Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua

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Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother bears a disclaimer on the cover that it was originally meant to be a book about the clash between Chinese and Western parenting practices but instead is about Chua's own humbling experience with raising her daughters. As the book begins, Chua describes the strict rules that she established early on for her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa. The rules primarily address forbidden activities such as attending sleepovers, getting less than an A in classes, and being involved in school plays. The author admits that while her standards might seem rather stringent to most, they are common among Chinese mothers.

In Chapter 2, Chua introduces her firstborn child, Sophia, and with her description of Sophia's rather passive personality and ability to learn quickly, it seems that Chua's strict Chinese parenting methods will prove to be successful. Chua's husband Jed is Jewish, and they decided upon marrying that they would bring up their children Jewish, instead of focusing on Chua's Catholic religious heritage. For Sophia, this decision seems to work perfectly. She demonstrates the questioning nature of her father's ideology along with her mother's obsession with rote and drill.

Chua's second child, Louisa (nicknamed Lulu), possesses completely different attributes. The author admits that Lulu inherited her "hot-tempered" and "viper-tongued" personality. That commonality is most likely the impetus for their "nuclear warfare" relationship. Chua also points out that according to the Chinese calendar, Lulu was born in the Year of the Boar, which supposedly predestines one to be willful and obstinate. The author herself was born in the Year of the Tiger, which causes one to be powerful and authoritative. The first recorded clash between the Boar and Tiger occurs when Lulu (the Boar) is three. Chua, who has already obtained a piano teacher for Sophia, attempts to begin Lulu on the piano at a very young age. Lulu refuses to do anything that her mother asks of her in regards to the piano and eventually wins the face-off. At this point, Chua admits that she might have to try different tactics with Lulu, but she is unwilling to change any of the goals or rules that she has set for her two daughters. 

While Chua's standards for her daughters might seem unreasonable to most, she inherited her ideology from her parents. Her mother and father were raised in the Philippines by Chinese parents who had fled their country. Chua's own parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1960 and raised their children there. Chua acknowledges that she and her sisters always felt different from the other children in their Midwestern and California schools, and she knew that her parents held much higher standards for her than did her classmates' parents. One example she offers of those standards is when she earned second place as an eighth grader in a history contest. After the awards ceremony, Chua's father tells her never to disgrace him again by earning second place. From a Westerner's standpoint, this comment seems cruel and demeaning, but Chua grew up with the philosophy that she must do better and that her father not only wanted, but demanded her best. In BattleHymn, Chua practices this same philosophy with her children, in part, because she is afraid of generational decline. She acknowledges that she has strayed a bit from her Chinese roots and wonders how much further away her children will wander.

After explaining her family background, Chua discusses her piano teacher choice for Sophia. While at first she and Sophia disagree about practice times and Chua's demand for perfection, Sophia begins to win competitions and follows her mother's instructions without much complaining. Lulu, however, presents an immense challenge. Lulu demonstrates her natural...

(This entire section contains 2957 words.)

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musical ability during piano lessons, but Chua cannot rest with that. She believes that her two daughters should excel at different instruments so that they will not seem to be in competition with one another; hence the violin lessons for Lulu. Lulu does not go easily to her first lesson, but eventually settles into a tense truce with her mother. Every one of Lulu's Saturdays is spent practicing at home for three hours before going to the Neighborhood Music School in NYC for an individual lesson, followed by a group violin lesson, and a piano-violin lesson with her sister. Sometimes, Chua admits, she throws in more practice time at home after the girls finish their lessons at the NMS.

In Chapter 10, Chua explains the essential differences between Western and Chinese parents. She argues that while Western parents are overly concerned with their children's self-esteem, Chinese parents function in a completely opposite fashion. They believe that their children owe them everything and that they, as parents, know what is best for their children, even if that means overriding their children's seemingly natural desires and preferences. While Chua's husband Jed was raised in a vastly different environment, he and Chua choose the Chinese parenting model. Throughout the book, Chua offers examples of Jed's disagreeing with her stringent methods and harsh words toward their children, but he acquiesces early on, because the success of Chua's methods is indisputable. People constantly approach Jed and Amy and comment on their daughters' maturity and accomplishments.

As Chua's battle with Lulu over violin practice begins to intensify, she sometimes questions her strategy and sanity, but then Lulu reaffirms her mother's methods by relishing an achievement on the violin. The author uses that to convince herself that she has chosen the right path for her headstrong daughter. At the end of Part I, after one particularly intense argument with Lulu over her perfecting a specific violin piece for a recital, Chua promises Lulu that she will get her and Sophia a dog if she delivers a perfect performance at the recital.

