Amy Chua only wants the best for her children. For her, that means bringing them up the way she was raised as a first generation Chinese American, with Chinese values and a strict set of rules. Her husband Jed is from a liberal Jewish background and grew up with parents who encouraged individual choice and independence. Together they agree on raising their children the “Chinese way”—arming their daughters for the future with discipline, hard work, a sense of accomplishment, and respect for their elders. The highly accomplished lawyer, professor, and author sets about her child–rearing with the same single–minded drive and determination that got her into Harvard and Harvard Law School.
Chua’s hands–on Chinese model works beautifully with her older daughter Sophia. Sophia is a natural, inquisitive student and a fast learner. From an early age, she excels at piano, playing at Carnegie Hall when she’s only in eighth grade. While she recognizes that she’s different from her peers, she seems to take her mother’s rules in stride. Lulu, Chua’s second daughter, is a very different story. Born just as three–year–old Sophia began taking piano lessons, Lulu proves to be equally talented in both academics and music, “but instead of her success producing confidence, gratitude toward parents, and the desire to work harder, the opposite happened. Lulu started rebelling . . . against everything [Chua had] ever stood for” (p. 168). This only makes Chua more determined to push onward, which in turn amplifies the tension in their household, producing a true battle of wills. Chua will eventually be forced to evaluate her choices to be a tiger mother and reconcile the daughter she has with her own expectations.
Brutally honest and fiercely determined, Chua’s memoir raises questions about traditional approaches to parenting in the twenty–first century, the inevitable clash of cultural attitudes in a multicultural society, and how to best prepare children to succeed in an increasingly complicated world. As she investigates her own assumptions, Chua is unafraid to poke fun at her flaws, yet she articulates her convictions with passion and precision. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a funny, serious, smart read that is as entertaining as it is thought–provoking.
ABOUT AMY CHUA
Amy Chua is the John M. Duff Professor of Law at Yale Law School. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and two Samoyeds in New Haven, Connecticut.
A CONVERSATION WITH AMY CHUA
Q. In your introduction you note that this was supposed to be a book about parenting and it evolved into a different sort of story over time. Can you talk about the book’s evolution? What surprised you in the process of writing it?
I’m embarrassed to say that I intended Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to be much more literary, the farthest thing from a parenting guide! It’s actually a pretty complex book, and I was hoping that readers would appreciate its humor and irony. Believe it or not, the models for my book were Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim—both books with unreliable narrators. The narrator of my book is a patently flawed character—initially obtuse, boastful, outrageously overconfident—who goes through a crisis and transformation. Much of the book is self–parody. For example, there’s one part when I’m talking about my dog, and I say, “I had finally come to see that Coco was an animal.” Anyone who read that line straight must have assumed that I had pretty low cognition skills!
Q. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a departure from your other books, which are more focused on politics and history. What made you decide to write something so personal?
Actually, I wrote this book in a moment of crisis, when at age thirteen my younger daughter, Lulu, rebelled against my strict parenting and seemed to turn against everything I stood for. Around the same time, my younger sister, Katrin, got leukemia and had to have a bone marrow transplant. Her kids were just ten and one at the time. It was the darkest two years of my life, and for the first time, I began asking myself, “Have I done everything wrong?” After one terrible public fight with Lulu—the culminating point of the book, which takes place in Red Square, Moscow—I suddenly realized I might lose my daughter. And when it hit me that way, I didn’t care a bit about school or violin; I just wanted to keep my daughter. So I pulled back—not entirely, but we sat down and talked, and a lot of things changed. Anyway, the day after the blowup in Red Square, I sat down at my computer, and even though I usually have writer’s block, this time the words just poured out—I wrote the first two thirds of the book in two months. I showed every page to my daughters and my husband. It was like family therapy. In retrospect, I think writing the book—going back eighteen years to when my eldest daughter was born and I was a very different person—was an attempt to put the pieces back together and work things out for myself.
I did eight years of academic research for my first book, World on Fire, and five years of research for Day of Empire. I did zero research for Battle Hymn—it came from a completely different place.
Q. What were some of the challenges of putting your family relationships on paper?
Because I wanted to clear every line of the book with my husband and both daughters, there were four separate sets of memory to accommodate, so we’d often argue over the facts, then I’d have to revise to reflect everyone’s comments. It wasn’t always easy, but the experience—which also included a lot of nostalgia and laughter—really did bring my family together.
My husband—who has a very strong personality—also told me that he didn’t love being a character in someone else’s book, so he asked me to keep him mostly in the background. But if you read between the
lines, what should come through is how central he was to everything and how he dealt with my excesses—supporting me in front of the girls, advising (sometimes challenging) me behind the scenes, and bringing balance to the family.
Q. You’re very honest in these pages about your own flaws. How do you imagine your readers view you, and what image do you hope they will take away from this book?
Some people will of course disagree with me, but I also received hundreds of e–mails from people—of all backgrounds, from all over the world—who wrote to say that my book made them laugh, cry, and understand their own families better. And this made everything worth it, and helped carry me through some of the rougher periods.
Some of the most touching emails I received were from people who had grown up with a tiger mother. For example:
When I read your book, I cried because I know how painful it is to be forced to such an extreme. But mostly, I cried because I recognized what my mom went through to shape me into the person I am today—the infinite hours she spent sitting through all my practices, teaching me lessons beyond my grade level, and endlessly arguing for my benefit. My mom endured my hatred and made sacrifices I can never make up to her. And, in spite of everything, she has always given me her unconditional love and patience. Reading this now makes me recall all those bittersweet moments that ultimately built my character.
