Monday, January 24, 2011

Mommie Baddest

I feel like taking a break from politics today, at least a break from writing about politicians, since most everything becomes political once discussed.  So, let’s talk about Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, since so many other people are talking about it.  First, I want to point out, like a lot of books of this sort, it is aimed principally at upper-middle-class women.  Not that middle-class women don’t buy books of this sort, but they make up the aspirational audience, those that wanna-be.  A lot of the same people buy books about Princess Di.  And it’s not just nonfiction.

Imagine Ernest Hemingway writing about work, slaughter houses, etc.  Hemingway’s unending popularity owes a lot to his subject matter, the lives of the rich, running with bulls, drinking at Paris cafes, going to bullfights, a whole host of leisure-time activities.  Ah, that’s the life.  You can divide up literature this way; at least some authors write about the rich and the poor.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, the subplot in The Great Gatsby.  But, back to the Tiger Mother.

Now, nothing is going to get me to buy this book, so I’m writing about it based on a number of reviews, excerpts, and hearing Ms. Chua on the radio.  Let’s start with the title.  Boy, does that put together two disparate cultures, the Chinese and the old South.  I don’t often put those two things together, since the Chinese “slaves” (aka coolies) built a lot of things in America, but not so much down South way back when, since there were real African slaves to use. 

Amy Chua is second-generation Chinese American, so she’s stretching the Chinese part, but she doesn’t seem to be able to get a joke, why her husband (mentioned, evidently, very sparingly in the book) laughed when she asked him accusatively if he had any “goals” for the family dog, and that might be part of her cultural heritage. But the real part of her cultural heritage (and not discussed anywhere I have seen – not that I have seen everything) is that she has two girls, no boy child, and that alone might count for a lot of her behavior. There are a lot of Chinese girls given up (and worse) for adoption to Western couples.

A couple of decades ago a small focus group I was studying (since I was one of the studied) looked like China.  Every couple of the group who had a boy ended up with only one child.  Those whose first child was a girl had a second, and a third, if the second wasn’t a boy, which was most likely the case, since statistically the sex of your second child will most likely be the same sex you already had. And, even for the couples who get a lucky girl/boy, there’s the case of acquaintances of mine who had an actual Chinese (immigrant) nanny, one who lavished attention on the younger boy child and ignored almost entirely the older girl child.

So, the Chinese mother part of Amy Chua seems to be an inner anger that she had girls, not a boy or boys.  Her whole child-rearing methods may well have changed if she was raising boys, and certainly the father would have been more central than he appears to have been, since the same-sex parent is usually much more involved, both literally and figuratively.

And, of course, Amy Chua could call one of her girls “garbage” and get away with it, since she’s an upper-middle-class law professor at Yale, as is her husband.  Some parents call their children garbage and also treat them like garbage, unfortunately, since they are poor and ill-equipped with the parenting resources of the upper-middle class.  Amy Chua’s daughters can take a little abuse, since they had so many other advantages showered down upon them.   All of the rest of the children out there, not so privileged, have a much harder time growing up with tiger mothers of any sort, much less tiger fathers, absent or present.

But the popularity of her book amongst the chattering classes does stem from the high interest other writers with children have in the subject.  But, it also comes from an age where people are inclined to go backwards, to some vanished era when sparing the rod spoiled the child, when lives seemed more under-control than they do now, today, when everything tends to be rationed for the ninety percent, and only loosened up for the top ten.  You don’t have to be a child of immigrants to teach children how to excel, but, evidently, you need to not be a child of immigrants to learn how to laugh at yourself, or get a joke, or know why something you say might appear terribly funny to someone, even your husband.   

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