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Chinese Moms: Joy Luck Club vs. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom

I grew up in a Chinese family with a mother who was very firm, but kind. It is very interesting to me to read about Chinese moms in the context of the new release, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, by Amy Chua. At first, I was horrified when I had the occasion to read an excerpt from the book. Then sadness took over when I felt compassion for Ms. Chua's daughters. Some of the things the author pointed out regarding her parenting style reminded me of my mother's stern style. Other snippets addressed by Ms. Chua led me to greatly appreciate my mother.

Sure, my mother, like Ms. Chua, expected her children to get good grades in school. Going to college in America was the path my mother paved for my siblings and me. There were no other options. And yes, she wore the pants in the family. My dad was rather passive...he left the raising of his kids to his wife. It is also true that piano and violin lessons were at the top of the list of extracurricular activities. My sisters and I were forced into piano lessons and my brother screeched endlessly on his violin. When I asked my mother if I could take drum lessons instead, I was told that drums were played by boys, not girls...drums were not lady-like! It is also true that Chinese moms often brag about their children to each other during social gatherings, so the expectations better be high. When you compare your children with your friends' children regularly, you have to find that "one up" to share with your friends. This phenomenon fed into the strict upbringing I experienced with schoolwork and piano practicing as the focus.


Regarding sleep-overs and extended summer camp experiences, Amy Chua believes that neither has their place in life. To an extent, this was true with my Chinese mother as well. The differences, however, make my mother look like an angel. My mom allowed us to have sleepovers and also allowed us to visit our friends' homes for sleepovers with ONLY the kids she had on her short "sleepover list". I couldn't just pick a random friend to have a sleepover with. My mom had to know my friends' mothers  for extended periods of time before she allowed me to go stay at their house. When it came to summer camps or extended periods away from home, my mom had no issues at all. I went to horseback riding camp as much as I wanted.

The difference between my mother and Ms. Chua, however, is that my mother also valued my interests as well. I took horseback riding lessons twice a week in-between practicing the piano and doing my homework. My mother paid for the lessons because I wanted to go riding, not because she felt it was the best sport for me to focus on as a child. I was allowed to join any clubs I wanted to participate in during my middle and high school years.

I can safely say that my mother's behavior paralleled the behavior of most of my friends' Chinese moms. My Chinese childhood friends all played the piano, all went to college with good entering GPA's and gave good reasons for their mothers to brag during their three hour social luncheons. This was the way a Chinese mom behaved when I was growing up.

I would say that the more accurate portrayal of the Chinese mom can be found in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. In this novel, four American-born Chinese girls reflect on their upbringing by moms who grew up in feudal China. The four girls reminisce about growing up under strict rule at home. Their mothers forced them into piano lessons, expected good grades, and spent hours bragging about their daughters at social functions. There are two main periods of time when Chinese moms will brag on their children...during long, drawn-out meals and during the endless hours of playing mah-jong. Of course, I failed to mention earlier that my mother also enjoyed hours and hours of stacking and re-stacking the little mah-jong tiles between stories of triumph about the kids. It is this mah-jong club that brought the moms together to share their child-rearing triumphs and tribulations in the novel.

In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan also portrayed the Chinese mothers as very loving and giving even though they don't quite know how to express their feelings. In my own family, "I love you" was never said out loud, in words. The love that a Chinese mother has for her children is expressed through actions rather than words. This theme ran parallel in all my friends' homes when I was growing up as well. I never heard people say, "I love you" to each other until I moved to the United States.

In Reality...

I would move to conclude that, upon reflection of what I remember about my childhood experiences, I would say that Amy Tan's portrayal of a Chinese mother is more typical. Amy Chua's method of raising her children is atypical and, in my opinion, gives Chinese mothers a bad name. I will agree, however, that Chinese moms raise their children with very different, much higher expectations, than western moms. The trend I'm seeing in the United States is less strict structures where children living with a sense of entitlement is increasing. If anyone out there wonders what it was like to grow up in the 60's, 70's and 80's with a Chinese mom, read or watch The Joy Luck Club.

