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The Cry of the Tiger Mother

Written by: on May 28, 2015

“My goal as a parent is to prepare you for the future – not to make you like me.” [1]

A South Korean baby’s first birthday is celebrated much like a wedding. Invitations are sent out to family and friends, a beautiful venue is hired, a lavish meal is prepared, and gifts are expected. The baby wears an exquisite bok, and the pinnacle of the event is what the baby will pick up in their hand from a table of various items, indicating their baby’s career destiny. For example, if the baby picks up a pencil or book, he or she is forecast to become a scholar. A child who picks money or rice will become rich. If the bible is chosen, the child will become a pastor, and if the child chooses the stethoscope, they will become a doctor. And so on.

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The ambition of Asian mothers as described in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is most certainly not a Chinese phenomenon. Korean mothers are, generally speaking, exactly the same. A baby’s first birthday exemplifies well the mindset of many South Korean parents: how their minds are already set on what career path their child will follow. The better the career, the more proud the parents will become of their child.

Chua’s story is a familiar one indeed, experienced even within my own family and friend circles while I lived in South Korea. On numerous occasions, my stepson Ben would bring his Korean friend, Daniel, to our home for some peace and rest. His mum was a tiger mother and David feared her. The pressure he experienced at home with his grades was too much for him sometimes, and so Ben would just allow him to stay over whenever the stress was too much.

My Eurasian step-daughter is a product of this culture too, being the most driven young woman I know. Anything less than an A grade reflects on her emotional health and attitude towards life as a whole. She is soon graduating from her Master’s Degree from King’s College, London, and will immediately enter into a banking internship that she has competed hard and lost friends for.

I’ve seen four-year-old children attend ‘Hagwons’ (learning institutes) until 10pm. It’s not an unfamiliar sight to see school children walking around on the streets late at night still in their school uniforms, all because they too have been attending numerous institutes straight from school. It’s not uncommon to hear of youths in South Korea being driven to the brink of suicide because of all the pressure they face at home from their parents to excel. Parents will mortgage their homes to make sure they can afford to send their children to the best Universities, preferably in America. And on that one day each year when high school children are sitting their final exams up and down the country, determining their College destiny, millions of families are praying that their child will succeed in securing the best places.

While it is true that many children do excel because of this pressure, there is most definitely a downside. While no doubt there are many Sophias, there are also many Lulus, who, having achieved what their parents desired, set off to College with a distorted identity. Their sense of acceptance by their parents, their understanding of how much their parents love them, hinges on how well they perform. It’s a merit-based system of love and acceptance, which not all Asian children can clearly handle.

[1] Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011), 49

About the Author

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Liz Linssen

6 responses to “The Cry of the Tiger Mother”

  1. mm Deve Persad says:

    Interesting to recognize that the Tiger Mother phenomena is limited to China. Thanks for helping us see that a little better, Liz. A few years ago we hosted an exchange student from South Korea and it was remarkable to watch him marvel at the free time and fun that the students here enjoy everyday. It didn’t seem quite right for him and this book helps explain some of the reasons why. There is definitely a balance to be struck here and I would think that is the western parent that needs to become more tigerish – is that a word?

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Deve,
      Thank you for your feedback. Yes, that sounds familiar. When young adults finally leave home to venture off to college, they very much look forward to the freedom they hope to experience.
      I do think we in the west can do better in encouraging our children to work hard. To find that right balance.

  2. Liz…
    I am so appreciative of your insights and experience. You add to what we can see and understand. One of the things I found so intriguing in Chua’s book was the challenge of merger cultures. China, South Korea, Japan seem to be moving into a mixer of multiple cultures – East and West. Is Chua’s ability to (finally) change her style the key? Is that where her desire for her children and willingness to do everything for them ultimately provided her with the “room” to recognize that change was required – that she had to change?

    There is so much to this book… Thanks Liz. Best regards!

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Carol
      Thank you for your feedback.
      I’m certainly not convinced that these Asian cultures consider themselves merging with the West. In fact, many South Koreans who move to the West hold on to their culture with both hands, often becoming more traditional than their loved ones back in the homeland. I’m sure Stefania has seen that within her own circle.

      Rather, coming to the West is seen as the pinnacle of success, as they see the West as richer and more successful than their own nation.
      I don’t think Chua changed much at all. Rather it’s more a case of giving in a little for the sake of not losing her daughter completely. Sadly, these lessons are sometimes learned too late.

  3. Liz,

    Thanks for your most interesting post. I have often wondered how all of this was viewed in the Korean culture. I recently heard that suicide rates among young people in Korea are unbelievably high. This is a tragedy. My hearts breaks for these children.

    Is it any different among the Korean Christians? Do churches teach on Christian parenting in Korea? If so, what kind of parenting do they teach? Every child learns differently and needs to be taught according to his or her style. It must be hard for those who are not motivated the way that Tiger Moms motivate their children. I was so happy that Chua eventually compromised with LuLu, and I think that the book would have ended far differently if this were not the case.

    So what are your thoughts on parenting, seeing that you spent so much time in Asia? I would be curious to hear more of your thoughts on this topic.

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Bill
      Thank you for your feedback. Yes, it is true what you say, that suicide rates are far too high for young people. And then to top it all off, the young men are required to do two years military service!
      For the most part, it is no different for Korean Christians.
      Culture permeates the church.
      Personally I think Koreans go too far, and western parents not enough (generally speaking). Certainly in Wales there is very little importance placed on education by parents. Almost the opposite attitude really. Somewhere there is a balance to be found between the cultures!

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