Thursday, January 27, 2011

Finally read the book

Last week, during a snow day, my oldest daughter Ling-Ling read all of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and really enjoyed it. I finally finished it this afternoon, on yet another snow day, while taking Ling to her physical--the same physical I forgot to take her to last week because, yes, it was a snow day.

To my annoyance, Ling kept reading over my shoulder, saying things like, “Oh, this chapter gets sad,” and “This chapter is funny and. . .”

“Uh Uh Uh!” I said while pretending to slap her face, “Shh, quiet! You’re ruining it for me!”

But she kept going until I threatened to take something precious away and the pediatrician finally walked in the door. This is why I needed my own copy of Harry Potter 7. My kids have the leisure to read Amy Chua or Harry Potter, while I cook, shop, work and keep the family going.

All to say, I’m clearly a Western mother.

So here are my quick responses to the book:

1. I really liked it. I laughed out loud. I stayed engaged. All my outrage was already spent on Chua’s WSJ article, so I just enjoyed the ride. Chua is funny, self-deprecating, brutally honest about her own foibles and clearly slightly (or even majorly) crazy. But the whole point of self-deprecating memoir writing is to bare one’s soul so that readers know we’re crazy. You, the public, are supposed to laugh knowingly along with us.

2. I loved the insider jokes, ones most likely only other Chinese/Asian-Americans can properly understand or appreciate. Riffs on White men with “Yellow fever,” or how 2nd generation Chinese women generally marry White men, or how we worry that our 3rd generation children are just soft, or examples of the foibles of Chinese parenting had me cracking up. She doesn’t couch these (often throwaway) comments, so for some they may be offensive. But as a woman who’s been part of a string of Asian interests for more than one man, someone’s finally talking about my world! (I was sure my husband had “yellow fever” because he’s the profile of White men who date Asian women, tall, thin, sensitive, gentle, good listener, somewhat melancholy. He kept protesting that I was the first Asian woman he ever dated. I came back that if he actually lived in places that had an Asian population, he would have dated a string of Asian women. Poor guy, no way he could win. . .)

3. I feel insecure and underachieving. She went to Harvard for 2 degrees, teaches law at Yale, has published 3 books the latest of which is on Amazon’s top 10 list, AND produced 2 daughters who are musical prodigies and straight A students (plus the younger one plays tennis). I haven’t done any of those things. Enough said.

4. I feel lazy. Chua has spent hours upon hours drilling and training her daughters in math, piano and violin. I haven’t. Enough said.

I brought the book with me to the elementary school ice skating party yesterday (it was early release—we had early release and then another a snow day—kill me now. . .) I had left the book jacket at home for no reason other than it fell off and I never bothered to put it back on, but another mom noticed what I was reading and asked what I thought. Having just laughed out loud from some quip, I said without thinking, “I’m really liking it!” Then thought, “Oh no, what have I just done?”

Thankfully, the mom didn’t immediately excoriate me but asked why, and I told her all the points I wrote above. She said it was a good thing I had left the book jacket at home, otherwise I would have been inundated with questions and not had the chance to read the book in peace.

I realized I might have also spent the entire ice-skating party defending Chua—because at the end of it all, the book leaves me with more questions than answers about parenting, both Chinese and Western, and that’s a good thing.

As I drove Ling to swim practice tonight (another sign that I’m not really a Chinese mom—that I let my kid, nay even encouraged my kid to do a sport even though she has almost no chance of ever being great in it), I asked her how she thinks I should parent in light of the book. She said that the book made her feel like a failure given that she’s not a concert pianist or a straight A student. She also said she thought that if I had pulled an Amy Chua rather than a Kathy Tuan-MacLean parenting style, she might be a higher achiever.

“Is that what you want? We have 3 and a half years left to go—should I push you harder?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Before I read the book, I thought I had it pretty bad already.”

But before we got to the Y, after much prodding and pushing, Ling said she thinks I probably parent like Chua does at the end of the book, where she comes to some middle ground, except I had that concept the whole time and that was a good thing.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tiger Moms racing to nowhere?

I feel like a ping-pong ball. Yesterday Time magazine arrived with the cover story focusing on Amy Chua and Tiger Mothering. Then last night, the whole family went to see “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary looking at the inordinate stress we’re placing on our kids through too much homework and high pressured schooling. We skipped the discussion to rush back home to listen to Obama’s State of the Union, where he spoke about our need to out-educate China and India.

