Chinese Moms: Joy Luck Club vs. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom
I grew up in a Chinese family with a mother who was very firm, but kind. It is very interesting to me to read about Chinese moms in the context of the new release, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, by Amy Chua. At first, I was horrified when I had the occasion to read an excerpt from the book. Then sadness took over when I felt compassion for Ms. Chua's daughters. Some of the things the author pointed out regarding her parenting style reminded me of my mother's stern style. Other snippets addressed by Ms. Chua led me to greatly appreciate my mother.
Sure, my mother, like Ms. Chua, expected her children to get good grades in school. Going to college in America was the path my mother paved for my siblings and me. There were no other options. And yes, she wore the pants in the family. My dad was rather passive...he left the raising of his kids to his wife. It is also true that piano and violin lessons were at the top of the list of extracurricular activities. My sisters and I were forced into piano lessons and my brother screeched endlessly on his violin. When I asked my mother if I could take drum lessons instead, I was told that drums were played by boys, not girls...drums were not lady-like! It is also true that Chinese moms often brag about their children to each other during social gatherings, so the expectations better be high. When you compare your children with your friends' children regularly, you have to find that "one up" to share with your friends. This phenomenon fed into the strict upbringing I experienced with schoolwork and piano practicing as the focus.
Regarding sleep-overs and extended summer camp experiences, Amy Chua
believes that neither has their place in life. To an extent, this was
true with my Chinese mother as well. The differences, however, make my
mother look like an angel. My mom allowed us to have sleepovers and
also allowed us to visit our friends' homes for sleepovers with ONLY the
kids she had on her short "sleepover list". I couldn't just pick a
random friend to have a sleepover with. My mom had to know my friends' mothers for extended periods of time before she allowed me to go stay at
their house. When it came to summer camps or extended periods away from
home, my mom had no issues at all. I went to horseback riding camp as
much as I wanted.
The difference between my mother and Ms. Chua, however, is that my mother also valued my interests as well. I took horseback riding lessons twice a week in-between practicing the piano and doing my homework. My mother paid for the lessons because I wanted to go riding, not because she felt it was the best sport for me to focus on as a child. I was allowed to join any clubs I wanted to participate in during my middle and high school years.
I can safely say that my mother's behavior paralleled the behavior of most of my friends' Chinese moms. My Chinese childhood friends all played the piano, all went to college with good entering GPA's and gave good reasons for their mothers to brag during their three hour social luncheons. This was the way a Chinese mom behaved when I was growing up.
I would say that the more accurate portrayal of the Chinese mom can be found in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. In this novel, four American-born Chinese girls reflect on their upbringing by moms who grew up in feudal China. The four girls reminisce about growing up under strict rule at home. Their mothers forced them into piano lessons, expected good grades, and spent hours bragging about their daughters at social functions. There are two main periods of time when Chinese moms will brag on their children...during long, drawn-out meals and during the endless hours of playing mah-jong. Of course, I failed to mention earlier that my mother also enjoyed hours and hours of stacking and re-stacking the little mah-jong tiles between stories of triumph about the kids. It is this mah-jong club that brought the moms together to share their child-rearing triumphs and tribulations in the novel.
In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan also portrayed the Chinese mothers as very loving and giving even though they don't quite know how to express their feelings. In my own family, "I love you" was never said out loud, in words. The love that a Chinese mother has for her children is expressed through actions rather than words. This theme ran parallel in all my friends' homes when I was growing up as well. I never heard people say, "I love you" to each other until I moved to the United States.
I would move to conclude that, upon reflection of what I remember about my childhood experiences, I would say that Amy Tan's portrayal of a Chinese mother is more typical. Amy Chua's method of raising her children is atypical and, in my opinion, gives Chinese mothers a bad name. I will agree, however, that Chinese moms raise their children with very different, much higher expectations, than western moms. The trend I'm seeing in the United States is less strict structures where children living with a sense of entitlement is increasing. If anyone out there wonders what it was like to grow up in the 60's, 70's and 80's with a Chinese mom, read or watch The Joy Luck Club.