Tiger Moms: The Benefits of Eating Bitterness

A Western mother sending her children to public school in Shanghai comes down firmly on both sides of the debate about author Amy Chua and Tiger Moms.
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A Western mother sending her children to public school in Shanghai comes down firmly on both sides of the debate about author Amy Chua and Tiger Moms.

Over the past weeks, since the publication of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the ongoing, ever-intensifying debate about China’s rise and American decline has reached fever pitch.

The excerpt that ran in The Wall Street Journal has now received more than 7,500 comments, more than any other article in the history of WSJ.com. Reviews, interviews and commentary are everywhere, and the book made it to No. 3 on the Amazon best-seller list. In their outrage most reviewers have ignored the fact that the book is extremely well written. Battle Hymn conveys a tone of deadpan self-mockery that is laugh-out-loud funny and, instead of being preachy, is riddled with self-doubt.

I loved the book. As a Western mother living in Shanghai and sending my kids to a local Chinese school, for some time, I have been thinking about the contentious issue of cultural differences in parenting styles that Chua bravely raises.

Her main point is that culture matters. Those familiar with her work will recognize the theme. “Ethnicity,” she writes, is “my favorite thing to talk about.” Battle Hymn can be read as a companion to her first book World on Fire, which focuses on the market domination of ethnic minorities — Chinese in Southeast Asia, Jews in Russia, Ibos in Nigeria, etc. — in order to explore the relationship between ethnicity and achievement as well as the ethnic hatred that such achievement spawns.

When talking about parenting, Chua is careful to qualify her comments on the differences between Western and Chinese culture. There are, she writes, “same-sex parents, Orthodox Jewish parents, single parents, ex-hippie parents, investment banker parents and military parents. None of these ‘Western’ parents necessarily see eye to eye.” There are also white working-class fathers as well as Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who all qualify as Chinese mothers. “You could be a Chinese mother,” Chua told Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.

There are also many ethnically Chinese parents who are not “Chinese mothers.” Chua writes that these are mostly born in the West, but — as the response to Battle Hymn has made clear — there is a growing backlash against Tiger Moms within China, especially among the upper classes. Just as many Americans suspect they should become more Chinese, many Chinese are questioning the stifling strictness of their parenting style.

Just before the Chinese New Year, for example, The New York Times reported on an official in Hebei province who released a 32-point "play plan" to get kids to stop studying and have some fun during the holiday. Most of the Chinese parents I know in Shanghai are eagerly becoming more Western.

Still, as anyone immersed in Chinese culture realizes, substantial cultural differences exist. ”Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes,” writes Chua, “there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.”

One of the most striking elements of Chinese culture — and, for many, the most unnerving part of Battle Hymn — is the absolute value placed on grueling, often monotonous, hard work. In China, even elementary schools expect between two to three hours of homework a night. The ability to endure this hardship — the Chinese call it “chi ku” (eating bitterness) — is one of the most highly valued virtues. In China, a spoiled kid is described as “pa ku, pa lei” being afraid of bitter, tiring work.

The notion that learning should be fun is a very Western idea.

“Everything valuable and worthwhile is difficult,” Chua yells at her daughter, expressing the typical Chinese belief. Westerners assume that being good at something means that it comes easily, most Chinese think that being good at something is the result of relentless hard work.

In China, therefore, little weight is given to the idea of natural talent and the contribution of genes is regularly dismissed. Chua herself pays little heed to her own daughter’s remarkable genetic inheritance. As National Review’s Charles Murray points out, Chua graduated from Harvard, she and her husband are both professors at Yale, and her father — the children’s grandfather — is famous for his work in nonlinear circuit theory and cellular neural networks. It’s hardly surprising her children are smart.

The provocative aspect of this deep appreciation of hard work is the implicit accusation that Western-style parenting is lazy, indulgent and soft. To a certain extent this is undoubtedly true. The demands on a Chinese mother are severe. Personally, l readily admit that, at least sometimes, my kids are left to play on their own (just as Chua suspects) so I can “enjoy a glass of wine and go to a yoga class.” Ayelet Waldman’s spoof of Chua in the Wall Street Journal is titled “In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom.”

Yet Chua also recognizes that Westerner’s lax parenting style is rooted in a particular understanding of childhood. “I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest in the future,” writes Chua. She contrasts this with the more joyful attitude of her Jewish mother-in-law, who treasured happiness and saw “childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed.”

