February 21, 2011
Book Club: How do you solve a problem like Lulu?
Posted by Mehrsa Baradaran

I think this book and all the hype surrounding it are a result of several factors: cultural insecurities vis-à-vis Chinese “superiority,” our constant cultural dialogue about parenting, Amy Chua’s purposefully provocative platitudes and positions, and most importantly, that there are nuggets of truth in the book that resonate with us. She’s right that nothing is fun until you are good at it. Maybe even parenting.  And being a good parent is exhausting work because as Chua says: you have to go against you and your child’s natural inclination to coast, avoid conflict, and not do things that are painful and difficult.

Reading this book, I was overcome with two feelings: Recognition and guilt.

Recognition: In many ways, I am just like Amy Chua—unfortunately, the similarities do not extend to my career achievements (yet…). I am the oldest of three girls (and a boy), we immigrated to America, my parents had really high expectations for academic excellence and we were not allowed to go to sleepovers or even think about boyfriends or other such nonsense.  I went to law school because I did not want to go to medical school (and my parents were extremely disappointed by this choice). My younger sister is a law professor as well, the youngest girl is graduating from medical school this year, and my little brother (16) is on the junior national ski team and is internationally ranked in his event. (I am also married to an American whose nickname is Jed and who knows how to enjoy life)

In Iran, like China, students are ranked at a very early age and I was always number one. In second grade, for the first time, I got a 19 on a test (out of a possible 20). I was so angry with myself that I came home and agonized over my “failure” and poured over the class materials to figure out where I had gone wrong. I was elated when I saw that the teacher had actually been wrong according to several textbooks that I consulted. I marched back to the school with my mother and got my 20. In America, I was surprised by how little rigor there was in school, by how much time we spent talking about “non-academic” subjects and how little my classmates seemed to care about being number one. I have to say, that unlike Amy Chua, I started caring a lot less myself. My parents were so busy trying to survive in America that they couldn’t hover over us the way they would have liked. However, the expectations of excellence remained and so did the constant reminders that we were not like American children. Meaning: we were not allowed to do the things they did, we were not allowed to be disrespectful to our parents, we were not allowed to get B’s or not have careers, or care about things like prom or TV or popular music.

Consequently, I was brought to tears in several passages of the book where Chua talks about her upbringing. Especially, where she describes what happens to the immigrant work ethic after a few generations. Like Chua’s parents, my parents worked hard because it meant survival (my dad was a neurosurgeon in Iran and came here and started all over again with his medical career and both my parents worked hard just to put food on the table). We kids worked because we owed it to my parents to succeed to repay them for their sacrifices.  We also worked because we had experienced the fruits of hard work first hand (after many years of hard work, my father was able to become a successful physician again).

But what about our kids? Born into privilege and removed from that intense understanding of work that comes from being a foreigner forced to stand on your own two feet or fall hard. How will our children learn to work hard?

Which is where the guilt comes in. My oldest of three daughters is 5 years old and like other working mothers that I know, I am constantly racked by guilt that I am not doing enough (and don’t have enough time) to teach and prepare my children to live a successful life. I don’t have the dreams that Ms. Chua had for her kids-I will settle for a lot less than musical prodigies. But what resonates with me completely is the need to teach my children hard work.  The type of work that makes you uncomfortable and exhausted. I think Chua is incredibly insightful when she talks about expecting the best from your children and teaching them to resist their natural urges.

The similarity with Ms. Chua does not stop with my background. I have three daughters. My first is just like Sophia—good at everything she does and naturally a pleaser. My second, whose name is actually Lulu (short for Lucia) is exactly like her Lulu—hilarious, obstinate, and head-strong. I lie awake at night worrying about my little Lulu too.

I will not be using Ms. Chua’s book as any sort of instruction manual, but reading it has been a nice reminder that I need to devise a plan for this privileged third generation that I am raising so that the lessons I learned from my struggles as an immigrant child are not lost on them.

I think this book and all the hype surrounding it are a result of several factors: cultural insecurities vis-à-vis Chinese “superiority,” our constant cultural dialogue about parenting, Amy Chua’s purposefully provocative platitudes and positions, and most importantly, that there are nugget of truth in the book that resonate with us. The truth is that nothing is fun until you are good at it. Even parenting.  And being a good parent is exhausting work because as Chua says: you have to go against your child’s and your natural inclination to coast, avoid conflict, and not do things that are painful and difficult.

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