I am glad Amy Chua wasn’t my mother…for a lot of reasons! First, I think I would have been a great disappoint to her. And I would have been miserable, because I have no musical talents, I have average intelligence, and my values (friendship, service, fellowship) would have clashed with Chua’s program for my life. But, I have to wonder, if Amy had been my mother, would I have found hidden musical talents I was unaware of? Maybe I would have ended up being a straight A student in high school! And maybe I would achieve a doctorate at age 25 instead of waiting till my 50s. Who knows? What I do know is that I am glad I had the mother I had who was a great encourager with high expectations, which fit my personality better than if she had been a drill sergeant. But, I have to admit, I can only speak from my own experience, within my own family, within my own culture. Which begs the question: Can I actually say that my way and my experience is the best way?
These are some of the underlying questions that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother[i] confronts us with. Where many people found this book disturbing, I found instead a wonderful case study of the challenges of cross-cultural understanding and adjustment. For most Americans, what Chua describes so blatantly conflicts with their Western cultural practices, that it brings an immediate negative reaction. That reaction comes naturally for most Americans when faced with different cultural practices, due (I believe) to our narrow, insulted and limited cross-cultural experiences. I’ve often seen this in the “ugly American” syndrome where Americans painfully exhibit their inability to adjust the different cultures of other countries. This is why I think Amy Chua might provide a way to help us re-examine and evaluate our reactions to and our inability to adjust to other cultures.
Chua stands in an “in-between” position that demonstrates the challenges and frustrations when attempting to translate cultural practices and attitudes into a new situation. Being raised Chinese, Chua had the full experience of that culture’s parenting practices, lifestyles, worldview, and attitudes. However, having been raised in the United States, Chua also has a clear understanding of American culture, attitudes and practices. Her ability to see things from both sides is what makes this book such an insightful read (and allows to her push buttons that cause such critical reactions). Amy knew (from her American experience) that many of her habits of teaching and motivating her children would be viewed as extreme, harsh, and down right cruel, while at the same time knowing from her personal experience these methods can also be considered as “normal” and often prove to be effective. She also knew that such practices did not devastate children as was often thought by her American counterparts. Her seeing this from both sides helps us to see the intricacies, nuances and challenges of navigating cultural difference. These cultural landmines are what every cross-cultural missionary and second-generation immigrant must go through and must try to figure out. Chua illustrates that being “in-between” is rarely a happy place.
Being able to empathize with and adjust to a different culture is one of the hardest things for us to do as Americans. I often wonder if the reason for this is the fact that the United States so dominates the world with its culture, while rarely allowing space for other cultures or influences, that most Americans just are not aware that people in the world might do things differently. I have seen this time and again when I’ve taken people out of the country for the first time: their shock and amazement that the rest of the world is not just like ours. Travel is often the beginning of cultural intelligence. But what Chua presents – the stark differences in attitudes and practices in even in very private parts of life (like childrearing) is often beyond the capacity of many of us to even begin to understand. Because we are faced with stark differences, our tendency is to react rather than to listen, to learn and understand. Because of cultural differences, I think many Americans never travel – or they leave once and can’t handle the fact that where they went is not like what they are familiar with – that they never venture out again. (This is probably the reason for that strange comment that I’ve heard so often from American travelers (the drives me crazy!): “It was dirty!” Really? You were in the city ROME! The city with the Coliseum and the Vatican and St. Peter’s and the Spanish Steps…and all you have to say is that it was dirty? I think you should stay home!)
What Chua’s book suggests is that every culture is different and from the outside it will make little or no sense, because it is not a part of our experience. Other cultures will always beg the question: “Is it necessarily wrong? Or is it just different?” Just because I might not have enjoyed growing up in a similar situation or being a part of that particular culture’s practices, does that mean its bad, wrong or without value? The real question we often fail to ask is: Why is my experience a better gage for how everyone else should act or live? And the most important question is whether we are willing to take the time and effort to understand, and maybe appreciate, another’s cultural practices without making quick judgments. This might also allow us to humbly examine our own assumed culture habits that might be in need redemption.
Who knows, I might have been a famous concert violinist/brain surgeon! Really!
[i] Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), Kindle.