We've long known that you can't judge a book by its cover. Now we must state that you shouldn't judge it by a sensational but out-of-context excerpt either.
Ever since the WSJ ran the excerpt from Amy Chua's new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother a few weeks ago, the blogosphere has been abuzz. Is she serious? Is she nuts? etc. etc. The paper reported that almost 6,000 comments came in to WSJ.com (it's probably more now), a new record. The excerpt depicted a very grim mother who never gave her a children a moment's rest from music practice, and never thought they were good enough. Well, sort of...even in the excerpt you can feel that Chua is poking fun at herself, and not writing a how-to manual but a memoir.
Chua must have said this a thousand times by now--"this is a memoir, not a how-to manual." She said it many times the other night in Berkeley, where I was part of the packed house for her interview/reading at the Hillside Club. If people choose to read the book in full, as I have, they will see this is true.
If the book were a how-to manual, then why would Chua have had such a tough time raising her second daughter Lulu? Lulu wanted to be her own person from the get-go--not the stereotypical "Chinese" daughter--and she's gotten her wish; no more grueling violin lessons, tennis it is. And if Chua were so callous and cruel toward her daughters, why would she forever be leaving sweet notes on their pillows and in their lunchboxes? In what I thought was one of the most touching passages, Chua acknowledges that she has a hard time being verbally loving, and so she uses these notes as a proxy.
I'm not saying Chua is a perfect parent, and neither would she. But that's not the point of the book. Here we have an individual person's story, warts and all. And that's all we have.
But, of course, the world doesn't work that way. Once a piece of writing--or any piece of art--is packaged and framed, its reception is no longer in control of the artist. (This is what Roland Barthes and George Lakoff were talking about.) And so we have Asian-Americans furious that Chua has reinforced some of the most persistent stereotypes; we have non Asian-Americans worried that they are coddling their own children too much; and we have general cultural anxiety that we are losing educational ground to China. This last is the most absurd--Chua is an American, born in Illinois to immigrant parents. If we're going to continue discussing Chua's writing in these terms, we should at least acknowledge that we're not talking about the book she's actually written.
All of this hub-bub has made me think back to my own childhood. Looking back, I had a great deal of autonomy for such a little pip-squeak. As long as my homework was finished it didn't matter when I did it (and thus, I often did it on the school bus the morning before it was due.) I could read whatever books I wanted, no matter how adult the themes. I could pursue my own interests without clearing them with my parents, a freedom that extended to college and my frequent change of major. My folks treated me as a little adult to the greatest extent possible, and I am very grateful for it.
On the other hand, the "Western" idea that "it's OK as long as you do your best" did seep a little too deeply into my bones. In tenth grade I studied geometry with a teacher whose honest-to-god name was Ms. Elvira Moscovici. I'd struggled when some basic geometric concepts were introduced in seventh grade (by Mr. Elwood Combs), so when tenth grade rolled around I convinced myself I just couldn't do it. And so the year rolled on--I ended up with a B and not an A, which was an unusual event.
At the end of the year I sat on the couch and looked back on what I had missed on tests throughout the year. I was trying to learn. In that frame of mind, I could tell instantly what the right answer should have been. It was obvious once I'd set my mind to it, and stopped psyching myself out.
If there is any wisdom in Chua's advice, it is to push your kids past the point where they would want to go naturally. Success in anything requires a combination of talent and persistence--and talent is usually easier to come by. You don't need to go as far as Chua, precipitating a full-throated rebellion once your child reaches 13. So yes, balance is the key. But that means that Chua's ways have some merit too.