What’s a mother to do?

On one hand, I resonate with “Race to Nowhere.” My high-schooler gets 4.5 hours of homework a night, and that doesn’t count projects. Too much! Add swim team and her (loser-un-Chinese) 30 minutes of piano practice per day, and the poor kid barely has time to do anything else. She did that exercise of evaluating how many hours she spends on everything to see if she could join ski team. My husband was floored to see that she spends more hours doing homework each week than she spends in school. Ergo, no ski team. . .

On the other hand, I’m feeling a little defensive for Amy Chua, probably the most hated woman in America right now. I feel defensive because while I mostly despised being yelled at and pressured and pushed non-stop by my own Tiger mama, I’m also strangely grateful because knowing my lazy-bone self, I don’t know what I would have become or achieved otherwise. Chua writes:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

When I was in 9th grade, my family moved to Beijing for my father to take a year-long sabbatical. This was 3 years after the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese still called each other “comrade” and wore Mao-fits. Added to the horror that my parents were forcing me to return to my homeland in order to brainwash me into embracing my Chinese identity, was the realization that I would need to learn geometry in Chinese. I was forced to live in China the one year reading and writing was necessary for math. And I was illiterate.

It was hard, really, really hard. I eventually needed a tutor because I couldn’t understand either Chinese or geometry. I spent hours each night trying to decipher Chinese characters, angles and equations. But one day, my teacher, Li lao shi, realized I knew what I was doing and called on me in class. I jumped up, bellowed the answer, we beamed at one another, and then I glowed.

That’s one of my favorite memories. Studying geometry in China taught me it’s possible to work insanely hard, and that work pays off. Not necessarily in a terrific grade, but with a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

So maybe the question is, what are we racing for? According to “Race to Nowhere,” the answer is nothing. We’re pressuring our kids and stressing them out so they can go NOWHERE, because ultimately even getting into a great college, having a prestigious job and owning a big house means little if you’ve lost your soul, health or even life along the way. The movie producers are saying, “Stop the rat race! Smell the roses! Focus on what’s really important!” and what’s important is a happy childhood leading to a happy and healthy adulthood.

I haven’t read much of Chua’s book yet (which is much funnier and self-deprecating than critics would have you believe), but if she’s like most Chinese parents, the race is to get to the most prestigious college possible, then the most prestigious graduate school so you can find a great job, a great spouse (preferably Chinese), bear great achieving children, and then support your parents. The race is to do your family and your people proud.

And here we have it, the classic difference between the Western value of individualism, where the ultimate goal is often about satisfying oneself as an individual and the Chinese value of filial piety, where the ultimate goal is pleasing and honoring one’s parents.

So what does God think? Is God asking us to race somewhere? Christians talk about performing for an audience of one, God, and seeking God’s pleasure only. Is that all God requires? What do you think?

My ponderings about these questions will have to be posted another time because despite Winchester’s persistent race of homework inundation, today’s yet another half day with a snow day possible tomorrow. We're going ice-skating with the 5th grade, then maybe watch Hugh Jackman in PBS’s version of “Oklahoma.”

Now that’s a race I really can enjoy. . .

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Are Chinese moms social?

Today a daughter came home from school, placed the back of her hand against her forehead, and declared that she had been MORTIFIED at school. In class they played the game “That’s me” where everyone stood to various questions. To the statement “I can text on my phone,” apparently everyone stood up but her.

Yes, I am that evil Chinese mother who has not provided texting to her children.

But I suspect my motives for barring texting are different from Amy Chua, of late evil Chinese mother fame, who didn’t let her kids do sleepovers or playdates or other such social things. I’ve resisted texting specifically because I WANT my kids to have social skills, and I don’t think texting helps anyone develop emotional intelligence, good eye contact, or listening skills.

OK, OK. I’m also annoyed by teens, and yes, fellow adults, who rather than paying attention to the folks they’re with, engage socially with those they’d rather be with via texting or e-mail or even conversations. It hurts my feelings. Literally someone else is prioritized over me, and if I’ve taken time out of my life to be with you, I don’t really want to hang around while you hang around with someone else—feels too much like bad times from fourth grade. Of course, now that I have an i-phone—I can and do engage in that very egregious behavior at times. Sorry.

