Things You Only Know If You Have A Tiger Mum
The Debrief: David Cameron called on schools to adopt the ethos of ‘Tiger Mums’, but what's it actually like to grow up with one?
Illustration by Nick Alston
While you were mourning the death of David Bowie, Prime Minister David Cameron called on schools to adopt the ethos of ‘Tiger Mums’ as part of social reforms including measures to improve mental health services and flatten ‘sink estates’ in an ‘all-out assault on poverty’. Quoting Amy Chua, the Asian-American Professor at Yale Law School who coined the cultural phenomenon, Cameron said the Tiger Mothers’ ‘battle hymn’ of ‘work, try hard, believe you can succeed, get up and try again’ practiced in elite schools should be spread around the education system. The Sun subsequently published an article leading with a photograph of a white British woman painting her face as a tiger along with her six children clawing their fingers as if they are the animals, further underlining the inherent racial bias against these women.
As somebody who grew up with one fo the Tiger Mums Cameron speaks of, I find his comments, as well as such responses, both patronising and racist. What he has failed to understand is that there is no simple recipe for being a ‘Tiger’, no easy how-to-guide when it comes to ‘Tiger parenting’; the extent to which Asian parents push their children differs on a case-by-case basis. My mother is not well positioned like Chua, who chose to preach her wisdom as an academic at an Ivy League institution. Married to a white American man, Chua is solely responsible for ensuring women like her maintain their Asian ‘roots’ as second generation mixed raced children, whereas mothers with Asian fathers like mine have no reason to label themselves so publicly. Across Asia, mainly East Asia, South East Asia and, of course, China, strict parenting is nothing unusual.
Because of this I find Cameron’s drive to push parents to be more like ‘Tiger Mums’ hard to swallow, it includes hardly any understanding to the kind of pressure mothers like mine had to endure. Speaking as the first woman in my family to have gone to university - which happened to be one of the best in the world - and raised by a multilingual father who managed to keep his expat status for 20 years without ever having returning to his homeland, it was the expectations of Japanese society that pressured us into this way of life. As a housewife, my mother’s success was defined based on how well I did, and so, I had to deliver; and, she could not fail because we had access to opportunities that so many Asians would dream of.
The Tiger Mums regularly judged one other over tea, while their children played together in the background; the pressure of all the mothers, who wanted the very best for their children, often lead to jealousy and competition. My two year-old self was blissfully unaware of it all. My mother, who was aged 26 when my father landed a job in Germany, kept these pains to herself. 'Your father was the youngest person at the company’s regional office who was also the only fluent German speaker, and this created problems for me,' she told me recently. "I once bumped into his boss" wife on a bus, who told me how unfair it was that you were accepted into a local nursery when other mothers had registered their children on the waiting list before us. The truth was that the teachers there liked your German-speaking father and my Christian values, and this woman couldn’t face that she and other mums couldn't facilitate this for their children too.'
So, far from being the ‘all-out-assault on poverty’ that Cameron hails the Tiger Mum’s ethos as being, such intense competition actually came with a pretty hefty price tag. By the time I was in London, aged 7, I had extra tutoring to ensure I would ace even the smallest, most routine, mathematics competition when going up against the boys in my class, in particular my rival, who was not a British classmate but a Japanese one. On Saturdays, my parents paid for me to attend an extra day of school to keep up with the Japanese curriculum. Like many children of tiger parents, I was also learning the hardest musical instruments - the piano and the violin. The string of prizes I had won in local competitions upped the ante - more money was poured into the best music teachers South London had to offer and spent on antique instruments (which meant my brother could then follow in my footsteps a year later).
At one point the pressure to be the best got so extreme that I would be late for school because my mother wouldn't drive me there until there were not mistakes in my morning practice sessions. It was embarrassing to tell my form teacher and classmates what was really going on, so I blamed traffic. The humiliation was supposed to teach us that we should practice enough the night before so that we can get to school on time the next morning. Music festivals were about winning against children raised by other Tiger Mums, and joining orchestras was never really about collaborating, it was about which one of us would end up as section leader.
The social sacrifice that came along with the competitive nature of what should have been our hobbies influenced my friendships. The majority of my Friday nights were spent revising for Japanese writing tests on Saturday followed with homework on a Sunday. My mum would supervise me while I missed on any opportunity to bond with any friends I'd made - eventually I started being bullied for my work ethic.
The nightmare of having to explain what was all behind this meant I eventually ended up going to specialist music school. Those years were tough, but I did feel more at home - regardless of what nationality you were, everybody somewhat had ‘Tiger’ parents to get to where they were. However, only when I started making my own choices at university did I realise how time spent during secondary school years at a full-time music institution had affected my understanding of what it meant to have friends, as my classmates had always been competitive colleagues. I was incapable of hanging out in big social groups, and was ousted from the big group of girls I started hanging out with in the first term. I was busy spending evenings practicing or playing in concerts when they all wanted to get drunk with the boys. But old habits die hard and mine, groomed through childhood, had become a part of me.
The effects of being raised by a ‘Tiger Mum’ rubbed off when I finished university with a job in television- born out of a newly-found passion for journalism that my parents had no part in. My parents were of course surprised, and advised on waiting for a job offer at a bank where I might meet my future husband. Ignoring them meant there were some difficult periods. Having to explain to them that there was no way I could afford to keep up with my commitment to music because of the poorly-paid profession I was in was difficult.
Five years later, after many fights, things are much better. As much as I felt compelled to go against the grain with my career choice the discipline from ‘Tiger’ parenting has stuck with me in a different field. And I’m grateful for it, even if there still is a massive shouting match once a year because of different cultural values; my mother admitting that she found the pressure to deliver just as stressful as I did made me become more empathetic towards her. The battle now is staying as an independent woman, to prove to them that a man cannot and should not dictate my life.
The British Prime Minister is demanding an end to the ‘all must have prizes’ culture, which he claims is holding back disadvantaged children. In reality, Tiger parenting comes from a race to meet social expectations which is neither cheap to finance nor particularly good for anyone’s mental health. The thing that David Cameron doesn't understand is that the Tiger parenting method can only work if there is a will from both parties - the child and the parent - to support each other's hard work. And in reality no child living with a Tiger Mum can really appreciate that until they have already grown up.
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