The tiger mom looks back

A conversation with Amy Chua

When Amy Chua applied to teach law, she was rejected by 40 schools. And yet today Chua is not only a professor at Yale, she’s one of the most widely recognized legal experts in the country.

Amy Chua portrait by Randy Glass

Chua’s grit and determination is a thread through most of her work, which first burst into the national consciousness with her international bestseller, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” That book, in which Chua refuses to let her daughter go to the bathroom until she masters a difficult piano composition, attracted both ire and fame for Chua, but she says her fiercest critics missed the central message: The most important thing for children is unconditional love.

Her most recent book, “Political Tribes,” offers an unlikely solution to America’s partisan polarization. “Enough false slogans of unity, which are just another form of divisiveness. It is time for a more difficult unity that acknowledges the reality of group differences and fights the deep inequities that divide us.”

Chua spoke to Deseret Magazine from her office in New Haven, Connecticut. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You took some heat for “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.’’ As you look back, would you change how you parent, then or now?

Of course, like any parent, there are many little things that I would change. But maybe I’m just stubborn. I would probably do more or less the same thing. I’m incredibly proud of my daughters, who are now 25 and 28. I’m very close to them, I love it that they always want to come home. They’re very, very family-oriented. They claim they want to raise their kids the same way. So I think that’s a good sign. I made a lot of mistakes. But I’m ultimately very, very proud of the young women they’ve become — and a lot of it has nothing to do with me.

It feels like some people glossed over the warmth you emphasized in the tiger mom book. 

I could not agree more. It’s about striking a balance, and knowing that unconditional love and warmth is ultimately the most important thing. Everything else is just icing on the cake. 

I had all kinds of very kind, warm, funny responses from people who said, “I parented the exact opposite way, but I kind of related to this part,” or, “That part, I got it.” And the angriest, most brutal emails and responses I got were actually from people who often had very, very bad relationships with their own children, whether they were strict or lenient. It was almost more of a reflection of that.

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After “Tiger Mother” you wrote “The Triple Package,” which focused on why certain groups are successful. What led you to write that book, and to write about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

For “Triple Package” we took a snapshot of 15 “of the most successful” groups in America. I was very clear to define success in a certain way: educational achievement, and per capita income and corporate dominance. And I said, this is not at all to be equated with a deeper form of success or happiness or joy. But given that there’s all this talk in America that there is no longer any upward mobility, let’s look at some of the groups that are doing really well and who they are. 

We came up with a very interesting list that included people of all races — Nigerian Americans, Cuban Americans, Iranian Americans, and Latter-day Saints and Jews, and I think Taiwanese Americans. 

We noticed all of these groups share three things: First, a sense of almost like exceptionalism. We call it a superiority complex to be a little bit provocative. Being special. That feeling gives you confidence in a way many people know is necessary for success. That was the first prong, this sense of exceptionality. Coming from a Chinese American family, I was always told where we come from the oldest, most magnificent civilization in human history. That gives you a sense of pride. 

“Unconditional love and warmth is ultimately the most important thing. Everything else is just icing on the cake.”

The second feature was almost the exact opposite, which is a sense of insecurity. That is what fascinated me, that these groups were all kind of outsiders, out of the mainstream in some way. And I was trying to make sense of that when somebody said, look at Steve Jobs, who was still alive. He’s a perfect incarnation of that combination: He thought he could do anything. He also had this deep sense that he just wasn’t being recognized.

I found lots of studies that showed that’s a very motivating factor when you have that chip-on-the-shoulder feeling. Many Latter-day Saint leaders have actually used that exact phrase, these business leaders, like I have a bit of a chip on the shoulder and this is sense of being a little bit on the outs. 

The third prong is what we call impulse control. Immigrant families have this in spades: You’ve got to work hard. I had all these statistics that were just anecdotal in the tiger mom book that I actually found; it was fascinating. It was something like, the average amount of time a Western mother makes their toddler spend in a focused activity, like doing a puzzle, was something like 25 seconds compared to a Chinese American child’s hour and a half. So there were the statistical differences. And once again, you know, the Latter-day Saint community fit perfectly into that model — enormous impulse control and self-discipline instilled at an early age, including certain things that you can’t consume, and no alcohol. 

