Monday, February 7, 2011

Off-Key 'Hymn'

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua offers valuable lessons on how (not) to write -- or live

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

As a teacher and book reviewer, it's my default setting to try to find something positive to say about any writing I assess. Partly this is a matter of simple decency; partly it's an acknowledgment that writing is hard work for just about everybody. And partly it's a matter of credibility: any criticism I may offer of another's work should be rooted in a sense of fairness. But this strategy is not without psychic cost. I worry, as do most people whose job it is to assess the performance of others, about whether my standards are high enough, both in terms of praise having value and maintaining my own sense of self-respect as to what constitutes success.

It is in that context that I say Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a remarkably bad book. It's clarifying to encounter such a thoughtlessly written and cynically published work, and useful to explain why.

Tiger Mother is a hybrid, straddling the memoir and self-help genres. The latter is boldly stated at the outset: "A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids," Chua says in her first sentence. "They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it."

More decisively, however, the book is a memoir. It focuses on Chua's relationship with her daughters, in particular the power struggle that emerges with her youngest over Chua's musical ambitions for her. Along the way, she describes the death of her mother-in-law, her sister's struggle with cancer, and her conversion into a dog-lover. As one typically expects of the genre, a more decisive conversion experience takes the form of a new stance toward parenting at the end of the book, one marked by a willingness to reconsider deeply held cultural priorities.

The first way Tiger Mother is a bad book is that it's fake. Chua makes all the meta-narrative moves she's supposed to in reporting family conflicts, the wise counsel of husband and parents who disagree with her, et. al. She also professes that she's a changed woman at the end. Except that she isn't. By the end of the story, she's as obsessive as ever about her older daughter, and while she's accepted the fact that her younger daughter has other interests than playing the violin, she is, by her own confession, as meddlesome as ever. "See how undefensive and flexible I am?" she asks her child. "To succeed in this world, you always have to be willing to adapt. That's something I'm especially good at. You should learn from me."

Next sentence: "But I didn't really give up." I think we're supposed to chuckle at this.

Which brings us to another way in which this is a bad book: it fails in purported attempts to be funny. Chua explains at the outset that she wanted her older daughter "to be well-rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like 'crafts,' which can lead nowhere  -- or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs -- but rather a hobby that was meaningful and highly difficult and with the potential for depth and virtuosity." Regrettably, such ignorant crudity slides into elitist bigotry as well. At one point Chua excoriates her daughters for giggling at foreign names, indignantly telling them of the linguistic indignities she suffered as the child of Filipino immigrants of Chinese extraction to the United States. "Even in third grade, classmates made fun of me," she reports. "Do you know where those people are? They're janitors, that's where." This is precisely the kind of cosmopolitanism that creates Sarah Palin voters.

Chua is glib in other ways too. She uses the term "Chinese mother" to connote high-maintenance parenting, in contrast to the permissive "Western" approach. We're told at the start of the book that this is mere short-hand; she explains that Tom Brokaw (who provides a blurb for the book) had a working-class father who was really a Chinese mother. At other times, "Chinese" really means Asian, as in the Korean mother who was vanquished when Chua's daughter got a higher math score than her son on a timed multiplication test. ("Poor Yoon-Seok," Chua deadpans. "He went back to Korea with his family, but probably not because of the speed test.")

At still other times, "Chinese" really means Chinese, as when Chua laments that the people there, corrupted by American fast food, are getting fat too. It's striking to witness this kind of unvarnished stereotyping from anyone, much less an Ivy League law professor whose first book analyzed how free markets breed ethnic hatred. (See here for my review of her last book, Day of Empire.)

Finally, Chua is duplicitous in ways that subvert the contract between reader and writer. At one point during her recitation of her vigilant parenting regime, she casually drops the fact that she was at the same time holding down her her teaching job -- one can only wonder what her Yale colleagues make of her -- writing a book, and traveling regularly to international conferences. This raises real questions about how accurately she is describing her activities. Moreover, even though Chua is not, by some reckonings, technically Chinese herself, it's clear that she positions herself as an embodiment of a cultural tradition that she inherited from her own family and is determined to carry on with her daughters. So it's a little startling when, 90% of the way through her narrative, she confesses to withholding a fact that contradicts the assertions she repeatedly makes about the positive outcomes in parent-child relations that result from the "Chinese" approach. This is at best dishonest; at worst it's hypocrisy. And it leads one to wonder about her motives in writing the book, which seem to amount to a form of sensational exhibitionism that Penguin Books was all too ready to exploit for the wave of publicity that has resulted.

The American half of the title of this book refers to a song written by Julia Ward Howe -- a tiger mother if ever there was one (among other maternal accomplishments, Howe was the mother of Mother's Day). The battle of Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" referred the struggle to end slavery; the "hymn" suggests the way this quest was rooted in a deeply moral vision beyond narrowly defined (materialist) family values. This vision is emphatically absent in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. We would do well to note Chua's utter blindness in this regard when we consider what good parenting might mean, wherever in the world we happen to be.