Man at His Best

Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld: What I've Learned

Daughter of Amy Chua aka “Tiger Mother”, 23, on her public upbringing, being called "garbage" as a kid, and how humour is a survival tactic.

BY Zul Andra | May 16, 2016 | Culture

Alvin Kean Wong

The Battle Hymn [of the Tiger Mother] firestorm taught me a lot about my values [as a then-18-year-old]. Throughout my childhood, my parents were adamant about certain principles: speak your mind with integrity; treat others with respect; be loyal to the ones you love.

I watched my parents live those values as the fury of the world descended on our shoulders. The experience also changed me in a lot of ways. I’ve become a lot less trusting, and a lot more protective of my family.

The scrutiny was far worse than the upbringing. I’m very protective of my family, and it infuriated me that I couldn’t defend them against all the attacks.

It took me a while, but I eventually learned to process the negativity [resulting from Battle Hymn] in a couple of ways. Most importantly, I added my own voice to the narrative. Initially, the worst part was watching the world speculate about me—especially how I must be so damaged and hate my parents—while feeling powerless to respond. There was still plenty of negativity once I started blogging and doing media interviews, but at least, it was directed at me as I defined myself, and not at me as imagined by others.

Part of me does feel it’s important to show the world that I live a fulfilling and happy life, because that will be the best vindication of my family. Also, I get angry when words like “mindless” and “robot” are used to describe young Asians and Asian-Americans as a group. It’s pure racism in the disguise of a parenting critique, and I believe Asians face a lot of discrimination in the college admissions process for that reason today.

Here’s an embarrassing secret: one of the most infamous moments in Battle Hymn is when my mum calls me “garbage”. I’m sure it happened at some point, but I have absolutely no memory of the event, and it definitely didn’t leave me with lasting psychological trauma!

My mum is my best friend. We are incredibly close. I tell her everything about my life, and I go to my parents for advice all the time. They are the only people in the world who truly and purely have my best interests in mind, all the time.

The greatest lesson my mum taught me is generosity of spirit. It’s something I’m still working on today. Even after the Tiger Mum firestorm, my mum is an optimist about human nature. She has a line that’s really stuck with me: “There’s something interesting about everyone you meet, and it’s your job to find it. If you think someone is boring, you’re not looking hard enough.”

My father is a hugely important figure in my life. I trust him more than anyone else in the world. He is unshakable, a perfect judge of character. He thinks like a chess player and rarely makes mistakes. Sadly, I didn’t inherit all those traits. 

As time went on, though, I really felt that I needed to do something for all the kids reaching out for advice [in the wake of Battle Hymn]. They were so motivated and had such big dreams, but they didn’t have the same academic luxuries—like fancy prep schools, highly-educated parents and mentorship from Yale students—that I was lucky enough to grow up with.

For that reason, I decided to start a company [] that would broaden the accessibility of top-notch academic enrichment. We connect students around the world with incredible mentors from Harvard and Yale. Since our launch in August 2015, we’ve helped hundreds of students to excel in school, raise their SAT scores, gain entry to Ivy League schools, and develop confidence. In addition, we are committed to levelling the playing field through our pro bono practice—a percentage of every lesson sold goes directly to our scholarship fund, which helps provide tutoring services to meritorious low-income students.

At the end of the day, it’s not about piano or tennis or math exams. It’s about testing your limits, pushing yourself beyond what you thought was possible, and making the most of the time you’re given.

While I am deeply committed to a love of learning for its own sake, I don’t think that academic success is an end in itself. I’m reminded every day that the education I’ve been given is an incredibly rare privilege. If I don’t reinvest that education by somehow improving the world, then it will have been wasted on me.

My greatest fear is that I will live a life without meaning. Existentially, I want to push myself to my limits and wring every last emotion and experience out of the time I have here. 

Before I left for college, my father sat me down and taught me to drink whiskey with a straight face. My drink of choice is a High West Double-Rye with club soda and lime. I don’t really know how or when I settled on that.

Humour is a survival tactic in my family. I think the reason we were able to survive both tiger parenting itself and the Battle Hymn firestorm is because we’re all fairly reflective and can make fun of ourselves (and each other). 

I’m a little more twisted and deadpan, which sometimes gets me in trouble. One time, a reporter was pressing me about my mother, and I said something along the lines of, “She’s actually really nice—on Thursdays, she unchains us so we can play math games in the basement.” The reporter tried to call child services. Not my finest hour.

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2016 issue.