Tao of tough love
Riveting tale of mother’s drive to raise high-achieving children by embracing harsh ‘Chinese way’ proves a bit thin in the end
This is one outrageous book, partly thanks to Amy Chua’s writing style — Chua is pugnacious and blunt, with an unerring nose for the absurd — but partly thanks to her parenting style: “I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality!’’ she tells her piano-playing daughter. And: “If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!’’ Welcome to the world of the Asian Music Mama. If this book were a video, it would go viral.
Chua is a second-generation Chinese-American, Yale Law School professor trying to raise her children “the Chinese way.’’ In this effort, she is blessed with a saintly Jewish-American husband and two spectacularly talented children, on whose behalf Chua lays down, for starters, the many things they are not allowed to do: “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, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, and not play the piano or violin.’’
The girls play the piano and violin.
“What Chinese parents understand,’’ Chua goes on to say, “is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence . . . Once a child starts to excel at something — whether it’s piano or math — he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction . . . This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.’’
By way of illustration, Chua gives samples of the measure-by-measure practice notes she routinely made for her daughters: “m. 180: Practice entrance. Direction! Start w/ slower bow, then get faster, most on high B! m. 181-83: drill clear articulation — quick, light fingers! m. 185: 1/2 the bow speed on chords — lighter!’’ Never mind that at one point Chua’s husband finds teeth marks on the piano; still, Chua pulls the girls out of school to get extra practice time in, packs their weekends with classes, and drives fantastic distances to work with special teachers. How she manages to hold down a job while doing all this is a mystery. And is she a true mother or a true monster? This is harder to say than one might think.
Far clearer is the conflict between her practices and American norms: “I sometimes wonder if the question ‘Who are you really doing this for?’ should be asked of Western parents too,’’ she writes. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning dreading what I have to do and thinking how easy it would be to say, ‘Sure Lulu, we can skip a day of violin practice.’ Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, ‘As much as it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts.’ . . . Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me.’’
Now, not all Asian mamas are Asian Mamas, of course, and I hardly need to point out that you don’t have to be Asian, or even a mama, to be an Asian Music Mama. Brahms had one, after all, as did Beethoven and Mozart. Still, I suspect that aspects of Chua’s approach may have resonance for some readers of Asian heritage. As much as I wanted to condemn Chua’s calling her children “garbage,’’ for example, I found that it felt like condemning, well, my Asian mama.
Chua merits kudos for tromping where few dare tread. And yet I did eventually weary of her slapdash manner and wish that she had allowed herself more of the tonal modulation and nuance she demanded of her girls. As much life as there is in her pugnacity, there is arresting vitality, too, in her recollection of her mother’s description of “Japanese soldiers holding her uncle’s jaws open, forcing water down his throat,’’ and in her momentary awareness, at a Julliard audition, that almost all the other parents were foreigners or immigrants for whom “music was a ticket’’ and whose motivation so exceeded hers that she feared, “I don’t have what it takes.’’ These moments point to some of the trauma and insecurity that power the Asian drive to succeed; I wish she had given them their due. And where she does discuss Asian families and the relationship between generations, might not she have written a bit more about what “success” signifies in Asian vs. Western culture? And what about the implications of her training methods? I would have welcomed her reflections on for whom they are finally good, and under what conditions, as well as what sort of people they produce with what sort of worldview.
The cultural divide Chua so brilliantly captures is one we stand to witness more and more in our globalized age, after all; and what with Asia and Asian achievement looming ever larger in the American imagination, the issues inherent in “Battle Hymn’’ are as important as they are entertaining. There is a real missed opportunity here. Still, let me say: I was riveted by this book, and as the girls’ ambivalence grew, and the story hurtled, inevitably, toward crisis, I cried for them all. It was a relief to learn that the girls went on to help their mother write this book, and gave it their blessing.
Gish Jen’s latest novel is “World and Town.’’ She can be reached at www.gishjen.com.