Thursday 22 February 2018

Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

€22.99, Bloomsbury

MUMMY KNOWS BEST: Amy Chua and daughters Lulu and Sophia at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien for the Wall Street Journal
MUMMY KNOWS BEST: Amy Chua and daughters Lulu and Sophia at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien for the Wall Street Journal

AT THE age of 29 Amy Chua wanted to write an epic novel about Chinese-American mothers and daughters -- but unfortunately Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston and Jung Chang "all beat me to it". Besides, Chua tells the reader in a brief aside, "I had no talent for novel writing."

Ironically, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a non- fiction account of the friction between mothers and daughters and the difficulty of incorporating traditional values in the modern world. For the purposes of the book Chua uses the word 'Chinese' loosely to describe a regime of 'tough love', traditional values, hard work and above all pushing, pushing, pushing, in order to get the very best out of her children.

After reading Tiger Mother I wonder just how poor Chua's efforts at fiction were because there is no doubt that the woman can write -- the prose flows easily and the light, self-effacing tone makes this a very easy read. Which, unfortunately, can't be said for the subject matter.

Since an extract from the book entitled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior ran in the Wall Street Journal at the start of the year Chua has become a hate-figure, on the grounds of her child-rearing practices; what she calls "extreme parenting".

There is no arguing that 'Chinese' parenting is a brutal regime, both for the parent and the child. For Sophia and Lulu, Chua's two daughters, it isn't enough to simply do well -- they must excel.

Anything less than an A+ is a bad grade; they have to practice music for several hours every day; they are not allowed to go on sleepovers (nor was Chua, her own mother saying, "Why do you need to sleep at someone else's house? What's wrong with your own family?"); and they attend endless music lessons.

Chua, a professor at Yale, made it her mission to oversee all of this activity -- a full-time job in itself. There is no rest at weekends (a two-hour return trip on Saturdays for a three-hour practice session, a four-hour trek on Sundays for a one-hour lesson -- "Family fun time" is limited to one hour, which is "optional"), nor on family holidays, where the girls are still required to put in hours of practice before they are allowed to go sightseeing.

One important tenet of 'Chinese' parenting is that you should never resort to blackmail (other than the emotional kind, which is positively encouraged). However, Chua's younger daughter Lulu is not willing to play the part of dutiful obedient 'Chinese' child and subsequently Chua spends a great deal of her time screaming, threatening, cajoling and indeed bribing.

In an act of desperation to get Lulu to play along she gets her a dog -- Coco. Hilariously, Chua attempts to impose 'Chinese Mothering' on Coco before finally realising that "although it's true that some dogs are on bomb squads or drug-sniffing teams, it is perfectly fine for most dogs not to have a profession or even any special skills".

Judged on her actions alone Chua comes across as controlling, irrational, demanding and borderline nuts (the other side of the border too); in short, she's not someone you'd want to spend any time with. But, having said that, her warm, funny, self-aware, and, above all, honest tone all contradict that image.

Even though she overpowers her children (and knows it) she, like most parents, just wants what is best for them. Despite myself, I can't help but like Amy Chua. I wish she was my friend, although I'm mightily glad she's not my mother.

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