OAKLAND, Calif. – 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.”
Many factors contribute to the make-up of a hard-driving mother, Wu said, including immigrant status, how one was parented oneself, and the desire to keep up with the Joneses – “or the Steinbergs, the Wongs or the Rodriguezes,” she added.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a Tiger Mom any more than there is a Jewish Mother,” she said. “They’re both stereotypes, and stereotypes are based on some truth, but it’s dangerous to generalize. It borders on racism.”
A generational difference is at work, too, said Diane Tobin, director of Be’chol Lashon (Hebrew for “In Every Tongue”), a San Francisco-based organization that supports racially and ethnically diverse Jews. The organization is cooperating with Leavitt and Kim on their research project.
“With the older generation, it’s probably more of a typical immigrant thing,” Tobin told JTA. “Being in America moderates their behavior.”
Oakland resident Felicia Wu, 63, experienced the full force of the first-generation Chinese Tiger Mom.
Her parents were both born in China, and even though she grew up in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City, her upbringing was strictly Old World.
“I was not allowed to have sleepovers. I couldn’t go away to camp like my friends. There were many things I wished I could have done,” Wu said. “We were expected to excel, to always get A’s. And I always did. If so-and-so’s kid got into Harvard, I heard about it from my parents.”
Wu went to Cornell University (her sister went to Harvard University), became a physician and married a Jewish doctor – a Chinese and Jewish dream match, perhaps.
She vowed to raise her two children without the strictness of her own upbringing.
Is she pleased with how things turned out? Yes and no.
“Now, I wish we’d been a little stricter,” she said. “My daughter is not as respectful as I’d like her to be.”
Wu said she is surprised that Chua maintained the kind of strict discipline associated with first-generation Chinese families despite the fact that she grew up in the Bay Area and married a Jewish man.
“I would have thought she’d be more Westernized in her sensibilities,” Wu said.
Was Felicia Wu a Tiger Mom? “No, she’s a pussycat,” said her husband, John Citron.
What about Mates-Muchin? “I’m a Jewish mother, and so was my mother,” the rabbi said, noting that her mother converted before marriage, and she and her sister grew up in San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Shearith Israel.
And what about sociologist Kim? Does Leavitt expect that she’ll turn into a Tiger Mom with Aryeh Zakkai, their 2-year-old son?
“I don’t know,” he mused. “She’s definitely the tough one. But she’s also the fun one.”