Chinese Mothers, My @ss–Updated

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.)

28 thoughts on “Chinese Mothers, My @ss–Updated

  1. As a fellow Chinese-American, thank you.

    I believe in owing the ones you love. I believe in owing the people who raised you. But the author of this article believes in owning the people who ought to love her. They have no accomplishments; those accomplishments are hers. She ties her children with blood—and it’s the most ugly kind of manipulation, because you are manipulating your children with your approval. She is using her children’s sense of obligation to force them into the corner of her choice.

      • Come on, you guys. Read the entire book. Sherry, I love you but I don’t think what you said is completely objective. I am Chinese too but what I saw in the book was a mother’s sacrifice and love for her children. If you read the entire book, you will see why no play dates and sleep overs, etc. Most Americans would have very hard time to understand your grandma’s ways with you. Let’s not point fingers. I learn and reflect when I read the book. The book is not just about music lessons. It is deeper than that. We can all learn from each other about parenting.

        • Hi Victoria,

          It’s true I have not read the book and my reaction is solely to the article in the WSJ.

          I do not question Ms. Chua’s devotion as a mother. I absolutely agree that children should not be left to their own devices–or many of them would be slobs who do nothing but play video games and eat junk food all day. And I also agree that there is no point for children to be treated like hothouse flowers: most kids aren’t. What I question is the degree to which Ms. Chua takes her methods and here my opinion has not changed: As someone with straight As and no interest in school plays or athletics, I still wouldn’t have wanted Ms Chua as MY mother.

          (And I love you too.) 🙂

        • Victoria,

          My bad. You were right. Now that I’ve heard more about the book, it would seem the excerpts the WSJ published was quite cherry-picked to give the exact wrong impression, whereas the book, far from the triumphalist crow one’d expect, is actually a mother’s journey from the inflexible, rigidly demanding parent to someone who is humbled by her own methods.

  2. Dishonor nails it. You don’t manipulate your children to make you feel superior to everyone else. I sense a huge therapy bill in Lulu’s future.

    That said, I wish my mother had made me stick with piano lessons.

  3. Did you see Troutqueen’s entry on this topic? She grew up in the US and it sounds like her family was a bit more like the one depicted in the article, although she says it was her father rather than her mother who put the pressure on her/controlled her actions/friends.

    For what it’s worth, while I didn’t get pushed in the same way, I was always under pressure if friends of mine had done better ins school or if I didn’t get a good enough grade for my mother who is Croatian, so that kind of pressure is not confined to a particular ethnicity or culture.

    • I definitely don’t believe pressure is confined to culture of ethnicity.

      And it is funny because while this writer is touting the Chinese way of raising children, in Mainland China, the last time I was there, people were obsessing over the Korean way of raising children. Because the Chinese feel that they are spoiling their young–the vast majority of whom, at least in urban environs, are only children–and they worry that these pampered children would not work hard as their parents and grandparents did.

  4. What I don’t get is how every Chinese child can be first in a Chinese school, or even in a US school with more than one Chinese student in a grade. Someone has to be second, third, fourth, etc. I don’t think Lulu’s mother can be the norm, and I had a hard time believing that after that painful piano lesson they actually snuggled all night long. My daughter wouldn’t be speaking to me if I’d treated her that way.

    • What I wonder about that painful piano lesson is whether it really is necessary. I am not afraid to be an ogre, but only on things that I consider absolutely necessary. If my kid can’t read, I’ll be putting in tons of hours. But if a 7-year-old can’t play a piece of complicated music perfectly, I don’t quite see the point.

  5. While I think Shua probably has some good points about the value of parental involvement, and pushing kids, I know from experience that some kids can be pushed…and others can’t. It’s always been a struggle for parents to know how much is too much, and how much isn’t enough. Yeah, I wish my mom had make me take those piano lessons. Today, both my sisters play beautifully, and I can barely pick out Chopsticks. BUT, she was busy, I was a pain, and she got sick of the whole thing. That’s pretty human. Shua’s response to parenting is so far over the top, it borders on psychotic. Moderation in all things is my parenting philosophy.

    • I have a friend. His wife plays the piano perfectly but she never plays–because she was forced to play so many hours as a child and lost all enjoyment in music. And that’s a shame.

      And I totally agree with you. Knowing when to push and who to push and how to push is hard. We all struggle with it. There is something seductively simple about Shua’s logic of pushing regardless, but as with most seductively simple things, I don’t think it’s that simple in the end.

  6. This book has, at the very least, been a great discussion starter. In our house, both my kids thought I was much too easy on their sibling, but just about right on dealing w/ them. Hmmm….

    I haven’t read the book yet, but just ordered it. I’ve heard that the book has more to it than her inflammatory article. We’ll see…

    • Let me know what you think of it. I quit reading parenting stuff when Sr. Kidlet was around 2. I figured, if I had to do it all day, I’m not going to read anything more about it at night. 🙂

  7. My kids are high schoolers and they think that woman’s methods are pretty scary. All the yelling and name calling can’t make for a happy home.

