Monday, January 24, 2011

Ire of the Tiger

I’m still not quite over it. Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a.k.a “Tiger Mom” and I shared a tense moment Friday night at her book reading at Seattle’s Elliot Bay Book Company. Given her continued media coverage, perhaps your thoughts are lingering in tiger territory too.

First of all, I’m still not even sure what compelled me to attend the event, but I just had to go. I don’t know if I was expecting a train wreck or a Jerry Springer show or an Oprah confessional but what I was not anticipating was a mostly middle-aged, older (about half Asian, half white) smartly-dressed-with good haircuts overwhelmingly-sympathetic crowd. When Ms. Chua came out, she paused right in front of me (it was standing room only; I snagged a spot in front) for a few moments before walking to the podium, our auras intersecting. Awaiting a sense of revulsion, I instead felt drawn to her. I suddenly had this urge to tap her on the shoulder, give her a wink, a smile, even a hug. What’s the big deal? I thought. Why do so many people hate her? Petite, holding her head high, dressed in a red sweater, black mini skirt and pointy red and black shoes, she looked very much like a neighborhood mom on her way to work. Like someone I might have gone to college with or (gasp) even a close friend. On stage, she was self-deprecating and funny and the audience laughed at all of her jokes. I did too–- at first; feeling her pain when she told us that the Wall Street Journal had chosen an obnoxious, unfortunate headline and that all of the resulting vitriol was because her words had been taking out of context. She was misunderstood. Her text is a memoir, not some soapbox prescription for parenting.

So she did what any self-respecting author would do. She read from her book. “My story is a journey,” she told us, “writing this book was like family therapy. I’ve learned from my mistakes!” she said, flinging her tiny arms in the air with exasperation. Ms. Chua chose to read seven pages from the last chapter of Battle Hymn and this is when my emotions took a turn. In a matter of seconds my blood shifted from a happy mellow soup to a perturbed simmer and then into a hot, rolling boil. I wondered if I had anything suitable in my animal-print purse that I could throw at her.

Ms. Chua read a scene that takes place in a Russian restaurant during a family vacation where she bullies and berates her youngest daughter, then 13, into taking one bite of caviar. Astonishingly, the audience roared with laughter as she read.

“Do you know how sad and ashamed my parents would be if they saw this, Lulu—you publicly disobeying me? With that look on your face? You’re only hurting yourself. We’re in Russia, and you refuse to try caviar! You’re like a barbarian. And in case you think you’re a big rebel, you are completely ordinary. There is nothing more typical, more predictable, more common and low, than an American teenager who won’t try things. You’re boring, Lulu—boring.”
“Shut up,” said Lulu angrily.
“Don’t you dare say shut up to me. I’m your mother.” I hissed this, but still a few guests glanced over.
“I hate you. I HATE YOU.” This, from Lulu was not in a hiss.
“You don’t love me,” Lulu spat out. “You think you do, but you don’t. You just make me feel bad about myself every second. You’ve wrecked my life. I can’t stand to be around you. Is that what you want?”
A lump rose in my throat. Lulu saw it, but she went on.
“You’re a terrible mother. You’re selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. What—you can’t believe how ungrateful I am? After all you’ve done for me? Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.”

In an instant, everything that was wrong with my own childhood-- the Chinese mother-like terror, the threats, the verbal abuse over A- grades and swim races lost -- flashed in front of me. Lulu was now my heroine. I’d never had the guts to tell my mother how much I hated her, and now I felt the rage welling up inside of me. Even now, as a 40 year-old, I harbor so much resentment over my upbringing. Go Lulu go, I thought. Your mom is a mean, self-righteous bitch. She has Totally Wrecked Your Life.

Then the strangest thing happened. Someone in the back of the room collapsed. A few people knelt down around the collapsee; others stood back, annoyed. Ms. Chua held a fixed position at the podium with her arms crossed in front of her chest. A woman with a cane who was seated near me shouted “someone should call 911!” and I dug into my bag for my phone. The woman standing next to me saw what I was doing and hissed, “She’s old. I’m sure she just fainted because she was standing up too long. These things happen.” Oh, right. Sorry. I guess I missed the part about not helping old people at an Amy Chua event. Browbeaten into submission, my phone remained untouched.

