The Portrait of a Tiger Mother’s Daughter
My mother threatened to make me walk thirty miles to a piano competition unless I played the piece she liked. For clarity’s sake, my mother did not play the piano at all. She could not read music nor did she play any other instrument. She dabbled in singing as a college student and that was the extent of her musical education. Yet when I announced that my piano teacher, who held a Master’s degree in music, had told me to play Villageoises by Poulenc at the piano competition, Mom became hysterical. “Emily, you can’t play that song! It doesn’t sound as hard as that Grieg piece!” She screamed and yelled and pulled out her most effective weapon with me: manipulation. I experienced no surprise when she continued. “If you don’t play that piece then . . .” She paused, but only for effect. She knew exactly what she wanted to declare. “Then I won’t drive you to the competition!” She demanded that I play Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen instead, a piece that sounded majestic but that I had not yet perfected and polished. In the end, I obeyed, playing Grieg to the disappointment but kind and tacit understanding of my teacher. When I did not place that year but simply earned an honorable mention, my mother punished me with her silence, disapproval, and disappointment. An honorable mention was not worth mention at all in my home. It wasn’t good enough and still isn’t.
My mother’s parenting methods are similar to the so-called Tiger Mother, a Chinese-American woman who pushes her children to the farthest limits of musical performance and general education as outlined in Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Children of the Tiger Mother sacrifice friends, sleepovers, the joy of childhood, and ultimately self autonomy. I had a Caucasian Tiger Mother, the granddaughter of Spanish immigrants who was anxious to prove that she was just as good as everyone else by having children who were better. Her grandmother’s parents were fruit pickers who made their way from Spain to Hawaii, eventually settling in California. Her grandfather worked as a janitor for the University of Los Angeles, but he died young and left his wife to work nights in a Bay Area cannery while raising eight children alone. Mom’s parents found success through real estate, owning an insulation company, and building houses. However, none of them was ever educated past high school, until Mom.
Her desire to improve herself intellectually is admirable. Because of her drive she wanted to see her children succeed. To accomplish this, she became a Tiger Mother, a figure that Amy Chua defined through Chinese culture. However, a Tiger Mother is not a loving, selfless woman who pushes her children for their own good, as Chua claims. In my experience, the Tiger Mother is narcissistic with a low self-esteem. She employs psychological control, which “takes advantage of the child’s wish for love and approval” (Bergin). She must live through her children in order to validate her role as a mother because being a mother isn’t good enough. She withholds love based on academic or musical performance, a trait I attempted to fix by exerting myself enough to earn my mother’s love.
Because of these parenting methods, I cannot deny that our family is talented, but more moderately than Chua’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu. We got a late start on piano lessons compared to Chua’s daughters who began at 3 years old. I began at age 8 and my sister at age 6, but Mom quickly decided after an embarrassing first competition that much more time should be spent in musical pursuits. A new “hour a day” policy of piano practice came to be enforced. I woke at 6 a.m. each morning, creeping downstairs and into the wood-floored living room. My first job was to turn on the heater, especially during the winter months during which temperatures sometimes plummeted to below 0°F. Wrapped in a fluffy robe, I began my practice, my fingers stiff and my toes numb. My sister began her morning ablutions at this time, trading me at 6:30 a.m., when the warmth of a shower soothed my frozen digits. Some mornings, my stepfather would complain about being woken so early. This would start the familiar sounds of arguing between my parents.
The other half hour of practice would be done directly after school. Nothing else could happen before then. My sisters and I attended weekly forty-five minute lessons with our highly trained and accomplished teacher, eventually earning the right to play her grand piano instead of the worn brown upright reserved for less dedicated children. Whenever visitors came to our home, we were obliged to perform with a tight smile from Mom that meant, “Play well or there’ll be no dinner for you.” This was a common threat. We also performed frequently in church. I passed all 10 levels of Achievement in Music, a program dedicated to performing, sight reading, ear training, technique, and theory.
Yearly trips to a major university three hours from our home to attend the piano festival were dreaded and anticipated, as the possibility of being chosen for a master’s class or better yet, THE recital was both exciting and expected by Mom. I gained recognition by being picked for THE coveted recital for my rendition of Puck by Grieg at the festival while in seventh grade, a moment memorialized in the local newspaper with a freckled, stringy-haired, buck-toothed picture of me beside the article.