My mother was a strange Chinese mother in many ways. While I never felt she prioritized my development as a social or emotional being—always emphasizing the stereotypical grades, perfect oldest child behavior, and filial piety—what she practiced came out more than what she preached, and my Mama LOVES people. My Mama becomes bosom buddies with check-out ladies at Safeway. My Mama spends life surrounded by her coterie of companions. In fact, as I’ve been trying to interview her for her life history these past weeks, I’m constantly foiled by her need to go to small group, or cook dinner for the interim pastor, or just go out to breakfast, lunch or dinner with whomever she wants to hang with that day.

As a result, growing up, I enjoyed a constant stream of playdates and sleepovers. Not because Mama diligently set them up, but because she was perpetually having her own playdates, which meant I got to play with her playdate’s kids. Three of my closest friendships growing up all came from Mama hanging out with their moms. I don’t think Mama ever denied me a sleepover or social event in my entire life because it went completely against her nature and values. Any lack of social life I faced was entirely my own fault, my own lack of attractiveness or reaching out.

David Brooks in his op-ed “Amy Chua is a wimp” thinks that Chua has coddled her children because the real cognitive test of intelligence comes from navigating social situations, much more than the focused attention of practicing 4 hours at the piano. Brooks writes, “Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.”

I have to say I agree with Brooks, and hence my anti-texting stance. I want my kids to learn how to have real conversations, to learn subtle body language, to read the mood of a group by both non-verbal and verbal signals. No matter how texting and Facebook have taken over teen socializing, I still can’t believe that genuine friendships and intimate marriages will survive on a diet of texting and tweets. And this is from a woman who sometimes sits on the couch next to her gorgeous husband and e-mails back and forth with him while watching “House” on TV rather than talking.

When I visited Northwestern with my father my junior year of high school, we hung out with a crew of physicists because my father is a physicist. I talked in the elevator with a Chinese female physicist, whose Chinese husband was also a physicist. She told me her son, a year younger than me, was already studying at Caltech.

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” I said, all while acutely feeling what a loser Chinese daughter I had already proven myself to be. Here I was, the exact average age for my grade, not a math genius, and looking at Northwestern—a subpar school for Chinese dream daughters.

“No it’s not,” she corrected me. Tapping her head, she continued, “He’s very smart, but socially not so good. It’s a problem he’s had since he was very young.”

And then she looked at me with longing in her eyes. Despite my bad hair, buckteeth and impoverished fashion sense, apparently my ability to even engage her in conversation contrasted with her son who I now think probably has Asberger’s.

I ended up going to Northwestern. And even though I would eventually have to wrestle with what it meant that I was the only Tuan of four to never attend an Ivy League school (let the music of a thousand tiny violins begin here—and if that’s what you were thinking, you clearly weren’t raised by a Chinese Tiger mom!), my brief conversation with that Chinese physicist mother has always hung with me. She got all the brilliance, all the pedigree, all the status that Chinese moms want, but she also mourned some losses.

Tomorrow my oldest daughter takes her midterm in PE, which involves writing a short essay on what’s a healthy lifestyle. I quizzed her about what she thought, given being raised by me. “Eat vegetables and exercise?” she said.

“Yes, but what’s a healthy life?” I pushed. After lots of hemming and hawing and feeding her many answers, we talked about enjoying a healthy body, healthy relationships, healthy spirituality, healthy self-concept, and a healthy connection with the world. After all, God created us body, soul, emotions, and mind within a web of relationships and embedded in a marvelous creation.

Yeah, that’s what this Tiger mom’s trying to instill.

Someday soon we’re going to provide texting. But not just yet. Let’s work on standing straight and good eye contact just a little more.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are Chinese Mothers are Superior?

For anyone who hasn't heard about it yet, read Amy Chua's article in the Wall street Journal "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."

Anyone who’s read anything in my blog knows that I can neither claim with confidence that Chinese mothers are superior, nor can I broadcast with smug self-assurance that I’ve done everything right, as Amy Chua apparently is able in her WSJ article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” I have spent the past 14.5 years of motherhood feeling like quite the failure as a mother, for some of the very reasons that Chua thinks she’s a success.

Case in point: Today we experienced “Snow-mageddon” as my husband likes to call it. 15 inches of snow by the time my 3 children and I braved shoveling around noon. Like the quintessential superlative Chinese mother, I had already cooked my kids a wonderful breakfast—diced potatoes baked with bacon, broccoli, spinach, cheese and two fried eggs on top. A Western breakfast, and like the quintessential Western mom who’s always dieting, I refrained and ate a double-fiber English muffin with almond butter. I made the kids clean up the kitchen afterwards—something I’m so sporadic about enforcing that the typical squabbling over who does what and who had more work than the other ensued.

