By Athima Chansanchai
I’ve been struggling to write this since Amy Chuaâ€™s book reading Friday night, which brought back a lot memories for me.
The Yale professorâ€™s latest work, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” has been getting a lot of ink lately (both digital and print). The memoir, her third book, is about her experience as a strict parent raising two daughters â€“ and her views on parenting as they relate to being Chinese. Since it was published in January, it has been controversial — garnering positive and negative attention from readers.
I even tossed my hat into the ring, writing a lighter twist on MSNBC.com on what I knew about the brouhaha and the memes it generated.
On Friday, Chua read to a group of us at the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, and as she did, it triggered memories of disappointing my dad.
He isnâ€™t Chinese, but as a Thai father with high-expectations and the kind of restrictive parenting style Chua describes in her book â€“ no grade less than an A, no sleepovers with American friends, nothing less than No. 1 is acceptable â€“ it touched a nerve. As a rebellious eldest child caught between two cultures, it reminded me of the epic clashes we had. His rules and overbearing personality made me feel helpless and enraged me. I could relate so well to Chua’s younger daughter, who brought her mother to the brink.
But, the book reading also gave me a chance to reflect on that, too, and to try to understand my father from another perspective, of a parent trying to do his best.
After years of getting my buttons pushed by not living up to his expectations of me, I’ve made peace with my father — and who I am.
And that night, I saw Chua in a similar way: human, fallible â€“ a parent struggling to do right by her kids, and who’s still learning. I realized that as much as she pushed her daughters to be better, she realized that she could be better, too. And although she came across as somewhat defensive to the criticism and the attacks on her parenting style and book, I saw her offer humility, too.
“This is a story of how I was humbled by a 13-year-old,” she said.
Some of the harshest criticism of Chua came after the Wall Street Journal published a book excerpt, which she said ran counter to the lessons of being a real parent with a real child who does not always conform to the rigid rules she wrote about at the beginning of the book. But, she said, the excerpt, independent of the end of the book, was a caricature of what she had been.
She told those of us in this packed, standing-room only basement that she wrote her book in a “moment of crisis,” and it turned out to be a coming of age memoir — for her. She acknowledged she was raised by “extremely strict, but extremely loving immigrant parents who had very high expectations, coupled with a deep foundation of unconditional love,” and she hoped to pass on the same model to her own children.
But, she said, she realized, almost too late, that her methods would not work on her younger daughter, who like her, “was a firebrand from the very beginning.”
This daughter, she said, was her comeuppance who locked horns with her from day one until they had a showdown.
As I previously mentioned, I get that dynamic. My father and I started arguing when I was in the second grade — over long division tables — and I think we both realized right then that I would not be the obedient, quiet daughter he wanted. The tension built up for years, reaching a crescendo on a family vacation to California when I was a teenager, with us almost coming to blows over having to replace a ripped contact lens for me.
Those were some dark days. But light eventually broke through. I went away to college — at least a plane ride away.
What I got from Friday night’s reading:
Chua wants, more than anything, for her kids to be confident, happy, social, independent and close to her. And she thinks she’s succeeded, but not without a considerable amount of challenges. “The message is not, I don’t love you,â€ she said. â€œIt’s not about grades, but to help your child be the best you can be. And it’s almost always better than what they think they can be.”
The message, she said, was: “I’m not going to let you give up.”
And maybe in his own way, thatâ€™s exactly what my father was trying to tell me.