On Tiger Mothers and Music Moms

September 22, 2011


by Grace Wang

*crossposted from Amerasia Journal

The almost instantaneous uproar elicited by Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal op-ed “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was, in many ways, unsurprising. With her brash and unapologetic claims about the reasons for Chinese success, Chua touched upon several interlocking anxieties: waning US hegemony, growing Chinese dominance, and proper forms of parenting in an era of global competition. As the symbolic embodiment of these fears, Chua evoked a tiger on the loose -- the threat of danger and difference run amok without proper management, domestication, and punishment. Parenting blogs reviled her mothering style as child abuse, pathologized the (narrowly defined) success achieved by Asian American kids as the product of excessive discipline and rote practice, and extolled the virtue of balance, sleepovers, and play. In the thousands of comments generated in response to Chua’s op-ed, a panoply of responses emerged: critiques of the author’s reliance on tired cultural stereotypes, racist generalizations about the authoritarian regime of China (where Chua, as some readers suggested, implicitly belongs), sweeping comparisons between Chinese roboticism and American ingenuity, praise of “tiger” parenting for producing impressive results, and tales of harm suffered as a result of such despotic forms of parenting. Statistics emerged about the high suicide rates among Asian American women. Comparisons formed with other types of “ethnic” parenting. Doubts crept in about the legitimacy of Chua’s Chineseness, given her twice-removed status as the US offspring of ethnic Chinese parents raised in the Philippines. Dispatches arrived from “real” Chinese mothers in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong variously refuting and authenticating Chua’s claims. And in the fray of this media frenzy came a personal rebuttal in the New York Post, penned by Chua’s daughter herself, defending her mother against charges of tyranny, child abuse, and the withholding of love.

In many of these debates, the Chinese immigrant mother became a shadowy figure upon whom to project suspicions and desires, a function that she similarly holds in Chua’s own memoir. Indeed, a haunting presence crowds the pages of Chua’s brash memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother -- the immigrant generation of Chinese parents whose purported ability to enforce discipline and obedience in their children puts even the author’s own stringent parenting tactics to shame. Chua apes these “true” tiger mothers. She aspires to reproduce their toughness, their “motivational” insults, their strictness and exacting expectations. And yet, a challenge still remains. As a tenured Yale Law School professor (married to the same), the author possesses ample cultural resources and class privilege. How could Chua provide her children with the purported benefits of being “poor immigrant kids” while living in an environment of material comfort and plenty? In her search for an answer, Chua turns to the violin and piano -- the seemingly fetishized objects of desire for Chinese immigrant parents. “Classical music,” as Chua observes, “was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.” To succeed in a cultural site that requires discipline, hard work, and practice, and one in which Chinese immigrant parents invest tremendous energy and effort, would successfully test Chua’s mettle as a tiger mother. And thus, in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the violin and piano become the sites where battle lines are drawn, where the campaign against “generational decline” is waged, and where the “bitter clash of cultures,” as trumpeted on the book’s hardback cover, clangs most cacophonously. While Chua’s older daughter, Sophia, takes to the piano dutifully and wins music accolades, her younger daughter, Lulu, chafes against the rules, the control, and the hours of practice that gaining mastery over the violin requires. Chua’s “high” stakes struggle with Lulu over the violin fuels the narrative forward, leading her to question -- at least rhetorically -- the efficacy of the “tiger” parenting model for her younger daughter.

Who are these Chinese immigrant parents that Chua so desperately seeks to embody? For the most part, the author offers her own parents as ideal models to emulate. Described through the memories of Chua’s childhood, her parents represent an effective combination of strictness, frugality, self-reliance, and discipline. Attempting to replicate their parenting tactics, Chua calls her daughter “garbage” for disrespecting her, much like her father did to her when the author was a child; “it’s a Chinese immigrant thing,” she explains to her horrified “Western” friends, who note that she is, in actuality, not a Chinese immigrant. Chua glosses over these inconsistencies, much as she does the fact that in the present moment, her parents embody rather diluted versions of tiger parenting. As she observes, “America changes people.” Years of living in the United States have softened these once tough-as-nails immigrants; her parents’ suggestion that she ease up on Lulu’s violin practice makes this abundantly clear. Thus, in her quest against “generational decline,” Chua looks to her parents as envisioned in their early years, in the image she conjures up and calcifies of them as recent Chinese immigrants still hardened by the dislocating experience of immigration and the challenges of living in a new land and with a new language. She bases the Chineseness of her tiger parenting vision on her access to this “insider” knowledge about Chinese immigrants rather than any claimed intimacy with China. Indeed, Chua neither looks to nor expresses longing for a Chinese “motherland,” offering instead rather glib hyperbole that trades on dominant stereotypes about China: “Children in China practice ten hours a day.” Or, “In China, they’d have sent Lulu to a labor camp.” Rather, she romanticizes the difficulties that racialized immigrants face being treated like they do not belong. For, as Chua claims, to feel like “outsiders in America ... is less a burden than a privilege.”

