Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Those who know me will not be surprised that my favorite parts of Amy Chua's memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (The Penguin Press, 2011) were the chapters about her samoyeds (big poofy white dogs!) Coco and Pushkin. I think perhaps I will need to take on as a research project an analysis of the dog memoir as a genre--so many books to read! I really wanted to like Chua's memoir because I had read her first book, The World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2002), and found her analysis of globalization to be fascinating, exploring the effects of free market democracy ideology on local and national contexts around the world. Her argument there, thoroughly supported by historical, economic, and political evidence from a few key examples of ethnic strife, radically challenged the paradigms of globalization discourse by exploring how class issues articulate to ethnic difference and historical conditions of segregation.

Generate your own Tiger Mother macro.

Alas, I can't say that I liked Chua's memoir as a whole, in large part because of the utter lack of evidence she brings to the bold claims about "Chinese" versus "Western" parenting practices and the psychology of child rearing. I thought that she would carry over her legal studies training and produce a memoir richly dense and informed with material from a range of rigorous studies, but instead she just spouts off her claims with paltry evidence of the anecdotal or personal experience variety. This was the way it worked in my family and thus must be true and best. In terms of writing, Chua affects a kind of analytical prose, often laying out first, second, and third points that she wants to make about parenting practices. These passages worked least well for me.

This memoir of the uber-high-achieving "Chinese mother" and her child rearing philosophy has been talked about ad nauseum in Asian American online circles but also to some extent in the mainstream press and amongst a wider audience because of an excerpt published as an article in the Wall Street Journal and provocatively-titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." Though I agree that the excerpt perhaps frames the memoir in a way that is not authentic to the narrative purpose of the memoir--the excerpt reads like a "how to parent like a Chinese mother" book while the memoir is a reflection on the experience of implementing such a parenting method (including its failures)--the book itself is not really as nuanced as I had thought it might be given Jeff Yang's attempt to rehabilitate Chua after all the controversy (see link below). Chua doesn't really end up deconstructing the strict parenting style she has employed with her daughters, but more damning for a memoir, she doesn't really end up reflecting on its impact on herself, her daughters, and her family as a whole in a way that moves beyond superficial acknowledgement that her strict parenting style might be too extreme and require some tempering.

There are some great critiques floating out there already about the consequences of the WSJ excerpt for Asian Americans at large (especially children of immigrant parents--see links below). The critiques people extend usually focus on the relationship between the text as an articulation of particular Orientalist ideologies and the material realities of a much more heterogenous Asian American population. I agree with those critiques in terms of what is problematic about Chua's memoir. I want to focus a bit, though, on what it means to read Chua's memoir in the context of Asian American literature and cultural production. That is, how does it work as a text and is it pleasurable and/or productive to read beyond extracting the ideas and ideologies it espouses?

As I suggested above, my answer is unfortunately no. At the level of cultural analysis, something Chua seemed to do well at least in her first book, the memoir is thin in its argumentation. More dangerously, as others have noted, Chua traffics un-selfconsiously and as if unproblematically with cultural stereotypes of the model minority Asian. (Of note here is that she offers as a citation in the back of her book Grace Wang's article in American Quarterly about Asian Americans in classical music but doesn't underscore Wang's own point about the way such valuing of classical music education in Asian and Asian immigrant families is a function of class concerns rather than simply a transhistorical, racial aptitude.) She celebrates high achievement, willing to assert that it isn't really an innate racial characteristic, but then doing little to address what it means for Asians to be seen as model minorities and how she contributes to the problems the stereotype causes.

At a certain point in the memoir, Chua name checks Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Jung Chang as authors of multi-generational mother-daughter narratives that she herself would've liked to write. As a young woman disillusioned with the corporate law world she had entered, she had wanted to write an epic novel of her own, but given little inclination for fiction writing, she turned to legal research that resulted in law review articles and The World on Fire. This throwaway moment of referencing other Chinese American mother-daughter stories is perhaps indicative of Chua's decidedly un-literary text. There is little self-reflection in this moment about the complexities of those three authors and the radically different kinds of narratives they spin about mother-daughter relationships. The collapsing of all narratives into takeaway points (like the enumerated points of her argumentative passages and the bullet points she offers at the beginning of the memoir) and a lack of inhabiting those narratives as they unfold through character development and figurative language is what is so flat about her discussion of Chinese mothers versus Western ones.

There are a few narrative threads in the memoir, and part of the failure of the book is that the threads don't coalesce--the main threads are of course about Chua's relationships with Sophia (the elder daughter and the obedient one) and Lulu (the younger and rebellious one), especially concerning her drilling of their practice of the piano and violin for recitals, competitions, and auditions. But there is also a thread dealing with the contrast between Chinese and Jewish cultures brought together by her Chinese side of the family and her husband's (secular) Jewish side. And then there are the particularly out-of-place chapters about the dogs, included according to Chua as evidence that even she, a self-professed ideal Chinese mother, is not quite perfect since Chinese people don't see dogs as pet (but as food instead!). And finally, in the last third of the memoir, a poignant thread emerges about Chua's younger sister Katrin's diagnosis with aggressive leukemia and her subsequent treatment. That narrative explodes on the pages briefly and then disappears. The coda of the memoir attempts to make sense of these different threads, even noting that in the process of revision that many other sections were cut (such as much of her writing about her husband), but ultimately has no clear sense of what they all do together.

