[TW: child abuse] Cry of the Tiger Cub

or: I Grew Up with a Tiger Parent and All I Got was This Lousy Psychological Trauma

Have you read Amy Chua’s bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? It’s a must-read if you’re a parent or thinking of having kids, mostly because it quite handily lays out some of the best ways of emotionally and psychologically abusing your child and ensuring they grow up bitter, resentful and crippled by neuroses and insecurity.

I had a Tiger Parent. I don’t think he called himself that (though he’d probably consider the moniker flattering), but all his moves were from the Tiger Parent playbook. Like Ms Chua, my Tiger Parent (let’s call him my abuser from now on, just to save me typing that ridiculous phrase over and over) probably thought he was doing me a favour, what with the unattainable standards he held over my head from the age of four, the constant comparisons to “model” children who were much better than me and for whom he would gladly trade me, and the rigorous schedule of all work and no play to which he held me.

Oh, yes. He was a tiger, all right. And I, his child, was a scratching post for his claws.

In tenth grade, when my academic advisor was helping me plan my senior curriculum, she asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I answered that I wanted to study medicine. (I wanted to be a writer, but my father had made it very clear that firstly, writing was a rubbish profession for lower-class people, and secondly, if I didn’t study medicine, I would find myself out of a home and without a family in short order.) My teacher, who was not stupid and was also rather fond of me, asked me what I really wanted to do after I graduated. Without so much as a second’s hesitation, I responded, “I want to make my father happy.”

See, growing up, my life was about making my father happy. As a child, I was punished for reading “rubbish” – defined as any book that wasn’t religious, educational or both – and was not allowed to have white friends because their (lax, un-tigerish) parents let them listen to pop music and watch TV and they would therefore surely be a bad influence on me. I was allowed one special treat a week – as a family, we watched National Geographic documentaries together on Saturday nights. When I consistently brought home Cs in handwriting in primary school because as a left-hander, writing lessons didn’t cater to my physical needs, my father bought copies of the handwriting books we used at school, photocopied them (so I wouldn’t sully the originals with my hen-scratch) and made me practise at home for hours, because even a C in handwriting was one C too many.

When I was old enough to begin taking instrumental lessons at school, I wanted to play the saxophone. My father wanted me to play the violin. I played the violin. When I made captain of my school’s trivia team, my father made me study quiz books for hours every day when I got home from school. When I started to cry because I was exhausted, he yelled at me. I kept studying. When I complained, he told me that I was ungrateful, that his father had been really strict, that I didn’t realise how easy I had it. His father used to tie him to a chair in order to make sure he did his maths homework. His father once hit him so hard he had to go to the doctor and lie about how he came about his injuries. By comparison, my dad was lenient and I was just weak.

I remember something he used to say to me after yelling at me, when his rage had subsided and he was holding me in his arms as though I were just a lost lamb he was trying to save from herself. “A father’s anger is never really anger, baita-jee,” he would say, stroking my hair as I sobbed. “When a father gets angry, it’s because he loves you.”

(I sometimes wonder if his father told him the same thing. Animals tend to learn by emulating their parents. I doubt tigers are much different.)

When I received a Distinction in a competition, my father would remind me that at my age, he was achieving High Distinctions in everything. An “A” in Maths or Chemistry or Physics was cause for consternation, not celebration. (He didn’t care about my straight A-pluses in English, because I wasn’t going to be a writer. He especially didn’t care for the four years in a row that I came first in my Music class, because only incredibly low-class people would ever perform music in public.) As the eldest child, I was both first in his attentions and first to feel his wrath if I proved undeserving of them. I was simultaneously held up as an example for my younger siblings (which definitely didn’t lead to them resenting me at all, oh no) and trundled out as a public whipping-girl to keep them in line. My successes were always slightly under par and not worth celebrating. My failures were proof that I was defective. Despite the fact that most of my teachers considered me a very bright and highly capable child – far more so than average, in fact – as years went on and my confidence was slowly worn to tatters, the latter became far more common than the former.

