trying get her to let me write the easier version of the word “zero”–when I had to write three of them in a row–instead of the regular, complicated one. I came home on the last day of my first semester of elementary school, and there awaited me a set of traditional brush and ink, for me to practice brush calligraphy over the winter break. In third grade, months before our first abacus lesson at school, one appeared at home, and I was working the apparatus like a little accountant by the time we finally got around to it at school.
I had strict bedtimes: For as long as Grandma lived, I had to be in bed at 8:30 pm on school nights. I was the kid in the entire apartment complex who got to play the least. Even in the midst of summer holidays, when the sun was still high up in the sky, by 5:45pm she’d be on our balcony, shouting for me to come home. In fifth grade, she decided she would teach me English–she’d been an English major in college. That same year, my elementary school decided it could use me as a track-and-field athlete, which entailed an hour of practice before school and an hour after school. Guess who had to get up at five something in the morning for a half hour of English lessons before heading out to run and jump?
(As it turned out, I am a much better learner in a competitive environment than at home, where I was dying of boredom and couldn’t wait to get the day’s lesson over with.)
That said, I have no arguments with how my grandmother raised me. But the thing is, she was a famously strict parental figure. Most of my classmates were not subjected to extra learning at home, neither were most of the kids in my apartment complex. They got to watch the TV programs which I only got to listen to, as I lay awake in my bed–I was widely pitied for my baby-ish bedtime. And when school was out, they played outside till the cows came home.
And you know what? My famously strict grandmother would have considered the lady who wrote the WSJ article nuts. Yes, children can and should be pushed. But the entire time I was growing up, I knew not a single Chinese mother who was anywhere near so fanatical.
When I quit playing the piano after two years, Grandma did not throw a fit–and when I did play, I was required to practice 40 minutes a day, not three hours. As it became clear I had no particular talent for calligraphy, I was not pressed to continue. And when I came home with a second place finish after a bunch of school exams had been tallied–and I came home with a bunch of second-place finishes in 7th grade–she didn’t herniate herself asking me why I wasn’t in first place.
And most importantly, even though I played less than my friends, I still got to play–many, many play dates at both my friends’ homes and my own, the best parts of a childhood that was both secure and happy.
My beloved and much lamented grandmother, were she still with us today, would have been insulted to be thrust into the same category as the writer of the WSJ article. Grandma’s methods had been sane and reasonable. She was strong-willed, but she did not ride roughshod over me. And her main goal had never been to create some super achiever, but to keep a smart and slightly–okay, more than slightly–troublesome girl profitably occupied.
And she, not the writer of the WSJ article, is the Chinese mother whose example I will always strive for and emulate.
(Two blog posts in one day. As the Chinese would say, the sun has risen from the west.)