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The Emotional Fallout of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: The Korean Godfather Responds

Updated on May 23, 2011

Introduction: Fuss over Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Amy Chua caused a tremendous fuss in early 2011 with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Actually, most of this fuss was not caused by her book but by a Wall Street Journal Law Blog post entitled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," which excepted the harshest parts of her book. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the book, but I will . . . someday).

She bragged that her daughters were never allowed to (and I quote):

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games

    choose their own extracurricular activities

  • get any grade less than an A

The WSJ blog post also described her forcing her daughters to take piano and violin lessons, threatening to burn their stuffed animals if they couldn't play their pieces "with musicality," and the fact that she called her daughter's "garbage," as her father had once done to her.

Chua believes that her children were fundamentally strong, and could be pushed to show they could achieve amazing things. She did not think her children had fragile egos needing constant reassurance. Rather, she argues that her children receive an ego boost when she showed them they really could master what they at first thought was impossible.

A lot of interesting commentary followed, both within the legal profession (Chua's a law professor at Yale), within the Asian-American community, and within the press at large (for example, David Brooks of the New York Times). You can find most of it by Googling it.

The commentary annoyed me for several reasons--mainly because it seemed to focus on whether these methods were effective or would create stereotypical Asian robot children.

(I hated a particular kind of response, that "Tiger Mothering will never create creative people, like Bill Gates of Microsoft or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook." These guys are literally 2 in 6 billion; it is absolutely silly to believe a particular method of parenting will "create" a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg.)

Indeed, Chua's book is really a celebration of her children, as if to say, "Look! They turned out great"! Chua's daughters are now 18 and 15, and have also appeared in the press. They claim to be happy, well-adjusted kids, and maybe they actually are. Or maybe Chua's forcing them to say this while holding their teddy bears hostage.

We just don't know yet. It's too early for Ms. Chua to declare victory.

Not all of Tiger Children are as robust as Ms. Chua believes.

Not everyone who is Tiger Mothered responds well, even those of us who "succeed" according to our parent's measures of success.

I had Tiger Parents, and while they weren't as extreme as Ms. Chua, they were pretty tough. I love them completely, but not the simple-minded way I did as a child or as the 18-year-old who got into the school of my parents' dreams.

I would love to write a book in response to Chua's called "The Defeat Anthem of the Tiger Children: We're Tired, Depressed and Really F***ing Angry."

Instead, I offer article that I wrote almost 17 years ago for a college publication. It isn't available anywhere online, and you would not have read it already because it was, um, in a tiny niche: it was for second-generation Korean-American students at my college (a famous one that my parents had pushed me to get into).

The article, originally titled "The Korean Godfather" is about my Asian-American experience, seen through the lens of my favorite movie, The Godfather.  And it addresses some of the issues that Chua seems to ignore.

You might succeed--whatever that word means--if you're pushed as Amy Chua pushed her children.

But Amy Chua's children are living Amy Chua's vision of success and happiness, not their own.

You ultimately pay a price for living someone else's dream, even if it is your parents'.

So here is the book if you want to read it...

The Korean Godfather

In retrospect, I wonder how I could have related to Michael Corleone. In high school, I practiced Al Pacino's steady, penetrating stare.

To his enemies, to his friends, even to his wife, Pacino's character Michael Corleone gave this stare, boring holes with his deep-set eyes. But I could never capture his intensity. My stare only scared away small children. Neither were my threats to make friends, "sleep with the fishes" credible: not in my arid childhood home in Reno, Nevada, which, in the summer, was as dry and sun-scorched as Sicily.

No, I could never look like Al Pacino. But I did share something Michael Corleone--I was also a child of ambitious immigrants in America. As a second-generation Korean-American, I relate more with The Godfather than I do with The Joy Luck Club or some of the other relatively recent movies about the Asian-American experience. The Godfather, more than any other movie, captures my feelings and conceptions about family and familial obligation.

Everyone Loves The Godfather.

Of course, when I first saw The Godfather series, I didn't think of the film in such profound terms. As an eighth grader, I enjoyed the films mainly because they were really violent. But The Godfather pales in comparison to modern gore machines. Since 1972, the year the movie was released, the film industry has moved light-years ahead, pushing the very frontiers of cinematically-induced gastrointestinal distress. There are many more cool and bloody shootings in Reservoir Dogs. Tim Roth, for instance, bleeds for the entire movie!

Even the most recent installment in The Godfather trilogy (Godfather III, 1990) is disappointing in the bang-bang department. The most impressive scene is a somewhat tired, Apocalypse Now-inspired helicopter attack.

At the time, though, The Godfather was in the violence vanguard. How can we forget the scene in which Sonny, shot to pieces by three guys with tommy guns (Was 100 bullets was enough? No?

Or perhaps the most famous scene in the entire movie, the "horse's head in the producer's bed." Gorgeous, blood-stained sheets and all. My best friend gave me all three Godfather movies on tape for various Christmas and birthdays. I've probably watched them over 20 times each. I used to race home from school to fast forward to these bloody scene.

