Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Don’t Pull the Tiger’s Tail

Written by: on May 28, 2015

I was born in the Year of the Dragon. I don’t take much (any) stock in astrology, much like Amy Chua, the Tiger mother who tells her own story as a Chinese mother raising two daughters in her satirical memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. [1] Persons born in the Year of the Dragon are “usually a group of people who are lively, intellectual and excitable, they can tell right or wrong clearly, upright and frank. However, they are also a bit arrogant and impatient. Female Dragons tend to be over confident. They hate hypocrisy, gossip and slander. They are not afraid of difficulties but hate to be used or controlled by others.” [2] If this description is at all accurate (and I might acknowledge some consistency), the world should be grateful that I am not a Chinese mother.

Amy Chua’s memoir provides an insightful, humorous, candid overview of the challenges she faced trying to raise her American born daughters according to her commitment to sustain Chinese culture and tradition. It was not smooth. Chua starts her memoir with a brief overview of Chinese parenting values. These, as read by an American, may sound a wee bit harsh.

“Unlike your typical overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; 95) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.” [3]

I can hear in my mind the gasps of the American mothers who read this. I can hear the complaints forming about stereotyping and having too high expectations and the potential psychological damage that such a style would cause children. Indeed, Chua writes in her afterward that there was significant backlash when her book was published and she was virtually crucified on news shows and in social media. But this book communicates so much more. In owning her own biases and values, she also communicates how she succeeded, failed, changed, and adapted to the different personalities of her two daughters. She pulls no punches. She reports her own exaggerated threats and shouts, her screaming matches with her youngest daughter, as well as the moments of joy in which she stood back while her daughters excelled. She does so with a satirical wit that made me laugh out loud at points.

I want to highlight two take-aways for me. First, Chua speaks significantly about the high expectations and boundaries she set for her daughters. She was usually unyielding. But the value guiding her behavior was a strong belief that her children were able to accomplish all that they set out to do. It wasn’t just that failure wasn’t an option; but rather, that failure did not reflect the potential and skill of her children. Chua writes, “First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self esteem…. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result, they behave very differently…. A Chinese parent demands perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them.” [4] Throughout the memoir, Chua stresses these high expectations and clear boundaries, but also demonstrates strong attachment to her children. Resilience researchers stress over and again that resilience is developed through having high expectations, clear boundaries and rules, and healthy bonded relationships. There may be some debate about high yet reasonable expectations, but the message is that if the expectations are low, the results are often low. Resilience research also teaches that individuals need opportunities to learn and practice new skills. Chua did this for her children.

I find that while I didn’t agree with everything Chua did, her results were good. Her daughters (and husband), read every page of her book, made edits and suggestions. In the end, her younger daughter, with whom she had the most conflict, was grateful. [5] It seems to me that many Western parents could learn a few lessons from the Chinese model.

My second key take-away was how effective Chua was in communicating the context of her culture. Yesterday I had the opportunity to fly to Boise and back to participate in a mediation. I did not meet all of the people involved in the issue. But throughout the day, as I heard the complaints, behaviors, and reactions of one of the individuals (whom I did not meet), I kept wondering, “Is she Chinese?” After the meetings were adjourned, I asked. And indeed she was. In fact, she is a first generation immigrant. I cannot explain exactly what led me to question her cultural background; it was just the little comments, subtle reactions, and difficulty asserting herself with authority figures. I would immediately think, when hearing one of these comments, how it sounded like what Chua was describing. I cannot, by any means, say that I now understand Chinese culture. But I can say I have some better insight.

I loved this book. I’ve told three different people about it in the past 24 hours. I think it is an excellent tool for increasing my ability to try and understand another person’s thoughts and feelings given their cultural context. Which I call cultural empathy.

[1] Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, New York: Penguin Books, 2011.
[2] TravelChinaGuide.com, “Chinese Zodiac – Year of the Dragon,” http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/social_customs/zodiac/dragon.htm.
[3] Chua, p. 5.
[4] Ibid, pp 51, 52.
[5] Ibid, p. 227.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

9 responses to “Don’t Pull the Tiger’s Tail”

  1. Deve Persad says:

    Thanks for engaging this book in this manner, Julie. If there’s a pet peeve that I have with the public education that my children have received in our city it is the tendency to challenge them to be mediocre. It drives me crazy! Your info on resilience research will only fuel that fire more: “Resilience researchers stress over and again that resilience is developed through having high expectations, clear boundaries and rules, and healthy bonded relationships. There may be some debate about high yet reasonable expectations, but the message is that if the expectations are low, the results are often low.” – the challenge in many circles is low expectations at home will almost always be match by low expectations at school – I don’t get the “everyone is a winner” philosophy…anyway, see, you got me started!

