Photo caption: Kim Wong Keltner writes “Tiger Babies Strike Back,” her retort to Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” William Morrow, 2013.
“Tiger Babies Strike Back,” Kim Wong Keltner’s personal chronicles as a Chinese-American woman and mother, is an exploration of the multiple-culture disorder that afflicts many of us first-and-second-generation Asian Americans. It’s just as well a criticism of the stereotype of the militant, bullwhip-cracking Tiger Mom.
“Tiger Babies” positions itself as a retort to Amy Chua’s controversial “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” with chapter titles such as, “Tiger Mom, I’m Just Not That Into You,” and declarations of revolt: “Tiger babies like me are tired of feeling kicked around. I was raised by a Tiger Mom, yet I choose to raise my own daughter with more tenderness and hugs than I ever received. I don’t believe in pushing [children to] their limits until they are screaming or in tears.”
Some ramifications of the Tiger Mom trope are that it reinforces negative stereotypes of model minority diligence, yet opens another pathway toward the “look at the way those people act” mentality. Yet many of us Asian Americans do indeed wear the scars of tiger parenting and deal with the constant negotiations of our values versus our parents’ on a daily basis. However, “tiger parenthood” through a Western lens is often framed as oppressive, sadistic and rootless, which misses the point. Keltner herself claims “there are some Asian parents who will willfully keep down a child just to ensure that they themselves will never be alone.”
Although Keltner writes about embodying both cultures, she allies with her American identity. This is seen through the book’s frequent reference of American popular culture, and through the values that under gird “Tiger Babies” such as the Western value of individual happiness and prioritizing this over others in your family. To quote Keltner, “in contrast, in raising my own child, I want her to focus her attention on having fun. I’m not going to force her into nonstop curricular activities and academic supremacy at the cost of having no sleepovers, no friends, and no fun at all.”
At best, “Tiger Babies Strike Back” engages in ideas that are important for Asian Americans to consider, such as the fact that “most Americans don’t have room to dream because so much [financial] achievement is expected of them,” and that “[the heist of the century] is to take back the way we define ourselves.” At worst, the book misses its opportunity to critique the deep, socio-political ways in which the Tiger Mom notion is perpetuated. Keltner did name a few things “tiger babies” lose when they subscribe to the model minority stereotype, but there are much larger stakes than missing out on the sloppy pastime of American pubescent courtship or chugging Heinekens at a high school party. Growing up tiger myself, I was not the only one struck by fear in my household; my mother ruled with a claw because she herself was afraid.
When you’re foreign and your new country inundates you with messages about what success for your people should look like, you oblige and make your children oblige, because what’s presented as consequences are financial destitution, deportation, imprisonment or social obsolescence. What’s more, when you see how other communities of color are coded negatively and treated as such, you know that the good graces you’ve been granted are conditional.
Keltner’s book, and the whole conversation around tiger motherhood, involves much indignant finger-pointing, often at these so-dubbed tiger mothers. If we’re going to get mad about something, it seems misdirected to lash out at the mothers who raised us according to what they learned from observation as measures of success. If we’re going to “strike back,” shouldn’t we aim our claws at the Western cultural impositions of what parenting, love and even affection should look like, and challenge the prevailing racist myths about us and other communities of color? These are the conversations that I as a tiger baby need to have.