Battle Callback of the Tiger Cub

Right now, all across America, there are Iranian-American parents printing out and framing copies of the Wall Street Journal excerpt of Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", a book about her experience raising children in America according to extremely strict Chinese parenting standards.

The Iranian parents I know (not least of all my own) are probably dancing in circles around their kids with in gleeful validation. They now have written proof - in the Wall Street Journal, no less! -- that:

1) they weren't as strict as some other people
2) someone finally defended the immigrant style of parenting

In fact, some of them may even have gotten new ideas ;)

Before I go any further, it's worth pointing out that the excerpt is from a part of Chua's life when she's extremely hard on her kids (ahem, "disciplined"). The excerpt, just a snippet of the book, did a great job in garnering publicity- except it publicized a book that frankly isn't. Many who read only the short excerpt assumed she had written basically a parenting manual -- but the book is about an unusual parenting model in the US environment and ultimately she, as a parent, transforms, as any good book protagonist does.

But we live in a time and place where people don't have the time to trouble themselves with context - and now she's getting death threats. It reminds me of Once Upon a Time when I turned a rant about not feeling like working out into a funny blog post called "I Hate Skinny People". My "fan mail" was something for the books... did you know I was obese? Yeah, neither did I ;)

Publicity: can't live with it, can't live without it!

The Tiger Mother Debates have led me to these thoughts:
1) Chinese people take the hit.

That's the thing about Tiger Mothers... they exist in many, many cultures, not just certain Asian cultures. Strictness was something that bonded me to people quickly when we were growing up; although our parents' homelands were worlds apart, my friends whose parents were Korean or Greek or Indian always "got it". I never had to explain to them why I had to go home right after school and why I didn't talk back to my parents and why when I got a B+ I sunk in my chair. It's a way of life that exists around the world that only raises eyebrows when it happens here.

2) The book/excerpt is intriguing because it is extreme.

Um, hello, that's the POINT -- Chua takes it to another level. Now, the book is interesting because she (Chua) is extreme and she knows it. No one wants to read about a hiker who accomplishes their trip; we want to read about the one who has to cut off his own arm. They say in gambling that you should pick your strategy and stick to it; in Blackjack if you are going to hit on a certain number, then always do it.

Part of what is fascinating about Chua's approach is that she appears to do just that -- she is unbending in how she approaches parenting. She does not seem susceptible to the homework one day, tv/friend's house negotiation the next day that 99.9999% of American parents fall prey to.

3) My mom wasn't the biggest tiger. (But she could roar!)

Obviously, as you read you reflect on your own life. My sister and I give my mom a lot of grief for the strictness with which we were raised. But on second thought my mom (who was definitely the disciplinarian between my two parents) falls squarely between Amy Chua and western parents like Ayelet Waldman, whose counterpoint "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom" is an entertaining read. She never made me sit at the piano and play whatever that white donkey song was; she, like a normal human being, would have gone bonkers if we had sat at the piano and played some kiddy tune ad nauseum.

Sometimes I think she (mom) wished she'd leaned one way or the other instead of wavering between the two, which is what she ultimately did. When recently I saw a performance by Lang Lang and told her I wanted to take up piano again, I could swear I could see her smack her hand to her forehead, thinking of how she let 16 year old me drop classical piano and take up... hip hop dance... instead. But I have this to say: if and when I take up piano again, it will be because I want to; and when I play it will be with a passion and joy all my own. And that's what it's all about, homey! (here: homey=Mom)

4) Tiger mothers sacrifice.

She would never admit it, but I'm sure my mom laughed out loud at Waldman's wish to avoid ever attending another piano recital. I shudder to think of the performances we put our parents through. And the sheer horror of coming home from a six day workweek to help your kid learn a BS version of American history or make a diorama, much less pretending you cared when there is a new episode of Dallas on that you could be watching instead. I don't know how she did it, and I should probably take notes.

But that's what Tiger Mothers do- they don't just point and tell you to do something, they are engaged. (I swear, to this day my mom remembers more than I do from my classes.) The tiger mother suffers alongside the child; it sucks as much for them as it does for the kid.

Another point I don't believe was brought up in the article but is true in my case is that many Tiger Mothers are probably successful themselves. Tiger Mothers may know what they're doing because they themselves are accomplished and confident and so they are passing on the rites of passage of what they felt worked for them. If my mom was lying around eating bon bons and subsisting off a sugar(my)daddy, that would be one thing for her to tell me to go do my homework, but she was busting her butt to run a practice and teach at Northwestern University's dental school. Chua is a law professor, so she's no slouch either.

Maybe this is a passing-the-TypeA-torch. Some people really, really want their kids to be into sports and the kids aren't. I'm not entirely sure how it's different, but in the west you'd never criticize a parent for putting a kid in a tee ball class if they cry and say they want to go home or they don't want to play with other people. We prioritize building different skills in the US, but sometimes similar methods are used to get there.

