My Tiger Mother, My Self
January 24, 2011
I have been following all this stuff about the superiority of Chinese mothers vaguely – reading with interest but not following every link. I didn’t want to write about it because I hadn’t read the actual book. And then yesterday afternoon the mother who dropped R off from the playdate handed me the actual book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.
I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, which says more about the book than it does about my reading speed. I was shocked.
The whole time I have been following this conversation about Amy Chua, I have been thinking of myself as the mother. I’ve been comparing myself to her, or to the bits of things that get repeated in articles and blog posts about birthday cards and garbage and such. Reading the book, though, I realized that I am a little bit like the mother – but my real role in parallel to this book is the role of the daughter.
My mother is not Amy Chua. A lot of the most extreme stuff that has been circulated in the last couple of weeks is stuff my mother would never, ever do. But a lot of the stuff in the book – big and small – brushed at my memories of childhood. I only had sleepovers with my cousins. I scraped the piano with my teeth and made a mark. I was expected to be totally respectful to my parents and older relatives.
There was a time, eight or so years ago, when I would see little half-Asian kids and I would want to walk up to their parents and say, “I am what your child will grow into.” There just aren’t very many adults my age who are that kind of mixed race, but there are tons of little kids running around who are. I forgot about them for the last few years, I guess, or I have not been thinking about it so much. I forget that I am – and will always, for the rest of my life be – at the leading edge of a cultural shift around intermarriage and multicultural families.
The parallel with Amy Chua is problematic – she’s Chinese-American, raised in the Midwest with her immigrant parents but not an extended Chinese family; my mother is third-generation Japanese American raised in a Japanese-American community. So Amy Chua is both more and less Chinese-American than my mother is Japanese-American, and their parenting is both more and less Western (as Amy Chua is calling it). I am very, very glad for all the crazy ways my mother was not like Amy Chua, most of all including but not limited to the fact that she did not stand over me at every moment that I was practicing piano and let me quit at some point because I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t care about it.
The thing that Chua hints at but does not explore is the thing that I think is the most interesting about the way that I co-parent with Ellen. Ellen and I have a huge culture clash about parenting on a daily basis, and the way we negotiate that constantly is the most intellectually stimulating part of our marriage for me. This went down in our house, word for word, a couple of days ago:
Me (yelling at B): When I tell you to do something, I tell you ONE TIME. Then you do it. I do not have to ask you more than once. When an adult tells you to do something you do it immediately!
Me (to E): Did your parents EVER have to ask you more than once to do something?
E: Yeah, they did. All the time.
I was shocked. It never occurred to me that in any family, anywhere, ever a child could think that a parent’s request was ignorable, negotiable or even postponable. I had no idea. I’ve been thinking about it ever since that dialogue, trying to re-arrange my conception of what I think B and R’s obligation is to me as their mother. I don’t even know what the conclusion is, yet, but this kind of thing – the stuff that I take as set in stone that Ellen casually dismisses – these things are the things that make me grow the most as a person as I try to be a good mother. I get the sense that Amy Chua isn’t co-parenting like this. She’s not trying to compromise and learn because there are good things about every way to raise a child – and there are also supremely messed up ways, and they exist in tandem in each parent and in each cultural conception of parenting. If you say that you are going to do it all one way, you are missing out on new ways of shaping your children and shaping yourself. I love E so much, and I hate so much about the way she parents, and I love so much more about the way she parents even more. I would not want E to hand over everything about parenting to me – and if I handed over everything to her I — I don’t even know. It’s not possible.
“There is no true collaboration without disagreement,” one of my favorite work colleagues said to me once, more than a decade ago. I think about that at least once a day about work-work or about Jewish community work, but mostly about my marriage with E. The glory of living in the U.S. in the 21st century is that we have this incredible opportunity to collaborate with people from many cultures – and they are in our families.
(Just to restate for the record: my mother never, ever called me garbage. She never would.)