    I’m with Kate. Not everybody can be first. It just isn’t possible. I try to stress the work ethic with my kids. There is a huge difference in our house between the C that you sweated for and the C for turning it in late.

  8. Sherry,
    Great post!! I read the WSJ article last week and was somewhat horrified by the author’s pride her tactics as well as the sweeping generalizations and stereotypes she portrayed as the norm in her piece. Just because they were the norm for her particularly does not mean they were the norm for everyone, as you accurately pointed out.
    I can’t help but wonder what prompted the author to write her article or to so shamelessly hold herself up as speaking for all Chinese mothers.
    Its sad that it takes you to point out what should be understood: Chinese parents are just as diverse a group as western parents.

  9. I wonder if this is the same person that appeared on the Today Show last week. She was discussing how coddled American children are compared to Chinese children. She was raising her daughter the “Chinese way,” until her daughter rebelled. Unlike your grandmother who just wanted you to try new things, this mother was forcing her daughter to do all kinds of activities.

    • LOL, my grandmother didn’t need to force me to try any activities. In Communist China, if you are good at something, anything, you will be pushed into doing it for your school, your city, your country. In fact, Grandma was pissed that I had been drafted into athletics, since she didn’t want it to take too much time from my studies. The consequences of not acing your middle-school entrance exams were severe, whereas I was never going to be a great athlete in any case.

      The school put me into choir, track-and-field, and student government. Those things took up a ton of time. When I came to the States and realized that unless I volunteered, nobody would make me do anything, I became completely disengaged from any extracurricular activities. The same as parents who push their children really hard into activities of the parents choosing, only to have the children quit the moment the parents quit the pushing.

  10. Reading Ms. Thomas blog brought back memories of my childhood. I was also born and raised in China until I was 17 years old. I remember there was a big test to be taken by all the children in 6th grade, which would determine which high school they go to. There were more than one hundred high schools in the city. My goal was to get into one of the top 5 high schools. I remember crying all the way home after getting 98% 5 times in a row from my practice math test. It was important to get perfect score in math so I could have some room to offset the Chinese & English exam. I could not afford to loose even 1 point from math because there was no way to get perfect score in Chinese and English exams since there were essays involve. The pressure was tremendous.

    My parents were not the strictest but they had high expectations. That was what was driving me: to meet their expectations. Looking back as a parent now, I think it could turn out good or bad depend on the child’s personality. Their high expectation made me a very driven person, but it could turn out differently if I had a different temperament. You would never know.

    Even after coming to America, they still expected me to get straight “A”s in high school. English as a second language was not a good enough excuse. When I came home with an “A-“, my dad would ask what happen to the “A”. Just like Ms. Thomas’ grandmother. It was hilarious.

    • I remember my middle-school entrance exams. For the last three months of elementary school, we did nothing but Chinese, math, and science. I think some poor girl got so nervous on the day of the exam that she couldn’t take it. She had to go home.

      The systems in Asian countries are a shake-down system. The kids have to fight tooth-and-nail to get into the good schools and into universities. The system here is a push-up system, where they are trying to push all the kids up to the next level. It does produce a different mentality.

  11. Ms. Shua lost me when she reported that she’d called her children “garbage” when they didn’t live up to her expectations. However, I did get some use from the article–I read it to my 12-year-old son and he had to concede that I’m not the pushiest mom in the world.

  12. That IS harsh.

    Here’s my little anecdote. I still haven’t shown my kid the link yet but I did tell him, “Hey there’s this crazy Chinese lady who came up with this crazy article–”

    And he said, “Ah, I see Mom has been blogging again.”

    I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my perch.

  13. Hello! Coming to your blog from Pub Rants and saw this. I actually read Chua’s article at my (Chinese) parents’ reccomendation, and also found her smug tone extremely annoying. I think it particularly hit a nerve with me because I lived up to high parental expectations as a child, but then floundered in college, and now I’m wondering what to do with myself. Bad Chinese daughter, bad!

    But anyway, looking around the net, I think there’s a reason Chua was being so obnoxious in her essay. She was setting herself up to fall:

    “‘I was very surprised,’ she told the Chronicle’s Jeff Yang. ‘They didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.'”

    So now it makes me a little sad to see people dogpile on Chua. Mothers, what an abused demographic! Everyone thinks somenody else is doing it wrong. I’m gonna to stick to bickering with my own mom and ignore the rest.

    • Hi Leda,

      Thank you for pointing out my mistake.

      The WSJ journal gave not the slightest hint that there was going to be a journey involved. I thought her book was going to be a how-to manual filled with extreme methods and practices–and I felt it impossible for me to condone such a book by paying money to the publisher and the author. I didn’t even want to know that there would be other mothers studying up to be more like her.

      The truth is always a little different–or in this case, quite different.

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