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’?”
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!
Halmeoni: You have big eyes, a cute nose, and pretty lips.
Halmeoni: Except for all that fat on your face.
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?