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The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids

The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids - Quanyu Huang I received a review copy of this book free from the publisher, Prometheus Books. I think it’s pretty clear from how many stars I did(n’t) give it that this did not bias me in its favor.

Many aspects of Hybrid Tiger are odd and off-putting. Its structure, for instance. There are chapters within chapters. Those chapter-chapters are titled, and they have numbered sections. Sorry to sound narrow-minded, but this is weird.

The chapters are frequently interrupted by mock dialogues Huang created, “presenting questions I believe a typical set of parents from each culture [Chinese and American] would ask about my arguments.” Initially, I found these dialogues annoying because they broke up my reading experience. I didn’t understand why, if he thought he had such a good idea as to what kind of questions parents would have about his ideas, he didn’t simply address those questions in the text. Eventually, I found them annoying because they became really, really self-serving. Huang literally writes himself applause lines in these dialogues, and then modestly accepts the applause he’s giving himself. Except he’s saying that I’m applauding him, and excuse me but I’m really, really not.

At one point, the American parents say in reply to one of his arguments, “Interesting!” That’s it. That’s their line. It gives Huang the chance to go on being “interesting” without making his paragraph too huge. In another alleged dialogue, the American parents’ side of the dialogue is this:

“Very interesting!”

“A very meaningful exchange.”

“She sounds like a very wise and nice mom.”


Seriously. Even if the rest of the book were brilliant, it’s impossible to read this without thinking how full of himself this guy is.

And it turns out that the rest of the book isn’t brilliant.

Most of it is just muddled. Huang insists, in his title and periodically throughout the book, that he thinks a hybrid approach to education is best – neither entirely Chinese nor entirely American, but a blend of the strengths of both. Chinese students are outperforming the pants off American students when it comes to standardized tests, but where are the Chinese Nobel prizes? Where is a Chinese Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates?

“As good as Chinese education seems to be at producing high-performing students in the early stages of education,” Huang points out, “American education excels at creating superstar academics in the later stages.”

So what’s his conclusion? What’s the perfect hybrid?

American parents should be like Chinese ones.

That’s it. That’s all. That’s the whole “secret.” Be a “Chinese” parent (regardless of ethnicity), but do it in America. And then some kind of miracle will happen, and your kid will score a million points on every test and become a doctor named Steve Jobs. A Steve Jobs who finishes college, of course.

Every time Huang brings up examples of how Chinese parenting and education differs from American, he applauds Chinese methods and urges them on his readers. It never occurs to him that maybe it’s a zero-sum game – maybe a student can’t spend hours every day focused solely on excelling at standardized tests AND possess (or hang on to) the sort of originality of mind that’s required of innovators.

He describes in great detail how he got his son performing two years ahead of his classmates in math. He adds, almost parenthetically, that his son now hates math and is grateful that, having finished college, he’ll never have to do any ever again. Conclusion? Huang’s Chinese-based parenting and teaching is awesome, and we should all be like him.

Really?

Americans are also wrong in focusing too much on the individual and not enough on the group, Huang insists. (Again – where’s the hybrid?) He lambasts a Chinese athlete who refused to throw a match as she was instructed to by her coach in a world championship. Huang says that “the tactic of throwing matches to arrange favorable matchups in future encounters is very similar to changing players in football, basketball, volleyball, or soccer.” Uh, yeah, maybe – except THOSE ARE ALL LEGAL. They’re aboveboard. Throwing matches isn’t “critical strategizing and decision making [sic].” It’s lying.

So, yeah. I could easily spend this entire review being annoyed because Huang promises readers a hybrid strategy and instead spends the whole book talking about how awesome he is. But this book doesn’t just fail to deliver on its own stated premise. It completely misrepresents another and much better book about Western vs. Chinese ideas about parenting and education. And it does so in such a way that readers who haven’t read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother will be led to believe she’s a horrifying, abusive parent.

Huang supposedly read Chua’s book. He makes it clear throughout his own book that he has no sense of humor, so I suppose it’s understandable that he wouldn’t understand her work. His utter lack of comprehension is still annoying.

He spends an entire page talking about how Chua isn’t a “real” tiger mother because tigers are very gentle with their cubs. “Amy Chua’s decision to refer to herself as the Tiger Mother is a confusing choice,” he concludes. Um, not really. Not if you read the chapter where Chua points out that she’s talking about having been born in the Year of the Tiger. Her “tiger” qualities are astrological, not zoological. She refers to this several times in the course of her short book. It’s kind of hard to miss.

Ever hear that saying, “You have a right to your own opinion, but you don’t have a right to your own facts”? That applies to Huang's work.

Huang insists repeatedly that Chua’s ideas and parenting methods are not, not, NOT Chinese. In order to do this, he has to miss her point so hard and twist her words so vigorously I’m surprised he doesn’t sprain both wrists and give himself a concussion in the process.

That’s acceptable, if regrettable.

You know what’s not okay? Saying she did horrible things THAT SHE DIDN’T ACTUALLY DO.

Sorry to yell, but this really steamed my clams. In the same chapter in which Huang says, “Spanking implies love without saying it outright,” he insists Amy Chua did something much worse to her kids than any physical punishment could ever be:

She detailed in her book how she destroyed her daughter’s toys one by one in front of her. This was incredibly cruel. There’s a saying: "Kids treat toys as their friends; adults treat their friends as toys." Children often sleep with their toys; they talk to them as friends. As a result, destroying these toys in front of your child is a brutal spiritual punishment. If Chua had let her daughter choose between spanking and destroying her toys, I’m certain she would have chosen to be spanked.

I read Chua’s book years ago, when it first came out. I didn’t remember this scene, so I ran to the library and grabbed a copy. It’s a quick read – and it’s an even better book than I remember, but that’s another story for another review.

Guess what? Chua doesn’t do anything remotely like what Huang describes.

True tale of terror: I homeschool my son. Mostly it’s awesome. But we do butt heads a lot, because we have a lot in common. Sounds like a contradiction, but it’s true. We’re both anxious, conscientious, high-strung, and literal-minded. It’s amazing we’ve survived as long as we have living in the same small apartment.

Chua, who spent as much time educating her daughters as any homeschooler I know, had the same sort of relationship with her younger daughter that I do with my son. She and I also have much the same sort of weird parenting humor. I have asked my son if he’s having trouble with math because he’s on drugs. (“Yes, Mom. Lots and lots of drugs.”) I have demanded that he spend more time on his schoolwork and less time with floozies. (“It’s just the one floozy, Mom.”) If you overheard me, you might well conclude that I’m an antifeminist freak and a horrible mother.

Getting back to Amy Chua. She and her younger daughter were butting heads over practicing a particularly difficult piano piece. After a week of drilling, here’s what happened:

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed, and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day.

What was poor little Lulu’s response to that?

“I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?”

Those aren’t the words of a cowed, abused child. That’s somebody who knows very well her mom is just blowing off steam.

The bulk of Huang’s book is disappointing. The parts where he talks about Amy Chua are actively offensive. She can probably afford to ignore his book. I’d recommend everyone else do so, too.