All of this criticism aside, part of me kept wanting to read the memoir as a tongue-in-cheek description of being a Chinese mother. In parts, I kept thinking (hoping?) that Chua would reveal her whole enterprise to be a sham or a failure. I thought there were moments where a much more self-aware, more self-reflective narrative voice might peek out and wink at the reader, acknowledging the absurdity of upholding a Chinese/Western dichotomy or the dangers of inhabiting the model minority stereotype without a sense of immanent critique. This revelation never comes, unfortunately.

I might also note that aside from the passages describing her dogs (I may be biased there), the best writing in the book actually comes in an excerpt of a school essay titled "Conquering Juliet" by Chua's daughter Sophia about her experience of learning to play Prokofiev's "Juliet as a Young Girl," which beautifully captures in an expository, autobiographical essay the highly metaphorical and emotional experience of learning to play classical music in a way that accesses the complexities of the notes. Her self-reflectiveness in this essay is downright poetic: "Romeo's character was always easier for me to understand. I'm not sure why; it definitely wasn't real-life inspiration. Maybe I just felt bad for him. Obviously he was doomed, and he was so hopelessly besotted with Juliet. The slightest hint of her theme had him begging on his knees."

I may be beating a hasty retreat back to my no-memoirs policy unless the memoirist is a poet/novelist/literary type (next up: Leslie Marmon Silko's new book!). I was hopeful that Chua's writing may reflect the analytical brilliance of her one-time Yale Law School colleague Kenji Yoshino whose Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights convinced me to start reading memoirs again. It helped that Yoshino is a closet poet, a lover of language.

Here are a few of the online responses to Chua's article/book:

- Jeff Yang's "Mother, Superior?": noted Asian American cultural critic talks to Chua about the fallout over the WSJ article

- erin Khue Ninh's "Amy Chua's Recipe for Disaster and the Externalized Cost of Book Sales": literary/cultural critic Ninh offers a response to the lingering consequences of the WSJ excerpt

- Sophia Chua-Rubenfield's "Why I love my strict Chinese mom": Chua's eldest daughter offers her take on growing up under the Tiger Mother's claws

- Tenured Radical's "Battle Hymn of the Queer Tiger Aunt: Or, How Amy Chua Made Me Think About Feminism": a call to question the obsession with mothering ideology and what it means for feminism

- May-lee Chai's "Mother Tiger Trope Masks Class Privilege": author Chai tackles the unquestioned class privilege that operates in Chua's modeling of "Chinese parenting"

- Yuko Fukami's "Amy Chua Talks About Misperception of Her 'Tiger Mother' Book": article about Chua's appearance in Berkeley to talk about her book's reception
  • Current Mood: disappointed disappointed
thanks for an unblinking, level-headed kind of deconstruction, a thousand per cent more devastating than others.
i remember one among the harvard chattering classes i count as business acquaintances explaining to me that all the 40 year old trophy wives, too ancient to conceive their own babies, were all planning to adopt chinese babies. here she whispered, Because they're smarter.
as in, smarter than crack babies.

Edited at 2011-01-24 06:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, there's so much wrong with that idea--I've hung around a number of Korean transnational adoptees and have heard the conversations in transnational adoptee issues. That idea that Asian babies are safer, smarter, cleaner, etc. is soooooooo problematic. But it's probably an important part of the logic that drives so many white American parents to adopt from Asia rather than domestically (though the often given reason is time).
it is appalling. just reading in the nyt about the death, at 20, of congenital AIDS, the mixed african-american race child, the first adopted by a gay couple in d.c. naturally the obit painted his life as radiant; but i think it probably was radiantish.
i remember going to the dupont circle farmers' market and seeing loads of gay couples with -- locally grown babies in strollers.
not to say that all orphans don't deserve devoted parents.
I'm so glad you reviewed this, and I love the sound of that embedded school essay. I am a big memoir fan, but I understand why you'd be wary of them -- often, I think it's publishers who don't let the story get beyond the genre trappings. But I guess that's no excuse.
In Chua's case, I think it's totally a function of editorial/marketing pressures that have formed the book as it is. I believe Chua when she says that she was aiming for humor and an unreliable narrator, but there are so many other moments where the passages get framed more straightforwardly. I'm sure her publisher wanted that memoir about how Chinese parents are superior, with no hint of irony or self-critique.
Love the Tiger Mom macros.
I'd like to add this to the link roundup:

I really enjoyed Tenured Radical's take on Battle Hymn, as well as the link to the LA Times article about why everyone is obsessed about Amy Chua. I do think that a major reason is that frankly, there are so many issues in her memoir that she touches upon briefly, but skims over, leaving readers with so much potential material to deconstruct. Race, class, gender, parenting, societal values, culture, immigration, feminism, etc. Basically, her book is like a literary Rorschach test, and readers project their strongest feelings onto it while giving commentary. This is probably the genius of the book, or at least the genius in its marketing.
It's funny cuz it's true! I love that post! Amy Chua is the Panda Express of Chinese Moms! :D
I read the Jeff Yang article too and was hoping that Chua's book really would be more self-reflective than the WSJ excerpt made it out to be. But from the sound of this review, I don't know if it's worth reading, and I'd hate to add to her sales numbers.