I can still remember sitting on the floor of my living room at age 16, watching the livestream for the final round of Duo Interpretation at the national high school speech and debate tournament and crying during this performance. This narrative, as performed by Lilly Zhang and Katherine Zhou spoke such truth to my own experience as a second generation Chinese-American; in this character of Amy Chua I saw my own mother. It is this version of “Tiger Mother” that I continue to recall to this day. Yet our discussions in class have revealed to me how differently these two young women interpreted the text. By turning to erin Khuê Ninh’s critique of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, “Advice on How Not to Misread the Tiger Mother,” we can better understand the techniques implemented to refine Amy Chua’s message for a large audience. In this way, Zhang and Zhou demonstrate how Asian American literature – even when it is problematic – can still be interpreted and utilized to further discourse.
The first critique centers around dismantling Chua’s argument, as stated in interviews, that her book is not a how-to but rather is a memoir. erin Khuê Ninh observes that the book does not actually follow the story arc as Chua describes it, but rather, that is ends on a note wherein Chua’s parenting style is ultimately validated by her daughter Lulu. “If Tiger mistakes were made, it is hard to say by Chua’s account what they were or when they happened,” explains Khuê Ninh. Although Battle Hymn is allegedly not meant to be a proclamation of Chinese parenting as “better,” Chua’s narrative certainly does not admit to any flaws within that parenting style.
Where Chua fails to demonstrate what, or if, she learned from this experience of raising her daughters, Zhang and Zhou emphasize that aspect. They even take a quote that has also been cited by Khuê Ninh: “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about. . .how I was humbled by a thirteen-year old.” In contrast to the original material, the end of the performance involves Chua admitting she is often too hard on Lulu and that she was perhaps not as right as she once believed. Furthermore, speech competitions require an introduction to the piece that is being performed, allowing for Zhang and Zhou to explicitly verbalize their intentions.
Next, Khuê Ninh offers some grave implications for what Chua’s book and parenting style, when taken at face value, can create. Chua’s attempts to use humor and irony only end up justifying what Khuê Ninh argues can be considered psychological abuse. Chua presents herself solely as an expert on parenting; although she does acknowledge that Chinese parenting can and does backfire, “nowhere in or outside of her memoir has Chua convincingly managed to learn these lessons.” Chua does not reform her positions or change her attitudes at any point in the book, leading many to misread her in the ways she has warned against.
Zhang and Zhou play with humor throughout their performance, yet in the most critical moment when Chua calls Lulu a “terrible daughter,” the moment is shown in real and serious form. Chua recognizes the mistakes she has made in pressuring her daughter so strongly and breaks down emotionally when reconciling with Lulu. Additionally, the use of humor in their introduction (joking that her child will “dream to become a surgeon”) highlights the seeming absurdity of this type of parenting. They create a juxtaposition between the two of them – Zhou (on the right) is a caricature of the “Tiger Mom” while Zhang (on the left) represents a more flexible, encouraging parent. Given that they are performing in front of a majority white audience, it is crucial they demonstrate through explicit, as in the introduction, and implicit, as in the conclusion, methods their argument so as not to alienate the audience.
Chua’s book prompted great controversy as many Asian Americans condemned its perpetuation of model minority stereotypes. Zhang and Zhou, through their interpretation of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, address some of the concerns raised by erin Khuê Ninh and contribute their own perspective to this discourse. However, although Zhang and Zhou refine Chua’s message, they remain complicit in the simplification and generalization of the Chinese-American parent experience. As we interact with Asian American media, we must be cognizant of our role in shaping conversations, for better and worse.