February 21, 2011
Book Club: We're All Just Making This Up as We Go Along, Aren't We?
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

As I said in my intro to this book club, I'm having trouble articulating my thoughts on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  I'm caught between talking about the substance of the book and the "meta": how Chua presents herself and her story.  So let me try a paragraph or two on each.

First, substance. Chua presents a strident call-to-arms, "we're different and that's better and we're not going to succumb" approach with a conviction in her own rightness at which I marvel.  Because parenting is such a shot in the dark.  We make choices for our kids and hope that we're doing the right thing for them, equipping them for a world we can't even imagine, any more than my parents in 1983 could imagine the YouTube or the iPhone4.  But we don't know what the right thing is, in general or for any particular child.   Maybe pushing a child to be "number one" is the answer.  Maybe it's the road to depression, self-loathing, and dysfunction.  We don't know.  We just kind of fake it and hope for the best. 

Lyrissa reminds us of Herodotus' teaching that we can't say anyone is happy until they are dead, i.e. until the end of the story. I share Christine's sense of frustration with Chua's nonending, but I also think that's a strength of the book.  We don't, any of us, know how our children's story will end.  Hopefully none of us will.

In terms of meta, Sarah just posted an elegant account of the many Amy Chuas, so I'll content myself by observing the destabilizing role of death in the book.   Some of the most haunting lines for me described Chua's relationship with her mother-in-law, Florence.  Here's the passage:

Florence saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed.  I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.  Florence always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl--she begged me for that.  But I never had a full day for them to spare.

I find these words almost unspeakably sad. 

Chua recounts how, in a conversation where her cancer-ridden sister has just told her that she didn't have any hope for survival, Katrin tells her not to be so hard on Lulu.   Chua is a frustratingly unreliable narrator, but it seems like Katrin's sickness, the loss of Florence, and Lulu's intransigence combine to force Chua to acknowledge that some things are outside her control.  She can't quite give up her old ways (tennis, anyone?), and "humbled" certainly seems like the wrong adjective to describe her at the end of the book. But she does seem more willing to make things up as she goes along and to let us see her doing it. 

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