Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reflections from a Wounded Tiger Child

About a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article called "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" containing excepts of Yale Law Professor Amy Chua's book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". If you haven't read it yet, then please stop reading this post and read the article before proceeding. Needless to say, her authoritarian parenting methods, attack of "Western" parenting styles, and overall use of dichotomous and overly simplistic comparisons of Western vs. "Chinese" culture have resulted in much uproar and debate from people representing differing cultures and parenting styles. A number of responses have popped up online, easily accessible with a simple Google search.

I realize this article was published almost two weeks ago, but I suppose the reason it's taken me this long to respond is because of my initial reaction upon reading it for the first time. Let's just say I was left so distraught that I was essentially incapacitated for the rest of the weekend. While I've read controversial and infuriating pieces of literature in the past, the last thing I expected was to have such a strong emotional response from something published in the Wall Street Journal. After spending a good amount of time perusing blogs, talking to my friends (who are tired of hearing about this subject), talking to my mother (who didn't help things at the time), and doing some self-reflection, I think I've calmed to the point where I can now discuss the subject of "Tiger Mothering" without resorting to vitriol.

The subject of my masters thesis was the relationship between perceived parental pressure and the onset of mental illness among college aged students. Initially, my plan was to discuss the potential harms of "Tiger Mothering" using studies from my literature review. I had also plan to discuss the fallacious "Western vs. Chinese" ideas perpetuated by Amy Chua's article and book. However, I know these subjects have been discussed ad nauseum on other blogs and news sites. Hence, I think a more effective use of this space would be to discuss my personal experiences with Asian parents who employed some "Tiger Mother" tactics. When it comes to my parents I always have a lot say, but to prevent this post from turning into a novel I'll try to keep the scope focused on their parenting style in relation to Amy Chua's methods.

Upon personal reflection, there are some big differences between my parents and Amy Chua. Unlike Amy Chua's children I was allowed to go on occasion playdates, choose my own extracurricular activities, be in a school play, watch TV, play video games, and play flute and percussion (in addition to piano). However, like Amy Chua's children I was not allowed to attend sleepovers or get grades less than an A. Additionally, having my grades drop from an A+ to an A was an issue of contention with my mother, who nearly confronted one of my teachers at one point. Regarding class ranks, the junior high school and high school I attended didn't have any, and I was fortunate enough to be valedictorian of my elementary school class. However, I knew being the best was important to my parents. Similar to Amy Chua, I was reprimanded when I only received 2nd place in an 8th grade spelling bee contest. During freshman year of high school, I was grounded for telling my parents that they shouldn't expect me to be valedictorian (before I found out my school didn't have one).

It's hard to say whether parental pressure put me at an advantage in life. In many ways, I feel the pressure ultimately left me at a disadvantage. From elementary through high school, I got straight As due to the utter fear of being punished if I brought home a B. My classmates and friends never understood why I was so against getting a B, and I was often bullied for my perfectionist tendencies. I suppose many of my teachers didn't understand either, with one teacher nicknaming me "Ms. Perfect" and another telling me to tell my parents to "get a life" (nearly resulting in a confrontation with my mom later that day). However, in an urban school district with a lot of problem students, most teachers appreciated my passive and overachieving nature. Such an attitude kept me out of trouble, brought straight As, and eventually earned me some respect among my peers. Similarly, a submissive and obedient attitude was the easiest way to avoid criticism at home, though the most minute slight would nevertheless result in hours of verbal lashing and unfounded accusations of slacking off, drug use, and/or sexual behavior. I suppose this pressure to please everyone paid off with my acceptance into one of the top public universities in the nation. However, the need to satisfy everyone at the expense of my needs would result in a litany of problems to come.

When it came time to go to college, I was essentially told by my parents that I had to go to medical school or "go to hell". By that time, going to medical school was something I did not want to do. I recall one night when I broke down and pleaded with them to let me study something else, but they would not budge. While they viewed becoming a doctor as a way to achieve wealth and prestige in life, I saw it as a lifetime enslaved to something for which I had no passion. In fact, I knew by then that my passion was in music. Little did my parents know about the amount of time I spent playing music, as I practiced in private due to their tendency to yell at me if I made too many mistakes or played something "useless" like warm-up scales. My parents essentially disallowed the notion of studying music in college, and I can't help but wonder if Amy Chua will react the same way if her prodigious children consider music as a major when they reach college.