Part II begins with a description of the girls' new dog Coco. True to her nature, Chua cannot resist trying to apply Chinese parenting to raising a dog. Coco is a Samoyed and is immune to Chua's instruction. Eventually, Coco inadvertently alleviates some of the pressure on Sophia and Lulu because Chua is distracted just a little from badgering them as she tries to train Coco. That distraction ceases, however, when Chua, Jed, and Chua's parents take the girls on a trip to Europe and Asia. While this is not the girls' first trip abroad, Chua uses it as an example for her readers to illustrate her intensity when it comes to the girls' practicing every day. Lulu's violin obviously travels well, but Chua faces unique challenges with Sophia's piano practice sessions. She somehow always manages to find a place for Sophia to practice but does exhibit some concern about whether her daughters when grown up will tell others that their mother was a control fanatic who ruined their vacations or that she provided them with opportunities to play in beautiful and unique settings.

Shortly after the family's return from Europe and Asia, Jed's mother Florence, known as "Popo" to the girls, is diagnosed with cancer and needs a place to rest and recover from treatments. Chua immediately suggests their apartment in New Haven. Jed is surprised by and hesitant about Chua's suggestion because his wife and mother have very different parenting philosophies. Chua will not budge, however, because as the child of Chinese parents, she knows no other way. Chinese children are raised with the mentality that it is their responsibility to take care of their parents in their old age or poor health and to provide a place for them to live if the parents so desire. The experience with Popo ends up being a very good one for the girls and a thought-provoking one for Chua. The girls love having their upbeat, larger-than-life, grandmother with them. And when Popo passes away from cancer, Sophia's and Lulu's speeches at her funeral demonstrate the lessons they learned from their grandmother's zest for life and happiness. Both girls express the desire to possess that same type of happiness. Chua ponders her daughters' speeches and wonders if she were terminally sick if her daughters would take her into their homes or if they would be too busy following lives of "happiness and freedom." Chua thinks of the many Chinese children who have taken in their elderly parents without resentment or bitterness and concludes that she is choosing the right path for her children. To comfort herself, she notes that out of the many families she has observed, Western children are no happier than Chinese children despite many Western parents' heavy emphasis on being happy.

As the girls mature physically and musically, Chua seeks out new teachers and opportunities for them. Her quests include an expensive road trip to visit a world-renowned teacher for Lulu. Chua not only makes her entire family (including Coco) accompany them, but she also pays all of the expenses for Lulu's current violin tutor and the tutor's boyfriend so that they can join them on the trip. Similarly, when Sophia wins the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall, Chua drives her husband crazy with her obsessiveness and the expenses of the after-party and clothing. During the same time that Sophia is preparing for Carnegie, Chua also makes Lulu try out for Juilliard's Pre-College Program. Lulu is not excited about the prospect, and neither is Jed. He was once a student at Juilliard himself but was expelled when he expressed his unwanted opinion to an instructor. In essence, Lulu "wins" this battle with her mother because she is not accepted into the program, but one of the leading violin teachers from the program invites Lulu to study with her; so Chua does not view the audition as futile.

Shortly after Sophia's very successful Carnegie Hall performance, Chua and her family travel to Budapest where the girls have an opportunity to perform together. Chua's friend Krisztina arranges the venue and asks a respected music teacher to rehearse with the girls. The practice session signifies a turning point in Chua and Lulu's relationship. The teacher, Mrs. Kazinczy, is extremely harsh with Lulu and tries to change much of what she has been taught. Lulu does not respond well to the woman's criticism and eventually storms out of the room and into the bathroom where she argues with her mother and refuses to return to the session. With Lulu furious and her family all in agreement with Lulu, Chua is forced to recognized that she has lost control of her daughter and that no Chinese mother would have allowed an outburst like Lulu's.

Back in the States, Chua admits to herself that Lulu had been rebelling since she was very young; it is just recently that her revolts have become more brazen and unmanageable. She begins intentionally trying to embarrass her mother in public and blames Chua for her not feeling accepted at school and her other insecurities. During this turbulent time period, Chua's sister Katrin is diagnosed with a rare and nearly always fatal form of leukemia. Katrin moves her whole family from California to Boston so that she can receive treatment, and this allows Chua to be closer to her sister and her family. After grueling treatments, Katrin finally experiences remission.