Yet, when Chua finds herself face-to-face with her fetishized immigrant subjects, she feels distance rather than affinity. Waiting with her husband for Lulu to finish her violin audition for Juilliard’s Pre-College division, she sees throngs of other anxious Asian parents. Here, in the company of supposedly likeminded parents, one might imagine Chua feeling right at home. Finally, a crowd of her peers! And yet, what Chua experiences is disidentification, not to mention a sinking suspicion that she does not “have what it takes”:

In the waiting area, we saw Asian parents everywhere, pacing back and forth, grim-faced and single-minded. They seem so unsubtle, I thought to myself, can they possibly love music? Then it hit me that almost all the other parents were foreigners or immigrants and that music was a ticket for them, and I thought, I’m not like them. I don’t have what it takes. (141-142) 

These “Asian parents” -- even more than the “Western” parents (or rather, middle- and upper-middle-class white American parents) that Chua derides in her narrative -- are the “others” against whom the author compares.

Here, it is worth investigating what type of ticket classical music represents to the anxious “Asian parents” Chua encounters. Elsewhere, I have argued that for middle- and upper-middle-class Asian immigrant parents at Juilliard Pre-College, participating in classical music represents a vehicle to demonstrate their educated status, their cultural sophistication, and their erudite tastes -- precisely those traits that racialized immigrants, for whom English is a second, if not third, language, are viewed as not possessing.  Living in a monolingual nation where downward mobility, racism, and language discrimination represent a constant reality, Asian parents (mainly Chinese and Korean immigrants) view their investment in a universalizing field of elite culture as a means to accrue certain gains: cultural capital, including an appreciation for music, and flexible skills (diligence, discipline, and so forth) that would translate into academic success. In this context, while many Chinese and Korean immigrant “music moms” make sweeping generalizations about the work ethic of “Asians” and the laziness of “Americans,” their articulations represent more than just claims of cultural superiority; they are expressions of class, race, and linguistic anxieties on the part of racialized immigrants confronting cultural exclusion. But take out the immigrant and class context, and replace it with the vast reservoir of privileges that Chua possesses as a hyperfluent Yale Law School professor, and one is left with a narrative of arrogance -- empty, essentialist claims of Chinese superiority based purely on cultural traits.

Indeed, recent Asian immigrants’ lack of cultural fluency and their outsider status in the US lead them to misapprehend the potential returns on their investment in classical music training. For in many ways, the increased participation of Asian Americans in classical music has merely bolstered views of this group as excessively disciplined, competitive, and status-driven. Rather than provide evidence of their creativity -- their passion, love of art, or imagination -- Asian American achievement in classical music becomes testimony of their ability to practice, sacrifice, and work hard. The striving immigrant model marked as “Chinese” stands in stark contrast to the worldliness, intellectual curiosity, art collecting, and “good taste” (tastes that are cultivated, but scripted as natural) implicitly marked as “white” and glimpsed in Chua’s memoir through her upper-middle-class Jewish husband and his mother. When Chua asks how the Asian parents waiting at Juilliard can “possibly love music,” she voices the disconnect she sees between those “unsubtle” foreign bodies and the élan, artistry, and grace of the Western “high” arts. This, of course, is a question readers might pose to the author herself, a question she herself invites by reproducing worksheets detailing “measure-by-measure instructions” for her children’s practice sessions and comments such as “I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality!” in her memoir. I have no doubt that Chua gained affection for the beauty of classical music through her children’s music training. Nonetheless, the suspicion that she articulates -- and ironically performs -- about “single-minded” Asian parents speaks to the barriers that racialized immigrants face attempting to accrue the full returns of elite cultural capital absent the proper accoutrement of race (read: whiteness). The conundrum of race and white privilege may be that, as Asian Americans gain cultural fluency in Western classical music -- as classical music training becomes racialized as an “Asian” practice -- the cultural capital yielded by that form of culture becomes devalued.

