When Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, hit the shelves in January, American parents responded with outrage, unsure whether to feel threatened or horrified by Chua’s picture of the demanding Chinese mother. Within a month of its publication, Smith convened a panel to examine not only the book’s message, but also the responding uproar. As Lili Kim, associate professor of history at Hampshire, explained: “It struck a chord with people because they identified with her or disagreed with her personally.”
The panel, entitled “The Roar Over Amy Chua,” was sponsored by the East Asian Studies department. Panelists included professors from Smith and Hampshire colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Marnie Anderson ’97, associate professor of history at Smith, agreed with Kim that the book stirred up Americans’ anxieties on a personal level. “American mothers are facing unprecedented pressure to make every moment a teaching moment,” Anderson explained. “Many mothers already feel this pressure; then to be called by Chua a wine-drinking, spa-going Western mother who doesn’t care about education at all is maybe why some people found this a bit …offensive,” she said, laughing as she recalled her own reaction to the book as a parent.
According to Suzanne Gottschang, associate professor of anthropology at Smith, the media’s portrayal of the book was also a major reason behind Americans’ outraged response, fueled perhaps by the provocative Wall Street Journal headline, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” “It’s important to think about how the media is portraying our fear of China,” said Gottschang, noting for instance that coverage of American debt to China is exaggerated. “The Wall Street Journal doesn’t care about mothering. We need to think about why this is hitting a nerve with us.”
Chua’s book doesn’t necessarily do Asians any favors, either, said Floyd Cheung, associate professor of English Language and Literature at Smith. He noted that the book only perpetuates the stereotype of the over-achieving Asian. “Most stereotypes do have a reality,” said Cheung, “but reality aside, how damaging are the effects of the stereotype? It promotes racialist thinking—thinking of people as members of races, rather than as individuals.”
And what do students who were raised by so-called Tiger Moms think about Chua’s book? One of the many Asian-American students in attendance noted that Asian immigrants often saw education and success as their ticket out of poverty, and demanded that their children excel. Another student shared her own experience growing up with a Tiger Mom, pointing out that these demanding mothers can often feel ambivalent and conflicted as they push their kids to succeed. Ultimately, she was grateful for how her mother raised her. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here at Smith,” she said.