Reflections of an Indian-American Daughter: Amy Chua, Tiger Moms, and Raising the Perfect Kid

The author (right) and her sister

The author (right) and her sister

The author (on the right) and her sister, in 2006.

Reading Amy Chua’s essay in the Wall Street Journal felt like reading the story of my own life. No sleepovers—check. Hours of written math homework that my dad often created himself—check. Dissuasion from what may be deemed inappropriate activities—writing poetry in my case—check. Rejected birthday gift for not being good enough—check.

You might not think that anything is left to be said about “tiger mothers,” their cubs or whether zero-fun parenting can actually raise a healthy child.  Chua’s book excerpt in the Journal has over 7,200 comments, and one mention of her name on my Facebook page got a ton of responses from friends.  Many of them are the ‘cubs’ — the offspring of tiger parents, or as one friend put it, “dragon mom and dad” — a tiger parent on steroids.   But with all this talk about how best to nurture, we seem to have forgotten the nature part of the equation.

I grew up an Indian American in Connecticut—one of three non-Irish or Italian Catholic families in a town of just under 14,000 people. My parents were terrified about the influence that American culture might have on us and banned parties, boys, and just about anything deemed “fun” by most kids.  They drilled it into my head again and again that I had to succeed because they came here to give me the best opportunities—and they wouldn’t be squandered with sleepovers or playing soccer (the sport of choice in suburban Connecticut). As Chua says herself,  “tiger parent” is a reference to Chinese or any other Asian, South Asian, or Jewish parent who believes that the key to success and happiness is discipline, hard work and high ideals.

For the most part, I was the model daughter, just like Chua’s oldest was.  My parents set incredibly high expectations and I followed them. In third grade, in order to get a Nintendo, I had to spend the entire school year bringing home straight A-pluses.  That’s a 97 or higher on each assignment.  Playing Duck Hunt never felt so good after that.  In 9th grade when we had to write papers about our future careers, I asked my parents and they told me to aim for being a brain surgeon—and I, obedient as ever, checked that box too. I focused on math and science, and while I secretly wanted to write, I just did as I was told.  My little sister, on the other hand, was just like Chua’s younger daughter, Lulu.  She carved her own way no matter how much my parents yelled, screamed, fought or banned her from doing things.

When she was just six, my parents had put Anita, like me, in the Kumon Math program, which was developed in Japan. As any child of tiger parents knows—Kumon is torture by long division. Children are given pages and pages—stacks of 20 to 30 sheets—of math to do over and over again.  The idea is that practice equals excellence—sound like a certain tiger mother’s focus on the piano?   I used to labor over these sheets, hours and hours a day, and as math became easier for me, my parents espoused the program and threw my six-year-old sister in without batting an eye.

A few months into the program, my father stormed into the Kumon program livid. “Why aren’t you giving my daughter more homework?” he demanded.  Anita’s stack of homework sheets was scrawny—a mere five pages compared to the one to two inch-thick stacks carried by other students.  The teacher, Mrs. Tao, responded, “I give her homework every week and this is all she comes back with.”

My dad turned to my sister in disbelief, and on coming home, ransacked her room.  Under the mattress right in the middle, pushed far from any corner were hundreds of sheets of undone homework.  My six-year-old sister was shook up, shouted out, and told that no fun would ensue in her life until she started doing her Kumon again.  Two months later, the incident repeated itself, and my father waved the white flag of surrender. Nothing worked with my sister when it came to rules, threats, etc.  Anita—like Chua’s daughter Lulu—had a mind of her own and my parents learned to bend towards it.

But here’s the catch—remember that little paper about being a brain surgeon that I wrote and my secret desire to be a poet?  Guess who was pre-med in college and is now studying for her CFA and working in finance on Wall Street.  It’s the little girl that hid the Kumon. I, on the other hand, no matter how much I wanted to follow the rules, couldn’t suppress my desire to write and live a more creative life, and ditched medicine in my third year at Brown.

For my parents, it was a lesson in nurture versus nature and now for them nature will always win.  Without following the rules, my sister did what they wanted. With a million rules, in the end I just couldn’t meet their expectations.  This is a drama that unfolds in so many immigrant families: high expectations, lots of rules, and the battle over who a child should be versus who they really want to be.  The irony is that despite all the bruhaha about Amy Chua, I don’t think you can repress a kid’s nature, no matter how much a parent might try to nurture it out of them.  Look at M. Night Shyamalan, who had two doctors for parents and still fought to go to film school—stories like ours abound.  Tiger parenting is the norm for many immigrant children, and figuring out how to be yourself in spite of it is part of their struggle, mine included.  Eventually, most of us do figure it out—no matter how much Kumon our parents made us do.