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Take Five: Amy Chua surprised by her year of 'Tiger Mom'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2012 - When Amy Chua's book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" came out last year, there was certainly a lot of roaring going on.

Actually, that happened even before the book came out, thanks, she thinks, to an excerpt from the book that appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the headline "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."

But it's been a year now, and more people have actually read the book for themselves, she says. These days, the roars she's hearing are coming from overseas, where she's been traveling with the book.

"I just got back from India," she says. "There are a lot of Tiger parents there. The response was so different. They all got the book."

In an interview with the Beacon, Chua talked about the last year, her own childhood as a first generation American, what Western parents can learn from Asian parents, and what Asian parents can learn from Western parents.

"I do think it's about having a happy balance," she says.

Your book came out a little over a year ago. What has surprised you most about the response people have had to it, which seems to have ranged from admiration to outright anger?

Chua: I would say the explosion completely stunned my family and me. Right before the book came out, my daughter said to me, "Mommy, you know no one's going to read this book, right, cause you're not a famous person and no one's going to care to read your memories."

I think it was the Wall Street Journal headline and excerpt that gave people a very different impression of what the book is. I really don't think people can be that upset about a memoir. ...

Things have gotten so much better after the first three months when people actually started reading the book and people would write and say, "OK, I'm one of those people, I admit it, I wrote one of those nasty posts, but now that I've read the book, oh my God, it's so much different than what I thought, I love it."

You were born and raised in the U.S. and your parents are Chinese. Growing up, did you realize that your family was different than other families, and at what point did you realize that?

Chua: I think I realized it the moment I was conscious. I had a really happy childhood but I always knew what it was like to be an outsider. ... We spoke Chinese at home. Everybody else got to run around and we had to come straight home from school and drill math and Chinese and piano.

From the outside, it might seem like, wow, these are harsh people. That's not what it was about. My mom was an immigrant, so she barely spoke the language; and I remember asking her, "Mommy, can I go sleep over at this person's house?" She was practically in tears. Her response was "But Amy, we have a bed here in our house, why do you need to go to someone else's house to sleep. Who are these people?" ...

But the cultural assimilation just happens so naturally in this country. There's something I would say almost irresistible and positive about American culture, too. I would say my parents changed so much. By the time they got to my younger sisters, they were really different. My younger sisters don't speak Chinese nearly as well. They were much less strict.

What do you think are the biggest chasms between Chinese culture and American culture?

Chua: I just came back from China, and I basically think their education and parenting problems are the exact opposite of ours in the United States. Their entire education system is so oppressive and authoritarian and rote memorization-based. Kids basically work in China from 7 a.m until 10 p.m. ... There's no freedom.

So I surprised a lot of people in China. It's a huge seller there, but for all the wrong reasons. They don't get that it's not a how-to guide. They asked, "What's the best thing we can do for our kids to get them into these colleges?" and I said, "I cannot believe I'm saying this, given my reputation in the West, but honestly I think the best things for your kids would be some sleepovers and play dates and freedom." And I do not think that's what American kids need more of. I truly don't.

What do you think Western parents could learn about parenting from Chinese parents (or East Asians, or any other cultures for that matter?)

Chua: I think the Asian nations are incredibly good at instilling a strong work ethic and self discipline and the ability to focus and concentrate in kids at a young age. By the time Sophia (one of Chua's two daughters) got to high school, she was actually much less stressed out than most of her friends. She knew how to sit down for two hours, get all the homework done, then she had time to go to Facebook and talk to friends and still get to bed on time. ...

I think where the Asian nations are really lacking is they don't know how to instill in their kids a sense of individuality and thinking outside the box and creativity and vibrancy. And that's what I think the West is good for. To me, those are the biggest differences. ...

Here, I think a lot of our schools are all about "be independent, be creative," it's almost like creativity is romanticized. and I don't believe that. I don't think you can give a kid a blank piece of paper and string theory or the theory of relativity is going to pop out. You need to know the basics before you can invent the iPod.

What are you working on now, any chance of a follow up to "Tiger Mother"?

Chua: I have written two really serious academic books, I did 10 years of research for the first and five for the second, and I did zero for this one because it came from a totally different place, something more written in a moment of crisis.

I'm just gonna steer clear from parenting for a little bit, which has been a little intense ... but I am storing up a giant file of all my experiences over the last year. I have learned so much about parenting in 30 different countries and I have incredibly fascinating emails. So I think I will do a follow up but, you know, maybe give it a little break.

Kristen Hare