As an older teenager, I won several piano competitions judged by renowned pianists themselves, and those that I did not win I placed in. I held my high school’s position of Music Sterling Scholar (the most outstanding musician chosen to represent the school at a state competition), played with an orchestra, and played both the piano and organ at our church. One of my sisters is a talented pianist as well, winning her own fair share of competitions. I do not regret the time I spent sitting at the piano bench, but I resent the guilt and threats that got me there.
Because I am the compliant oldest child, like Chua’s Sophia, a little bit of devious logic could convince me to practice. When we first began our quest for piano perfection, Mom calmly explained that we only had time to be good at one pursuit. She quickly dismissed jazz dancing as a silly pastime that would not result in any usable or admirable skills. She also explained that in order to become great at the piano, I would have to practice more. Loads more. I felt a competitive streak grow inside of me during a fourth grade competition in which I played what Mom disgustedly called “a baby song” while others played serious classical music. This reminder and her constant exhortations to practice more to compete with others pushed me into gear. However, when our musical endeavors did not add up to Mom’s expectations, things got ugly.
My sisters rebelled. The middle sister remained aloof and silent in her relationship with Mom. It was as if she did not trust her, but looking back this was with good reason. It seems my sister figured out what was really going on before I did. For her silence, she received bullied threats and aspersions against her character. The hurt endured from being called sneaky, lazy, rude, and insolent all weighed on the middle sister. Researchers have found that such comments are actually “as harmful to a child’s psyche as physical coercion” (Bergin).
My youngest sister chose outright rebellion, similar to Lulu’s reaction in Chua’s account. My youngest sister talked back, yelled, screamed, threw tantrums with arms flailing and legs kicking, ran away, and eventually turned to eating, the only thing she could control. For the extra weight, Mom rewarded her with diet pills in Kindergarten, starvation as a punishment for noncompliance, and eventual praise for bulimia. Out of these three approaches, strict obedience, withdrawn obedience, and willful disobedience, not one worked. Mom still refused to approve or love.
Because of the Tiger Mother atmosphere, constant contention filled our home. Whether Mom fought with one of us or my step-father, who sometimes refused to bend to her will, yelling and arguing were common. I cried myself to sleep many nights because of perceived failure or a tongue-lashing from my mother about the way my hair was too thin or how I hadn’t stood up straight or how I had embarrassed her for not speaking articulately enough to a grownup.
Chua also expects her children to be able to pontificate in front of adults. When she directs her children to write toasts for her husband Jed’s birthday, she says, “It can’t just be tossed off . . . It has to be meaningful. And it can’t be clichéd” (180). When Mom demanded such tasks of me, I imagined I was a robot, programmed to perform flawlessly at her will and whim. Mom controlled her children like a puppet master, and if we did not respond to this control, we were treated as outcasts. She would disparage us in front of each other, label us with cruel nicknames, and turn us against one another, once even encouraging all of us to whack my littlest and most stubborn sister (the one whose personality is most like hers) with umbrellas while she cowered in the middle of our mob. Why we participated in such punishment is unclear to me now, but the most pertinent question is why would a mother encourage and lead such behavior?
The result of the Tiger Mother’s parenting methods is low self-esteem. I had talent and impeccable grades and shiny trophies in my bookcase, yet I never felt confident or deserving of praise. I felt not-good-enough and lonely without many friends. My shyness and awkwardness prevented that, along with my schedule of practicing piano and spending time with a needy mother. If friends did visit, especially when boyfriends visited, my mother would join the conversation, even taking over in order to boost her own self-esteem. She needed to be the center of attention, and if I won competitions, she would claim the credit.
I found Chua’s description of her own daughter’s triumphs to be similar. Chua refers to everything her daughter does as an effort they have achieved together. Before the recital at Carnegie Hall, Chua says:
“Sophia and I practiced on an off throughout the day. . . . I had to make sure that Sophia’s performance was flawless, that she didn’t leave out a single brilliant tiny nuance Wei-Yi had taught us. Contrary to everyone’s advice, we practiced until almost 1:00 a.m. the night before” (138-39).
It bothers me that Chua refers to her daughter’s endeavors with the pronouns “I” and “we.” While reading her book, each time I encountered a sentence constructed this way, I cringed. Having sat at the piano for many hours myself, I consider my successes there to be my own, not Mom’s. Maybe Chua sat with Sophia during the practice, correcting and instructing, but I argue that the practice and the resulting talent is Sophia’s. For Chua to claim credit, even partial, is a violation of Sophia’s identity and accomplishment.
