'TIGER BABY' STRIKES BACK: What It Was Like To Grow Up With A Tiger mum

Kim Wong KeltnerKim Wong Keltner wrote ‘Tiger Babies Strike Back.’

As the daughter of an overbearing “Tiger mum,” Kim Wong Keltner knows just how tough it can be. 

“Even though I’d gotten straight A’s my whole life, earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major at UC Berkeley in four years, worked a full-time job while my husband was in graduate school, wrote three novels before I turned 38, and am raising one great kid, do you know what my mother thinks of me?” she asks in her new memoir, Tiger Babies Strike Back. “She thinks I am lazy.”

Her memoir is a comical response to Amy Chua’s popular 2011 book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which sparked a huge discussion over the merits of Tiger mums and Dads. Keltner denounces the “perfectionist parenting” of her Chinese immigrant parents and encourages other Tiger Babies to avoid “turning to the dark side.”

We had the opportunity to catch up with Keltner, who spoke with us about her book and what it was like to grow up with a Tiger mum. We’ve highlighted the best parts of our conversation here:

What does your mum think about the book?

My mum is not having a very good time. I told her I was writing this book and at first she said she was fine with it but when she actually read it, it affected her a bit differently. So, we’re walking on eggshells these days. 

You recount your early years as an “uniformed Chinese American blob” and later as an “Alpha female trapped in a lonesome Tiger cage.” Where along this path did you decide that you didn’t want to be a Tiger mum? 

There’s definitely not a set moment. For anyone, throughout their childhood, they have ideas of how they think they want things to be. It’s been a cumulative process. However I’m not sure if every person is that aware. 

We often catch ourselves in these moments when we morph into our parents. Do you catch yourself having “Tiger mum” tendencies no matter how hard you try?

Of course I have those moments. I think we have to catch ourselves. My daughter is in 4th grade. We’ve been going over long division and there were a couple things she wasn’t getting right away. After showing her several times, it wasn’t clicking so I started to lose patience. I had to stop myself from yelling!

So it sounds like you have to be intentional about being more nurturing, supportive. Are there specific steps you have to take?

Part of it is just natural personality. My mum is naturally pretty stoic. She’s not naturally touchy-feely and I’m naturally that way. So in that sense, I’m not trying. 

Another part of it is that it’s more culturally accepted here to be this way. My mum, coming from an immigrant background, was running form war-torn China. So part of the generation gap is that my parents think I should have been happy to have food and clothing which they provided for. But if you’ve always had food and clothing your expectation is to have more. You’re not starving for food, you’re starving for affection. If you’re the generation that’s not starving for food, you can’t understand the emotional needs of someone who has always had food. 

People keep trying to pit you against Amy Chua. In today’s WSJ article with Chua’s response, you say that your book is an alternative, not a rebuke. What are the main similarities and differences between your conclusions?

I do think that Amy Chua intended to simply write her personal story about her and her daughters. A large reason why her story caught the attention of the media and people across the country is that it touted why Chinese kids are better. Since things are kind of tense between China and the US, it was kind of a personal way for people to air their fears about China taking over. But the whole tradition of Asian parents pushing their kids in academics and shaming them when they didn’t do well has been around for years. So it’s not just her. As I was writing this book, I was thinking along the lines of the bigger picture. 

It’s deflective for people to think of it as Amy vs. Kim when it’s really a bigger issue. I wanted to speak more to the entire cultural tradition of withholding affection and parents wanting to make sure their kids save face for them and how damaging that is.

I’ve always tried to remember that Amy is a person. Frankly she’s a stranger. Do I hate her? No, I don’t even know her. But because she now represents this image of harsh parenting, it’s easy to pit us against each other. But that’s not seeing the bigger picture.

I also wonder if we use other people’s stories to begin our own processes. My immediate family is suffering because of this book and that really wasn’t my intention. But as the ball rolls along, I think this story can truly help other families. People can see our family and point to it and say “It’s not just my family that has this situation going on.” Frankly, out of all my parents’ friends, my parents were the most lenient. I’m a pretty able-bodied person. If someone like me doesn’t speak up, what is it for the people who are really oppressed? I’ve always felt as I was writing this book that I was writing for people who have no voice. 

What are the main messages you want people to get out of this book?

The first goal is to say that the stereotype of the high-achieving Asians is just that, a stereotype. There is a dark side to the straight-A student who seems to naturally be superior.

Secondly, there are a lot of Asians suffering inside from loneliness and anxiety from this type of parenting. 

Third, Asians have been pigeon-holed and we have pigeon-holed ourselves. I want people to see that we are people other than waitresses, prostitutes, or Tiger mums. 

Some aspects of your book are so playfully written, it may seem embellished. Is everything true?

Everything is true. In fact, Some people say I didn’t go far enough. They wanted me to go into physical abuse, eating hair off the floor but I chose not to highlight that aspect because I didn’t personally experience those things myself.

Despite some of the heartbreaking experiences you recount, your book does end on a hopeful note. Do you find yourself coming across more Tiger Babies taking a gentler, more nurturing parenting approach?

I think everyone is making their way as they go along. A lot of people are finding as they interacting with their kids, “I AM exactly like my parents!” 

But yes, there are other people I’ve met who are trying to be more conscientious and others who are oblivious until they scream at their kid and realise that they’re becoming just like their own parents. 

You mention that you want your child to play a lot more than you did. But do you think you’ll reach a point later on when you’ll need to “toughen up”? Do you want her to achieve success?

I want her to learn to like learning. I want her to see the fun in it. At some point, she’s going to have to learn to write a research paper by herself. It might take more hands-on help from me, but I don’t think there’s any harm in letting a kid try on their own and get a C. We live in such a high-pressure environment in school that if you get one B or one C, you’ve ruined your chances. There has to be room for mistakes. But even worse is the feeling that if you get one C, your parents won’t love you. There is the fear of not getting into school but greater than that is the feeling that you can never please your parents no matter how hard you try. That, to me is extremely damaging.

If she only gets into a state school we’ll deal with that at some point but if you’ve ruined this person’s self-esteem you’ve done a lot more damage. 

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