Jewish Journal

Tiger Moms tamed by American experience

By Sue Fishkoff, JTA

January 25, 2011 | 2:29 pm

Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim are raising Aryeh Zakkai Kim-Leavitt, center, in Walla Walla, Wash. (Noah Leavitt)

Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim are raising Aryeh Zakkai Kim-Leavitt, center, in Walla Walla, Wash. (Noah Leavitt)

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin earned two A’s, one A-plus and one A-minus during her first semester at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

When she told her Chinese grandfather, she was disappointed but not shocked by his response.

“He said: ‘You got an A-plus, but an A-minus, too,’ ” recalled Mates-Muchin, 36, now the associate rabbi of Temple Sinai in Oakland.

Mates-Muchin, whose mother is second-generation Chinese-American and whose father is the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants, recognizes a lot of her own childhood in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Yale University professor Amy Chua’s controversial book about raising her daughters with traditional Chinese norms of strict discipline.

Mates-Muchin’s parents, both physicians, expected her and her four siblings to get good grades and go on to graduate school. But the expectation was stronger from the Chinese side of the family, she says, as was the insistence on respect for elders.

When her older brother graduated from medical school, she and her sisters joked that “we’d be introduced from now on as ‘Dr. Mates and his siblings,’” she recalled.

But like other children of Chinese-Jewish couples interviewed by JTA for this story, Mates-Muchin sees a lot of exaggeration in Chua’s description of her heavy-handed approach to child rearing, which included forbidding her children to sleep over at friends’ homes and pressuring them to excel at music lessons.

“When I read The Wall Street Journal article about her book, I expected it to feel more familiar than it did, because I have a Chinese mother,” Mates-Muchin said. “But it was very extreme.”

Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim, sociologists at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., had a similar reaction to Chua’s book and the passionate reaction to it in media and blogs all over the country.

The duo recently concluded in-depth interviews with 37 Asian-Jewish couples as part of a two-year research project on how Asian-Jewish couples navigate their cultural identities, and they report that they did not find the level of discipline Chua describes.

“We talked to a lot of different kinds of families – Chinese and other Asian, straight and gay, East Coast and West Coast – and we found nothing close to the way Amy portrayed the way she mothered,” Leavitt said. “We met a number of their kids, and they didn’t complain about anything like that.”

It’s true that the children of the couples they interviewed “were very involved in lessons and homework and other programmed activities of upper-middle class life,” Leavitt said, but he and Kim, his Korean wife and co-researcher, attribute that to class as much as to cultural background.

When it comes to parental expectations, it’s hard to tease out the Asian from the Jewish component, he said. Both cultures prize academic excellence and hard work. But children are subject to a myriad of influences, as are their parents, and after a certain point, causality becomes murky.

“When you hear my name, you think: Hebrew first name, Chinese last name—I should have been a neurosurgeon who plays the violin,” Dafna Wu joked.

Wu, raised in Brazil by her Shanghai-born father and Ashkenazi Jewish mother, is a nurse practitioner in San Francisco who raised three daughters with a Jewish lesbian partner.

“I think culture informs everything,” she said. “All of us have lots of stories, and they all inform who we are.”

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