Add to the time investment that tiger mothers frankly sacrifice their run in the popularity contest. As a kid, It's really hard to be buddies with the person who tells you to stop goofing around and go do your homework, the person who acts as your conscience, pointing out that you could do better. Once someone asked me how I did two graduate degrees; to this day I swear high school was harder for me, possibly because I had the shadow of the Tiger Mother over me.

For sure the Tiger Mother loses against their candidate in the popularity primaries, ie. your other parent (if they're around). My dad sat back and reaped the benefits of us being hard workers and studiers, but my mom was the one barricading herself in the dining room reviewing vocab words with us most of the time (she's a published author now, so Mom, you're welcome ;).

5) Anyone who says your parents are the basis of your self esteem needs to make more friends.

Parents do affect your self-esteem, absolutely. The other day I reminded my mom of my first kiss and how when he decided he didn't want to date, her response was to look up from the kitchen counter and shrug: "Well, maybe you weren't a good kisser!"

But ultimately you're with your parents a fraction of the day and you are with your schoolmates the rest of it. Your parent can tell you the sun shines out of your a$$ but if your classmates call you ugly or stupid or say you have funny hair, you're screwed. I would argue that your self esteem and subsequent self-conduct takes a way bigger hit from the treatment (and encouragement) of your peers; how else to explain the perpetuation of stirrup pants?

I was borderline midget size in elementary school (<--not joking) and my mom told me I was "big inside". Well, kids at my school called me a shrimp. Guess whose opinion hit home.

Joking aside, the Tiger parenting itself affected my self confidence a lot less than the friends who made me uncomfortable about it.

6) To each their own.

I loved Ayelet Waldman's response for so many reasons, not only because she was honest about being a relaxed western parent. But I specifically loved her point that, as a parent, you ultimately do what will work best for that child. My parents' relaxed parenting of my brother, who is 10 years younger than me, was met with dramatic dropped jaws and eye rolling by my sister and myself. If they had told him to be home by 10:30pm, which, for the record, was my curfew my senior year of high school, he would have laughed in their faces. Maybe pointed.

They were strictest with me and had my brother later in life. My mom liked to joke "We didn't know if you would give us grandkids - so we had our own!"

My sister and I got spanked, my parents wouldn't so much as lift a hand on the golden child (ok, and maybe we asked them not to). Maybe they felt we required a different level of supervision and nudging in order to accomplish what we (my sister & I) were able to; my brother didn't need it-- nor did he want it.

Ultimately, parents have to decide what will be best for their children. And here's the part the people making death threats to author Chua are forgetting: it's their right to raise their kids however the heck they want to. (Granted... maybe next time don't write a book about it.)

I like to think my parents could be tough on me because I was born with a big dose of suck it up. I could handle it; it didn't crumble me for my mom to tell me I could do better- where it was possible, I did better. The end. I love her, she loves me, we are able to sit over coffee and discuss the Tiger Mother article and both laugh about it. If that's not a sign of the fact that how they raised me worked fine, I don't know what is.

I have to say, it's a lot of fun writing and philosophizing about raising kids, seeing as I have none yet. I quite enjoy the armchair quarterbacking of the whole thing.

Let it be said that my hat's off to the parents all around the world who raise kids, especially teenagers. The fact that we have all made it to adulthood is a testament to their good will, I assure you.

My Bucket List

I've made progress since I started my Bucket List 9/16/09 or reflected on it later that same year. Crossed a few things off and added many many more. I took two things off of it too, realizing that you're setting yourself up for failure when you depend on other people to make them happen. The bucket list is about daydreams you have that you can make happen if you really want to, right? So here goes nothing:

My Bucket List (started 9/16/09)

  • Learn to sail (DONE- Oct 09)
  • Learn to sing a song in Portuguese
  • Learn Italian
  • Go to Senegal
  • Learn fluent Spanish
  • Adopt a kid
  • Become a parent
  • Be able to do a freestanding handstand & hold it
  • Do lotus pose
  • Learn tango (Done in 2010...ok, in progress ;)
  • Tango in Buenos Aires (now that I actually can)
  • Do yoga in India
  • Pet a lion
  • Sing in a jazz club
  • Be listed in 50 under 50 or a woman to watch, etc. make some list
  • Record a song
  • Microfinance a woman’s business abroad
  • Visit every country in the world
  • Ride an elephant
  • Experience 0 gravity
  • Try veganism (Done, 3 weeks in 2010. Not so hard after a few days. Liked it.)
  • Go to Germany (again) or Iran with my dad
  • Sleep in a castle
  • Wear an 18th century costume a la Marie Antoinette, etc.
  • Drink foreign wine while sitting where I can see the vineyard (Done- Tuscany, May 2010)
  • Make friends with an old person I’m not related to
  • Get a 6 pack
  • Go to Macchu Picchu
  • Go whale watching and actually see a whale
  • Go to NashVegas
  • Hear jazz in a New Orleans bar
  • Sleep overnight on a small boat
  • Sleep on a beach
  • Learn how to make my mom's fesenjoon
  • Watch sunrise at the beach
  • Go blonde
  • Flirt with a handsome foreigner fluently in his native language
  • Show up at the airport and just GO
  • Learn how to spin (DJ)
  • Host a radio show
  • Sail in a submarine
  • Learn to fence
  • Read War and Peace
  • Get a belt in a martial art

The Goodbye Girl

I hate saying goodbye.