There are many things I love about Asian culture, particularly the South Asian culture in which I was raised. I love the bonds of family and community that we are encouraged to form, and the support and strength we can draw from them. I love our hospitality culture, and I still laugh fondly when my mother (who is most certainly not a parent of the big cat variety, but rather of the fallible-but-all-together-decent human one) won’t let my friends leave without at least staying for one drink. I have fond memories of dinner parties with family friends, of making up games with my siblings because we were encouraged to be each others’ best friends. I remember watching Bollywood movies with my family and sleeping all day on the holidays so that I could stay up late at night to watch Pakistan play in the Cricket World Cup. I still call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle” out of respect.

But I do not love tiger parenting – not the kind Amy Chua espouses in her how-to on emotionally scarring children for life, and certainly not the kind that my emotionally distant, affection-withholding father practiced over the twenty years that I lived at home. It is neither admirable nor worth emulating to hold one’s children to impossible standards and then to make them suffer emotionally and psychologically (or even physically) when they fail to reach the bar. There is nothing brave or bold about forcing one’s sons or daughters into careers they hate, in belittling them for having dreams and ambitions of their own or in making them believe that pleasing their parents is more important than self-fulfilment. “Tiger parenting” is a nice, catchy way of saying “child abuse”, because that’s exactly what it is.

(“Why do you want to please your father so much?” my academic advisor asked me as we pored over the senior curriculum. “Don’t you want to do things that will make you happy?”

“Making my father happy will make me happy,” I replied in a monotone, blinking back tears. I knew it wasn’t true and my academic advisor knew that I knew it wasn’t true, but she also knew that my father wouldn’t sign any form that went home without his choice of subjects marked on it. She sighed and circled his choices. A dozen careers I wanted but could never have flashed before my eyes. I gained a few more scratches to go with the others.)

Hear the cry of the tiger cub: don’t buy into the toxic idea that the abuse promoted by the likes of Ms Chua is ideal parenting, or even good parenting, or even adequate parenting. Don’t buy into the idea that to be an Asian parent means one must be a tiger parent. (My mother, also of Asian descent, manages what I call “human parenting” just fine.) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has made Amy Chua a lot of money and gained her a lot of publicity and helped her paint herself as a model minority for white conservatives who like to moan about how undisciplined their unruly brats are. It has also helped validate the abusive behaviour of people like my father, who already didn’t need much of an excuse.

I stood up to my dad and left medical school in 2011. I still carry the scars of the scratches his claws left and I probably always will. I have my own claws, now – a defence mechanism developed so that I might keep other people seeking to gouge me to pieces at bay. Time heals most wounds, but others, it can only ease slightly. I only hope I’ve gained enough insight that I’ll never use them on my own children.

I do not know if Amy Chua’s children are similarly scratched and scarred. I hope against hope that they are not.

I hope against hope that they know – or come to know – that in reality, tigers, like most parents, are quite gentle with their cubs.

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21 thoughts on “[TW: child abuse] Cry of the Tiger Cub

  1. I had slightly domesticated tiger parents compared to your father. Their claws were filed and they believed they were “modern” parents, but they could still leave scars and bruises. I’m still plagued by insecurity and I keep having to tell myself to snap out of it. Thank you, for everything you write. You are an inspiration to tiger cubs.

  2. I had not heard of this book until a friend called me shortly after it was published. It sounded fishy and bit of research confirmed my fears, I think I managed to persuade her not to buy it.

  3. This was a great read. And that bit about your dad comparing you with “model” children reminds me of my mother’s occasional tendency in the past to negatively compare my academic performance with that of one of my best friends who consistently made the honor roll. I haven’t thought about that memory in years.

