What’s a Tiger Mother?

There’s been a ton of hoopla with regards to Amy Chua’s Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior piece, and a lot of backlash too. I have wrestled with writing a “tiger mother” piece myself, mostly because a few people have asked me about my experiences and my thoughts.

To which I respond, “What the fuck is a ‘tiger mother’?”

Not a Tiger Mother

On the left: a tiger mother?

Perhaps it’s the gross assumption that my own (presumably “Asian”) upbringing was similar that compels people to ask me. Certainly my mother was strict and had high expectations, but she was also wondrously supportive of my varied interests. She may have set standards that I (at that time) thought were unfair and RUINING my LIFE!, but she also knew I was human and not perfect.

In short, my mother was a damned good parent. The fact that she’s Korean is irrelevant.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s much you can take away from Chua’s piece in the Wall Street Journal. Her parenting styles are her own, and the fact that she’s Chinese is, again, irrelevant. She may have been parented that way herself, but does that mean she needs to parent her own children in that manner? No.

Certainly there are cultural differences between the East and West that contribute to differing approaches to a child’s self-esteem. A good example is commenting on physical appearance.

Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.”

I get comments about my weight all the time from both my mother and grandmother. I’m used to it, but then again, I’m also someone who doesn’t give a shit about it either. Were I a different person, it may have been more damaging to my self-esteem. But I’m also someone who doesn’t connect her appearance to her self-worth. I’m also pretty damned convinced of my own attractiveness.

So Mum and Halmeoni might rib me about gaining a little weight here and there, but they’ve also been free with their praise of my attractiveness, something I don’t know if Western parents do. Certainly my father doesn’t. (But then again, he is my father and I’m pretty certain he’d like to think of me as his little girl forever and ever amen and oh god, boys will find her pretty and I will have to beat them away with a shovel and aaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!)

Here’s a little gem from my grandmother.

Halmeoni: You’re so pretty!
JJ: :-)
Halmeoni: You have big eyes, a cute nose, and pretty lips.
JJ: :-D
Halmeoni: Except for all that fat on your face.
JJ: :-(

For my grandmother, commenting on my weight is the same as commenting on the clothes I’m wearing. It’s not a comment on my worth as a human being. In some ways, I think my self-esteem comes from this sort of raw honesty Mum and Halmeoni gifted me. I can examine my flaws without flinching.

But I also don’t deny I was the sort of child who was able to handle herself in this environment. My brother is another story. I find him bafflingly sensitive. He takes any sort of criticism as a reflection of his worth as a human being. He also cares–much more than his big sis–about what other people think. Did he and I have very similar upbringings? Yes and no. My parents are smart, you see, and they changed their parenting styles to suit each of their children. I was the sort of child for whom tough love works. My brother is not.

Did my brother and I suffer through the hours of piano/violin/what-have-you? Yes and no. I took piano lessons from age 4, but I also asked for them. I used to sit at my parents’ upright piano and pluck out tunes when I was very young. The first song I taught myself out how to play was “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. I played it all with the black keys. I asked my parents for piano lessons, and my mother advised me to wait a year, until I was 4.

Of course, I had to practice an hour every day. But no one was around to reinforce that rule either. My parents both worked full time and my grandmother mostly watched Korean television. I would dutifully set the kitchen timer to an hour and practice. Sometimes I cheated and squidged the hand along. But I was pretty self-motivated. When I decided to quit at 14, my parents didn’t force me to continue lessons. I still played anyway.

My brother briefly played the trumpet before moving on to the clarinet. Admittedly, both choices were influenced by my parents. My mother loves the clarinet; Dad played the trumpet (badly). My brother didn’t start playing until elementary school either. He took up the clarinet at my mother’s behest, and is actually very good. He likes playing the clarinet, but can be lazy about practice and has to prodded into it.

My parents set strict standards and rules, but they weren’t unreasonable. They expected good grades from us, but that was because both of us are gifted. I achieved straight As in school with little effort. Except when it came to physics. And math. Those took EFFORT. (Still got As. Not that I remember a single thing.) High expectations aren’t necessarily a bad thing; because they had high standards for me, I had them for myself.

Of course, my parents still had rules that were RUINING my LIFE. The chiefest of which involved the content of movies and books. I was not allowed to watch PG-13 moves until I was 13 years old, nor was I allowed to read mass-produced “trash”. This meant no BABYSITTERS CLUB, no GOOSEBUMPS, no BOXCAR CHILDREN, etc. This also meant I couldn’t watch Titanic in the theatres because I was 12, 12! (I still haven’t forgiven my parents for that one.)

But those things were, ultimately, trivial. My parents have done a fine job by me, I think. I may not be a Nobel Prize winner, a lawyer, or an engineer, but I am financially independent, in a stable relationship, and in a career that fulfills me. They should be proud of me, and are. Isn’t that all a parent, Asian or otherwise, ask for?

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11 Responses to What’s a Tiger Mother?