My own identity felt constantly stolen or compromised by Mom. If I were part of a conversation with my peers, Mom would try to dominate it in order to be the center of attention, not caring if she stole the spotlight from me. Once, I went to see the movie Shine with a boyfriend of mine who also played the piano. We were excited to see the portrayal of a pianist pushed too far (a theme that resonated with me) and to hear the beautifully performed Rachmaninoff. To our delight, nobody else attended the movie that night, so we were alone in the theater. It felt grand. This bubble of grandness popped the moment Mom arrived, swiftly marching in and smiling at our surprise that she had decided to attend the movie with us.
Not surprisingly, my mother had few friends. Those that she did have were usually transitory and tempestuous relationships. She found a way to quarrel or compete with everybody she met, even strangers in the grocery store. One of Chua’s comments reflects a similar problem. She focuses on a “few shadows” the day Sophia performs at Carnegie Hall, saying, “It . . . stung a little that Sophia’s old piano teacher Michelle didn’t come” (141). Reading between the lines, it seems likely that Chua focused on Michelle’s absence more than is healthy. Such tiny slights are often taken personally by the Tiger Mother, who has come to claim her children’s triumphs. My Tiger Mother licked such solitary wounds and many others like them by thrusting her children into the spotlight and then filching the credit. She’d report that nobody liked us because of jealousy over our immense talents. Looking back, I think nobody felt fondly toward us because of the bragging and bullying that often accompanied any conversation in which she participated.
The emotional abuse of the Tiger Mother is what I have struggled with most as an adult. Of abuse, Nancy Etcoff, doctor of psychology and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, surmises: “There is evidence that abusing parents often do have unrealistic expectations of their children” (36). The Tiger Mother thrives on unrealistic expectations, although Chua has argued in many interviews that other parents aren’t demanding enough of their offspring. She views her parenting method as a means of driving children to achieve their best, not as an unrealistic burden on her girls. However, the emotional abuse that accompanies the failure of any expectation is what I feel most strongly against in Chua’s self-assessment as a mother. Chua admits to having called Lulu a disgrace as a daughter. To Lulu’s eating, Chua remarks, “Stop it. You’re diseased” (173). She calls Lulu “completely ordinary [and] boring” (205). She even threatens to adopt a third child from China. And to top it all off, she tells Lulu in public “You are a terrible daughter” (205). Why is it that Lulu has all the responsibility in this relationship, but Chua does not?
Like Chua, Mom constantly criticized. If I left the house with a friend when she didn’t approve, she said, “Good riddance.” If piano practice didn’t garner any criticism, it was the way we set the table. If it wasn’t the way we walked, it was the way we talked. If limp hair failed to rile her up, it was a vacuous facial expression that bothered her. I learned to wear a mask that hid everything from other people, especially my mother. I never smiled. I only talked after thinking it over carefully and rehearsing each word and nuanced tone in my mind. I grew to slouch near Mom. I felt embarrassed of my family and circumstances. I ultimately craved being normal. Lulu echoes these feelings of my childhood when she says, “You won’t let me do anything. I can’t go anywhere. . . .You’re a freak” (173). Lulu also articulates the feelings a daughter has when love is used as a weapon for compliance. “You don’t love me . . . You just make me feel bad about myself every second. . . . You don’t care about anyone but yourself” (205).
Many other instances of emotional abuse at the hands of my Tiger Mother occurred during the time I competed in scholarship pageants, an indulgence I was drawn to and competed in by my own decision. Yet as soon as I declared my interest, Mom wormed her way in and customarily controlled everything, similar to Chua’s reaction to Lulu’s interest in tennis. At my fourth pageant, she threatened, “This is the last one, because I can’t take this anymore unless you win!” Luckily, I won. I don’t know what the punishment would have been if I hadn’t. However, she found inspiration somewhere, telling me after the state competition, in which I had earned no recognition, “You just looked like a little girl up there among all those women!”
Once I got to college, I relinquished the piano because I had never felt any fervor for it. However, I did not know who I was or what I wanted to be. I spent many semesters trying out different courses and majors, wandering through departments hoping somebody would adopt me. I figured it out, but it was a confusing time (which I wrote about here), one that I probably should have experienced in high school. But it was also a liberating time. I found out what I liked and who I was instead of having an identity imposed upon me. However, making my own decisions was not easy on my relationship with Mom. She continued to bully.
