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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Thoughts on Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother

The Wall Street Journal excerpts do not do justice to the book. Readers who have never read the book may not understand this post.

I am a Chinese Mother who does not have constant face offs with my kids. I've never pushed them too far... partly because I am probably neither as stubborn nor as intelligent as Amy Chua. It takes too much strength to push someone. I would much rather they pushed themselves and early on, I realized that for my kids to push themselves, they had to want to... and to want to, they had to choose to.

I gave them choices, and I respected those choices.

However, I did everything I could to ensure that they chose to excel in the areas that mattered to me. I'm a psychologist researching into Human Motivation. So perhaps I had some unfair advantage when it came to influencing them towards the right choices gently but determinedly). My approach was different (less frontal assault, less violent, more respectful) but I was no less determined, and I was motivated by the very same reasons that Amy Chua was. And I gave up a lot of me to get them there. I was a woman on a mission to get my kids right.

The Chinese culture is collectivistic. Whom you are belongs to others and whom others are belong to you. We own each other as it were. A Chinese Mother will invest and intrude into her child's life because her child is her and she is her child. Where does one life begin and the other end? The question of whether one does it for self, or does it for the child isn't even relevant because one does it for both self and child. The 2 are same.

This notion is completely alien to the Western culture.

Think of it this way. Would any human being so selflessly dedicate hours of heart-wrenching effort and brave universal opprobrium if she did not feel at one with the person she is striving for? It is this hive mentality that propels bees to sacrifice all for the nest, and the same hive mentality that propels a Chinese mother to sacrifice all for her Chinese Children. Simply, we don't see ourselves as individuals apart from our child. We are one and the same.

Similarly, a Chinese Mother speaks the honest truth in the baldest terms to her child because we owe to ourselves not to lie to ourselves. The Chinese almost never speak forthrightly to those who are not family for fear of breaking tenuous ties of friendship, and when friends become enemies, the world becomes a dangerous place. Diplomatic lies are pretty and gives you friends, but truth hurts (and is a privilege granted to those you most love). Shakespeare (not Chinese I don't think) said it best with "cruel to be kind". For a Chinese Mother to tell diplomatic lies so that her child will think kindly of her is to be the ultimate "mère indigne" (mother of shame). The Chinese Mother will meet your eyes and say "Hate me. But I love you so much that I will do my best for you even if I lose your love and all else that goes with it. And I will love you even if you don't love me back."

The Chinese Mother dares to say this because it would never really occur to a true Chinese Mother that a child can become an enemy. The Chinese Mother cannot easily envisage that the child would hate her for what she has done or said. It's like hating yourself. Not really possible if you are one and the same person.

And if you are an individual used to pushing yourself to excel, then you will naturally roll up your sleeves and get into the trenches to push your child. It's like you pushing you. The 2 are same. Fortunately, I am not the sort to push myself as hard as Amy pushed herself... and so, I pushed my kids less.

We live in Singapore, a country where East meets West. Something in the air ensured that I hung on to my own individuality enough that I encouraged The Daughter's development as an individual. She had choices. I just guided them where I thought was wise. In that way, I was intrusive, so I was not entirely respectful of her individuality as maybe a Western parent would have been.

If I thought I knew better, it was then my duty to ensure she made the right choices. Not for me, a Chinese Mother, to say "It's your life. Live with the consequences of what you choose." Not for me, a Chinese Mother to stand by and watch her choose a thing that would bring her sadness, and us shame, in time to come. You see, the entire social context frowns upon Chinese Parents when adult children go astray. No Chinese Parent can say "It's not my fault. That child made his own choices." The society would not allow that. It is expected that parents guide children's choices and if they choose wrongly, parents share in part, the shame.

One day, The Daughter challenged my guidance. It was a short terse remark to tell me I had contradicted myself in my guidance of her, and of a sudden, I felt that an entire lifetime of effort had slipped into the deep nothingness of the bathroom floortrap to be greedily set upon by cockroaches in the dark. "Did I give up so much of me for this?" I asked myself. It would be better to not have kids and amass more money in the bank. Money provides security but children bring heartache. I recoiled in shock and in pain, even though our little tiff was nowhere close to what Amy and her kids went through.

I was devastated. I spent a day crying into my pillow only to have The Husband say "Don't blame yourself for how she turns out. She needs to be responsible for her own life. If she fails, she fails. Whatever happens, you and I have each other."

I decided to pull back and stop offering guidance. For a Chinese Mother that is an act tantamount to child abandonment. But part of me is also Western, and I hung onto the Western idea that she was her own woman, and I was mine... and that what she did was not my business. But when push came to shove, I could not do it. When she next got into trouble, I had to help somehow. Her business was mine and I expect that in the future, my business will be hers.

That is the bond that links Chinese Mother and Child.

