by Tess Gerritsen
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting on a literary panel with Jed Rubenfeld, a soft-spoken and charmingly self-deprecating novelist whose debut historical thriller, The Interpretation of Murder, had just been released. After the panel, he invited me to an address in uptown Manhattan, where his daughter was giving a violin recital, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend. I thought it an unusual invitation to get from a fellow novelist — until he told me that his wife was Chinese. And then I thought: “well, of course,” and the invitation no longer seemed at all surprising to me. Because I’m the daughter of Chinese parents, and lord knows, I endured a childhood of countless violin and piano recitals, to which everyone my family knew was always invited.
Rubenfeld’s wife is now in the news, and in a big way. Her name is Amy Chua, she’s a Yale Law School professor, and she’s just released a memoir called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about being a Chinese mother. She also wrote an essay that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which resulted in a storm of publicity and criticism about her rather strict style of parenting. That essay has generated over 7200 comments and counting, some of them from people who call her an abusive control freak. I haven’t read the book yet (although I’m looking forward to it), but based on what I’ve seen of newspaper reviews, Chua’s book is funnier and more thoughtful than the essay makes it seem, and Chua’s two daughters have reportedly matured into happy, talented young women. Yet the criticism continues, because the American public is both astonished — and somewhat appalled — by Chua’s hard-driving parenting. For instance, her children were not allowed to:
• 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 No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
For most Americans, that looks like a shockingly autocratic list of demands. All I can say is, welcome to my childhood.
When I was growing up in California, all the Asian-American mothers I knew were Tiger Moms. Every single one of my childhood cohorts played the piano or violin or both. It wasn’t as if my parents said, “You want to play the piano?” Instead it was: “Your first piano lesson will be on Tuesday.”
So now I play the piano and the violin.
I was also told, like Chua’s kids, that anything less than an A was an unacceptable grade in school. Then, after my parents found out that there was an even better grade, called an A plus, they were no longer satisfied with a plain vanilla A. My grades all had to be A pluses. Except for physical education class, which was an exception that Chua also made for her kids. Chinese parents don’t really care whether their kids are jocks, and they consider team sports a complete waste of time. However, if it’s an individual sport where you can shine and make them proud — such as figure skating or gymnastics — that’s okay.
As for sleepovers? Dates with boys? No way. My dad absolutely forbade me from dating until I was a senior in high school. That doesn’t mean I actually followed the rules. Chinese kids learn early how to get around those rules.
I’m glad that my parents weren’t as strict as Chua when it came to some school activities. I was allowed to perform in school plays, which was my biggest pleasure in high school. I acted, wrote, and directed, which helped me learn the basics of drama — lessons that helped me as a writer. I’m also grateful that my parents let me watch TV. I can’t imagine a childhood without “Star Trek” or “Gilligan’s Island” or — hanging my head in embarrassment — “Mr. Ed.” Those were cultural touchstones that made me into a real American.
But in so many ways, mine was the classic Chinese-American childhood. For the most part, I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful that I play the piano and violin, that I was accepted at a top university, that I earned my medical degree.
But there’s also a dark side to growing up with tiger parents. I’ve heard from too many Asians whose dreams of careers in the arts were thwarted by their parents. One 45-year-old computer engineer wrote me, mourning the fact he was now too old to pursue a fashion career. “I have only one life, and I’m spending it at a job I hate. Because it’s what my parents wanted for me.” I heard the story of a young man whose parents wouldn’t let him pursue a singing career, and instead demanded he became a doctor. The day he earned his medical degree, he called his father and said, “I’ve done what you wanted. Now I’m doing what I want.” And he became one of the top opera singers in China.
My own childhood, with its emphasis on staying home alone and studying, probably led to my continuing feelings of social ineptness. I still feel awkward in cocktail parties. Small talk is beyond me. I never learned to be comfortable in social situations — and I wonder if other Asian Amerians feel likewise.
When it came to raising my own children, I have to admit, I’m a failed Tiger Mom. My husband is Dutch, and you know how lenient those hang-loose Dutch are. Anything goes! I managed to hang onto a few Tiger Mom practices. My older son plays the violin and my younger son plays the cello. I never asked them if they wanted to play an instrument; I just told them it was time to start. But all the rest of it? Demanding they practice their instruments? Get straight A’s? Get into Harvard? Way too much work for this laissez-faire mom. Instead, I’m the mom who waited in line with my kids for the midnight showing of “Star Wars, Episode I” and wrote them this excuse note for school: My sons couldn’t make it to school yesterday because they were exhausted from watching the premiere of the new “Star Wars” movie, which I felt was an important cultural event. Yes, I really wrote that note. My sons still talk about it.
As a Tiger Mom, I failed. I’m no good at demanding obedience from anyone. And my boys have been allowed to pursue their own dreams, even if those dreams are wildly impractical.
After all, it’s what I did; I wouldn’t expect them do do any less.