Book Talk: *Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother*, by Amy Chua

This week, I’m posting the final two reviews of the Indie Lit Awards Biography/Memoir short list contenders.

(Also: Have you entered my Blogiversary Giveaway?)

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Amy Chua (Facebook) (Twitter)
read by the author
Penguin (Non-Classics) (2011), Reprint, paperback (ISBN 0143120581 / 9780143120582)
Nonfiction (memoir/parenting), 256 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (Audible ASIN B004INSU48)
Reason for reading: Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir) RUNNER-UP, Audiobook Challenge 2012, Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Opening lines: “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It’s also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.
This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: At once provocative and laugh-out-loud funny, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother set off a global parenting debate with its story of one mother’s journey in strict parenting. Amy Chua argues that Western parenting tries to respect and nurture children’s individuality, while Chinese parents typically believe that arming children with skills, strong work habits, and inner confidence prepares them best for the future. Achingly honest and profoundly challenging, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother chronicles Chua’s iron-willed decision to raise her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, the Chinese way-and the remarkable, sometimes heartbreaking results her choice inspires.

Comments: The very nature of memoir sometimes makes it challenging to evaluate the story being told and not the person telling that story. Amy Chua makes it especially challenging with her parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; particularly in the audio version, which she reads herself, she seems quite aware that she’s opening herself to a lot of potentially negative personal judgment. But she doesn’t seem entirely uncomfortable with that, either; as an attorney and law professor, as well as a mother, Chua is likely well acquainted with both passing judgment and being subjected to it.

The original premise that led Chua to write ...Tiger Mother–that Chinese mothering practices are better than “Western” ones–is a pretty judgmental one, and if the book stuck to it more closely, it might have been judged even more harshly than it was by some readers. But along the way, it develops into a much more personal story–one that contains many revealing, unflattering details undermining that original premise, and that allowed me to feel more empathy for Chua and her daughters, even when I vehemently disagreed with her.

Chua’s generalizations of differences between “Chinese” and “Western” parenting are sometimes on target, but they’re often irritating–and I’d suggest that what she calls “Chinese” parenting (and acknowledges is not strictly confined to that particular ethnic group) could just as well be described as “old world.” Some aspects of what she talks about reminded me of the way I was brought up; my parents came from European immigrant stock, but as first- and second-generation Americans, they weren’t that far removed from older traditions yet. (And in all honesty, I may be part of the last generation whose parents really didn’t seek out or subscribe to much “parenting” theory; they just raised their kids.) Emphasizing hard work leading to achievement, deferring to authority figures, and not involving children in decisions that directly affect them are pretty traditional concepts.

On the other hand, some aspects of what Chua talks about strongly resemble the very modern Western concept of “helicopter” parenting–and given that she had a busy career while raising her children, I’m oddly impressed that she had time to be as deeply involved in some aspects of her daughers’ lives as she was. I was particularly struck by the amount of time she spent on the girls’ music practice, studying their pieces herself and giving them practice notes…which is one area where I felt that she really went overboard (and if she were a professional musician with her own expertise to share, I’d have seen it differently). I was also a bit frustrated by how long it seemed to take her to understand that her daughters actually were different people; it was apparent to me that some of their differences–from each other, and in how they behaved within the family–may have correlated to birth-order roles, but that didn’t even come up for discussion until very late in the book.

Despite my issues, I enjoyed ...Tiger Mother and found it surprisingly engaging. It’s very funny in spots, and while I didn’t find Amy Chua entirely likable, I developed a grudging respect for her and her eventual development of self-awareness. And her daughters come across quite well, which makes it hard to argue with the results of Tiger Mothering.

Rating: 4/5
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