I think the first time I realized how much I hated it was when I was leaving a summer program in my early teens. I had fallen for a guy and he stood by the window of the bus waving as we pulled out for the airport, and I sobbed like I'd never cried in my life. Now it's funny, because in retrospect I realize I had spent a whopping 3 weeks with him -- by which I mean hanging out with him in large groups of people. Only. And yet I cried as if the Montagues and the Capulets were keeping us apart. I mean, HYSTERICS. I distinctly remember sniffing and sobbing into the bus window and watching it steam up, and dramatically placing my hand there, absolutely SURE I would never be the same. (If I could find my journal from those days I'm sure I would put the folks in Mortified to shame.)

It happened over and over again. I was quick to make friends on one week vacations, and then would spend months depressed that we'd had to split up; we'd keep in touch for years, and write letters (yes, people born after 1985, we used to write letters), but those goodbyes were the worst. When people talk about their favorite songs from hair bands, it's probably telling that one of mine is of course Tuff's I Hate Kissing You Goodbye. For the record, I was rarely kissing anyone, much less goodbye, but I sang that song with heart when I was a teen. I hated goodbyes, so naturally I was going to hate kissing someone goodbye, you know, someday.

With time, I stopped being melodramatic about it and shifted to a tactic I'm quite fond of: avoidance.

Maybe it's a conditioned response. I grew up without any family nearby; we were in the midwest with our closest cousins in California or Canada and the rest of the family was international. I quickly discovered that the counterpart of energetic, hilarious reunions was tearful, aching goodbyes; watching my mom and her sisters or brothers agonize over having to part ways. Goodbye meant a descent from loud laughter in the middle of the night to horrible silence. Or seeing how sad my parents were to put my grandma back on a flight to Iran, worrying about her and the distance between them. Persians have a phrase "Jaht khalee" meaning "your place is empty". Goodbye meant someone's place was going to be empty. Goodbye meant acknowledging the void to come.

Yes, over time I've simply avoided saying goodbye. In fact, I avoid events that even relate to goodbye. I prefer to have friends drop me off really (read: 4+ hours) early at the airport so we can talk by phone or whatever else and phase into the parting of ways. Better yet, I will leave them and take public transportation and spend the last day alone. I don't do curbside anything. If someone is moving, I will see them at some point before they leave but not right before; I skip the sendoff party.

It's true, I don't even like watching other people say goodbye. Even fictional people. You know the ending of The Breakfast Club, where they all walk different ways home but you know they'll SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN AT SCHOOL ON MONDAY? Yeah, I usually turn off the movie before their letter gets read.

Sometimes saying goodbye to someone isn't about saying goodbye to *them* forever, but what hits us is that we're saying goodbye to a particular era. See also: me slumped over the passenger's seat in my mom's car driving away from my last house at University of Michigan. (Ironically, during college my favorite song was the *ultimate* goodbye song, Jeff Buckley's Last Goodbye.) The way I acted, you would have thought the University, with all my friends, had detonated and I was left alone in the rubble (ok, when I said I had left melodramatics behind me, they still occasionally peek out from time to time).

When someone has had a unique impact on you in some way, and when you say goodbye to that whole experience, maybe that's what makes it so heavy. You'll keep the lessons of it and the fun memories and blah blah blah, but something is changing and that alone is hard. I think it's the person + experience combo that makes it so hard.

All of this came up because tonight I broke my rules and said a proper goodbye to a great friend who is moving and has no plans of turning back. I really have no idea when this person and I will get ourselves together in the same city, or even country, again, so I had to break down and do it. This is someone I look up to in many ways, and I think we had surprised ourselves by becoming closer right before the move. We sat around bouncing ideas about our lives and what we should do with them, getting advice from each other, and he even helped me cut my caffeine intake (which alone is a reason to bring a tear to my eye ;) I was spoiled with easy access to his insights and support and ideas and friendship.

The goodbye rule was broken tonight because I knew I would regret it if I didn't. So we chatted and we said the goodbyes. I surprised (impressed!) myself with how cheerful and light I was able to be, joking and yelling down the hall after him that I wanted Cracker Barrel updates from the road.

And when I closed the door behind him and heard it click, my little heart just sank.

There are a lot of things I am happy to say goodbye to: bad haircuts, obnoxious flight companions, Natalie Portman's trim waistline, and 2010... But this "people" thing is going to take some work.