When I became engaged to my now-husband, she did everything she could to break us up. She claimed his shyness to be unacceptable, saying that previous boyfriends or a more outgoing man would better counter my own shyness. She also commented on his weight, saying that she didn’t know why I was always attracted to “husky” guys. She refused to take me wedding dress shopping or plan the reception, tasks my future-mother-in-law graciously accepted when she understood my dilemma. When Mom realized that her harping and ignoring would not derail my wedding plans, she cornered me in her car and yelled louder and longer than I had ever encountered as a child, since I had been compliant then. I hollered back for the first time in my life, accusing her of jealousy and vicarious living. That did not go over well, and she did not speak to me for a month, even threatening not to attend my wedding.
After I’d been married a year, she called to say that she did not like my husband because he did not fawn over her. She suggested that I fix this problem by divorcing him and marrying an old boyfriend that she had liked better. There were a few problems with her idea: first, I loved my husband and did not want a divorce; second, my ex-boyfriend was engaged to be married to somebody else; and third, the suggestion was ludicrous! When I refused, she accused me of choosing my husband over her (who wouldn’t?) and hung up. I did not hear from her for three years. I felt guilt and shame for most of these years, wondering what I had done to deserve such treatment. I had never “learn[ed] how to regulate [my] emotions . . . [and it made] for a difficult adjustment to adulthood” (Bergin). I still felt responsible for my mother and the need to be obedient, even when the expectations were seemingly crazy.
When we finally spoke again, I had a daughter and the criticizing and controlling of my life continued as if it had never been interrupted. She told me that being a mother made me lazy and that I needed to do more with my life. She criticized my daughter and my husband. And strangely enough, she seemed to have forgotten that I played the piano, or maybe it was a way of accusing me of not being good enough again. When I once mentioned to her that I had performed in church, she said, falsely bright, “Oh, what did you do? Sing?” With a wicked smile, she watched my reaction. I immediately became defensive, saying, “No! I played Debussy’s Clair de Lune on the piano!” A strange exchange, but I think it was another manipulative game.
Mom also embarrassed me in public. At a family party after I graduated with my Master’s degree, my husband’s aunt profusely complimented me and told me how proud she was of the hard work I had done. She proclaimed me to be “smart.” Immediately, my mother over hearing this, said, “I’m smart too!” in a shrill and competitive voice. Luckily, my husband’s aunt did not notice or chose to ignore her.
My sisters were both kicked out of the house for disobeying. One of them lived with my father in California to finish her high school years. The other, closer to graduation, lived with a nearby friend and has never spoken to Mom again. I guess my sister found her label as “Fatso” unsatisfactory. She had been punched and starved one too many times. I must report that I too no longer speak to Mom. After attempting to set a boundary that involved my husband, I angered her and she is again punishing me. As I age, her silence becomes more of a blessing than a punishment, for I no longer care to please her. A relationship with her is too painful, too hard, too guilt ridden, and too upsetting. I have spent years trying to please her. Obeying, practicing, working, studying, primping, fetching, cleaning, worshiping, suppressing. I cannot earn her love; it is a mirage used to control. I will not be a Tiger Mother, nor will I tolerate the one I once attempted to please any longer. Could Tiger Mother be a euphemism for emotional abuse? Most definitely. Could it also be a gilded term for mental instability? Narcissism? Plain old selfishness? Low self-esteem?
I don’t claim to be a perfect parent, but I go out of my way to ensure that my two daughters feel loved. Yes, my oldest daughter is currently taking piano lessons. Yes, she practices math and reading during summer vacations. Yes, I limit her time with television and video games, and we have rules. I plan to raise an accomplished and intelligent child, and I’m aware that this is what Chua claims to be doing as well. However, child abuse isn’t the remedy. I hug and kiss my children, something I never experienced. I avoid criticizing my children. I avoid threatening my children. I speak kindly to my children because: “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as true strength” (Ralph W. Sockman). Amy Chua claims to love her kids, but I’m intimately aware that children of the so-called Tiger Mother may not feel completely loved, if at all.
Bergin, M. Sue. “Resisting Coercive Parenting.” BYU Magazine Spring 2011. 4 July 2011 <http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=2770>.
Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.
Etcoff, Nancy. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.
Sockman, Ralph W. < http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3445330.Ralph_W_Sockman>.