As I grew older, my tastes were becoming a little more sophisticated. I began to write movie reviews for my high school newspaper. I blasted duds like Ricochet (stupid gore!) and praised the high art of Scorsese's GoodFellas (gore with panache!) and Godfather III, which came out my sophomore year in high school. The reviews were somewhat juvenile, but I began to better appreciate the quality of first and second Godfathers.

I had, by high school, largely internalized the movie. Sometimes, props were necessary; some carefully placed Kleenex for jowly Marlon Brando imitations. I wandered about the house rasping, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" until the Kleenex got soggy, and my mother made me throw out my jowls. But I could, on cue, provide an appropriate line from the movie for almost any occasion.

Me and Michael Corleone

If this doesn't seem strange enough, I also began to think of my life in terms of the movie. I made parallels between my life and Michael Corleone's. His father was an immigrant from Sicily and met his mother in America; my father is a South Korean expatriate and met my mother in America. Michael's father claimed to be a small businessman and hung out with lots of Italians; my father is a small businessman and hangs out with lots of Italians. Don Vito was a child when vendettas threatened his survival; my father was a child when two wars (big vendettas) threatened his survival. Michael visited his father's homeland a stranger; I visited Korea a stranger. Michael killed for his family, and I ... well, I had a dream that I did.

My junior year in high school, I dreamed that I had awakened one night to discover that a prowler had entered our house and killed my mother, father and sister. He was in the doorway when I found him, standing a head taller than me. I wrenched the bloodied blade from him and plunged it into him over and over again. Then, as if nothing had happened, my mother appeared, disturbed by the mess I had made in the living room. "Better clean this up before your father comes home," she said, heaving the body out the front door onto the porch. As my mother ran our Hoover over the blood-matted carpet, I woke up in a cold sweat.

I asked a friend, then a psychology major at Stanford visiting home, what the dream meant. He enjoyed playing amateur psychoanalyst to his naive high school buddies. "It means that you see yourself as the savior of the family," he said, stroking his imaginary beard. True, I thought, but my act of salvation was a bit ex post.

The dream may make more sense in the context of the pivotal scene in The Godfather. To protect his father, who lay near death in the hospital after an assassination attempt, Michael guns down Solozzo the Turk, the mobster who masterminded his father's hit, and the New York City police captain on his payroll. The scene marks the beginning of Michael's corruption. To protect his father, Michael sacrifices his innocence and his future; his life changes irrevocably. In this sense, he is the savior of his family.

Coppola's film ennobles Don Vito and Michael. Their concern for family--the ostensible motivation for their criminal activities--makes them nobler than the other mob bosses, all pimps and schemers scrambling for wealth and power. For Don Vito and Michael, the family is sacred. Don Vito admonishes one of his godsons: "A man who does not see his family is not a real man."

Throughout the movie, the various Corleones protect each other. Before Michael kills Solozzo and the police captain, there is a lengthy goodbye scene, full of hugging and kissing--final goodbyes. Sonny finds his sister Connie cut and bruised at that hands of her husband Carlo, whom he then beats senseless. This love (or, if you prefer, blind rage), leads to Sonny's demise: the Corleones' enemies set up an ambush, knowing full well that Sonny will, like clockwork, come to beat/kill Carlo. Then Michael, eventually, has Carlo killed for setting up Sonny's death.

These are somewhat dysfunctional but apparently sincere signs of familial love. But it rots later: Michael has his brother Fredo killed. Kill the family to save the family?

The scenes in which Don Vito and Michael die, in particular seem ennobling. Both are surrounded by symbols of innocence when they die natural deaths. Don Vito has a heart attack chasing his grandson around the garden, and a puppy frolics around Michael's body when he dies, old and alone, on the cracked, hot ground in front of his Sicilian cottage. They are redeemed because when they sinned, they sinned for their families.

So father and son--both, the movie reminds us, Catholics--might have presented this case before St. Peter at the gates of heaven: Should not a man sin to protect his family, i.e. don't the ends justify the means? After all, what choice was there?

My Father Bleeds History

So, in this light, I flattered myself by identifying with Michael. My father, who had seen the movie several times, also identified with Don Vito, actually. He possessed a similar sense of obligation to family, which he transmitted to me in weekly discussions--lectures, really--on our couch in the living room. Sometimes he talked so long that my eyes hurt looking at him. Sometimes, I used to hallucinate: his head began to grow and shrink during the later hours of another marathon speech. He said I was lucky, though: When he was my age, his father made him kneel before him on a hardwood floor. But I bet he never started hallucinating.

He told me of many things. He told me about Korea, and his philosophies on work and family life. He told me about living during World War II and the Korean War, exam hell during high school, the army (two-year military service is compulsory in Korea), and coming to America with $30 in his pocket, nothing more. He told me about various professions, people he had met over the years, and that almost everyone he had met who was not making money was not happy.

He told me that nothing was more important than family. It was, to him, never "our" family, but "the" family, as if the article, instead of the possessive, made it something sacred and universal, something more than me and my sister and mother and father in a blue and white three-bedroom house in Reno.

