Crouching Tiger Mother, Hidden Hornet


Much controversy surrounds the new best-seller from author Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  I first became aware of the book when I saw the title, assumed it was a new Michelle Yeoh action movie, and eagerly clicked the link, because God knows I’m always up for that.

As it turns out, I was wrong, and quickly realized that if I had been one of Amy Chua’s kids, I’d be buried underneath the trash bin in her back yard.  The book is her forthright declaration of the superiority of Chinese parenting techniques, which… well, let’s just say they’re uncompromising.  She advocates demanding 100% effort from children in every endeavor, and settling for nothing less than “A” performance.  If she’d been around to hear Barack Obama grade his presidency as a “solid B+,” she would have dragged him into the Oval Office by one ear, slammed the door, and made him practice being President until he got it right.

An extensive Time review of the book has lots of two-fisted details: Chua stops just short of waterboarding to make her daughter learn a piano lesson, forbids her kids from doing whatever your children will most likely be doing this evening, and literally throws an inadequate hand-made birthday card back in her daughter’s face.  She’s openly contemptuous of marshmallow-soft American parenting methods.  In fact, if she’s reading this, she’s probably already on the phone to my father, ripping him a new one for letting me watch kung-fu movies, and I’m 43 years old.

Reaction to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been a mixture of fascination, horror, and outrage.  Time goes to great lengths to tie this into American anxiety over rising Chinese power, and declining student performance.  Personally, I thought of The Green Hornet.

If you haven’t seen it, the movie follows the adventures of lazy, self-indulgent playboy Britt Reid and his superhuman Chinese driver Kato as they become crime fighters.  Your enjoyment of the film will depend largely on your opinion of Seth Rogen, who stars as Reid.  He’s playing essentially the same character he always does – and that character is of some cultural interest to conservatives, because his “hero’s journey” always involves discovering that self-indulgence is hollow and meaningless, while a worthwhile life involves discipline and effort.  Of course, since Rogen is a comic actor, the “effort” involves lots of bumbling and catastrophe, but the point is that he’s trying.

The new movie amps up the longstanding jokes about Kato doing all the heavy lifting, while the Green Hornet just stands around and wears a hat.  Fans of the classic 60s TV series always suspected crime-fighting would be a lot easier when Bruce Lee has your back.  The new Kato is a superman in both mind and body, a “human Swiss army knife,” as Reid describes him.  He moves so fast that the rest of the world turns into a slow-motion video game when he fights, he can design and build almost anything, and he makes fantastic coffee.

Kato, however, lacks vision.  He spends his life driving Reid’s cranky father around and fixing his cars, when he should be designing weapons for the Defense Department and teaching Special Forces guys how to slow down time.  He probably would have gone on collecting a modest paycheck as a humble driver and mechanic forever, until Reid has an epiphany about doing battle with organized crime.  All of Kato’s fantastic skill was, essentially, meaningless until Reid’s crazy vision gave him purpose.  He still ought to get in touch with the Pentagon, but meanwhile, “superhero” is better suited to his abilities than “coffee barista.”

I think we are passing through a cultural moment where Americans want to be the Green Hornet, but they can’t escape the awareness that Kato is indispensable… and being Kato is hard work.  The character says he grew up on the streets of Shanghai as an orphan, but if he had a mother to raise him, she probably would have been something like Amy Chua. 

Even as readers recoil in surprise and dismay from the edgier aspects of the Chua parenting style, I think they find some wisdom in her critique of lax standards, and endless excuses for making children happy by placating them, when teaching them is much more difficult.  Parents who make the effort to home school figured that out a long time ago, and the academic performance of their children benefits as a result.  You don’t have to terrorize them to make them meet expectations.  You do have to let them know that you have expectations. 

That’s not something they’ll get from the public school system – which, despite the presence of many great teachers, is more about minimum standards and agendas than expectations and accountability.  It differs from no other bureaucracy in this regard.

Where Chua goes wrong is her merciless insistence on purging every aspect of fun and socialization from the monastic lives of her super-kids.  That’s how you get Kato parking cars and making coffee, when he’s capable of dodging bullets and putting rocket launchers into classic sedans.  Vision, heart, and soul are important too, and we still have a rich abundance of that in America.

Our new generation is waking up in a lush national estate of riches, run by a government that treats grown adults like helpless children.  They’re brimming with ideas, driven by a heroic cultural heritage that no amount of leftist indoctrination can obscure.  They can sense the wrongness in the world around them, and they want to do something about it.  They understand the Green Hornet part pretty well.  They could use a dash of tiger in their moms and dads to find their inner Kato.