This is, in part, why Chua’s memoir reads so strangely. Why romanticize the hard-knock life of immigrants while in abundant possession of economic, cultural, and institutional resources? While second- or third-generation nostalgia for an ancestral “homeland” is a familiar narrative -- one often depicted as a search for “roots” -- nostalgia for the immigrant generation is not. On the one hand, in this context of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment, such a gesture is irresponsible. To celebrate immigrant toughness as a privilege, cultural exclusion as a form of capital, and institutionalized racism and downward mobility as a personal challenge to succeed, allows us to turn racism into individual failure. Cultural values become proxies for race that elide relations of power. On the other hand, this may be precisely the point. Chua’s memoir is carefully marketed to tap into and alleviate existing concerns about immigration, race, and global competition, particularly from China. For Chua, of course, is no outsider. She profits from a savvy racial performance that trades on her abilities to decode the ways of the Chinese for an American public. Her memoir displays a high degree of fluency in the formulaic narratives that speak to the dominant culture.

While Chua describes the class privileges her parents enjoyed growing up in the Philippines and her father’s arrival to the US to pursue a PhD at MIT, she nonetheless molds them into a predictable immigrant narrative. Her parents come “not knowing a soul and with only their student scholarships to live on” and, through dint of hard work and perseverance, achieve success. Chua truncates her parents’ story further into a few key phrases on her publicity tour. As she describes to Tavis Smiley: “They were immigrants. They had no money. My dad wore the same pair of shoes. I had some ugly clothes growing up and I never had any privileges.” She conveniently omits the complexity of her parents’ story, from the cultural resources they brought with them to the US to the simple fact that student poverty is not equivalent to poverty. Likewise, although her children’s success in music and school are as much a product of inherited privileges of class and social connections, Chua personalizes them as the product of her own tiger parenting. Classical music training is a costly undertaking, but her excesses -- paying a violin teacher, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Music, by the hour to accompany the family on an out-of-state trip (to play for another violin teacher) and to supervise her child’s practice sessions -- are startling, even for a “music mom.” And while Sophia is, by all accounts, an impressive kid, her admission to Harvard and Yale is as much the accumulation of incalculable benefits, including her legacy status, as her own intellectual gifts. But in true “American” fashion, race and class hierarchies are reduced to the individual: one’s personality, work ethic, and effort.

The spotlight on Chua appears to have passed, nudged aside in favor of newer, more salacious media events. But the legacy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother lingers, visible in the addition of the term “tiger mother” into our everyday lexicon. The referent “tiger mother” collapses race, class, immigration, and cultural difference into a frustratingly tidy bundle that serves multiple purposes. It domesticates ongoing anxieties about the increasing stature of China (and other Asian “tiger” economies) and the place of racialized immigrants in the US. It limits the discourses available to discuss the complexities of race, class, and power. And it stokes fears about the racial pathologies of the Chinese. For while Chua claims to have learned her lesson -- a balance of “Chinese” and “Western” ways may be the better route to pursue -- she invokes the specter of other tigers still on the loose. They prowl about “grim faced” and “single-minded,” crowding our schools and universities with their overachieving ways, taking over sites of Western “high” culture where they implicitly do not belong, and seizing disproportionate pieces of the American pie while maintaining their culturally foreign ways. How to stave off these tigers roaming about inside the US and encircling it, even more menacingly, from abroad? Chua’s “tiger mother” introduces a powerful tool for both airing and placating these anxieties. She becomes a surrogate, a manageable, singular embodiment for Asian threat writ large.

* * *

Grace Wang is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at UC Davis. She is currently working on a book that interrogates the cultural work that music plays in the production of contemporary Asian American identities.



from "Advice on How Not to Misread the Tiger Mother"

by erin K Ninh

published in full at Amerasia Journal


... To invoke Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is inevitably to include in that gesture the media reframing from which it continues to be inextricable. I respond to this book, then, as a “text” that far exceeds its covers. Measuring its pages against the prodigious spin campaign that surrounds the book, I will take up two considerations here: First, Chua’s oft-made claim that she has been misread, even ill-used, her words and meaning taken out of context; and second, regardless of her shades of intent, the question of what harm her text may do. In interview after interview, Chua has deflected responsibility for her statements about parenting by insisting (with impressive incredulity each time) that her book is a memoir -- not a how-to guide. Though the book’s marketing belies this -- the “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” lead-in of the Wall Street Journal piece well met by the “how to be a tiger mother” in block letters on the volume’s back cover -- fault for that wildly successful publicity campaign is laid at the feet of the publisher, while the author demurs. It remains for us to ask, then, what manner of memoir did Chua write, that it should be so easily packaged or taken for a parenting manual? And if the superiority of her methods is not its point, then what is?


* * *

Introduction to this Across the Desk series in collaboration with Amerasia, here.