No room at table for tiger mom: Jewish-Chinese families smash stereotypes, embrace compromise

Does the Chinese “tiger mom” have something to teach the Jewish mother about raising children? Or is it the other way around?

A Shabbat table, with traditional Chinese foods, is set at the home of Gary Strang and Gayle Tsern Strang. (Photo/Jason Winshell)

Yale Law School professor Amy Chua raised a major stir recently with the publication of her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” in which she showcases her strict, uncompromising parenting style and asserts that her methods will yield “superior” children.

Chua is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, while her husband, Jed Rosenfeld, is Jewish. In the book, Chua explains that she and her husband compromised: Their two girls could be raised Jewish if Chua were allowed to apply her rigorous form of discipline.

Though Chua’s memoir goes on to describe how her attitude softened in the face of a rebellion by her younger daughter, Lulu, her stories of forced piano lessons and verbal put-downs sparked an international debate over whether her parenting style was too harsh.

But some Bay Area Asian mothers who are raising Jewish children say that Chua’s premise is exaggerated. And that it’s unfair to stereotype either Chinese or Jewish moms.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a tiger mom any more than there is a Jewish mother,” said Dafna Wu of San Francisco, who grew up in Brazil with her Shanghai-born father and Ashkenazi Jewish mother. “They’re both stereotypes, and stereotypes are based on some truth, but it’s dangerous to generalize.”

Jewish and Chinese mothers appear to have much in common. Both cultures place high premiums on education, academic achievement, professional accomplishment, and devotion to family and children.

Wu, a 49-year-old nurse practitioner who raised three daughters with a Jewish lesbian partner, acknowledged the many parallels between the two cultures.

Jeremy Strang, 13, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah at S.F. Congregation Emanu-El. photo/jason winshell

“The most authentic,” she said, “is the connection to the past or ancestors, and to future generations … I think culture informs everything. All of us have lots of stories, and they all inform who we are.”

Of course, there’s also the connection to food and eating. “I joke that Chinese and Jewish grandmas are the same, but the Chinese grandma has the long reach with chopsticks to put more food on your plate,” Wu said, laughing.

In the Bay Area, where many racially and ethnically diverse Jewish families live, the discussion isn’t focused so much on which culture has the more effective parenting style or who raises superior children, but on how culturally blended families find ways to compromise, manage differences and honor their own ancestry.

“There’s a lot of pride and a feeling of being centered in both Chinese and Jewish cultures in a very different kind of way,” said Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Her Chinese mother converted to Judaism before marriage and her father is the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants.

“Jews have our history of survival and making it work and figuring out how to thrive no matter what the circumstance, and seeing ourselves as a part of Jewish history,” she said. “But China, too, has been a major part of culture through history — a great and rich history.”

Mates-Muchin, 36, who with husband JT is raising four children — ages 1, 4, 7 and 9 — said what’s important as a parent “is ensuring that my kids have a cultural competency, that they understand their center, that they’re a part of history, part of the world.”

The rabbi had trouble identifying with Chua’s heavy-handed approach to child rearing, which included forbidding sleepovers and play dates so her young daughters could focus on their academic studies and music education.

In one of the more potent examples, the author forces her 7-year-old to work on a challenging piano piece “nonstop for a week,” at one point telling her to stop being “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic … We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom.”

Dafna Wu and Amalia Cymrot-Wu, 11

“I expected [the book] to feel more familiar than it did,” Mates-Muchin said. “But it was very extreme.”

During her own childhood, the rabbi recalled, it was the Chinese side of her family that applied more pressure to get top grades and show respect for elders, but “I never had the sense they weren’t proud of us … It was a recognition that you can’t rest on [success]. You can always do better.”

As a mother, “I don’t resonate with any of the stereotypes; more often I think they’re not fair to anybody,” said Mates-Muchin, who recently celebrated the Chinese New Year with extended family, cooking traditional holiday foods and exchanging red envelopes of money to symbolize good luck.

