On the word “tiger mother” and Chinese women

I see words as a powerful tool that either conveys its literal meaning(s) or acts as a platform for imbuing ideas and feelings, explicitly or implicitly. I was mildly surprised when the term ‘tiger mother’ surfaced last week on news reports that deviated from its original usage.

Most of us would remember tiger mother was popularized early this year by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua when she discussed about her highly disputed, iron-fist parenting model practiced by Chinese mothers. To put it simply, tiger mothers referred to very strict, academically obsessed Asian parents who seek to push their children to over-achieve in life.

But last week, tiger mother took on a different layer of meaning. As the former News of the World saga unfolded, it made Rupert Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi Deng, an unlikely hero when she volleyed away a foam pie by an assailant who tried to attack her husband. In response, US TV news anchor Katie Couric tweeted, “Wow Wendy Murdoch giving whole new meaning to the term tiger mother…insanity!”

Tiger mothers are now not only used to describe parenting styles but also used more generally to stereotype a certain image of Asian-Chinese women as fierce, scheming, aggressive and uncaring. Such sentiments are echoed by Internet users who commented on CNN’s article “Twitter on fire with Murdoch wife Wendi”:

To further drill in the image of an uncaring and aggressive Chinese lady, NPR coincidentally in the same week focused on the traditional Chinese custom of ‘sitting the month’ after child birth. According to the article, Chinese women are taught early on in their parenthood to restrain themselves and be disciplined in their attitude towards bringing up their children. Women are not allowed to drink cold water or bathe when ‘sitting the month’ and babies should not be cuddled too often to avoid over dependence on their parents. Does this vaguely sound like traits of a tiger mother in the making?

It is interesting to note how two words tiger and mother when casually put together could have various associations and interpretations that was not its original intention in the first place.

The initial tiger mother’s parenting style did generate quite a discussion in Asia and even amongst my friends (some of them mainland Chinese themselves). We all unanimously agreed she is a rare breed even amongst Asians and we accrued it to the immigrant background she went through. Her methods might sound extreme but we all knew that her intentions are not. She loves her children and wants them badly to succeed in life.

But when it is conflated with aggressive, scheming and uncaring Asian-Chinese women/mothers, it makes readers confuse which meaning is this badly defined word trying to convey. And on a personal note, is also (and definitely) an unjustified accusation coming from the first-hand experience of moi, an Asian-Chinese woman.

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5 thoughts on “On the word “tiger mother” and Chinese women

  1. Even kids are condemning their parents using hi-fi words.
    I heard a boy refer to his mom as ‘control-freak’ when all that the poor woman would have done was follow her mother’s advice which would have been something like this: Mould his Character, Teach him to aim high.

    In our vernacular (Tamil) there is a proverb which goes “Nothing helps more than a good thrashing,” Thats something like the English “Spare the rod and spoil the child”

  2. It’s hard to compare with mothers neither American nor Chinese. Family is hard to calculate its value. We can see the evolution by TV program, movie and books. People changed. Why it couldn’t happen in women.

  3. On the original Tiger Mothers; I never really viewed it as uncaring & aggresive per se, but perhaps in comparison to the “more relaxed” style of the other society, then it might seem so. I have had friends who have approached me and asked if “tiger mothers” really existed, and they just looked at me incredulously when I said so!

    1. I know exactly what you mean! The manner in which the media portrays tiger mothers as closely linked with the image of Asian-Chinese women perturbed me quite a bit and was precisely the reason that I decided to write something about it to voice out my opinion, particularly after this Wendi Deng incident.

  4. Undoubtedly she used to be a good volleyball player. Her reflex snap was so eye – catching ! Yet it’s unfair to label her as such when she did it for the sake of her husband. I’ll =give her a thumb up

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