It was also fun to hear from tiger parents and tiger cubs of all stripes:
OMG your book had my mom and I rolling on the floor! I’m Pakistani American, and I was the “Lulu” in our family. My mom just said, “Everyone needs to be called katchra once in a while.”—katchra being the Urdu word for garbage. I can’t even count the number of times my father and mother called me katchra, and somehow I have escaped with amazingly (astoundingly, even) high self–esteem.
But my favorite e–mails may have been from non–tiger mothers like this one:
As one of those weak Western moms who doesn’t ban her kids from most activities and thinks a B+ is acceptable, I read your book and immediately recognized a kindred spirit. I appreciate your honesty about your struggles as a parent. As I am in the midst of dealing with my younger son’s teenage rebellion, I can tell you that your book was a comfort and a joy to me.
Q. Your daughters were deeply involved with music throughout their childhoods. What sort of life lessons do children get from learning to play music at a young age?
I definitely think that learning music can help instill a strong work ethic, self–discipline, and focus in children—skills that are particularly important in this age of constant media distractions. But for me, music really wasn’t so much about preparing my kids for the future—I didn’t think of it strategically. Both the piano and the violin are capable of producing such beauty, something deeper and more meaningful than watching television or surfing the Internet for ten hours. I think both my daughters would agree with me on this one.
Q. The chapter devoted to your sister Katrin’s illness introduces a new element and mood into your writing. How, for you, did this chapter change the narrative?
For me, Katrin’s illness was cataclysmic and horrible—talk about suddenly questioning all of one’s priorities. And it raised what may be the book’s central theme. The last lines of the book are:
Given that life is so short and fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest?
We all have to die. But which way does that cut? In any case, I’ve just told Jed that I want to get another dog.
Q. You state that you’re “not good at enjoying life” (p. 97) and most of your attention in raising your children seems to be focused on the future. Do you see this as a positive or negative attribute, and is it something you see in your daughters?
I’m definitely a Type A person and not so good at “living in the moment”—I don’t like spas or massages, I always have a long list of to–dos, and I can only take in the beauty of a sunset for so long. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a happy person. On the contrary, I have a lot of fun. I love throwing big parties (you should have seen Sophia’s sixteenth birthday party; Lulu’s is around the corner), going out to dinner with friends, and traveling with my family to new places. Also, this may surprise people, but my daughters think of me as a kind of zany person. They are much more scared of their father!
If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d choose happiness in a second. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I don’t believe that if parents let their kids do whatever they want, their kids will be happier. In America today, many parents are very permissive. Yet we have disturbingly high rates of teenage depression, anxiety, and low self–esteem. It’s also not a formula for happiness for kids to grow up and not be able to find a job as an adult.
Q. There’s a lot of discussion of what has changed between the generations of your family. What values would you like to see passed on and what would you like to see evolve in the next generation?
Both Sophia and Lulu were asked in an interview by The Guardian (London) what kind of parents they would be when they grew up. To my surprise, they both said they would be strict parents (although both said they would allow a few more playdates). I couldn’t believe my ears when Lulu told the reporter, “My mom and I have fought a lot. But I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for her. And I wouldn’t like that.” At the same time, both Sophia and Lulu are much more public service–oriented than I am, and I deeply admire that. For understandable reasons, first–generation immigrants tend to focus mainly on their own family and the future of their children. I think it’s a wonderful thing that subsequent generations tend to be more community oriented and interested in helping others and giving back.
On the other hand, I worry all the time about raising spoiled, entitled children. “Not on my watch!” I write in my book. I believe that kids with a sense of responsibility, who know when to experience gratitude and humility, will grow up to be less selfish, better–adjusted, and happier adults.
Q. Have you found the act of writing about your family’s life has brought you closer to them or illuminated certain aspects of your life that you wouldn’t have considered beforehand? If so, in what ways?
Writing the book definitely brought my family closer. I think Sophia and Lulu were better able to understand what was going through my head when I was say, chastising them for a bad grade or arguing for another hour at the violin. And I got a better sense of how they experienced things. But perhaps what surprised and touched me the most was how my whole family rallied around me when the global firestorm broke out. So many other teenagers might have been resentful or angry at all the harsh media attention directed at our family. But not Sophia and Lulu—I got so lucky! At the height of the tsunami Sophia published a letter in the New York Post defending me, which was so mischievously witty and lighthearted that I think it turned the tide of public opinion. Lulu, meanwhile, edited all my op–eds, searched the Internet (which I couldn’t bear to look at) for the few rare nice comments, and texted them to me with messages like, “Here’s a good one, Mommy! Some people like you!”
Q. What are you working on now? Do you have plans to write more memoirs?
I do indeed have another book in the works! But it’s a secret for now. Stay tuned.
- In the beginning of her book Chua describes her daughters’ personalities from birth. In what ways are they inherently different from one another?
- Chua identifies herself with her Chinese zodiac sign the tiger. How does she exemplify its characteristics? Are there any ways in which she might defy those characteristics? Can you relate to your own zodiac sign?
- What role does music play in Chua’s life as compared to her children’s lives? And does music play such an important role in your own life?
- How is Lulu and Sophia’s childhood different from their mother’s, as Chua describes them? Do you see similarities and differences in your own childhood?
- Never a pet lover, Chua reluctantly ends up raising two dogs, Coco and Pushkin. How do the dogs change her, and what does she learn from them?
- What do you think about Chua’s relationship with her younger daughter, Lulu? How do they push each other’s buttons?
- Chua only intermittently discusses her husband’s opinions, but mostly keeps him out of her memoir. What can you glean about him from these pages?
- If you could ask Chua one question, what would it be?
- At the end of the book Chua expresses some regrets about her choices. What does she regret and how do you imagine she might do things differently, given the chance?