These talks were connected, even if I didn't realize it then. Nothing was more important than the family. Without money, how could I protect the family? Without a good job (i.e. one in business), how could I make enough money? And without going to a good school (i.e. Ivy League), how could I get a good job? But remember, he said, without family, all those other things mean nothing. So my father's holy trinity: family, money, business (good school, too). Not necessarily one in the same, but, to him, inseparable. He was ambitious for me so that I might lead a comfortable life of wealth and prestige.

One scene in The Godfather reminds me of my father's talks. Toward the end of the movie, Vito and Michael talk just after Michael takes over the family business. The Don spends some time making sure that Michael takes the right precautions to prevent an imminent assassination attempt. But then suddenly, he shifts and reflects, for the first time in the movie, about his hopes for Michael's future:

"I never wanted this for you," he admits: "I worked my whole life. I don't apologize to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all of those big shots. I don't apologize; that's my life. But I was hoping when it was your time that you would be the one holding the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone…"

Michael responds: "I'm not a pezzonovante, Dad," (which means, "I'm not a big shot"). Don Vito, for all his corrupt power, is like other immigrant fathers in his ambition for his children, his son. Where he could not travail--the legitimate world--he hoped that someday, his children would.

A Parent's Dreams, A Child's Obligations

So in these scenes, The Godfather captures the burdens second generation children often feel. The hopes and dreams of immigrants to America are placed on their children. In that sense, my father was the Godfather and I was Michael, given the burden of carrying on the family name and bringing it fortune and letters. Don Vito could be a surrogate for all the immigrant parents who come to this country and open up small businesses--dry cleaners, restaurants, bars and, so claimed Don Corleone, olive oil import businesses--and want their children to become professionals, secure and respected.

So I felt obligated to succeed, especially in some well-respected professional career (my father preferred business and finance). They want me to take the secure, if monotonous path to success. This is also the case for a great many second-generation Asians. In college, they surrounded me (and I was, to be fair, one as well): the future doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, consultants, hurrying to class, studying very hard to become big shots themselves, someday.

Anecdotal evidence tells me that a much higher proportion of second-generation college students are preparing for these secure and lucrative careers than other Americans, more distanced from their immigrant ancestors. I had trouble believing that most of my classmates took organic chemistry or econometrics because they are inherently fascinating. Not because such subjects aren't interesting but because of the complaints, the obvious agony, self-imposed. The feeling that there is no choice: one must become a [banker/doctor/lawyer]: what else is there?

I, and I know many of my second-generation peers, had a need to be cha-keh--which I always took to mean, in my limited Korean, "to be praiseworthy." What a good girl, how cha-keh he is! Someone who brings home good grades, marries into a good Korean family, is cha-keh. Someone who marries blond, buxom Dallas Cowboys cheerleader or causes a meltdown of the global financial system, he is probably not cha-keh. Lucky, for some, that personal aspirations and parental ambitions converge. Without much urging, some desire a career in business or medicine. But it is hard to say.

From an early age, these careers were pressed upon us, sold to us, by parents who suffered greatly to provide such opportunities. How could we take another path? Robert Frost's "path not taken" was walked by our parents so we would not have to. Traveling thousands of miles to a foreign land and starting a business was enough risk and adventure for at least several generations; the least we could do is play it by the book and settle down.

It is this feeling of obligation that the movie captures better than any other film I know. Some other films might be more realistic in portraying the actual dilemmas faced by second generation Asian-Americans: generational conflicts, assimilation pains, other subcultures. But I think that no other movie captures this feeling like The Godfather


At the wedding scene in the very beginning of the movie, Michael tells his girlfriend Kay Adams (not an Italian) about the family business. She knows about it, she must know; maybe it is partially what attracts her to him. But she still looks shocked when he explains that his father once told a business associate that "either your brains or your signature are going to be on that contract." Then he tells her, that's my family. It's not me. My life will be different.

After his father is shot, Michael is faced with a choice. Before the shooting, he was treated as a "civilian" because he had never been involved in his father's business. He must take advantage of this status and kill the men responsible to end the threat to his father's life. He had choices, but not very good ones: kill or allow his father to be killed.

Sometimes I felt that to disobey my parents by considering a life aside from business would devastate them. I thought it would be be the same as Michael letting the bad guys kill his father. The comparison is melodramatic, but my guilt was overwhelming at times. What kind of son would I be?

And that's my problem, to have believed that. Also, such thoughts can be self-centered and self-indulgent. Second-generation Koreans are not the only ones who wish not to disappoint their parents.

I know that many of my other peers feel the same way. But, before, I couldn't have imagined living a life which would earn the disapproval of my parents. Now I can imagine it, and I know many more second-generation Asians who have disappointed their parents' expectations; I am now struggling with myself to pursue a lifepath that may not gain their approval.

Did Michael do the right thing by sacrificing his life for his family? Don Vito expresses no regrets about his life, but Michael does. In a number of scenes in Godfather III, he makes clear that he had his own plans, but the needs of his family foiled them. In the hospital after a diabetic seizure, an aged, remorseful Michael bellows, as only Al Pacino can, "This is not what I wanted!"

I hope, in my old age, not to scream the same.

It was not what I, er, Michael Corleone wanted.


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