Now my kids knew that we were about to spend a lot of time shoveling. They knew we’d be shoveling our front walk, our long sidewalk, the driveway entrance that now boasted 4 feet of packed snow the snowplow had deposited, and our driveway that fits 4 cars. But does that stop the whining even with the gourmet and somewhat healthy breakfast solidly sitting in their tummies? Not a chance.

Within 10 minutes, I was reduced to how Chua describes the “Tiger Mom”—Chinese shrieking. An hour later, when I saw the child given the task of shoveling the walk—the same child who had already lost $14 because everyone was being charged $1/whine—when I noticed this child wasn’t even touching a shovel, but lying face down and waving his arms--pushing snow off the front porch like an upside down snow angel, I couldn’t help it. I waded through the snow, a Chinese mother’s version of the abominable snowman, shrieking over the roar of our neighbor’s snow blower. Bumping him with my shovel, I screamed that he was a lazy bum and there’s no place in our family for lazy bums because there’s too much work that has to get done.

He started crying.

Did that melt my heart? Not at all. I continued excoriating him. But a pause later I amended my initial charge to “You’re ACTING like a lazy bum!”—the Western mother’s correction.

Chua asserts that shrieking at your children over their lousy performance is a common phenomenon in the Chinese household, and it certainly was true both of my family of origin and my household now. But I hated being shrieked at growing up. I hated the quintessential lecture I received, while sitting on the piano bench, that my parents gave me at least twice a year from first grade through eighth—the lecture that unless I worked harder, they would pull me out of my posh private school (Punahou, the same school Obama attended), and send me to public school where I would eventually end up on Skid Row. I hated how my mother raged at me about my laziness, selfishness and how I was a sorry excuse for the oldest child of the family, the one who should have been the perfect role model who watched after her siblings rather than tormented them. I yelled back that I never asked to be oldest.

Yet now that I’m a mother, I have to admit she was right. I was lazy, mean and selfish. And I suspect that I never would have pushed myself harder in school if my mother hadn’t harangued me so much. My Harvard-educated sister remembers discussing with a bunch of friends, half White, half Asian, about how they got to Harvard. All the Asian kids felt their parents had pushed and prodded them to high achievement. All the White kids thought their own self-motivation got them there.

I started seeking God at a very young age—about 3 when I realized if I believed in Jesus I would never have to die—something my parents felt uncomfortable about for most of my childhood. So as I’ve parented, I’ve tried to incorporate Christ’s worldview rather than either the Chinese or Western perspective. I’ve emphasized trying our best in school, not to protect their self-esteems, but because we’re called to steward our intellect and opportunities. I’ve emphasized the value of working hard in school to learn the material and grow our minds, rather than seeking the elusive perfect academic GPA. So as my daughter started with an F in honors geometry and worked it up to a B- last quarter, complaining that if she dropped down a level she’d be getting an A+, I told her of all her grades, I was most proud of the B- because she had worked for it and challenged herself.

After shoveling, my friend Helen and her kids came over for lunch and fun. Helen’s also Chinese-American, and of course, as two Chinese-American moms, we’ve been talking non-stop about Chua’s article. My husband sent the article to our two girls as well as all the Chinese friends and siblings we have, and the two girls have expressed their relief that I’m not the quintessential Chinese mom. But both Helen and I confessed how our inner Tiger Mom came out with shoveling, noting that only our half-Chinese kids were expected to shovel out their homes on the street.

When I said I was trying to parent with a Christian worldview rather than a Chinese one, all three of my kids burst into laughter with a “Yeah, right.”

“I didn’t say I was successful at being a Christian mother!” I protested, “I just said that I was TRYING to parent with Jesus’s values.”

They continued to look skeptical.

“But all that really means,” I added, “Is that I get to say sorry to you guys. . . a lot.”

Because after all, the heart of the Christian gospel is that we mess up. We don’t get straight As. We don’t practice piano 3 hours/day. We don’t even practice every day. We squander our opportunities, and we pit ourselves against our neighbor as a competitor rather than fellow child of God. We need a lot of forgiveness, and Jesus graciously offers it, each and every time.

My parents never apologized to me for anything until I was an adult, and only after they both became ardent Jesus freaks also.

I wonder what would Chua think of that?