A few minutes later, with the old woman in question hydrated and revived, Ms. Chua continued her reading. The scene ends with her daughter Lulu smashing class in the Russian restaurant and Tiger Mom running through Red Square. She returns later and says to her daughter “You win. It’s over. We’re giving up the violin.” This is the big cathartic moment. As Ms. Chua read these last words she looked around the room as if to say, “see, I’ve changed. I let my daughter win the battle. This is what the whole book is about.”

I shifted uncomfortably against the table behind me, horrified.

Ms. Chua began to take questions and a few people began to leave. Part of me hoped that their exits were due to the fact that they were just as disgusted as I was, but it could have had more to do with the fact that the room was hot or they were bored or had to get home to feed the dog. It’s Seattle, land of the passive-aggressive, so I guess I’ll never know.

The Q & A did nothing to reduce my temper. Chua took the opportunity to further tout the benefits of Chinese parenting and hard-working immigrant work ethics, railing against ‘Western’ values, like “coddling one’s children” or “focusing on self esteem.”

I raised my hand. “How can you make these broad generalization about Western parenting vs. Chinese parenting?” I asked. “I have a Chinese mother and there haven’t been any immigrants in my family for several generations.”

Chua was disarmed only slightly by my ‘Chinese mother’ comment. It’s fairly obvious from my appearance that I’m not a Chinese descendant.

“I clearly state this in chapter 1,” she responded, annoyed, “weren’t you here when I read from chapter 1?”

I nodded. I did hear her description of how she was using Chinese and Western parenting “loosely,” as she wrote (and I have since read the actual chapter), but still found it to be totally judgmental, stereotypical and racist. I guess that was my real question: how can you be such a blatant racist? How can you be so rude and mean?

Chua looked around the room for some friendly faces, as if to say, this stupid woman in the tan sweater on my left, she doesn’t get it, does she? “I’m an academic,” she said, looking me in the eye. “This is what we do. We come up with a term for something and use that description throughout our texts. I’m just so surprised that I have to keep defending my footnotes.” There were a few chuckles from around the room.

My voice began to crack. “You’ve said that people have written to you and said that they are scarred for life due to this style of parenting. What’s your response?” I asked.

“I really can’t say,” she shrugged. “I don’t know the particulars of each family. Perhaps there is some mental illness.” Later, she talked about her Chinese father, a “black sheep” in his family because he rebelled against his parents by pursuing “creative” endeavors. He immigrated to America and never spoke to his family again. Scarred for life, I assumed.

Other audience members spoke. One was a woman of Chinese descent who said, “I really identify with you (to which Chua responded with “Thank you! At least someone does!!”) before explaining that she has two special needs children and that this kind of parenting doesn’t work with her kids. Chua told us about her sister with Downs Syndrome and how her mother worked with her relentlessly, drilling multiplication tables. Today the sister happily works at WalMart. Another woman in the back said that she was a “type A person, very successful in everything I do” but that she completely lacked creativity and couldn’t think out of the box. Chua’s response: “I think there have been some books written about creativity. Maybe you should read them.” It went on like this for almost an hour.

In the end, I had more questions than answers. Why does Chua think she’s learned from her mistakes if no mistakes were actually made? Why is she so convinced that her methods represent love even though she says the word "love" isn't actually used in her family? How does she sleep at night? Why does my (Western, Texan) husband, with his two advanced degrees and incredible work ethic, call his parents every Sunday and talk for an hour whereas I cringe every time I see “Mom” on my caller ID? Why am I so bothered by Amy Chua? Why do I even care? I tortured myself by thinking about all of the mean things that my mother has ever said to me -- and me to my own children -- and wondered if I might be a Tiger Mom myself.

