TheDC Interview: ‘Tiger Mother’ Amy Chua speaks out, wins teaching award

Laura Donovan Contributor
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“Tiger Mother” Amy Chua has said many times that she sacrifices a lot for her family, and that came through at the beginning of our interview, which was delayed by twenty minutes because the Yale University law professor’s dogs needed to go to the veterinarian for last minute shots. To the relief of this author, the canines were in good health and unscathed from the doctor visit.

“They’re totally fine now, it’s been very crazy, they’re incredibly dirty, but they’re great,” Chua told The Daily Caller of her two Samoyeds, Pushkin and Coco.

But plenty of people have argued that Chua, author of the New York Times bestselling non-fiction memoir about strict Chinese child-rearing methods, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, is anything but a model parent or family member. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of her book titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, a headline that Chua says she did not even write. Since the January book launch and birth of the WSJ piece, Chua’s face and list of household rules have appeared on television, in print, and all over the Internet. More often than not, others have come after the Yale professor with pitchforks and asserted that she’s a despicable person and an even worse mom. For enforcing rigid restrictions on her two daughters and forbidding them from getting anything lower than an “A” or attending sleepovers, Chua has been called a monster and abusive, and those are among the softer insults targeted at the academic instructor.

But Chua, a Harvard graduate who uses sad face emoticons in emails, isn’t sure the public knows what she’s all about. The award-winning teacher told TheDC that she’d intended for her book to read like a self-deprecating work similar to American author David Sedaris’s humor essays on his dysfunctional parents and siblings. Chua admits that a segment in her book that includes her youngest child, Louisa comparing her to Harry Potter’s evil enemy, Lord Voldemort was meant to be funny and self-deprecating. Some readers laughed and found the stories hysterical, but plenty more were outraged by Chua.

“So many people out there have only read the WSJ excerpt and totally misunderstand what the book is about,” Chua wrote in an email to TheDC, adding that outsiders would probably change their negative perspectives on her if they were to visit her website and Facebook page, both of which explain that Chua penned the memoir upon having constant disagreements and a memorable explosive fight with her 13-year-old daughter. “Also, people who haven’t read or don’t get the book often assume I’m really mean 🙁 whereas my students, colleagues and people who do know me all have a very different view, and I’d love to find a way to convey that”.

Chua, who just earned the 2010-2011 Yale Law Women Faculty Excellence Award, agreed to answer questions from The Daily Caller.

1. How has everything been going since the January release of your memoir? Have people sent you nasty and/or supportive emails? How have you been treated on the Yale campus?

Well, we were completely shocked. I would say the first ten days were pretty painful because people had only seen the Wall Street Journal headline, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, which I did not write, I never saw. People didn’t realize it was a memoir, they just thought, well actually some people realized that it was funny and tongue and cheek, so I had huge streams of incredibly angry emails, but now three months later, I would say I went from 70 percent nasty emails to 90 percent really nice emails and things are much better now. It’s not calming down that much because the book is going around internationally now, so there’s a lag. I’m trying to clear up misunderstandings now in Asia and Europe because the Wall Street Journal thing is still circulating there. With my students, this is kind of interesting. My book came out January 11 and we were on break, so there was this two week period of all this intense, all these terrible things being said about me. You know, with Meredith Vieira on “The Today Show”, you heard questions like “are you a monster?”, so I said to my husband, Jed the day before the new semester started, it was like January 25 or something, I said, “Oh my God, what if nobody takes my class?” I usually have pretty big classes, so I was like, “What if they boycott me? What if all the students hate me and they won’t take me anymore?” So I was terrified going in, which is why I was intrigued by your question because I walked in and you were exactly right: The class actually was really big, there was a waiting list of like 100 people on it, so my Yale community really has been one of the positive things. People have been so nice. Three different groups have thrown book parties for me. I think if people read the book, they have a very different impression, and that’s one of the reasons I responded to you. I take it that you’ve actually read the book…Even if readers don’t agree with everything, if they read the whole book they will realize it’s a lot more complex than the initial media was suggesting because there’s a real arc to the book. I actually think the last third of it is very heartbreaking and very universal…I put the most extreme, darkest moments [in my book] and exposed them. If I had known the book was going to generate so much controversy, I could have made myself a lot nicer! It’s only a snapshot, the book. I didn’t portray 100 percent me. I say “I love you” to my daughters every day. My parents were very strict immigrants, but I was raised in America and we’re actually very goofy. We snuggle around in one big bed a lot, but I kind of chose to only put in all these very dramatic moments, and I think if I’d known that there was going to be so much controversy…Well, I wonder. Maybe I still would have written the same book, but I could have sterilized it. People seem to forget that I’m the one that chose to put those scenes in the book as a kind of self-reflection. It was kind of like going back and making fun of myself eighteen years ago.

