Raising a Tiger Cub


When Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua was published in 2011, controversy erupted over Chinese versus Western parenting styles and their effect on children, which became the jumping off point for playwright Mike Lew’s comedy, Tiger Style!. When I asked Mike if he was raised by tiger parents, he suggested that I speak with his mother and father, Dr. Bertha Gee-Lew, a pediatrician, and Dr. Wilbur Lew, a cardiologist. They greeted me at their La Jolla home and whisked me down a hallway to a photo display of the Gee and Lew families. I learned how they emigrated from China’s Canton region to California and how their own parenting styles affected them and their children.

Shirley Fishman: Have you experienced “tiger parenting”

Bertha Gee-Lew: When my father immigrated to America, he left behind my mother and my two older sisters. After he settled in Fresno, he sent for my mother and my sisters emigrated later. My brother, younger sister, and I were all born in Fresno and were in middle school when my sisters arrived. One was a chemist in China, and she watched over us as we did our homework. She didn’t think we studied hard enough and “tigered up” a bit, saying “you can do better.” She pushed her little American siblings into good study habits. We were number one in our classes; we all received scholarships and attended UC Berkeley

Wilbur Lew: My parents were always working; they were focused on providing for us. While they weren’t greatly involved in my education, they wanted us to be able to take care of ourselves – to choose careers that would give us economic security.

BG-L: Both of us, having been to Berkeley and medical school, knew what it took to get a good education when we raised our own children. I observed my children very critically in order to learn what they were capable of. When Mike was about to start school, I had to make sure he was ready. Even though I was busy with my pediatric practice, I sat in on kindergarten classes, volunteered at the PTA, got up at 6am to cut pilgrim hats – I did everything I could to be involved and to learn where Mike stood in relationship to the other kids. If he was behind, there was no way I would push him. He wasn’t, and I knew how to turn him into a good student.

When he was in elementary school I told him, “When your teacher asks you to do a book report, I’m going to ask you to give me three – one for the teacher and two for your mother.” Mike would complain, “I have to do three book reports, just because you’re crazed?!” When he was in high school, he had to take exams to prepare for the SAT 2. He was such a jokester; I had to get him to focus. I said, “This is what you need to do and what you need to know.” Instead of writing his name at the top of his paper, he wrote “Attica Cell Block #3” and made some comment about me being a tiger mom.

SF: Do you think you’re a tiger mom?

BG-L: I’m not. A tiger mom says, “I want a concert pianist and I’m going to make you do this, whether you’re capable of it or not.” I’m simply demanding my kids live up to what they’re capable of.

Mr. Lew has been enjoying listening to Mrs. Lew, chuckling at her parenting recollections.

SF: Are you a tiger dad?

WL: I think it’s tough for young people these days. I always tried to help my kids handle various situations, develop good judgment, and navigate toward what they really wanted to do in life. I wanted them to choose their own path, without having a situation imposed upon them, so that they could feel satisfied with themselves and be self-sufficient.

SF: You’re both physicians. Did you expect Mike to go to medical school?

BG-L: This child of mine was an incredible scientist. Totally on his own volition, he would take the bus from La Jolla High School to the UCSD science lab and work on his project lab until 7pm, when his Dad would pick him up. He was selected for the Westinghouse (Intel) Science Talent Search – one of only 30 kids in the nation. He was featured in The New York Times and traveled to the East Coast for the contest. He didn’t win, but he received scholarships, carte blanche, from NYU and other schools he didn’t even apply to. He got accepted to Yale, and I thought, “Yeah! Medical school!”

SF: Did you have any inkling he was interested in the theatre?

BG-L: The only thing he did creatively in high school was a special English seminar class. He had to write a play for twenty 10th and 11th graders. I pleaded, “Don’t write the play, honey. You have to focus on your science project. This is just an extra-curricular activity.” Mike said, “I really want to do it, Ma.” It was a big project and it was taking forever. He wrote parts to include every single student. Afterwards, he wasn’t happy with it. Mike complained, “It didn’t go well because it only had one performance. I didn’t have a chance to work on it.” I couldn’t understand why he was so depressed. It was driving me crazy.

WL: Yale has a great theatre program, and when he arrived he took a theatre class in addition to the other necessary courses. In order to get into medical school, you have to take certain required classes, including organic chemistry.

BG-L: I kept saying, “Mike, in year two you’re going to have to take organic chemistry. No medical school will take you without it.” Mike said, “Mom, I’m not going to take organic chemistry. I’m not interested.” There it was. (Shaking her head) I have to admit – I was kicking and screaming.

WL: (laughing) It took her forever to realize that he wasn’t going into science.

BG-L: (to her husband) I’m going to tell about you being a tiger dad – how you didn’t want Mike to come home after he graduated!

WL: He majored in English and theatre, wrote and directed a play during his last year – which was very good – and he graduated magna cum laude. He didn’t want to go to grad school right away; he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be a playwright or director. He’d had a number of theatre internships and assistantships – he reviewed scripts for the Playhouse. He saw how hard it was for plays to be chosen. I asked him what he was planning to do. He wanted to stay home for a while before going to New York in the fall. He said, “I’ll look for a job from San Diego.” I told him, “You chose a difficult pathway and you need to find a way to support that. It’s not an option to stay home and play video games. If you’re going to do this thing, you’re going to move to New York now.” It was a difficult transition for him, but he moved to New York during the summer and he’s been independent ever since.

SF: Jennifer and Albert, the siblings in Tiger Style!, don’t feel they’ve received adequate rewards for their achievements and blame their parents. Did Mike express similar feelings?

WL: I don’t believe there was any negative social effect with either of our kids. They had lots of friends, Mike was student body vice president, the go-to person in a group of kids that looked up to him.

BG-L: They all came to our house for parlor games late into the night. But Mike did complain that he had no childhood. I told him that he had a good childhood, he was happy, he loved us, and we loved him. He replied, “You told us that if we did well in school everything would be great. I’m having a hell of a time in the theatre business. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m Asian. Why didn’t you ever say that life would be difficult because I’m Asian?” I said, “You were raised in La Jolla, a really nice town, you did well in high school and college, received positive reinforcement and got the rewards due to you. I didn’t think I had to tell you ‘Hey, you’re Asian. Life is going to be tough out there.’” I didn’t pound this idea into my kids, but my parents pounded it into me and my siblings. “You need to be better than everybody else, because this is not an Asian country, it’s a Caucasian country. You’re not going to get what you deserve unless you’re over-qualified and work very hard.”

SF: Albert and Jennifer also don’t feel that they fit in, yet suffer the same sense of displacement in China as they do in America – even more so.

WL: This is not uniquely Asian. I think any group that emigrates tries to fit in. They might feel some discomfort because they’re not fully part of American society and certainly not part of the society that their forebears left behind. In that sense, this play could be equally applicable to any immigrant.

SF: What did you think when you saw a production of Tiger Style!?

BG-L: We thought it was hilarious, and it’s not about me, thank god.

WL: When Mike’s son was born a few months ago, he told me he has a new respect for parenting. It’s going to be interesting to see if he becomes a tiger dad.


This interview is reprinted with permission from Shirley Fishman and La Jolla Playhouse.

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