'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,' by Amy Chua

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Amy Chua

Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" did more than speak to me. It screamed, shouted and lectured me. It made me simultaneously laugh with empathy and cringe with embarrassment and exasperation.

"This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs," the book's cover declares. "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old."

Chua, the oldest of four daughters of Chinese immigrants, was raised to be "stereotypically successful." Three daughters have multiple Harvard/Yale degrees and matching high-powered careers. The youngest, who has Down syndrome, "holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming."

As the beneficiary of such parenting prowess, Chua is the John M. Duff professor of law at Yale and already has two books with intimidatingly complicated subtitles - "World on Fire" and "Day of Empire." She must never sleep (she equates less slumber with a fuller life): She teaches full time, writes lauded books and papers, maintains a grueling travel schedule and, most important, devotes herself to Chinese motherhood. "The truth is I'm not good at enjoying life," she readily admits.

With two gifted daughters, Chua is determined to reverse the predictable "family decline" she sees as a "remarkably common pattern among Chinese immigrants fortunate enough to come to the United States as graduate students or skilled workers over the last fifty years": The immigrant first generation sacrifices all (never scrimping on strictness) for the children's education and expected future success; the second generation will "typically be high-achieving" but less draconian with the children; the privileged third generation "will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution," leading to disrespect and disobedience ... and guaranteed generational decline.

"Well, not on my watch," Chua decides.

Sophia, her astonishingly accomplished, filially compliant elder daughter, made her Carnegie Hall piano debut at 14. Lulu, the cover-referenced 13-year-old who "humbled" Chua, performed for Jessye Norman, earned the tutelage of world-renowned violin teachers, was the concertmaster of an important youth orchestra and no matter how much she rebelled, managed to remain academically perfect.

Chua has "done it" - her Chinese mother skills have elicited phenomenal results (she does explain how "loosely" she uses the terms "Chinese mother" and "Western parents" - a working-class father from South Dakota, for example, can be a Chinese mother). But the cost of that success is far more than most parents would dare wager.

In spite of her charming glibness, her self-effacing confessions, her guffaw-inducing rants, Chua's jaw-dropping methods (even to a fellow Asian mother) are often of the "don't try this at home" variety: rejecting hurriedly handmade birthday cards, insisting she deserves better; "bloodbath practice sessions"; arranging piano access for multihour practices wherever the family vacationed (which was often and far); even humiliating her daughters to force them to present pitch-perfect tributes at their beloved grandmother's funeral. In the spirit of full disclosure, Chua admits to loneliness, rejection, flushing the "I hate you!" retorts quickly, in order to demand ever-greater excellence.

Not surprisingly, Chua is faced with a family ordeal that finally "shook things up for all of us." She ultimately admits to her own "failure," something she likens to the "Western parent I've become." The family's disastrous 2009 trip to Russia incites Chua to begin writing, which proves "therapeutic," as she shared every page with her husband and daughters. That husband, prominently absent on the book's cover, makes brief appearances, usually as a voice of reason; Jeb Rubenfeld, a non-Chinese, Juilliard-expelled former actor, now renowned Yale law professor, comes off as the easygoing, never-the-bad-guy parent.

While Chua rages against Western parenting - including Facebook and junk food - all the while quoting the Chinese values of the Founding Fathers, Rubenfeld was busy with "The Death Instinct," the sequel he had to write to his best-selling 2006 murder mystery in order to pay, he quips, for Chua's extravagances on behalf of their daughters.

Both the Western parent's entertaining thriller and the Chinese mother's heart-beating memoir hit the shelves this month. Can a follow-up by their gifted daughters be far behind?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

By Amy Chua

(The Penguin Press; 237 pages; $25.95)

Terry Hong writes a book review blog (bookdragon.si.edu) for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. E-mail her at books@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page HG - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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