2. What sort of things are you doing to prepare your eldest daughter, Sophia for college? I know she just got accepted to Yale and Harvard.

I think if we can get past the initial controversy of the book, one of the strengths of this kind of strict immigrant parenting, and I use the term “Chinese parenting” very loosely because I know a lot of Indians, Koreans, Nigerians, and Irish people who do the same thing, I think it’s more like tough immigrant parenting. It’s actually the opposite of helicopter parenting. I think it’s about being very rigorous and strict, instilling self-discipline and good work habits when they’re really little, between the ages of about six and twelve. When Sophia got to high school, I was really the opposite of a lot of the parents I would see there. I never would write her essays for her, I would never interfere with a teacher. If she said, “Oh, mommy, this test was unfair! The teacher put something on it that she said wasn’t going to be on it”, my response [would be], “that’s too bad for you, you should have studied everything.” Sophia wrote her own college essays, she chose her own schools, so I think one of the strengths of tougher parenting when the kids are little and will listen to you is actually they develop a lot of good work habits. In high school, you don’t have to get all these kids who are so anxious, it’s almost like in 11th grade suddenly, you get this list [of college enrollment requirements] from your college counselor. Up until then, everybody is saying, “don’t worry, no pressure, just pursue your passions”, and then suddenly in 11th grade they show you a list of all the SAT scores and GPAs you need if you want to go to these colleges. No wonder there’s so much stress! To answer your question, Sophia is actually very independent. I think she’s got great work habits. Another misunderstanding of my book is people think I’m controlling, [but] Sophia can major in anything she wants. I think that she now has the skills and the good judgment and the maturity to make her own decisions, so it’s really completely up to her. She’s doing the campus recruiting and visiting weekend events this week.

3. So she’s visiting different schools?

She’s actually just going to be visiting Harvard and Yale. I think she wants to just be a waitress this summer and travel around by herself, so I think after a long run, she’s really going to enjoy herself and explore lots of things in college. But she’s just deciding between a couple schools now.

4. How have things changed around the house since 2009, when you started writing your book? How are things with your teenager Lulu (Louisa)? Is she still doing violin and tennis? (In the book, Lulu is portrayed as the rebellious youngest child who has many disagreements and quarrels with Chua and gets angry about being forced to practice the violin for many hours at a time).

Lulu mostly does tennis now and she does USTA competitions and I drive her, but she’s really different from me. Whenever I try to get more intense because she’s actually really good, she says, “Mommy, I want to keep this fun”. So I have made a lot of concessions on that front, I would say we get along so much better. One nice thing is that she came back to the violin of her own accord. She now plays the school orchestra. She doesn’t do all the things I used to choose for her, but I don’t supervise her and she kind of just does what she wants and plays, not like three hours, but like fifteen minutes every other day, but she loves the instrument, so that’s a great thing. It was really painful in the Moscow scene [from the book in which Lulu throws a glass in public and says she hates her family, the violin, and being Chinese], which made me realize, “Oh my God, I made her hate this instrument.” She does both but her emphasis is tennis. She’s a really strong student. That’s one of the things again that I was talking about, we don’t argue so much about that anymore. She’s in high school, I mean I still go in there and say, “You gotta start your paper a week early”, and [tell her not to] leave things to the last minute, but she’s got good habits and she’s doing really well in school. We’re in a good moment. I think…I pulled back just in the brink of time so that it didn’t damage our relationship…We still argue all the time about Facebook, about how much iPod, about how much texting [is enough], we have all the problems that every family has. She’s a really strong personality, I never can get enough respect, I think all parents would say that.