  1. Shannon LC Cate 21 Jan 2011 at 11:27 am #

    I had a “strict” upbringing. Which is to say that although my parents treated me with benign neglect much of the time, they expected me to do well in school and get into zero trouble. If I did slightly not well in school or got into teeny trouble, there was no mercy.
    I used to consider this a “southern” parenting style as my parents were from Arkansas, though they raised me in the midwest. Parenting styles are certainly influenced by culture and region and class and religion and all kinds of things, but “Western” versus “Chinese” seems a bit reductionist.

    I refuse to write my own piece about this woman because she is so counting on us all to shill for her book. But go you.

    For what it’s worth, I think your mother is adorable.

    • JJ 21 Jan 2011 at 11:49 am #

      My parents were stricter than some, less strict than others. The fact that one was white and the other Asian made no difference. I’m just tired of people making comments about it and asking my opinion of Amy Chua.

      My answer is, “The way she parents her children is her own business. It has no real bearing on anything.”

    • JJ 21 Jan 2011 at 11:50 am #

      And yes, I think my mother is adorable too. :) Adorable and awesome. You done good, Mum!

  2. Marie Lu 21 Jan 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Loved reading this! It’s interesting seeing your perspective on this topic, and I totally understand the slight annoyance of people asking you what you think about this just because you’re part Asian. I’ve gotten it a bit myself. I think the most important thing you pointed out is that you were also self-motivated. How a person turns out is always a combination of parenting and self-discipline. The strictest parent won’t be able to inspire a non-motivated child, and the laziest parent won’t be able to hold back a motivated child. You clearly had both–attentive and loving parents, and an innate desire to achieve.

    I had a more traditional, Chua-like upbringing, although my “tiger parents” weren’t quite as strict. I had my sleepovers and birthday parties, and while boyfriends were completely out of the question (and my mom cut my hair to look like a boy just to make sure I was *completely* unattractive to them), I at least had friends that were boys. Like you said, Chua’s parenting methods are her own. What she did, she did out of love for her children.

    Another important note in the controversy was that Amy Chua never approved the title WSJ chose for that article, nor the fact that they decided to excerpt the most controversial segments of her memoir. So really, the whole arguing-back-and-forth about whether Chua is right or wrong is really a moot point, especially considering that her memoir as a whole describes her transformation as a parent, not her advocating her earlier parenting style.

    • JJ 21 Jan 2011 at 2:25 pm #

      Chua’s early methods are extreme and I found most Asian parents to be on a spectrum anyway. I certainly had sleepovers, I had parts (major ones!) in school plays, I went to high school parties, etc. The boyfriend thing was sort of unnecessary when it came to me: I had no interest in boys, not to mention I went to an all-girls school.

      I’ve read some really great responses to the Chua piece from other people of Asian descent, one from Disgrasian and another on Jezebel.

    • Kristan 21 Jan 2011 at 4:13 pm #

      Marie, I couldn’t agree with your comment more.

      And JJ, I too have gotten asked about the article, and I was thinking of blogging about it (esp. in comparison with my mom and how I was raised) just like you did. I still might, although it feels less necessary now that so many people already have. Then again, I feel like the more voices and stories that come forward to “combat” this, the better. Like Jenny Zhang said in her Jezebel piece, Chua’s story is just that: a single story. I think it’s important to make people realize that.

      (Obviously I liked the Disgrasian and Jezebel links, thanks!)

  3. John Brewer 21 Jan 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    LOL. Trust me, being an engineer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! As you so state with the accuracy of Robin Hood’s bow, you are “… in a career that fulfills me.” Having lived for 20 years in the opposite of that, I’d say you are doing just fine where you are JJ. Keep up the good work and the informative, insightful, and entertaining posts. You might even find mine to be fun!

  4. Jay Banks 21 Jan 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    “The way she parents her children is her own business. It has no real bearing on anything.”

    That’s true but it was Amy who used this marketing tactic to promote her book so you can’t be surprised that people react to the practices she presents as a good way of bringing up children even though they are completely dangerous for their natural development.

  5. AC Gaughen 22 Jan 2011 at 1:27 am #

    I think there are two things going on with the sensationalism surrounding this woman’s story: first, there is the experience of one woman, which, I have to agree with JJ, is kind of irrelevant, because–if for no other reason–it’s discounting a huge host of other factors that make parenting the complexity that it is.

    Second, however, there’s a backlash to the reigning school of thought that kids need to be coddled and relentlessly encouraged–there’s something crazy I keep hearing about teachers not being able to use red pen because it’s too harsh. Here, at least, I see the value of her methodology (or at least the ensuing discussion) because I think personally, the best things I’ve accomplished, the things I hold most dear, were things that someone once told me I couldn’t have, wasn’t smart enough for, or didn’t deserve. Sometimes getting the short end of the stick makes you work incredibly hard.

    Then again, I also question whether that motivation could work if it was so all encompassing rather than focused in a few areas–like your example about your grandmother, you need to see the positives and the negatives or you’ll go bonkers.


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