Kim Wong Keltner's Tiger Babies Strike Back

Kim Wong Keltner's first nonfiction book, Tiger Babies Strike Back: How I Was Raised by a Tiger Mom but Could Not Be Turned to the Dark Side (William Morrow, 2013), is a playful but heartfelt and critical response to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book excerpted in the Wall Street Journal ("Why Chinese Mothers are Superior") that elicited heated discussion last year with its claim that Chinese mothers do it better (see reviews by pylduck and stephenhongsohn). And yes, there are references to The Empire Strikes Back and the Star Wars universe.

The memoir consists of 39 brief, anecdotal chapters reflecting on motherhood and Chinese American identity. As the title suggests, Keltner provides a response to Chua's claim that tiger mothers' tough love is an appropriate way to raise highly successful children. In contrast, Keltner insists on openly loving, praising, and caring for her daughter and cherishes qualities like emotional availability. The first few chapters are the most focused on criticizing the tiger mother mentality and her own mother's tough love. I thought these chapters were the least interesting, though, and the chapters that follow meander more thoughtfully through different aspects of her life as a creative person (going against the grain of tiger mother's expectations to be a highly successful doctor/lawyer/other sanctioned professional or at least staying home to take care of the parents). The one discussion of the effects of the tiger mother mentality that I found most provocative in later chapters was Keltner's suggestion that the suicides of Asian American (often women) are a result of being pushed too hard by parents and not loved enough.

Among the other topics Keltner addresses are how she got started writing by scribbling down reminiscences of her grandma Lucy during lunch break at work and between chores at home (she shares a few passage from her first novel, The Dim Sum of All Things, that were what these brief writings became); her decision, along with her husband Rolf, to leave San Francisco that had been her home for her entire life because of the pressures of city living; how she mothers her daughter Lucy; and what she finds valuable in her friends who are also mothers. Throughout, she also incorporates historical discussions of the Chinese in San Francisco (her own family on both sides has a long history in the city) and in Nevada City, California, the small mountain town where she relocates with her husband and daughter to escape the City. Nevada City was a booming gold rush town, and there were sizable numbers of Chinese men who lived and died in the town and region back in the 1800s and early 1900s though the contemporary population is mostly white.

I liked Keltner's discussion of her writing experiences and her engagements with Chinese American history. She relies a little to heavily on cultural claims throughout, though, like Chua does in tracing her tiger mothering approach to ancient Chinese tradition. While Keltner essentially opposes Chua's perspective, she nevertheless tends to explain Chinese immigrant and Chinese American habits and experiences through the amorphous idea of cultural traditions, even as she advocates for breaking from them. It would be nice to read a response to Chua's argument that is rooted more strongly in critiques of the history of the racialization of Chinese in America and in socioeconomic conditions that created Chinatowns and other sorts of geographically-bracketed spaces for Chinese Americans. All in all, I enjoyed the book and Keltner's humor. There are moments where her experiences as a Chinese American woman lend themselves to more extensive discussion of race, such as when she relates the story of how the lactation specialist came into her hospital room after the delivery of her daughter, unceremoniously pulled down her gown to expose her breasts, and said that she has "African American boobies."
  • Current Mood: accomplished accomplished