Tales of a tiger cub

Tiger cub playing grand piano
Illustration by Annie Nelson, ThreeSixty editor
Lisa Fan and her parents
Lisa Fan and her parents. Photo courtesy of Lisa Fan.
One of my recent college essay prompts was “What has been your greatest challenge in life?” and I joked that I wrote about having Asian parents.

When I think back to my childhood, the first things that come to mind aren’t toys, play dates, and TV. What comes to mind are flashcards, piano practice, and long division.

By the time I was three, I knew my multiplication tables and could read a couple hundred Chinese characters. I started playing piano when I was five years old. Even at that age, I practiced up to an hour a day. This is all because I grew up in a Chinese-American household.

Attack on the “Tiger Mother”

The publication Jan. 11 of the new controversial book, “Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother,” a memoir written by Amy Chua on her philosophy of Chinese parenting, is bringing lots of attention to how kids like me were raised. The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of the book Jan. 8, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”

Chua, a law professor at Yale University, has two daughters who weren’t allowed to go on play dates, to earn grades lower than an A, to play instruments other than piano and violin, or to watch TV. She even writes about calling one of her daughters “garbage.” Within days, the article generated thousands of reader responses because of her strict approach to parenting.

Many are curious to hear the other side of the story — how her kids handle Ms. Chua’s extreme parenting style. As the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants, I can relate to many of ideas discussed her writing.

Chinese parents expect excellence

My Asian friends and I often joke about putting up with Asian parents. One of my recent college essay prompts was “What has been your greatest challenge in life?” and I joked that I wrote about having Asian parents. But beneath the jokes, there is some degree of truth to the exaggerated stereotype.

Although my parents do not use extreme parenting methods like Chua does, some of the values and parenting methods she described made me think “been there, done that.”

The self-titled tiger mother made her kids practice the piano and violin for three hours at a time, not the 30 minutes she says “Western” parents consider strict. Chua writes that Chinese parents believe activities don’t become fun until after the child becomes good at the activity through tenacious practice.

When Chua’s then 7-year old, Lulu, refused to practice a difficult piano piece, she threatened to donate Lulu’s dollhouse to the Salvation Army. When Lulu continued to resist, her mother threatens her “with no lunch, dinner, or birthday and Hannukah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years,” Chua writes.

I started playing piano and violin at a young age, and my parents also used threats, but they weren’t as extreme. My parents threatened that they would make me quit my music lessons if I did not practice longer or more carefully. I’ve always had a love for music and I really enjoyed playing these instruments, so the threat worked for me.

My mother shared Chua’s belief in tenacious practicing; it is part of Chinese culture. Most Chinese immigrants work hard to get to the United States and they expect their kids to work hard too.

Although threats are effective, they did strain my relationship with my parents at times because I felt as if I was trapped, that either way, I wouldn’t completely get what I wanted. But I never really held any grudges about it, partly because of my personality; I consider myself to be fairly forgiving and thick-skinned.

As I got older, my parents loosened their control of my activities. I still had the occasional argument with my parents about whether or not my activities benefited me. I thought that any activity that I enjoyed and learned something from was beneficial, but my parents pushed for extra-curricular activities they believed would help me get into a top college: activities that would prove my leadership skills and give out awards to list on college applications. But I branched out, following my own interests. I quit violin and got involved in new things like tennis and Mock Trial.

My parents high expectations became my own

One value that my parents taught me when I was young that stayed with me through the years was the importance of doing well in school. This push for academic perfection is probably the most widely known stereotype of Asian parenting. Chinese culture stresses the importance of education.

When I was in elementary school, my parents encouraged me to get the highest test scores in my class and to do extra math problems at home on my own. I did not resent the high expectations they had for me. I loved making them proud.

I was an extremely shy kid, and my aim for my academic excellence also caused my classmates to notice me. I often raised my hand in class to show the teacher and others what I knew. The reaction from my schoolmates to me getting the best grades in class and raising my hand constantly in discussions wasn’t always positive though. I remember one person saying, “She thinks she knows everything.”

It confused me that something I did that could make my parents proud of me was the same thing that I could be ridiculed by my peers for doing.

As the years passed, this striving for perfection became a part of me. I remember crying after the eighth grade spelling bee when I came in second place. Somewhere along the line, my parents stopped pushing me and I started pushing myself.

Now when I get a bad test score, it is me that is disappointed, not my mom and dad. My parents never interrogate me anymore on my grades and test scores, because they trust that I will handle it.

I am thankful to them for raising me to get the most out of my education that I can. I wouldn’t be the student I am today without them. I am proof that Chua’s belief that the “Asian way” of high academic expectations and pressure is effective.

More freedom

I have had my share of disagreements with my parents though when it comes to my social life.

Growing up in a suburb of the Twin Cities, my classmates and most of my friends are white. There have been countless times when I have asked my parents why I’m not allowed to hang out with my friends as often or stay out as late as they can.

My parents’ reaction would be to compare me to other Asian kids whose parents were even stricter, and tell me that I am lucky. “So and so’s parents never even let them leave the house at night,” they would say. “And look at them. They made it into Harvard.”

These arguments left me upset and confused; I was just as well behaved and as good or better of a student as my friends, but I didn’t get the same freedoms. To this day, we clash over this issue.

But I understand that my parents grew up in a society and culture very different from mine. When my parents grew up, they wouldn’t dare disobey their parents. Familial piety and the respect of adults is a concept that is much more prevalent in Chinese culture than it is here.

We know that even though we’re family, we have different cultures in some ways, and we try to compromise as best we can. My parents promised to give me more freedom with my leisure time once I finished my college applications. But I compromised by applying to ivy-league schools that my parents felt I should apply to, as many Chinese parents do because of their academic prestige. If I don’t get in, it will be a bigger deal for my parents than it is for me.

When I become a parent

I do not think that there is a “correct” way of parenting. I believe that some aspects of the Chinese method of parenting are effective, such as the strong emphasis on education. It is true that Asians tend to be very successful academically, and much of the motivation and hard work habits that these kids develop starts at home.

I also like what Amy Chua pointed out about Chinese mothers not being afraid to criticize their kids. I think that to a certain degree, this is a good thing, and that many parents sugarcoat too much. But there’s nothing wrong with play dates, or participating in school plays — for one, it allows children to develop social skills and form good relationships with their peers.

Although piano ended up being a suitable choice for the quiet, independent child I was, piano and violin shouldn’t be the only extracurricular options given to a child. If all Asian parents thought that way, the product would be tons of musically gifted kids and no one would be unique!

Are the parenting techniques of so-called tiger mothers cruel? No. I can say from experience that in the end, they just want what is best for their kids. Culturally, what a Chinese mother feels that she has to do for her child to succeed is different from what a Western parent believes is necessary.

They have high expectations for their children because they believe that their children are capable of achieving great things. Chinese mothers believe in hard work, respect, and perfection, while Western mothers emphasize creativity, choices, and positive reinforcement.

My guess is that when I become a parent, my values will lie somewhere in between. I feel that neither parenting method is perfect and that lessons can be learned from both.

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