5. Why do you think Lulu always did so well in school but remained so defiant about having to play violin?

I guess this is something that is, I don’t know if it’s particular to Asian cultures or immigrants or of my own family, but there is a very strong emphasize on academic achievement. I don’t say that this is the best for everybody. I was actually going to write an academic [paper asking], “Why Doesn’t China Have Great Jazz Musicians?”, so there are all these wonderful things, I’m not saying everyone should do it this way. From the very beginning, we always emphasis good work habits, not just drilling multiplication, but…I think a higher standard than a lot of other parents these days. For example, memorizing vocabulary words, talking about things at dinner, current events, you can’t just do video games. That’s part of something I’m quite proud of: Instilling a sense of self discipline and focus when the kids are younger makes it so much easier by the time they get into high school. Both my daughters get a lot more sleep than some other high school kids. They’re not exhausted all the time, partly because they can really sit down for a couple of hours and finish their homework. Those are the things, and again this is not a parenting book, but I think sometimes if you give your kids too much choice and let them do whatever, they end up exhausted and spread too thin and that’s not good for health or anxiety.

6. How did you manage to stay so involved in your girls’ lives while they were growing up? Were you working all the time during that period or just really efficient at managing your schedule and driving them around to different music practices?

When Sophia was really little, I had a couple years off where I was in transition between being a lawyer and trying to be a professor and trying to write things, so I was basically very lucky to have the job of a professor. The schedule is a lot more flexible, and I am a very efficient person. When I was younger, I would get up at 5:30 and do all my academic writing for two hours in the morning and I’d have time to spend with the girls. But I also sacrificed a lot. As a professor, some of the things that you do if you want to be kind of the big player at the university are having coffee with colleagues, schmoozing in the halls [with other professors], I never got to do that. I was like, “Okay, it’s 3:30” and I would run off to pick up the girls and supervise [their activities] and also come back to the office at around 6 at night. I jokingly say that I read my own book now and I’m exhausted. I was a lot younger back then. I couldn’t do it now, I don’t think. I feel like there are many things that I regret, but I definitely feel that I was a loving parent who tried to do my best, I sacrificed a lot and that’s true of the style of parenting. I think the results are there, at least I hope. Both of my girls have very high self esteem because they were both able to master certain things, I should think that’s good for their confidence.

7. So you received the Yale teaching accolade in March?

Yeah, I just heard about it. I think I just heard that I got it last week. I’m really excited. As I wrote to you, it’s been a hard three months. You just have to look at the Internet, the misunderstandings about me are not just in the United States but globally. People in China who haven’t read the book think I’m saying, “Chinese mothers are superior and nobody should have sleepovers” because they don’t realize that it’s a memoir. So it’s been pretty painful but the one really nice thing is that my daughters’ friends and their teachers and people who know us have really supported us 100 percent. I kept thinking, “There’s going to be something awful that comes out.” My students, again they, we just went to a book party that they threw for us. There were 100 people and they made this big cake and this award that they voted on was a school-wide thing, so that really meant a lot to me because I know a lot of people don’t agree with me and that a lot of my students would not do the kind of parenting that I do and were raised very differently. To have that kind of show of support…I practically started crying when I saw that. The last time I won [the same award] was ten years ago. It’s a great honor because it’s the whole law school of students, all three years and it includes people from all backgrounds, not just my students. They award it every year and the last time I won was in 2001. It’s more that I just didn’t expect to win it this year. I’ve always been very close to my students. It’s funny because I’m known for being one of the nicest and friendliest and more nurturing professors, so I get all these questions asking if I’m a really strict, mean teacher. I’m tough with my own kids but I’m really…I have high expectations for my students, but I’m definitely much more chummy with them than the other professors. I know them well.

8. How has the book affected your academic contributions?

It’s definitely been strange having parenting be the focus of everything, so I do feel awkward looking at some of my colleagues even though they’ve been very nice. My next book is definitely…Right now, I have 14 research assistants for my new book that goes back to my previous interest of ethnic conflict and foreign policy, I just feel like I’ve had enough of this parenting stuff for a while. That’s really fun. I tend to get students who have similar interdisciplinary interests as me. My work isn’t straight law. I am very, it kind of overlaps with political science, sociology, and culture. I have a lot of students working with me on projects in China, and that part is really fun. It’s a good distraction.

9. You told the Boston Herald that you can’t take any credit for Sophia getting into Harvard and Yale. What do you think she would say about that?