In that same moment, we both realized that the same bond that chafes both her and I, is the same bond that brings comfort, solace and help to her and to me. Amy cannot help herself. The bond is too strong. Daughter and Mother will feel both pain and joy through it, and to severe it means that a part of each person will die.

I could even relate to Amy Chua's fear of family decline - the famous 3-generation curse. The Husband and I started with nothing. It took years of saving to be financially comfortable and we have some way to go before we are financially secure. My kids did not have branded goods because I don't have any. We wanted our kids to learn a formidable work ethic, and material self-restraint.

Again the collectivism kicks in, you see. We are A Family. As The Husband and I age and pass into weakness, we want the next generation to be strong and wise. To them we can pass all we have that is most precious - our bloodline, our name, whatever wealth we have. We count on them to build on what we have built... further grow what we have cultivated so that future generations will prosper. In that way, The Family will prosper. In a collectivistic culture, one looks past The Individual's likes or dislikes to ensure the survival of The Collective. Such a culture can have scant respect for the individual. For the good of The Family, I cannot be soft with my kids.

I understand why Amy did what she did, and I understand her pain. It's a different underlying philosophy that drives behavior... and it is easy to judge the behavior negatively when one does not grasp the philosophy behind.

It mayn't be entirely fair to judge a culture's philosophy. Much of it is programmed into our subconscious. You grew up that way just as your ancestors did. Somewhere in the long time ago, it started with perhaps a confluence of geographical events, that lead to a lifestyle, that lead then to a system of shared beliefs... that is now deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche.

Is it right or wrong? Who knows? The individual... or the collective... which is more important? For me, it's just the way things are. The sky is blue. Is that good or bad? How does one judge the sky for being blue?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the insight into your there any possibility that a culture could be collective and individual at the same time...or is there just too much difference, too much stress? I believe it's why civilians in my culture have so much trouble understanding the "military culture"...that someone has to give blind obedience to their superior, that the mindset has to be collective rather than individual and yet we say "united we stand, divided we fall" is full of contradiction.

petunialee said...

Gee Theanne... That's a great question. More recent statistical analyses suggest that it is possible to be both individualistic and collectivistic. I had thought it not possible and still don't understand how it can happen... But the question came and stayed a question. I did not further examine the issue.

Maybe that is what I am... You know, BOTH collectivistic and individualistic... Maybe that is why I was able to carve out some individuality for me and my child, whilst understanding why Amy did what she did... And also doing what she did but less violently.

Blur Ting said...

I do agree that due to the different environment we're brought up in, our views and ways of doing things are different.

According to my mum, her parents would not hesitate to whip the children as punishment. The kind of parenting then would be considered way too abusive today. If the government were to imprison these parents, the jail would be overflowing!

petunialee said...

Ting - Oh yes! Such awful caveman parenting huh... Luckily your parents didn't do that to you!!

Blur Ting said...

hey, you should read this 15 year old girl's thought on this as well.

petunialee said...

Ting - Wow!

My SINFONIA said...

I think there are good and bad in both. It seems extremes are not ideal. But if it is an important cultural value, perhaps we should be conscious about trying to keep the sky the same tone of blue?

petunialee said...

Mysinfonia - But who is to judge which is the best tone of blue?

My SINFONIA said...

I don't know about best. Just a tone of blue i suppose. I won't mind a few streaks of green here and there but I shall be so sorry if Singapore abandons its "Asian collectivism". :)

petunialee said...

Sinfonia - Green streaks? Heh! That sure sounds like a really pretty tone of blue... :-)

Karmeleon said...

Yes, I can imagine being an enemy. And it doesn't even have to be from being a "chinese mother".

Wen-ai said...

Any decent parent will strive to be the BEST parent he/she can ever be, in his/her own ways and medthods. I personally dont think there's absolute rights or wrongs but at the end of the day, when the child grows up to be a responsible, productive adult who contributes positively to the society (in what ever ways), can think and defend for himself/herself, and generally leads a purposeful and gracious life. The parent has done a good job.
I think my mom has done her best, given the circumstances and limited resources.
And I seriously think that you are a great mom!

petunialee said...

Wen-Ai: Awwwwwwww... that's such a nice thing to say!!

I do think Amy tried her best and whilst I wouldn't want to parent like her, I can understand why she did what she did... and I think nobody really knows how to parent well. We can just hope to be a good parent.

petunialee said...

Karmeleon - Yeah... It's a shock when it happens you know.

James Lim said...

Dear Petunia,

My name is James Lim and I am a Television Producer from Channel NewsAsia. I read your "Tiger Mom" article and would like to speak to you over the phone regarding this topic.

It would be great if you can email me at or call me back at 93604655.


petunialee said...

James: Thank you for your interest in this blogpost. I would be happy to help.