Needless to say, my grades suffered greatly as an undergraduate. I had no passion for the subject I was studying and essentially had no hope for any happiness in my future. Furthermore, I turned into a problem student due to my poor test scores and began to receive insults from my peers concerning my academic performance. When I complained to my parents about how much I hated what I was studying, they merely screamed at me to further bury myself in my studies so I enjoy it. College life was miserable, though this misery was masked by the euphoria I experienced from playing in my university's marching band.

Unfortunately, this joy was short lived as this extracurricular activity brought a new slew of challenges. While I took an active part in my college marching band, I ultimately was never given an opportunity to have a leadership role in the group. Each time I applied, I was denied, with fellow bandmembers stating that it was due to my lack of self-confidence and leadership ability. More blunt members stated that my passivity and push-over demeanor made me socially awkward and unlikable. Personality traits that worked for me in high school no longer worked for me in my college social relationships. In fact, when I being in constant contact with the same band members opened the door to dating, I was repeated passed up for females who exuded more confidence in themselves. Eventually, I got fed up I forced myself to become more assertive and resistant to the relationship setbacks, put-downs, and bullying. Unfortunately, this was unfamiliar emotional territory for me, and ultimately resulted in me angrily throwing a glass of water in someone's face for making a friendly joke about my instrument. Needless to say, I often wonder how things would have turned out differently if I was allowed me more time to explore social relationships and even date in high school. Moreover, I can't help but think that things would have been different if my parents used a parenting style that promoted confidence, courage, and resilience instead of obedience, acquiescence, and fear.

Two years into college my parents finally realized how unhappy I had become and relented on their desire to have me go to medical school. While I ultimately went on to graduate school and completed my Master of Social Work program with honors, I know that deep inside my parents are disappointed that I did not fulfill their dream of me becoming a doctor. While I still have no desire to become a doctor today, the idea that I have shamed my family by something inferior in their eyes is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It is also something I will have to face on a daily basis if I choose to stay in a field of social work that requires constant interaction with doctors.

That's not to say that I don't feel gratitude towards my parents. I am forever thankful to my parents because of their sacrifices while I growing up and their financial (and eventually emotional support) while I was in college. I know that without them, I would not be where I am today. Concurrently, I strongly feel that the way I was raised played a major factor in my decision to become a social worker.

Following graduate school, I moved back home with my parents to save money while I looked for a more permanent job/vegetated after 17 years of school. Things have definitely been different compared to when I lived with my parents while growing up. Nowadays, I get away with leaving the house to see friends and debating my parents when I feel they're wrong on an issue. However, there are old habits I still can't change, such as my avoidance of the piano when my parents are home.

I've read a number of great responses online from Asian-Americans negatively affected by their "Tiger Parents" rearing. I know that college is over, but to say that the way I was parented doesn't affect me today would be downright dishonest. While I like my profession, I often wonder if I would be happier as a musician or band director (their salaries are similar to that of a social worker anyway). My close friends continue to express concern regarding my lack of self-confidence, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Despite having a decent number of friends and acquaintances, I feel that my social skills pale when it comes to meeting new people, carrying discussions, and avoiding social awkwardness. When it comes to my own profession, I still feel insecure because my family does not deem it as lucrative or prestigious than if I had become a doctor or lawyer. My own boyfriend is an engineer, and while he has repeatedly stated that he supports my profession, I still can't help but wonder if he and his parents also view me as inferior because I am a social worker and not something "better". Every day is a new battle against myself and my past, and while I've made plenty of progress in attempting to reclaim my life, I anticipate it may take a while to finally overcome the hold my parents have on me from their "Tiger Parenting" tendencies.

Well, that's my story, which turned out a lot longer than I anticipated. It's amazing how a simple book except can trigger years worth of memories and repressed emotions. That's not to say that I'm entirely against Amy Chua and the message she attempts to send in her book. I will acknowledge that she makes some good points about the "softness" of some parents in existence today, resulting in some lazy, spoiled, and entitled children. Additionally, I will give her credit for reforming her authoritarian ways by the end of her book following the rebellion of her 13 year old daughter. It seems that the Wall Street Journal article did misrepresent her book as a whole, but the resulting controversy probably did her a favor by boosting her sales. As for me, I never plan on buying or reading her book. As interesting of a read as it might be, I'd rather spend my free time not reliving these painful aspects of my childhood. If a Wall Street Journal article can put me in such a state of distress, then I fear what "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" might do to this already wounded "Tiger Child".