She was actually asked about it. Sophia is really self motivated and she has always just been…What she said was that, probably academically, she might have been very much the same person even if I [had never been her mom]. The thing is, I really didn’t have to be very strict with Sophia academically. It was really, all the battles were with my second daughter [Lulu]. Again, that’s something that’s misunderstood from the book. She just always did everything herself, I practically never had to look at her homework. What she has said is that she never would have become the pianist that she is without my strict parenting, and she loves the piano. That’s something that she does purely for fun now. I don’t supervise anything and she plays for fundraisers and parties and stuff and she kind of plays piano really socially now but she’s a really good pianist. She plans to keep it up, not as a major in college, but she plans to keep it up as a hobby.

10. What have you learned from parenting from your Jewish-American husband, Jed Rubenfeld? I can imagine integrating parenting techniques can be a challenge.

Questioning authority is I think a great thing to instill in children. I just didn’t have enough of that when I was little. In fact, when I went to law school it was hard. Initially it was really hard for me to be in law school because I just wanted to like, read these judicial opinions and memorize, but my husband has been really good with the girls. I think it’s a good balance for me because I say, “drill, work hard, don’t make excuses”, but he teaches them to ask why and I think that’s been a really good thing for my kids. I can see it in how much it has helped them be more like leaders and be more creative because a teacher will say something and you’ll read something and they’ll say, “why?” [Schools often] assign a classic like “Jane Eyre.” My attitude is very much, because of my culture, “that’s a great book, you have to love it.” But my husband is much more [likely to question the novel choice]. Lulu says, “I hate this book, I don’t think it’s good.” My husband would say, “Well, why? You’re entitled to hate a great book.” So I think we’re a good match. From Jed, I also learned about giving kids more breathing room. Again, there is a strength for me to be very efficient, I don’t waste a lot of time. But if you pack the day [too much and map out each hour], I think people just get burned out and it’s just no fun. I’ve learned that by being a little more relaxed in some ways and giving a little bit more room, I could actually get more done.

11. Did you ever have a nanny for the girls?

I always did have help, but not exactly a nanny. I had either Chinese students or Chinese babysitters because I was raising my kids bilingually. I’d often have a Chinese graduate student or a Chinese babysitter, you know somebody young, come in and speak Mandarin to my kids. I have always had part-time help.

12. What were you hoping to achieve by publishing your latest book? Was this you rooting for American parents to be a little bit more demanding of their children? Did you just want to tell your story? What was your vision?

Absolutely zero of the former. I had it so far out of my head that it was a guide to parenting. Again, the end…It’s so much in some ways about my mistakes and going overboard. To be honest, I had higher literary ambitions for it. I think the book is much more complex than people give it credit for. Right now, it’s all about Chinese parenting [to others]. There’s a big theme of rebellion in the book. I say in the third chapter…I disobeyed my own dad when he said I had to stay at home for college [and I ran off to the east coast for school rather than stay in California]. I reveal about my father, whom I idolize, he’s a rebel and a black sheep. I identify a lot with Lulu, who is rebellious. I also think writing the book is very rebellious. The tone of the book is very rebellious, it’s really against conventional wisdom. I had much more in mind. Frank McCourt has written a memoir about his own upbringing and it’s so much harsher, but because it’s not thought of as a parenting book but just as a memoir, there’s no trouble. I had in mind people like Dave Eggers, author of “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and humor writer David Sedaris. I thought people would find my book so funny, but I was so shell-shocked. I had a completely different idea of how the book was going to be received. I didn’t even take my email off my website. If I had known the book was going to be so controversial, I could have made it a lot less provocative. I could have taken out this scene and that scene, the stuffed animal scene [in which I threatened to burn Sophia’s stuffed toys], was supposed to be a joke, but people didn’t really get it…I thought [my book] was obviously so self-deprecating. Right on the second page I say that I think believe who believe in astrology must have serious problems, but then I go on to say that the Chinese zodiac fits my family perfectly because I’m a tiger and Sophia is a monkey. It’s filled with contradictions. I love books with unreliable narrators, so I thought about the book as if I was a very flawed character in the book and my two daughters are heroes. There is a very obtuse voice in the very beginning and I almost had to do that to show how I changed over the years. I don’t feel like a single review understood the book for what I meant it to be, but on the other hand it has definitely generated a really good conversation and I have gotten a lot of emails from people who say, “look, I know you didn’t mean for this to be a parenting guide but it has really made me think and we’re doing this and that.” It’s been really positive lately.

13. Do you think it would be more difficult to enforce “Tiger Mother” rules on large families? How did your parents do all that with you and your three sisters?

