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There has been a lot of controversy over this book, which is fair, because it is tangled up with very complex issues about race, class, gender, power, parenting, immigration and assimilation... there is a great deal going on below the surface of a text which also has a great deal going on on the surface, and it's also a deceptively quick and easy read.

On the surface, it's infuriating. This is a memoir, though possibly not a manifesto, describing Amy Chua's methods of parenting her two daughters. She describes her parenting as typical Chinese parenting, and continually contrasts it with a style of parenting she tags as typically Western. One thing that I have not seen many reviews mention is that within the first three pages of the book she states that she has seen parents of extremely diverse ethnic backgrounds following both models, but I for one am leery at the tagging of, well, anything as typical, most of the time. Especially when the things being described as typical are identical to the stereotypes about the subject.

Because Chua was incredibly strict. An A- was not an acceptable grade. Three hours of daily music practice was barely considered sufficient. Her daughters chose none of their own activities, did not do slumber parties, were called worthless and lazy and stupid when they didn't obey. Chua tells stories here about wrestling with her younger daughter at the piano, not letting her up for hours until the piece was perfect; she excerpts her notes for her daughters in which she tells them measure-by-measure what they are doing wrong in each piece of music and insists that the errors be gone the next time she hears it. This is very, very stereotypical stuff.

And yet, what is infuriating to me is not, entirely, the literal content of this book, the way Chua parents, though I am mad as hell about the language she considers acceptable to use to her children. What is infuriating to me is that she clings to the insistence that there is something uniquely Chinese about her parenting style every time she thinks she's gone too far. Because she knows perfectly well there are times she goes too far. She describes the feeling of sitting there, knowing her daughters at occasional moments outright hate her despite a usually loving relationship, and not knowing if that will continue, and knowing it is justified. But every time she thinks that sort of thing, she literally accuses herself of betraying her culture, of letting the side down. At one point she thinks something along the lines of 'my daughters disobeying me makes a mockery of four thousand years of civilization'. However, it is European composers she insists her girls study. She says outright that she thinks that Chinese culture has produced nothing to equal Beethoven's Ninth. The Chinese she insists her daughters learn is Mandarin, which is not what her family speaks.

This is an example of what stereotypes can do, when mixed with the dilemma of degree of assimilation. Because Chua has, obviously, a standard of success, and a clear and distinct definition of what success is. Success is, for example, playing at Carnegie Hall. Success is being successful at American things (there is a thing she says about gamelan players that is fucking insulting to the entire Indonesian concept of music, when she's trying to explain why she picked violin and piano for her girls). But she has to make them successful in a way she sees as Chinese. So whenever she's going too far, and things aren't working, and relationships are fraying, and it's obvious that she's wrong about something somewhere because they got a dog even though she could see no utilitarian value in it whatsoever and now not only does she love it but they have a second and are considering a third-- then she tells herself, this set of things is what Chinese parents do, and so it is what I am supposed to be doing. The stereotype is part of her own justification for the way she parents.

As she says outright, because this is an intelligent and occasionally introspective woman, she is the most stubborn at defending the things she knows to be most problematic.

That's why this book is called the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It's not meant to call anyone else to battle. It's a reassurance to herself, an attempt to answer the eternal question: did I do the right thing by my children? It is her own anthem.

And the thing is, the question of whether she did the right thing by her children is incredibly complex. Those measure-by-measure criticism notes? Are funny as hell. Loving, charming, and sweet. Her girls are by current standards incredibly high achievers, and in interviews state that they are happy, that they love her. She learned some flexibility with her younger daughter, when it was do so or break the relationship. And I remember, myself, very clearly how difficult it was for me when I hit college and no one had ever taught me how to do work I did not enjoy doing but that needed to be done. I still have trouble with that. I can't say that isn't a life skill you should teach your children.

But I am saddened and distressed that she sets up and uses this Chinese/Western dichotomy to help her maintain her confidence, because what kind of fucking world do we live in where that is a defense mechanism people reach for? Let alone a useful one? And the media and reviewers have run with it, absolutely run with it, a lot of them unquestioningly.

So that's my surface level of infuriated. There are others under that, but I don't feel like writing a screed about the entire concept of success and achievement as defined in popular culture, or one about the relations of class and gender, at this precise moment.

I highly recommend actually reading the book, because it will make you think about all those things, and because apart from [personal profile] sanguinity over at 50books_poc I have not read a single review of this yet that bore much relationship to the book I read. Also, as I said, it is occasionally funny, well-composed on a sentence-by-sentence level, and deceptively, simply, readable.


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March 2017

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