Why We Hate (And Love) The Tiger Mum

The trailer to Crazy Rich Asians starts innocently enough: After flashes of glitzy urban landscapes, the film's star, Constance Wu, appears on the screen with her love interest played by Henry Golding. The trailer teases that the movie has summer blockbuster elements in spades: In addition to a marriage plot, there’s abs, fast cars, and hot women in couture gowns. It’s a good, gold-dripping time for all.
Less than a minute into the trailer, though, we see another kind of woman. She’s a few decades older than our heroine; she's not smiling amid the fireworks and epic parties. In the next shot, she’s already shaking her head disapprovingly. Before the two-minute trailer ends, she says the money line to our heroine we’ve been waiting for: “You’ll never be enough.”
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Even if you haven't read the book (or read about the book), this female character should be familiar: She’s the Tiger Mum.
For many Asian Americans, the Tiger Mum is a loaded term. It's a stereotype that's been around for decades, but in 2011, Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor and Tiger Mum-in-chief, sparked a serious national discussion when she published the controversial book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
It helped that the book came out at a geopolitical moment when there were fears that China would catch up to the US as a superpower — arguably in part because of the perception that Chinese people were working harder than their American counterparts. The reaction was swift and panicked: op-eds, hot takes, fevered discussion on Chua’s parenting style. Tiger Mum was on TV. She went viral. The book was a blockbuster. It even inspired academic research into whether tiger parenting is “better.”
Chua is well aware of the anger her book caused when it came out, and letters from readers continue to pour in. “Seven years later, everything is so different for me. The response has gotten much more subtle and much more diverse,” says Chua over the phone earlier this week. “For me, I was so shocked. I thought it was so obvious that I was making fun. It's so hard for me to see how anybody could see it otherwise.”
She has a point: While Chua’s book has no squeamishness about harsh parenting and cultural stereotypes, the book is funny. There are two chapters on how to Tiger parent dogs. She describes her dealings with her daughter Lulu as “faceoffs” and “nuclear warfare.” The book is full of foreshadowing about how she, in turn, was about to be seriously schooled by her American daughters.
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“I'm a goofy, fun person. It's supposed to be comical,” Chua maintains. “The first half of the book was written in an obtusely cocky kind of way. Between the lines, you could tell it was incredibly painful.”
But in the moment, people took her very seriously. It was compelling for anxious Western parents, who saw Chua as a sort of shock jock of parenting. It was also appalling for Asian Americans who abhorred the way it reinforced the model minority narrative. Chua admits that “it’s all valid criticism," but she vehemently disagrees that she leaned into a traditionally negative stereotype. Chua says she saw many of the things she exhibited in the book as distinctly non-Asian.
"My mum used to say 'Keep your head down,' and 'The loudest duck gets shot.' I feel like I put myself out there. The worst thing about the stereotype of Asian Americans is that we're all similar robots, that we're all followers. I feel like Asians should be happy that there's an array of voices. I really like the idea that it's a proud voice. I know it's not perfect, and it doesn't work for everybody, but I'm proud of the way my parents raised me; I'm proud of the way I raised my kids. It's a great way for a minority woman to be, which is proud."
While Chua says she still holds many of the views she expressed in the book, she sympathises with the readers who were triggered because they themselves were on the unpleasant receiving end of tiger parenting. But as for the intense conversation it sparked, Chua has no regrets.
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“I wish they weren't so angry at me personally,” says Chua of the backlash. “Parenting is the hardest thing I've ever done. How many times have I sobbed myself to sleep worrying.… In general, I think most parents are trying to get it right. They really love their kids. I feel like I'm pretty sympathetic to all women who are trying to parent. My kids are 22 and 25 now, I have new anxieties about them now.”
One of those new anxieties is about the American education system, and how it doesn’t award the kind of achievements Chua once championed. She concedes that the activities she forced on her daughters just aren’t competitive anymore in a landscape where Ivy League schools get so many Asian applicants who have near perfect test scores and are nationally competitive classical musicians.
“I think our education system is broken. The pressure people feel about it starting from ninth grade, worrying about standardised tests, and then their parents are hiring all these tutors. I think that contributes to inequality in the country. How could working class parents ever compete? Education is no longer an engine for upward mobility like it used to be. I went to a public school. Everything is high stakes now, and I really hate it.”
Chua says when she speaks about Tiger parenting in China, she tells the parents: “Don't have your kids only do math, piano, and violin. There's too much competition. Do anything but that!" Where she joked in the memoir that drums “lead to drugs,” she now recommends it as an extracurricular.
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In that way, Chua’s book is reminiscent of a more hopeful time when Asian parents really, truly believed that all it took was hard work to get to the top. Since then, it’s not only the model minority myth that has complicated these dreams. An ongoing federal investigation into Harvard’s admission process looks at whether the school has quotas and higher standards for Asian American students. Last month, a lawsuit filed against Harvard on behalf of Asian American students moved forward and will go to court this fall.
One thing is clear: The Harvard lawsuit, along with discussions about the model minority myth, shows that a new generation of Asian Americans may be less focused on beating the system, and more interested in changing the odds.
It may not be immediately apparent why the Tiger Mum is a negative stereotype. So what if she’s strict? So what if she wants her kids to get good grades? The bigger issue many Asian Americans and scholars take with the Tiger Mum is the way she enforces what is known as the model minority narrative.
