Tiger mom's 'apology' lost in translation

Updated: 2011-07-03 08:29

By Matt Hodges (China Daily)

Twitter Facebook Myspace Yahoo! Linkedin Mixx

Everybody's been ragging "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua for so long that it's just not fun anymore. The Wall Street Journal did it. did it (recently posting a photo of her daughter Sophia sporting a tiger tattoo for Mother's Day). Even I did it. Meanwhile, Time magazine made Chua senior a cover girl, and all it forgot to add were the tar and feathers.

Popular media, influential bloggers and behavioral psychologists alike have massed to label the woman as a psychopath masquerading as a parent. In reality, arguably the biggest crime she was guilty of was hubris - for wanting to publish the book in the first place, and have everyone agree on just how witty and well structured it was. She certainly wasn't expecting the literary equivalent of a public stoning.

"I love books with unreliable narrators," says Chua on today's episode of Culture Matters on ICS, mentioning David Sedaris as one of her muses. "I actually hoped there would be more of a literary acceptance of the book it's purposely full of contradictions."

As the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua's controversial memoir about her failed attempt to impose a strict "Chinese" model of parenting on her two teenage daughters, reminds audiences today the book was meant "as a kind of self-parody".

The Asian-American Yale law school professor even implies as much on the front sleeve of the English edition of her book.

Tiger mom's 'apology' lost in translation


So how did Chua go from being a proud - if, ironically, attention seeking - mom to a misunderstood pariah on the receiving end of death threats and hate mail in the West? Is it she who needs her head examined, or the rest of us? At the same time, she unwittingly persuaded a generation of Chinese mothers that starving your kids of any fun is the way to go (the book's title was translated in China as "Being a Mom in America").

As Chua clarifies on today's show, "The book actually celebrates rebellion ... at the very end of the book, I reveal that my father was the biggest rebel of all." (He eloped from Asia to MIT, against the wishes of his family).

Are we Western readers too quick to judge, too protective of our young, too guilty of the mistakes we have made in raising our own kids, or is Amy Chua really the devil incarnate?

Hardly, says her daughter Sophia, despite the young lady's admission that she has been put through the wringer since the book was published - not by her mom, but by the rest of the world. "It got really painful," she says. "All these people are calling me a robot".

Are we in the West so assured of the superiority of our generic parenting model - or so insecure about it? - that we happily leap on Chua like a pride of hungry lions and chew her to pieces, rather than question the weaknesses of our own system? Who is the bully here, the woman who tried to make her kids all they could be, or the public who could never forgive her for trying? At the same time, are we in the West doing a significantly better job of raising our offspring, or have we also let certain values slip over time?

As Chua's Jewish-American husband Jed Rubenfeld says on the show, "I never thought of it as East versus West I felt we were just parenting in a more traditional way". He then cites modern scourges such as high rates of teenage pregnancy, and alcohol and drug abuse in the US to support his argument that "permissiveness is not leading to greater happiness".

Meanwhile, daughter Sophia has been accepted into Harvard, where she has vague plans of becoming a writer, thus turning her nose up at the kind of career path that Asian parents typically push for. As writers are supposed to be a tortured bunch, she will be all the more grateful for her mom's mental episodes in child-rearing when she puts pen to paper and turns all that angst into a national best-seller - thus following in mom's five-clawed paw prints.

"I think I will also be a Tiger Mother," the 18-year-old said at a recent speech in Beijing.

Culture Matters is a cross-cultural bilingual talk show on International Channel Shanghai (ICS), airing every Sunday from 7 to 8 pm. Readers can also view the program online at

China Daily


90th anniversary of the CPC

The Party has been leading the country and people to prosperity.

My China story

Foreign readers are invited to share your China stories.

Green makeover

Cleanup of Xi'an wasteland pays off for ancient city

Mom’s the word
Big win