Writer Amy Chua, left, and daughters Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld and Louisa Chua-Rubenfeld attend a special screening of ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ hosted by the Cinema Society at the Tribeca Grand Hotel on Wednesday, July 13, 2011 in New York. | Evan Agostini, Associated Press

You have been to Utah many times. Why do you think your work resonates out here?

I think it’s that we have a lot in common. I put the family first. I was raised Catholic, and I’m not as deeply religious, although I think I am deeply spiritual. I think it’s very unusual among Americans to see the respect that Latter-day Saints instill in their children for their elders. That feels very Chinese. The Confucian way is you always respect your elders, you respect your parents, you respect your teachers. There’s this American individualism — my husband, who is brilliant and wonderful — was raised to question authority constantly. I see advantages to that, too. But the way that Latter-day Saint parents raise their children is something that has always impressed me and resonated with me. Similarly, I was raised a little bit clean-cut. I don’t know if that’s because my parents were Chinese immigrants or because my mother was a devout Catholic. When I was younger, I couldn’t wear certain kinds of clothing, I had to wear flat shoes. We couldn’t swear. So I just felt a lot of commonality in the way that I was raised. I was always subject as a kid to so many rules — more rules than everybody else. It turns out that’s exactly how Latter-day Saints feel. Other kids are going to the shopping mall and drinking and dating at a young age. And you see the Latter-day Saint teenagers living very differently. And that’s exactly how I was raised and how I wanted to raise my own children, actually.

Your most recent book, “Political Tribes,” seems especially relevant today. What does it say about American politics?

I wanted to step back like I do with all of my academic books and try to rise above the fray and instead of taking sides and becoming part of the tribal problems, asking: “How do we diagnose the problem?” How do we get to this moment in the United States, where basically, we have two political parties and each side views the other side not as fellow Americans that they want to disagree with, but basically as people who are the enemy, people who are not real Americans, who are evil. It’s a very dangerous situation when you have that kind of feeling because it is bordering on a recipe for civil war.

I wrote it to understand this political moment in the United States.

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One of the main thrusts of this book is that the United States is, for the first time, starting to exhibit destructive political dynamics that historically have been much more typical of developing countries, like lurches towards authoritarianism, ethno-nationalist movements, the erosion of trust in electoral outcomes and institutions, which is what we’ve been seeing. 

I was always subject as a kid to so many rules — more rules than everybody else. It turns out that’s exactly how Latter-day Saints feel.

I understand that you recently had a health scare. What did you learn from that?

In late August of 2018, I taught my first class. And I hadn’t been feeling well for a week. I had a high fever. I was kind of dizzy and nauseous and had terrible stomach pains. But being the tiger mom and being raised with a lot of grit, I downed Advil and thought, “I can push through.” The next morning, I was rushed to the emergency room. Within 24 hours, I had eight tubes stuck in me. I was in the ICU, all my organs failing. Nobody knew what was happening. When they finally opened me up, they discovered a 2-centimeter hole in my colon, just a freak medical thing. I was so lucky. In the end, it was not cancer, just diverticulitis. I was in the hospital for three weeks, I came out in a wheelchair, I lost all my hair. I was out for a whole year. 

I almost wish I could get back to that. I started seeing the beauty in the world and nature. I’ve always been this person that was too busy for that. I would look at trees and flowers, and oh my gosh, it did give me a deeper sense of what’s important. It affected me profoundly. I now just enjoy what I think previously I would have considered a waste of time. I used to be in a rush for everything, constantly wondering why people were driving so slow. Now I drive much, much more slowly. I have retained this feeling of, “What are you rushing for? You’re rushing to nowhere.” I remember giving some tips when I gave the BYU law school commencement speech — things to do as you go forward. Reject bitterness and pettiness. Just be generous. That will always lift your spirits, and it will always make everything better. 

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.