The model minority narrative started in the 1960s, and the premise is at best overly simplistic, and at worst incredibly flawed: Asian immigrants are the “best” immigrants. That’s because they embrace the core American value of hard work. Asian parents demand their kids get straight As at any cost; their kids are able to accomplish this by never having fun and doing lots of homework. As a result, Asian Americans are high achieving, have fantastic education outcomes, become professionals at a higher rate, and are wealthier than other immigrants.
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While a certain generation of Asian immigrants had no problem with this narrative (arguably, some still don’t) — both theoretically and in practice — a new generation of Asian voices have been vocal about the way it is a myth used to urge Asians to work hard in a system that still has too many bamboo ceilings (a term to describe the lack of Asian Americans in executive positions.) It’s true that Asian Americans are earning more, but those gains disappear once education is factored in. And if Asian Americans are supposedly so good at everything, why don’t we run the country? Or more than 3% of Fortune 500 companies?
Worse, the myth has often been used to denigrate Black and brown Americans for “not working hard” in a system where the odds are stacked against them. It didn’t happen overnight, but what was once an insidiously positive stereotype of cultural superiority has shifted in a landscape where Asians see themselves as part of a bigger conversation about race in America. It also didn’t help that the achievement of Asians are often used to “prove” that America isn’t racist by top columnists; that it’s still a meritocracy if you just work hard enough.
“Today, the ‘model minority’ concept both fascinates and upsets precisely because it offers an unambiguous yet inaccurate blueprint for solving the nation's most pressing issues,” wrote Ellen D. Wu, a history professor at Indiana University, in an Los Angeles Times op-ed.
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The Tiger Mum is, unfortunately, a part of this narrative: If you look at her methods — the strictness, the emphasis on good grades, the idea that working hard can get you anything in America — it’s obvious that she was a prime subscriber of the model minority myth. L.S. Kim, an associate professor of film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz, says the Tiger Mum type in pop culture “capitalises upon some preconceived notions about the model minority.”
Moreover, Kim points out that the urge to show Tiger parenting is part of “a larger pattern in popular culture of the inability and unwillingness to portray characters of Asian descent as American.” In other words, the Tiger Mum is employed to show the foreignness of an Asian mother, while simultaneously villainising and congratulating her for her methods.
Where does this leave the Tiger Mum, both on the silver screen and IRL? The concept of the Tiger Mum was no doubt popularised by Chua, but the idea of the harsh, overbearing Chinese mother has been around for much longer.
Based on Amy Tan’s bestselling novel, the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club is arguably the OG in portrayals of the high-expectations of Chinese mothers: Not only were there four of them, they compared the achievements of their daughters ceaselessly. Tiger Mums and their rebellious American children have been a mainstay in an arena where there aren’t very many Asians at all. In American pop culture, finding representation beyond racist tropes and white washing has been a huge hurdle. Asian Americans account for only 1% of leading roles in Hollywood films. But it’s precisely because Asian-American characters are scarce on screen that it’s worth questioning why, of all the types, the Tiger Mum emerged and stuck around. (At least she’s not the Dragon Lady or China Doll.)
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In television, the overbearing Asian mother is a common trope. Who doesn’t remember the super strict and religious Mrs. Kim in Gilmore Girls, hissing at Lane about no boyfriends and demanding that she get straight As? Or Minh Souphanousinphone, Connie’s strict mum in King Of The Hill?
Jun Okada, a professor of English and Film studies at SUNY Genesco, has one theory about why the Tiger Mum stereotype is so culturally appealing. “We love to hate her. We know she's going to be great. There's that love there. It's like even though she's a stereotype, there's something amazing and kind of delicious about it. There's drama and vulnerability under the steely exterior.”
Hopefully, as we see representation improve (however small), we can look forward to different types of Asians on-screen. There’s some good recent examples: Take Ali Wong, the raunchy comedian and Asian mum who jokes about wanting to lie down instead of lean in. Or Constance Wu in Fresh Off The Boat (where Wong is a screenwriter).
“Her character does not follow the simple formula of a rigid, unwarm parent who is overly-focused on academics and classical music at the expense of sports and fun,” says UC Santa Cruz Professor Kim. The show “is notable for the way in which Constance Wu has developed her character into one that audiences find appealing, strong, funny, and more nuanced than 'the immigrant mum.’”
Because it’s unlikely that the Tiger Mum will disappear from the zeitgeist anytime soon, Okada says the best thing to do is to push for change and wait.
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“It's important to understand the complexity of how these cultural products work in our society and how we love them so much and appreciate them, but we need to be critical of them. We're waiting for better [portrayals] to come along. We're waiting for the evolution of media,” says Okada. (A footnote: a small number of indie Asian American films have tried to accomplish this, most notably Better Luck Tomorrow, a teen movie where parents are conspicuously absent.)
As for Chua, she has a new book out about America’s tribalism as it relates to foreign policy, Political Tribes. Her daughter Sophia is in law school, and Lulu is currently taking a gap year after graduating from Harvard, and she thinks it’s a good thing for everyone.
“One of the downsides of Tiger parenting is that you've got to get straight As and you've got to get 100%. It's so exhausting,” Chua says now. “When I start thinking back on those days, I get exhausted.”
In our new series #NotYourTokenAsian, R29's Asian staffers are exploring a number of different topics in honour of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the US. Stay tuned for more.
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