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Thanks Deve. I have to say that as I read Chua, though I found her extreme, it was the resiliency research that kept going through my head. She pushed her kids. She gave them skills – like discipline and hard work; values – of excellence and persistence. And as she struggled she learned about other values, like perhaps, maybe, there is something to this choice thing. She did not disregard self esteem – she just thought it was achieved through a different strategy: accomplishment. I don’t think she was perfect, but I think she ahs some things to teach us.

  2. Julie, great takeaways from this week’s book. What a great example of cultural intelligence been increased by reading this book. You were able to detect some of the conflicts that you had to mediate through were conflicts due to cultural differences. That is a great practical application of your reading this week. Awesome!

    I also found myself extremely intrigued by the story of this Tiger mother. I too laughed out loud at some things and also cringed at others. But I took it as it was meant to be, and as you did, a satirical memoir of a mother who learned through the process of what she went through. I agree with you and with Deve’s comment above that the American educational system often is too soft on students. I wrote in my post of how a businessman criticized the current American educational system. One of the reasons that all of my children are currently successful in academics is through our desire and tenacity to homeschool them. Each one of them were and are currently ahead of their grades. My oldest daughter, who has never attended a “brick and mortar” school began college classes at age 15. She will graduate from college at 17 with an Associates degree a month or two before she graduates from high school. My other two daughters are in line to do the same thing already at ages 11 and nine. Though I found Amy’s tactics Xtreme at times I do understand the frustration with the Western cultural mentality of everyone is a winner philosophy that David mentioned above. Again great takeaways you had from this reading.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Mitch – agreed with you on the everyone’s a winner thing. I think we all have strengths and that we can be successful in those areas especially. But I don’t think we should give awards simply for showing up. That’s a pretty low standard. Sure, it’s important and it’s a first step, but it certainly is not the whole story. I have had students tell me that they should have gotten an “A” on an assignment because they put in a lot of hours. I remind them that we give grades for competence and accomplishment, not time. This isn’t prison. It’s life. And life takes some commitment, the development of skills, the development of positive relationships, and goals, dreams and aspirations. The resilience research also says that youth who do the best are those who have hope and a vision for the future, and a sense that their life has meaning. I think that’s something most developed through a disciplined walk with Christ grounded in seeking His will for our lives.

  3. Julie,

    Brilliant post. I also loved this book. You did a great job of summarizing Chua’s work here. Loved it!

    Your story about the Boise mediation and your question was fascinating. How true it is that the culture one was brought up in has so much influence on how one thinks, feels, communicates, and raises children!

    I am saddened by the bad press that this book received. It seems to me that the better response would have been an openness to learn from a different way of doing something rather than a total rejection of the work. Personally, I learned tons from this book. It is sad to me that some of the readers of this book didn’t take the time to weigh it more objectively. Their loss!

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Bill –

      I agree on your commentary about the bad press. I think one of the challenges of American culture is that in spite of our free thought, free voice, we don’t exercise these. We respond to sensationalism or what someone else says, and far too many people fail to think critically about many issues. We see this in the church (“my pastor said…”), in school (my teacher said…”) and so on. We are developing an education system that teaches to the test, and encourages people to say what the teacher or the authority figure wants to hear. That’s how you get ahead. I tell my students that I don’t care if they agree or disagree with me, just as long as they have a logical argument. I wonder how many think they can really believe me.

  4. Ashley Goad says:

    Julie, I love your posts. I don’t know what I’ll do without them soon! I loved this book, too. It was fun. It was honest. It was REAL. And as you said, Chua is an effective communicator. Not that I have been immersed in Asian, or Chinese, culture…ever…but at least I have a better understanding of the why’s and how’s of some of my previous classmates through the years. Cultural empathy. What a perfect way to bring this book back to what you are studying. I have so much to learn from you, you wild and crazy dragon-lady…er, year of the dragon lady! 🙂

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Add Scorpio lady born in the year of the dragon (Scorpio is also supposedly fierce, feisty and powerful. I’m positively scary.) And yes, after all of these posts, I find an odd dread approaching. Two more posts. Two more chats. We have only just begun to learn from one another.

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Julie, I LOVED your post. Thank you for approaching the book in a way that gave me another sense of what Chua is trying to do. Indeed it is important for us to learn from one another and to again the “… ability to try and understand another person’s thoughts and feelings given their cultural context.”

    Great post!

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