  4. I was reminded of your blog entry when I was reading this article:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/08/all-immigrants-are-artists/279087/

    I wish your dad had been more like hers, but the fact that you have persisted and triumphed in the face of parental abuse & opposition ultimately proves how much your father is the real loser here. With his unforgiving rigidity and heartlessness, he truly has reaped what he has sown–I only hope your siblings can escape at some point as well. Your strength and tenacity has given them a remarkable role model, in any case. ♥

  5. Beyond the magnificent way which this is written, I’m sure it will give invaluable succour to those who suffer under the pernicious dynamic of tiger parenting.
    I’m sure you are proud of this piece of work, Jay. And if you aren’t, I think you should be.

  6. Once again, I’m astounded by the similarities of a strict Muslim upbringing & a Fundamentalist Christian one.

    Our parents didn’t view themselves as tigers, though. They thought (in my case) they were pleasing God by breaking my will & molding it to theirs.

    Thank you for being so unwavering in your honest evaluation of your childhood. This type of “parenting” must stop. The damage is too great to the psychology of the children, & the cost of broken relationships is too high.

  7. Hmm,reminds me of my mum, who didn’t like the fact, that I read a lot and didn’t approved of my hobbies either. She was more of a crazy tiger mum, who scared her kittens (foremost my elder brother and than my sister, who was the only one for a while, who had contact with her, because, well, she was crazy and hated herself as much as everyone, but she was our mother) and destroyed everything in her surroundings. She didn’t know what to do with us and to do with herself, but at some days she could be very sweet and sometimes caring and when se began drinking, she was scary as hell.
    But we (at least my sister and I) wanted to be loved by her. Even when we know, that it wasn’t good for us, even when we know, that she only wanted us to see, because there was nothing for her anymore after the divorce (we lived with my father, who ist he best father in the world, although he himself had a lot to learn). And I think we still love her, because she is our mother, and she brought us to this world and under all this hate, destruction, immaturity and stupidty (she isn’t a very bright person) there is still a the hint of a nice (even decent) person, who she could have been, if she had the power to grew up and to take responsibility for her actions.
    But I don’t think, that this is gonna happen so soon. I still love her, even when I think that she is a terrible human being. Not evil, just terrible and my greatest fear to become.
    So yeah, feel hugged. It isn’t the same story, but some thinks sound familiar to me and we (my brother, my sister and my stepsister, who had similiar terrible father) can relate. Thank you, for sharing this with us.
    And I hope my post wasn’t too long.
    Greetings from Germanx
    Harry Easter

  8. Pingback: A Note on Trigger Warnings | The Daily Post

  9. It’s not the first time I read this post of yours’ but it os the first time I hace the enough braveness to leave a comment.
    Every time I read this part
    ” I remember something he used to say to me after yelling at me, when his rage had subsided and he was holding me in his arms as though I were just a lost lamb he was trying to save from herself. “A father’s anger is never really anger, baita-jee,” he would say, stroking my hair as I sobbed. “When a father gets angry, it’s because he loves you.””, I cry. I can’t help myself to do any other thing. I really try to be less weak, but- I guess that while is a thing it still happen to me, I won’t have any chance to don’t cry.
    The positive thing is that when I read your post, I tell myself that if you could make it, I will. That I don’t have to remain silent, when I become independent. And (inshallah) I will.
    I only wanted to tell you this thing so you could know that you’ve helped someone (from other country, living in other continent) to be more confident about her chances. Thank you. I hope you’ll have a happy life, because you really deserve it.
    Thank you, again.
    From one follower.

  10. Great article! I didn’t have tiger parents but they were more strict and more conservative than my non-Indian friends. The reflexive, refractory period after my mother passing away means I get to decide now and that I too have photos with cleavage and sleeveless shirts and I’m making my peace w it. I have friends without my “Catholic School Girl Guilt” equivalent who walk around in string bikinis and it isn’t about objectification but about sports. It is a neat way to live… To be free to do what one wants and feel good about oneself and be happy. How freaking novel. 🙂 Thank you for the article! Wishing you al amazing things. Xoxo

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