One Year After the Tiger Mother: The Way We Talk About Parenting Will Never Be the Same
Exit the Year of the Tiger. Actually, 2011 was officially the Year of the Rabbit… but you wouldn’t know it from the talk about Tiger Moms and Butterfly Moms and Wolf Dads, and the multitudes of cross-bred animal analogies that were spawned from Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was released right before the last Chinese New Year. Many Asian Americans would prefer that whole catch phrase would just go away, but the parenting landscape will never be the same. And you know what? I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
While I’m not a fan of the tactics described in Chua’s book, I do appreciate it for putting Asian families in the public consciousness – even it if is in an overly simplistic way that leaves itself open to stereotyping. Say the words “Tiger Mother” and everyone knows exactly what you mean. A few weeks after the book’s release, the term Tiger Mother was already listed on Urban Dictionary.
The Tiger Mother book overshadowed many other Asian American books, and created confusion for others -- especially if they happened to include the word "tiger". Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author A Tiger in the Kitchen (also released in Spring 2011), says her book – a cooking memoir-- is often mistaken for Chua’s:
"When someone told a woman I had written "A Tiger in the Kitchen," she proceeded to tell me how my book had inspired a lengthy debate among her friends for the evening. Naturally, I was flattered. Except that as she kept talking -- at great length -- about this debate, getting more and more heated, I realized at some point that she was talking about the Tiger Mom book, not mine.”
The Tiger concept has even made it to the silver screen. In March, a BBC producer started tweeting in search of an Asian American family to host a couple of unruly British teens for a reality show. And in May, ABC News’ What Would You Do segment staged an Asian woman loudly berating her daughter in a restaurant, to see if onlookers would step in.
Last fall, the popular TV show Glee (not a web series or a niche cable show – Glee!) featured an episode called the Asian F, in which the character Mike Chang deals with telling his strict dad that he got an A-minus -- equivalent to an F for some Asian parents. I wonder if that storyline would have been featured on Glee if the trope of the overbearing Chinese mother had not been popularized.
While many people, including Chua herself, say Tiger Mothers don’t necessarily have to be Chinese, and not all Tiger Mothers are Chinese (or Korean, or Japanese or Vietnamese)-- there’s a particular style of pushy parenting that is distinctly Asian American.
What many mainstream commentators kept ignoring when the book was released was that Chua didn’t invent the tactics of fear, shame and guilt to pressure kids into achievement. Elevated it to new heights of perfection and opulence maybe (designer dresses for recitals at Carnegie Hall?), but it was just a riff on an old theme. Many children of Asian immigrants, like myself, especially ones whose parents came to the United States with aspirations of making a better life through education, were already familiar with Chua’s style of child rearing. In marketing-speak, Chua created the Tiger Mother brand and made herself the spokesperson.
While the (mostly white) pundits who pontificated the loudest have since moved on to new topics, the issue is still a sore point that many Asian Americans continue to agonize over. What Chua did do was expose something that needed to be talked about within the circles where these kinds of parenting styles are common.
Just after the initial fury over Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother had settled down, Wesley Yang wrote a piece in New York Magazine called Paper Tigers, in which he blamed Asian parenting for failing to create successful sons . Incidentally, the phrase Paper Tiger is not a reference to Chua’s book, but a Chinese colloquialism referring to something which appears to have power, but does not.
Even when Asian bloggers talk about parenting styles that are nothing like Chua’s, they reference how they or their parents are NOT Tiger moms or dads.
The Tiger Mother theme is something that Asian Americans are going to be grappling with for some time. Being a mom myself, the past year has been filled with agonizing introspection about my own parenting decisions. Raising my own sons has been a painful journey of choosing what to replicate from my own childhood and what to do differently. Chinese School-- no. Band-- yes (but I let my kid play the drums).
And the blogosphere shows me that I'm not alone. In her post, Ambivalent Tiger Mother, Lisa Chiu writes about how she struggles with how much to help with her third grader’s science fair project. The post was interesting enough on its own, but uncanny in its similarity to an experience I had written about a few months earlier about my own inner conflict over how much to help with my son's science fair experiment
So to my fellow Asian American bloggers: Thank you for a year of online group therapy. All for free! Our immigrant parents would be so proud. And just like we teach our kids to use their words to identify feelings and values ("How did that make you feel? Sad? Angry? Happy?"), we also need words to describe our own experiences in order to move forward.
Now, how about the Year of the Dragon?