While traveling back and forth to Boston to help her sister and her family, Chua also plans Lulu's Bat Mitzvah. Of course, this leads to more turmoil between mother and daughter. Chua wants Lulu to play her violin for her Bat Mitzvah, and Lulu thinks that the idea is unconventional and ridiculous. She has already defeated her mother on the practice sessions in Budapest and on giving a toast at her father's birthday party (Sophia does so, and Lulu stands by stoically). Lulu ends up playing at her party and receives numerous compliments from her guests. After the performance, one of Chua's friends jokingly tells her that she wishes Chua had been her mother. Chua replies that no one would want her as a mother and confesses that her house had been filled with tension during the weeks leading up to the party. Her friend tries to assure her that she has helped her daughters perfect their abilities and that they will thank her one day. Her words fall flat on Chua's ears, however, because at this point she is uncertain about her parenting choices.

All of the battles with Lulu culminate in Red Square. When the family desperately needs a vacation, Jed and Chua take them to Russia. After walking Red Square, the family stops at a small restaurant for caviar and blinis, but instead of it being a fun cultural experience, Chua nags Sophia for taking too much caviar and tries to force Lulu to try the caviar. Lulu boils over and lunges into a tirade. She yells to a captivated audience that she hates her mother and their family and how everything her mother has done has been for herself and not for her daughters. She emphasizes her rant by smashing a glass on the ground. Chua is, to say the least, appalled. She writes:

I'd made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can't control their kids. Now I had the most disrespectful, rude, violent, out-of-control kid of all.

The only reaction Chua can muster is to flee the cafe. She gets up from the table and runs away to the end of Red Square. In the middle of the former Soviet Union's seat of totalitarianism, Chua realizes that many families have a symbol, and that she had unwittingly made the violin her family's symbol. For her, it signifies respect, excellence, and the rest of the many attributes she desires to develop in her daughters, but for Lulu (and, thus, for the rest of her family) the instrument symbolizes oppression. In a moment of self-reflection, Chua acknowledges that the violin has come to mean oppression for her too. After she calms down, she returns to the cafe where she tells Lulu, "We're giving up the violin." While Chua had often tried reverse psychology with her stubborn second daughter, this time she is serious. After watching her sister's battle with cancer, Chua recognizes what is important in life and does not want to lose her daughter.

Chua confesses in the Coda that she began writing the book the day after she and her family returned from Russia, in part to deal with her uncertainties about how to parent Lulu. She does stay true to her word, and when the family returns to the States, Chua tells Lulu that she does not have to continue the violin. Lulu tells her mother that she does not want to quit the violin: she simply does not want it to be her life. She wants to play tennis, and so Chua begins trying to accept Lulu's choice. Lulu quits the orchestra and then asks her mother if she can stop going to Sunday lessons with the famed Juilliard instructor and just go to a local teacher. Chua finds her a teacher in New Haven and also agrees to allow Lulu to practice only thirty minutes a day without her mother present. Lulu's decisions pain Chua, and it is difficult for her to accept her daughter's new interest in tennis.

Eventually, after a discussion with Lulu's tennis coach, Chua realizes that Lulu is improving in tennis and is unwilling to settle with mediocrity. The coach praises Chua's parenting and observes that Lulu's intensity is unique and impressive. The comments start to evoke the old Chua, and she begins thinking that perhaps she had just chosen the wrong activity for Lulu; maybe Lulu should have been taking tennis all along. When Lulu senses that her mother is becoming obsessed about tennis just like she had been with the violin, she warns her not to ruin the sport for her. Chua acquiesces, but she ends the book by admitting to "scheming" as she watches her daughter's tournaments.

In the Coda, Chua explains her writing process. She wrote the first part of the book quickly but struggled with the latter parts. Her husband and daughters reviewed each section carefully, looking for factual or "interpretive" errors. The Coda reveals that as Chua is about the finish the book, she discusses with her children what she has learned and is surprised when Lulu tells her that she is glad that Chua forced her to play the violin, memorize exponents, and learn Chinese. Both Sophia and Lulu have a strong sense of self, and readers can sense Chua's pride in her daughters.

After the book's first publication, Chua faced a merciless press and many online critics. She had not anticipated such a vitriolic reaction and wrote an afterword for the next publication. In it, she attempts to explain the purpose of her book (a self-deprecating view of her style of parenting) and to salvage her reputation as a mother. In many interviews, Chua is asked questions about snippets from her book that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Most of the "journalists" do not appear to have read the book and view Chua as an arrogant, mean-spirited, vainglorious mother. However, if one reads the book, Chua's overall satirical tone and her ability to mock herself and her obsessions are apparent and make the book much more than a simple memoir about parenting.