Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Spiritual Response to the Tiger Mother

Last night, I finished reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I started reading on Sunday. It was a quick read and interesting. Definitely "book club worthy" for those who are in book clubs looking for the next book to read (I'm sure the discussions about it will be interesting). I don't belong to a book club mostly because I don't trust other people's choices for books and I like reading what I like reading. When I decide on which books to read at any given time, I usually go by intuitive guidance. I have a huge backlog on the books I want to read (some have been sitting on my bookcases for YEARS).

Last week, I had attended Amy Chua's lecture and booksigning at Powell's City of Books in Portland. She made her case about why she's not as bad as the media made her out to be. After the lecture, I read my blog post about her last year when she was in the eye of the storm. Interesting, I thought, especially once I've read her book. My initial impression has been confirmed. Basically, the biggest problem with Amy Chua is that she exhibits all of the stereotypes of "Ivy League Elitist." In fact, in her book, she mentioned something that I had never heard before but it kind of makes sense. She said that she is a Chinese American who is married to a white Jewish man, which she claimed sounds "exotic" but was actually the majority in certain circles. Well, gee, what circle could that be? Maury Povich is married to Connie Chung. Les Moonves is married to Julie Chen (host of CBS' Big Brother reality show). Former Senator Phil Gramm is married to a lady of Asian heritage (Wendy Lee Gramm). Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is married (!) to the Secretary of Labor in the Baby Bush Administration (Elaine Chao). Though Gramm and McConnell aren't Jewish, they did marry Asian.

Another thing that irked me about Amy Chua's parenting style is that she wanted her daughters to play either the piano or the violin. Not the drums, because it supposedly leads to drugs and sex. But let's get real. The piano and violin are considered the instruments of the upper class. How many concertos, cantatas, recitals, and such are written for the piano and violin? In some telling episodes from the book, Amy made her daughters practice their chosen instruments for four to six hours each day. Even when the family went on European vacations, she would find music stores or hotel bars that allowed her to rent for a few hours so her daughters could practice every single day, sometimes early in the morning before they went out sightseeing AND upon returning to the hotel for the evening. When her eldest daughter won an opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, she invited everyone she knew to attend, and then felt disappointed that her daughter had to perform in a lesser hall and not the main one. She pushed her second daughter into applying for the Juilliard and bragged about it to others. When her daughter did not get accepted, she felt humiliated, while her daughter had to face questions of people if she ever heard back from the famous music / performing arts school.

If this was not crazy behaviour enough, how about this episode from her book? She had secured a meeting with a well known violin instructor, who lived on the other side of New York from them (they lived in Connecticut). She had borrowed five violins from a store to see which one to buy for her daughter, and took all five violins with them to meet with the instructor. Not only that, she also told her daughter's violin tutor to come along, offering to pay by the hour as well as the gasoline for the tutor (who had to drive her own car) for the three days. Her husband balked at such an expense, saying that it would mean cancelling their summer vacation.

Not only was the obsession over playing instruments, but also grades. When her daughter did not do well in math, she would drill her daughter in timed tests for hours on end until her daughter would be fast enough to be #1 in class. She expected her daughters to be ranked #1 in all subjects (except gym and drama). Only straight A's were acceptable. An A- doesn't count. She ended the idea of sleepovers when her older daughter came home from one unhappy because of the way the other girls acted (talking bad about a girl when she wasn't in the room, discussions about sex, gossiping about people, etc.).

Amy has her reasons to be strict on her daughters. In her belief system, she wants to drill discipline into her daughters so that they will be well-functioning adults. She writes much about Chinese parenting versus Western parenting, even though she had written a disclaimer in the beginning about stereotypes, acknowledging that there are many different parenting styles among "Western parents." Ultimately, though, her younger daughter Lulu rebels and the fights culminate in a public showdown at a restaurant in Moscow's Red Square when Lulu screams at her mother that she hates her, hates the violin, and hates that she was born into that family. The other diners were uncomfortable witnesses to the public breakdown of an American family. Amy wrote that she bolted out of the restaurant in tears, only to return later, having calmed down and willing to let her daughter give up the violin.

Amy admitted in her book that her husband and even her Chinese immigrant parents (who were just as strict on her as she was on her daughters) told her that she was being too restrictive on her daughters. Her mother told her that there was something wrong with Lulu's eyes. Its amazing that you can see in another person's eyes when they are not fully present. A change in demeanor. Lulu decided to play tennis and wanted her mother to stay out of it after catching her mother trying to find the right coaches for her.

As I read the book, one thing was clear throughout. Though Amy did not admit it within her pages, its quite obvious to any reader. Amy is a status seeker. She's the epitome of an "elitist." Though that word gets tossed around a bit, what it signifies is that special privileged class of people who go to the Ivy League schools and get the choice first jobs with big salaries, which allows them to afford homes in pricey Connecticut or apartments in Manhattan, to pay for tutors and private schools, to have enough free time to drive her daughters to recitals and rehearsals and tutors, and to travel the capital cities of Europe for vacations. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with this, but her story reads like a cliche about fitting in with high society through doing all the things that impresses the right people. In the end, what did it accomplish but make her daughter resentful?

She did not mention anything about her spiritual beliefs. Yes, she did mention joining her husband's Jewish faith and having a bat mitzvah for each daughter, but I got the sense that they are more secular Jews than anything else. The true religion was status. It was important for Amy to fit in among the elite. This soulless pursuit obviously led to a breakdown in Russia, when she realized she was in danger of losing her daughter for good. I've read that the suicide rate among teens in Japan and Korea are pretty high. The emphasis on grades and being #1 are creating monsters. Only one person can be #1, so the highly competitive view of life is just ridiculous. Not everything in life is meant to be a competition. What's more important is being authentic and doing things because you feel a passion for it. The worst thing is to pursue things that will increase your stature in the eyes of the elite you're trying to impress. You might fit in for awhile, but those people are not really your friends. Will they be there when you are struggling or facing some adversity?

Amy Chua seems to believe that through her sheer willpower, she can force her children into certain identities. She does not seem to believe that her daughters have souls of their own, with interests that they brought with them from the spiritual realm that might have nothing to do with her at all. For example, Lulu is passionate about tennis. At first, Amy did not want her daughters to pursue sports, but it wasn't surprising that she allowed Lulu to trade in a violin for a tennis racket. Tennis is the sport of the elite class. The wealthy academia literati that Amy is hoping to impress will be more interested in her tennis-playing daughter than they would be if she took up basketball. In her book, Amy did mention that she was glad that her daughter chose tennis instead of bowling. In her mind, bowling would be undignified. Its the "sport" of middle America: those people with overhanging stomachs and ugly clothing probably bought at K-Mart.

What would be my advice for the Tiger Mother? Get some spiritual depth! Get to know who your daughters are at their soul level of being. What did their souls come to earth for? What do they hope to accomplish? Stop perpetuating the stereotype of Asians being classical music and math / science nerds who get straight A's all the time and fight for first place in the class rankings. There is more to life than that. Yes, its important to have discipline and structure and goals in life. But sometimes, you can go a little too far for that and your soul ends up suffering.

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