Even amongst Chinese mothers, Chua is clearly a fanatic. Yet, what is most unnerving about Battle Hymn is the suspicion that her lunacy is justified.

Chua is surely correct that true self-confidence only comes with the discipline it takes to excel. The best defense of Battle Hymn came in the form of an open letter by Chua’s oldest daughter Sophia, titled “Why I love my strict Chinese Mom.” “We all desire to live a meaningful life,” Sophia writes. Part of that is “knowing that you’ve pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential. If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent."

It’s probably true that kids who aren’t disciplined are bored and that most, given the choice to follow their passion, would spend the whole day playing video games. As Stephen Colbert told Chua, American mothers “think you’re wrong but secretly think you might be right.”

As a Westerner living in China, I find this confusion particularly acute. “Chinese mothers” are deeply admirable and, at the same time, limited in fundamental ways.

One of the most troubling aspects of raising kids in China is that the intense emphasis on hard work comes with a deep, obsessive competitiveness. Ask a Shanghai parent how their kids are doing, and they almost always respond with a list of rankings and awards. Chua is typically candid about this. Her choice of the violin for her second daughter — rather than the gamelan gong as her mother-in-law suggests — is based in the fact that she “fetishizes difficulty and accomplishment,” likes clear goals and “clear ways of measuring success.” She chose the Suzuki method because “the bottom line is that some kids go through the Suzuki books much faster than others.”

This extreme competitiveness explains why all the activities Chua insists on are done solo. Gold medals mean most when they are won on your own. Yet, in fiercely denying any activity that involves collectivity — sports or plays for example — the Tiger Mom denies precisely what many believe matters most.

Chua gives awful parenting advice, writes one blogger, since group activities — which teach people to work together and can foster leadership skills — matter far more than solo activities like piano or violin.

Indeed, mainland Chinese are notoriously bad at teamwork. Thirty years after Reform and Opening, many Chinese companies still bring in their top managers from outside. Success everywhere rests more on mastering social dynamics than on any particular intelligence or skill and yet, the fine — and sometimes vicious — art of socializing plays almost no part in Chua’s childhood training.

“What I used to dread most,” writes Chua, “was when other parents invited [us] over for a playdate. Why why why this terrible Western institution?” In protecting her daughters from the intricacies of social life, argues columnist David Brooks, Chua has shielded her daughters from the most difficult childhood lesson of all.

The fear that motivates Chua is generational decline. The “three generation rule” she worries about is well known in China. Here, too, it is often discussed with relation to immigrant life. Today’s China is host to a vast internal migration as millions transition from rural to urban life. Many are concerned that while China’s first-generation migrants are good at eating bitterness (they work extremely hard often under very harsh conditions), their own children or children’s children seem “soft and entitled.”

These second- and third-generation migrants have begun to protest their situation. Their discontent, ultimately, is a vital challenge to the Chinese state.

Many Westerners, especially Americans, view this rebelliousness in a positive light. This type of reader will think Sophia “the good daughter” right in suspecting that Lulu, the younger and more defiant child, is the real heroine of the book. There are, of course, dangers in valorizing the rebel — disrespect, violence and failure among them. But China’s creative deficit is also bred from the fact that it has too few who subvert authority. Innovation, as everyone knows, rests on the willingness to color outside the lines.

Chua worries that those who are overindulged will turn out be “losers,” but what really does that mean?

For me, the most alien aspect of the “Chinese mother” is that while most people’s lives are governed by random chance, they approach their children with the seemingly unquestioning presumption that they know exactly what the future will bring. Many Chinese have a clear idea about their child’s ideal career path almost from birth. Most have an almost total lack of flexibility in their notion of success. I have Chinese-American students who battle their parents over the choice to major in marketing rather than finance. Still, it is China that is on the rise …

Despite what her critics say, Chua does not preach or presume to know that the Chinese mother is always right. Her memoir is plagued with uncertainty. In this way, Battle Hymn raises fundamental and difficult questions. What is the right style of parenting? What do we want for our kids? What counts as a successful life? Most would concur with Chua’s conclusion that the ideal is some balance between Chinese and Western styles. But mediating deep cultural differences is an extremely difficult task. In forcing us to think and talk about these issues Chua has helped us take a necessary step.