Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Battle Plan Of A Tiger Daughter

Deanna Fei writes of the level of expectations and demands placed on children raised by a Chinese mother.

On the same day that Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother went viral, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. And while talk shows, op-ed pages, parenting blogs, email inboxes, and Facebook and Twitter feeds across the nation began to flood with outraged invocations of damaged self-esteem, elevated suicide rates, Asian automatons, "Yellow Peril," and even child abuse, I stayed in bed reading Chua's story, feeling strangely sentimental.

It wasn't just my hormones. Chua's tale of extreme parenting -- including those infamous scenes of calling her daughters "garbage" for imperfect piano playing and rejecting their birthday cards for being sloppy -- made me profoundly grateful for my own Tiger Mother.

Like Chua, my mother was a Chinese mother who directed an iron will toward her daughters' success. Growing up, whenever people remarked upon my grades or awards, I almost wanted to tell them I hadn't had any choice in the matter.

Because I had the kind of mother who, if I brought home a test score of 98, would demand an explanation for how those two points had escaped me. If I scored 100, she'd demand to know why I'd failed to earn extra credit. Explanation was futile. As my mother would say, "There's no Chinese word for try."

I generally resist simplistic East/West dichotomies, but this is true. In Chinese, you can try something out -- as in sampling, tasting, taking a turn -- but you can't say, "I tried my best" or "But I tried." In any case, I knew better than to attempt such excuses in English.

I had a duty to excel because, as the daughter of immigrants, I was privileged: privileged to grow up in a land of peace and prosperity -- with a Chinese mother. With privilege came responsibility: responsibility to validate her sacrifices and avail myself of opportunities that, by her implication, might otherwise fall to Americans who were lazier, dumber, or more self-entitled than me.

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