My mom was different because she didn’t work, and we didn’t have any money for tutors or anything like that, so she slaved away and I’m not sure I’d recommend that. The book shows how I’m kind of an extreme person anyway, I don’t even think it’s Chinese. Everyone knows me as an energetic person. I don’t think you need to do all the nutty things I did. I think a lot of it is just the basics. Hold your kids to high standards, be firm, but love them first. Let them know that you love them, but don’t just let them give up. As parents get older, I think younger kids often get a little more relaxed version of it because parents get a little bit tired, but then they get the benefits of their siblings. I’m a big fan of lots of siblings.

14. What was your justification for not allowing your daughters to have playdates? Did that include daytime activity or just sleepovers? Was it because they were tired all the time?

When they were really little like in pre-school up until second grade, they actually did have a lot of playdates, just playground activity and such. It was really from the ages of eight and fourteen that I really restricted them. It wasn’t that they didn’t have any playdates. The list of rules that appears on the back of the book is a little bit tongue and cheek. I mean, how can you be the number one student in every class? It’s supposed to be a little bit satirical. But I felt that a lot of what they learned in school was pretty light anyway, and because I wanted my daughters to play these musical instruments, that definitely did take time. I feel more strongly about it as they get older in their teenage years. I think there is some romanticization [sic] of it, of sleepovers especially. I totally agree that socialization is important. It’s been in the press that Lulu…a lot has changed since 2009. I’m so frustrated honestly, I don’t think it’s an improvement. She’s had four sleepovers in the last month and the next day, she is exhausted and really tired. It’s hard for her to study, she needs a nap in the middle of the day, but I’ve definitely loosened up a lot. What I was going to say is that when my kids weren’t at sleepovers, what we were often doing was spending time together as a family and I think that’s something that gets misunderstood. They weren’t working at those hours, we would all read together and play family games together and go to movies together, so I think it’s part of having a strong nuclear family that your kids don’t just like to spend time at other people’s houses all the time.

15. Is there anything else you’d like the world to know about you that hasn’t been conveyed in news reports?

People might be interested to know that my book in China is being marketed in the opposite way. The title is translated as, “Parenting By Yale Law Professor: Raising Kids in America”. It’s so funny because the book has all the same content and text, but China is so much stricter. The kids go to school from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., there are no playdates or sleepovers, and there are no extracurricular activities. My book is being marketed as showing the importance of giving kids more Western freedom, so I’m considered a relatively permissive and more open-minded parent. I thought it’s funny because my book represents really strict, extreme parenting in the United States and the same book represents a much more open-minded parent who gives kids more choices in China. I was recently asked a few days ago, I believe by China’s version of Marie Claire magazine, for tips on how to be friends with one’s daughters. I just think it’s funny that the same book is being taken in opposite ways in the two countries. It shows what a gap there is, how different the styles of parenting are. They want to learn more from us. And you know, in some ways maybe Americans could learn more, could have a little more rigor without going all the way to the extreme of Asia.

16. Why do you think people have a more positive attitude towards you now than they did when your book first came out?

I think it’s totally because people read the book. I still get 20 or 30 emails a day from people that have said, “I was so mad at you when I saw the Wall Street Journal thing, but now I have read the book and love it.” They actually say “I love it” and that they cried in the last third [of the book]. I have really nice emails, I’m keeping a file of it and thinking maybe I can do something with it. It’s really a beautiful reflection of America in way. It’s like, I’ll get emails from people who say, “I live in Iowa, I’m Irish-Polish, I’m a single mom, but I also try to do the same thing.” It’s really kind of universal. I just think there are enough people out there who have such a bad impression from me that they don’t want to read the book. If you look at my website, people can actually go and see my explanation on how I came to write the book and I say that I wrote it in a moment of crisis, and I think that affects a lot of people because they don’t realize that.

17. Your sister had leukemia and survived. She’s still alive to this day, so do you think the tiger parenting with which you were both raised actually made her conquer the illness? Do you think the tiger parenting might have helped her heal?

I really don’t know because I think I’ve seen so many people with cancer pull through courageously and many of them didn’t have tiger parents. I think it’s probably just individual personality. I will say though that the doctors said my sister was just unbelievably great. She was so tough, she never complained, she was willing to cooperate, and while she was sick she still sent me cheery emails, and so she’s kind of like a real model for me. But again, we know somebody else who had the same thing who wasn’t raised the same way, so I think it’s just really individual courage.

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Laura Donovan