“I have a little bit of everything: being overprotective, putting my kids on a pedestal, or sometimes seeing their flaws and my own as well, being a little strict or more specific in things I want them to do or think they should do … I have all of those pieces, and like every parent you try to be reflective, what’s about you and what’s about them.”

When it comes to parental expectations, it’s hard to tease out the Asian from the Jewish component, said sociologist Noah Leavitt.

Leavitt and his wife, Helen Kim, a Korean American Bay Area native, recently concluded in-depth interviews with 37 mixed Asian-Jewish couples as part of a two-year research project on how they navigate their cultural identities. They found that children are subject to a myriad of influences, as are their parents, and after a certain point, causality becomes murky.

The two professors at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., also report they did not find the level of discipline Chua describes in her book. “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 “were very involved in lessons and homework and other programmed activities of upper-middle-class life,” Leavitt said, but he and Kim attribute that to class as much as to cultural background.

So how do families like Chua’s — that perhaps lack her hubris — mesh their different cultures in raising Jewish children?

“Sometimes I feel I don’t know what to do,” said Li Isack, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago before marrying her husband, Filip, with whom she has two children. “A traditional Chinese education is so hard to do here because the environment is so complicated, and there are so many chances for kids to go off track.”

Filip, 61, was raised in communist Romania; he reconnected with his Jewish roots after immigrating to the United States. Isack, 48, grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China without religion and came to the United States as an adult.

Gary Strang, Gayle Tsern Strang and Carlyn, 11, enjoy dinner at home. photo/jason winshell

“I found Judaism to be very close to Chinese culture and how I grew up, with traditions going back thousands of years, with family as the core of life, respect, education,” said Isack, who now lives with her family in Pebble Beach after a decade in San Francisco. “So I embraced it really easily and felt happy to become a Jewish mother in that regard.”

However, when it comes to how the children are educated and how their lives are structured, “I feel I’m still 80 percent a Chinese mother,” she said, “and as a Chinese mother I always want to follow the Chinese way and believe that’s the right way.”

Isack said Filip supports her efforts but “mainly wants his kids to have a happy childhood and have fun” and definitely is the more permissive parent to Jeremy, 10, and Arielle, 12. “My kids and husband complain it’s never good enough to make Mommy happy. I tell them it’s not about making me happy, it’s about reaching your potential.”

That ethic is also woven into family life at the Strang home in San Francisco, where Gayle Tsern Strang, a Chinese American who grew up in suburban Los Angeles, and Gary Strang, who grew up in a secular Jewish household in Orinda, are raising their children Jewish.

Jeremy, 13, a seventh-grader at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Emanu-El in February; Carlyn is 11.

“Gayle and I have been very complementary,” Gary said. “We each bring a rigor in a certain area. She’s been crucial in establishing structure and predictability in the kids’ lives. It’s a pragmatism that comes from the Chinese side. I would say my role is more raising the bar in terms of what they dedicate themselves to, that their lives had better add up to more than making a living.”

Gary added that he finds “an incredible amount of common ground between the two cultures, especially if you live in San Francisco, where someone once said every Jewish family seems to have a Chinese member and every Chinese family has a Jewish member.”

“There are a lot of overlaps,” Gayle agreed, especially concerning the primacy of education and family.

The Strangs attended a JCC interfaith couples class before they married, but “when we decided to have a family, I had stronger opinions about religion than Gary did,” said Gayle, whose background is Protestant. “He was more ambivalent. But we both felt that having some [spiritual] identity was important.”

Last month, as the Strangs prepared to welcome two dozen Jewish family members and guests into their home for a traditional Shanghai dinner on the Shabbat before their son’s bar mitzvah, Gayle reflected on how she sees her role.

“When I make Shabbat dinner, or we light the candles or say the prayers, my experience is that I’m a conduit through which my children can have a meaningful experience,” she said. “For me, I feel like I’ll always be on the outside, I’ll never be able to understand a lot of this. But I want my children to know it’s more than a cultural obligation. It’s a faith, too.

“This is going to be their faith. This is something I’ve given them. Maybe at some point in their life they’ll turn around and teach me.”

 

JTA writer Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

 

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.