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Tiger mother, tiger cub: A Stanford doctor reflects on his upbringing

Tiger Child Pic JAMA PedsWhen Amy Chua’s book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” was published in 2011, Jason Nagata, MD, was in medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. He caught on to the humor (which escaped some of the book’s reviewers), and the anecdotes resonated with him - reminding him of his own strict and intense upbringing. “It was very funny and very controversial,” he said. “A lot of that book stuck with me from the child’s perspective.” He started to share some of those memories with people around him and found that his fellow med school students had similar stories, too. He wrote about his experiences as a “tiger child” in a funny and touching essay (subscription required) published online today in JAMA Pediatrics.

When I connected with Nagata, we spoke over Skype because he was working in Ecuador as part of his global health residency. He noted that despite the negative press Chua’s book received, he believes that strict childhood training helped prepare him for medical school. “The tiger mentality is prevalent throughout medicine,” he said. “It was intense as a child, but it prepared me well for medical training – the hours and the intensity.”

But Nagata had to learn the hard way to make room in his schedule for rest. After a particularly intense time during medical school, he developed an ulcer that landed him in the hospital. His recovery took more than a month. He explored writing as a way to reflect and think through his experiences as a student and later as a doctor. When he came to Stanford, he attended the Medicine and the Muse writing workshops to hone his writing chops. His current essay is just the latest in a series.

Although he makes time for rest, he still has plenty of drive and intensity. He mentioned that he was planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands and to hike Mount Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, the weekend after we spoke. After he completes his residency at Stanford, he’ll start a three year fellowship in adolescent and young adult health in July 2016.

Nagata describes his own mother’s unusual path from NICU nurse to graduate student in chaplaincy. “She exemplified the tiger mom and probably works even harder than I do,” he said. “I got a lot of my habits from her.” She doesn’t demand as much from Nagata these days, but her Tiger mom spark isn’t completely gone. When he told his mother about the upcoming essay, she quipped that she was planning to write a rebuttal to JAMA Pediatrics “in her own tiger mother vein,” he said.

Previously: For group of Stanford doctors, writing helps them "make sense" of their experiences
Photo of Jason Nagata as child, courtesy of Jason Nagata

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