I suppose if I were a Tiger Parenting "success story" I would suck it up and recognize the "tough love" for what it is. I would appreciate the criticism and thank my parents for pushing me beyond my limits. According to Chua, "the proof of the superiority of Chinese parenting is how the children end up feeling about their parents" and I knew in my heart that nearly everyone in the room at Elliot Bay would have absolutely no sympathy for the wimp that I was as a child or perhaps the wimp that I will always be.

There’s a scene in the American Girl Movie “Chrissa Stands Strong” that I've watched multiple times with my 8 year-old daughter, when the art teacher (played by Jennifer Tilly) explains to Chrissa that bullies bully because they’re really insecure and by putting other people down they can feel better about themselves. Given the recent attention on kids and bullying, we also know that bullies learn from other bullies. Not that long ago, when my Grandmother was still alive, my mom and I paid her a visit. She looked up at my mother from her wheel chair and exclaimed “Your hair looks gawd awful! And that’s a really doggy looking outfit.” My mom’s response: “At least I’m not in assisted living!”

So, I guess, it takes one to know one. My mom, my grandmother, her mother and grandmother perhaps -- and yes, I have to include myself in here as well -- we’re all insecure, self-loathing wimp/bullies. Mean, bitchy Tiger Moms.

On the drive home, I turned on the radio. It was an NPR re-run, an interview with Karen Armstrong, author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. "There's a mood of despair around, whether we're Easterners or Westerners," Armstrong said. "And despair is a dangerous thing, because once people lose hope, they can resort to extreme measures."

Armstrong goes on to say that compassion isn't an easy or popular virtue. "People often prefer to be right," she says.

The last line of Battle Hymn reads "Lulu will plug her ears, and we'll fight, but I'll have gotten my message out, and I know she knows I'm right."

I was going to end here with a line about how I'm right about Amy Chua but that would be a little too ironic. So instead I'll just say that I'm looking forward to reading Battle Hymn in its entirely, in addition to Twelve Steps.


Liz said...

Thank you for this lively and well-reasoned blog post. Personally, I don't think I could have gone to this event and remained as calm as you did; in fact, I don't think I could have gone at all.

As someone who cares deeply about young people (and has built part of her career on telling students and young adults to go easier on themselves), I find Amy Chua's message positively frightening. Good for you for asking her the bold questions!

Michelle @PowerfulHER said...

Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I know many of us are baffled by Amy Chua. So many questions: Is she pure evil? Is she sorry? Why is so sure she is right?! And more questions just keep emerging as she tries to quell them with her footnotes. Ha!

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD said...

Thanks for this! A great story and heartfelt reaction. I missed the event--just couldn't bring myself to go (even though I should have). Your post is helpful to me, your energy and passion clear. And your fortitude applauded...
The national response to her calculated and eager book is much more interesting than anything Amy has to say, I think. Working on a post right now.

Wendy Sue Swanson

Anonymous said...

This lady sounds like a tyrant...saying she's learned from her mistakes is a very weak cover for abusing her own children. I guess she is more confirmation that academics can have very little clue what is taking place in the real world, and especially how to live sensibly.

Allison Ellis said...

Thank you all so much for your comments. This was tough post to write; I'm still so baffled by Amy Chua and have been trying to make sense of her pronouncements. That said, it's been an eye-opening experience, one that I will not soon forget.

Eisley Jacobs said...

Wow... Like you, I think I would have been drawn to the event as well and stood there in awe of such a woman. Just reading this I can sense your anger (or is that my anger??) and wonderment on who this woman thinks she is.

And you are right... it makes us take a step back and wonder if we are Tiger Moms... and hope for our children's sake we figure it out before we create marks they identify as scars later.

Good post. No, great post.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

Good post, Allison--and a brave one to write. The whole idea of having to be the best at everything is so ridiculous. And it's mostly pointless. There are so many other ways to change the world for the better. It's hard when you've been raised in this sort of crucible to resist the pressure. We all fall back to what we know when we're scared. Having some awareness of the unpleasant tiger potential many of us have is the best first step in avoiding it, eh?

Anonymous said...

More thoughts on this subject of how to best raising children.

The Tiger Mother versus Cost-Benefit Analysis