Amy Chua's Response To Public Outrage


Virginia Kearney from United States on January 19, 2013:

Such an interesting review! I've read Joy Luck Club and heard about Tiger Mom. I've always had many Chinese friends and students at the University I teach at and I also teach an essay which discusses this sort of mom and usually my Asian students say their mom was like that too. As the mom of 2 adopted Chinese children, I sometimes wonder how my children will feel interacting later in life with Chinese people raised by Chinese parents. My children are French/Scottish/Irish/German on the inside, even though they are Chinese on the outside. I've heard that adopted children who go to China are immediately recognized as American, not just because of their clothes but because of the way they carry themselves and their facial expressions and gestures. Interesting, I think. Your parents were Chinese, but they also sound like they were international and forward thinking in outlook. Great hub!

gypsumgirl (author) from Vail Valley, Colorado on February 06, 2011:

Denise, thank you for your thoughts and insights. I would agree with you that Ms. Chua is a little over the top. I believe in strict, but not traumatic. Rejecting a piece of art from a second grader is traumatic...what a self-esteem crusher! Thank you for reading my hubs!

Cardelean, I agree with you about expecting the best and that, in my mind, is good enough. When I was in the classroom, my response to the question, "Is this good?" was always, "What do you think? Did you do your very best?" The students usually said, "yes," and that was good enough for me. When given the chance, children will generally put their all into something... Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

cardelean from Michigan on February 06, 2011:

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Very thought provoking hub. I had seen another interview with Chua and had not thought to make that comparison to The Joy Luck Club but it was a great one. I think that all parents need to remember that children can reach and exceed the bar that is set for them but that it doesn't need to be done in a way that may be detremental to their self esteem. As a teacher and a parent I expect nothing less but the best from my children and students but I shower them with praise and encouragement. I do believe though that "American" parents focus too much on extra curricular activities and not enough on academics with the belief that this will help them to "make it." I do admire the Asian cultures in placing such great importance in education. I think that is lacking greatly in the US. Great piece, thanks for sharing.

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on February 05, 2011:

Gypsumgirl-One of my longest friendships and best friends is Chinese. Growing up with Claire and her family was an experience just as you described and much different from my own. Claire and her siblings were expected to excel in school, (my parents had their own aspirations for us, but the bar was lower); and to take piano and violin lessons. I always admired her this ability, although she hated the violin; and she was kind enough to 'teach' me some basic piano one summer.

I loved your insight and comparison of the Joy Luck club moms (which I did watch) and Tiger mom. I recall so many evenings with Claire's mom participating in a monthly mah jong game with her friends. Claire was part of the core 'girl friend' group I grew up with and we've known each other for 50 years! Sleepovers were all part of this experience...although, I probably was on her mother's 'short list', LOL

I enjoyed your piece and truly do understand what is going on in this great debate about Tiger Mom. She is a bit over the top, in my opinion. One can have effective parenting, strict rules and value and incorporate kindness and understanding along with that. Why not? Others have with just as effective success. It might be that Amy Chua has some issues of her own. I saw one interview in which she had admitted rejecting a mothers day card one of her daughters made for her. I cannot imagine doing that to a child. That takes some steel b...s. Well, so much for my opinion. I enjoyed your hub.

gypsumgirl (author) from Vail Valley, Colorado on January 31, 2011:

Monisajda: You are right on about my mom. After many years of reflection and life experiences / observations, I believe that my mom did an excellent job raising us. Although there were many strains in our relationship growing up, I know that as an adult, I'm so much better off because of some of those painful experiences. In the end, it's all good! :)

Monisajda from my heart on January 30, 2011:

It seems like your mom was a sensible person who cared for you and had high standards for you and your siblings. Being a foreigner in USA she had to make choices that might not be too popular with kids but gave you an advantage over your peers, that's how I see it. I like the fact that she had a "short list" for sleepovers, this is something I could probably use, too. See, I kind of understand where your mom is coming from.

gypsumgirl (author) from Vail Valley, Colorado on January 30, 2011:

Sally's Trove: I agree with you about the memoir piece. Chua admits she was a harsh, and from what I understand, she has put some slack back into the reins, especially on her younger daughter. Even though Joy Luck Club was a dramatic novel, Amy Tan was inspired to write it because she brought her dying mother back to China to meet the daughter she left behind. Loosely a memoir...

Like Amy said, it's not a "how-to", but a reflection on how she raised her children in their earlier years.

Thanks for reading!

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on January 30, 2011:

Well, this is a lot to chew on. I have to wonder where Chua failed to present her work as a memoir (her discussion in the PBS video), or, where readers failed to understand her work as a memoir because they don't know how to differentiate one form of literature from another.

Having read "Joy Luck", "Tiger Mom" is now on my list. Thank you.

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