Notes From a Tiger Daughter

Caie KelleyDecember 31, 2016A Lens on LearningFeatures

“FWD: Read this, story of our lives?”

Several months ago, my cousin emailed me a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Intrigued, I clicked the link, and read a pre-publication of Yale law professor Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, which chronicled her parenting techniques. Her ideas were clear: strict values and harsh discipline allowed her, as a Chinese mother, to raise successful children.

I’m not going to lie. I know that her account of forcing her daughter to practice hours of piano, forbidding sleepovers and computer games, and requiring only A’s shocked millions. However, her story seemed, to me, pretty normal. I was also raised by a Chinese mother. Like Chua’s daughters, I’ve never been in a school play, I’ve been learning piano since I was five years old, and I’ve never owned a computer game. I didn’t have sleepovers and play dates until middle school, and I still can’t have them on weekdays. Receiving all A’s is a given and on Saturday mornings, while my friends headed to soccer games or watched late morning cartoons, I was at Chinese school.

Don’t get me wrong. Even my own strict mother can see the flaws in some of Chua’s extreme methods. But her ideas, as hard as it may be for some to admit, have truth. In one passage, Chua writes, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence.” From the time I began studying piano at age five through the seventh grade, I hated it. I hated the endless drills and repetition, the pure torture of playing a single passage over and over again and never getting it right. I hated the pressure of the competitions. Waking up early on a Saturday morning, dressing in a nerdy suit and competing against other Asians throughout the day is hardly anyone’s idea of fun. I wanted to quit, but I wasn’t allowed to. Instead, I was condemned to more hours of practice. Today, though, I love the piano. I love coming home after a stressful day and playing a familiar tune. I love that when I hear a song on the radio I can transfer it into live music.

What changed my attitude? It was a Tuesday, after school. I knew my mom was going to force me to practice piano anyway, so I decided to spare the yelling and practice as soon as I came home. I know now that my mother’s demands were for my own good, but I didn’t then, and we often fought over my efforts at the piano. Back then, my mother’s words were a constant reminder that I would never be good enough to reach her impossible standards. That day, though, was a little different. Instead of going straight to scales, I messed around, picking out melodies from random notes. Eventually, I hit upon something that sounded familiar: the chorus of “Piano Man,” where Billy Joel plays, “sing us a song, you’re the piano man, sing us a song tonight. Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us all feelin’ all right.” It was a favorite of my dad’s. I have no idea why it took me so long, but I think that at that moment I realized that I could play any type of music I wanted. Not just the classical pieces my teacher assigned, but the kind of music I put on my iPod and wanted to listen to on repeat. After years of practice, I had finally gained the skills to convert what I heard into what I played. I ran to the computer, typing in the scores of my favorite movies. I could sight read the pieces with ease, amusing myself with popular songs. I felt, for the first time, that I was good at playing the piano, and I loved it.

The same has been true for many other activities. I hated swimming, but wasn’t allowed to quit. After six years of unfruitful labor, I received a qualifying Junior Olympics time. Finding success after years of hard work was a rewarding experience, and helped me learn to appreciate the sport. Today, I look forward to practice. Of course, I don’t always succeed. However, even when swim races or piano performances don’t go my way, the knowledge that I have put my best effort into the task still provides a sense of internal fulfillment. When Chua writes about encouraging hard work and pushing for “nothing but the best,” she is definitely onto something. But her methods are far from perfect.

In one scene, Chua recounts rejecting her daughter’s messy birthday card because she felt she deserved better. Such harsh words, along with insults like “you’re garbage,” can hardly have had a positive effect. Do all Chinese parents, as Chua claims, really use those words?

One of my mother’s friends has raised her son, who’s my age, in a similar way. She sets high standards, forbids television, and expects her children to attend Ivy League colleges. However, when I asked her if she would ever call her children “trash,” she looked shocked.

“There’s a difference between striving for excellence through difficult demands and hurling insults when your kids make mistakes. I strive to find a healthy balance. I want my kids to succeed, and I hope by exposing them to hard work at a young age, they will have the tools to do so. Being mean won’t help me achieve that goal.” My Chinese aunt, whose son attended an elite university, had a similar response.

Though it is true that many Chinese American mothers encourage hard work and support strict upbringings, so do many immigrant mothers. Raising kids who are creative and who appreciate sports does not have to conflict with the idea of a child who succeeds in school. I may not be completely comfortable with all my mother’s high expectations, but I will admit how valuable the lessons about hard work and persistence were to my own successes. All parents want to raise their children properly, and “Tiger Moms” simply believe that an important aspect of that is exposing their children to hardships from an early age.

Something can be learned from stereotypical “Chinese” methods. At the same time, there is also merit to “Western upbringing.” The best path may lie somewhere in between the two extremes. Instead of focusing on the problems with Chua’s methods, I believe we can utilize the best of each culture. Sometimes I wish my mother gave me more freedom to make my own decisions and to explore potentially “unsuccessful” endeavors. Sometimes I wonder if her strict methods stifled my creativity. Ultimately, I believe the best parent will allow his or her child to make some decisions alone, and to wander in the “wrong” direction, as my mother says. As kids, we need to make some choices for ourselves, in order to gain independence and free-thinking minds. At the same time, encouraging hard work and persistence are incredibly important. Such a balance will be difficult to achieve. With hard work, creative inspiration, and careful calculations, however, we should be able to do just that.

Caie Kelley is a 16-year-old high school student living in the San Francisco Bay area. In her free time she enjoys public speaking, swimming, running, music, and spending time with friends and family.