'Tiger Mother': Are Chinese Moms Really So Different?

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Correction appended: Jan. 20, 2011

An editorial cartoon in the Jan. 13 edition of Hong Kong's English daily the South China Morning Post shows a family — a father, mother and frowning boy — together in the kitchen. On the table sits an untouched breakfast — the sodden castoffs, we infer, of the insolent child. "If you don't eat it," the father threatens, "we're going to have you adopted by Amy Chua." The child looks horrified.

Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School, an author and, as of last week, one of the most talked-about mothers in the world. On Jan. 8, the Wall Street Journal published an essay she wrote headlined "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," in which she discusses her approach to child rearing. Her kids, Louisa and Sophia, were never allowed to have playdates, watch TV or get anything less than A's in school. They played instruments of her choosing (piano, violin) and practiced for hours under close watch. If they resisted, she pounced: at one moment she called her daughter "garbage," in another "pathetic."

The piece, adapted from Chua's just-released memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is now at the center of a raucous global debate about parenting, identity and family. More than a million people have read the story online, more than 5,000 have commented on it, and countless others have passed it along to friends and family members. It's doing the rounds on Facebook and has been animated, to hilarious effect, by the folks at Taiwan's Next Media (of Tiger Woods drama re-enactment fame). Reactions range from (to paraphrase) "You're on to something" to "You're a bigot and a bad mother" to "You're just like my mom" — often in the same breath.

For better or for worse, many people saw themselves or their parents — or both — in Chua's portrait. In accounts that are by turns intimate, hilarious and angry, hundreds of people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds have shared their own childhood stories online, articulating, perhaps for the first time, the pressure they felt as children and how it shaped their lives. Gene Law, a Chinese-Canadian journalist and son of a Taiwanese immigrant mother and a Chinese-Canadian father, could relate to Chua's tale. "As the article said, I'm indebted to my parents until they die," he wrote in an e-mail. "This is my mom's school of thought. I dare not disagree." But Law questioned the long-term efficacy of the "Tiger Mother" approach: the harder his mother pushed him, the more he rebelled. Now, he wrote, "my relationship with my mother is more tense than the Korean DMZ."

But do such clashes have anything to do with Chinese culture, or with culture at all? "Hiding behind culture to justify cruelty is offensive," wrote one commenter, "IansMom," on Quora.com, a social-media message board. "Chua is a bully, and she's teaching her kids to be the same." Whether they admire Chua or not, few readers accept the precept that calling a child "garbage" is a cultural practice rather than an ill-tempered expression of exasperation. Chua, to be fair, anticipates this objection in her essay. "I'm using the term 'Chinese mother' loosely," she writes. "I know Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too." Yet the piece, as many critics point out, seems to turn on clichés about what Chineseness entails (good grades, music, no sports), echoing the stifling model-minority tropes that have trailed Asian immigrants for decades.

Indeed, in my conversations with friends, sources and colleagues in Hong Kong and China, the word that came up most frequently in relation to Chua — after wrong and stereotype — was old-fashioned. Here, as elsewhere, parenting practices are always changing — the Tiger Mother, if she ever existed, is not as fierce as she once was. Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at Beijing's Peking University High School, says he was "shocked" by the "crass generalizations" in Chua's piece. "It goes without saying that there is no one type of Chinese parent," he says. "Some are disengaged, some are deeply involved — it's the same as anywhere." Describing her hopes for her 8-year-old son, a 34-year old Beijing resident named Xiang Yuqiong says, "I want my son's life to be like mine, but better." Each parent is different, but that sentiment, we can all agree, is universal.

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing

Correction: The original version of this story included an excerpt from a Quora.com post that had been designated for restricted circulation. It has been excised.