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A defense from the child of a “Tiger Mom”

February 6, 2011

There’s a certain feeling I get when reading certain Asian blogs like Disgrasian or High Expectations Asian Father. It goes kind of like: “YES. THAT. EXACTLY THAT.” followed by a lot of hand-wavey movements of excitement and empathetic Internet understanding. The homework, the thriftiness, the “you must greet out guest properly or else my friends will think we’re slobby parents”  – I feel like a frog being dissected, only not by humans, but by another giant frog who runs a humorous website lovingly poking fun at aspects of immigrant froggy life.

When it comes to a touchy subject like this, everyone has their won opinion. The mix of Asian/American race issues, the potential whiff of child abuse, and the good old dose of “oh shit am I doing this parenting thing right” panic combines into the most explosive of all substances since microwave marshmallows. Sadly, it’s not half as tasty or as entertaining to watch. Amy Chua’s infamous “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” is making its merry round around the interwebs, and by my own Internet Meme-ability chart, it’s pretty high up there on the notability list. It has a rap, and it’s own demotivational (ha!) poster-macro thing

DEMOTIVATIONAL MACROS: How you really know you’ve achieved viral fame.

I go to a school with a high percentage of Asian and Jewish kids. The students there have bonding experiences about their Hardass (come to think of it, every nationality) Parents. We must receive straight 90s. (Quebec high schools are graded in percentages) Work hard! Honour roll! Ivy League! Quite a lot of my classmates, whose older siblings have graduated and is now going into Columbia/Yale/Whatever University have trinkets bearing the name of prestigious schools. I can’t help but notice the Cambridge sweatshirts and Harvard keychains. I should write a post one day about how much I hate Aspirational University Attire, but let me focus on my Asian parents first.

I was raised in a first-generation immigrant Chinese family. Younger me  was dragged to countless extracurricular lessons that absolutely failed to broaden my horizons, but that’s mainly because I’m a boring socially anxious child who found her peers terrifyingly cheerful.  I spend a good deal (or at least that’s what it seems like to me) of my summers writing math worksheets and pounding away at piano keys. I don’t do that any more now. My parents mellowed down over the years, and they’ve given up on making me do anything that I’m not really interested in. Now, they’re highest expectations are for me to be happy with myself and make enough to pay for life’s important things, like food and rent and second-hand paperbacks.  But some of my most intense parental clashing was when I was younger.

My mom and I spend my fourth and fifth birthdays in Singapore, off the coast of Malaysia.  It was a hot, picturesque island country that relies mainly on its ports and the heavy commerce passing through. There were four official languages, but the main one due to the reliance on global trade was English. I hated English. I can dimly remember the warm tropical nights crouched in front of a bright desk lamp trying to concentrate on my English vocabulary. (Those blasted one to tens! Were they spelt “one, too, tree, foore” or  “on, two, thre, four”? Or perhaps neither. Perhaps the entire English language was invented by a madman with playing Russian Roulette with symbols he scratched out when he was drunk. )

My hair was usually slightly frizzy from being freshly washed after a sweaty day; so I always peered up at my mom through my thick bangs, hoping she’d give up and call it a night. Chinese came naturally to me back then – I could read thick books of fairy tales and folk legends by the age of five.  English though, was about as natural as a piece of plastic wrapped in polyester packed in a box of styrofoam. The squiggly characters made no sense; to hold it in my head long enough for a spelling quiz required all my five-year old will and strength. I think I cried a lot. My mother would force me to go on regardless. She scolded, cajoled, pleaded, called me names, threatened to never let me read another book in Chinese ever again if I don’t learn the strange gloop of consonants and vowels by nine. I would in turn cry, beg, throw tantrums, ignore her, tell her that I hated her – and then learn the damn words anyways. I remember clearly the feeling of frustration and futility that comes from failing to spell simple words.  I remember the choked up rage, the angry tears, the injustness of having to pick up a second language when I knew I was ahead in my first  – it seemed so very clear to me and yet seemingly invisible to my mother.

I remember that all very well.

But I also remember my mum picking me up form kindergarten, and bringing with her a wrapped up snack for the hungry five-year old me. I remember walking home along the city streets, holding her hand very very tightly and being fascinated by everything. The two of us lived in a rented room next to a construction site, because my father was away working in Canada. My mum had to then take me everywhere with her, and I have vivid recollections of the two of us on monorails and on buses. I would always drift off quickly, and she held me as I dozed on my shoulder. She often took me to the library because I loved reading. She also took me on a trip to Australia, where I promised I’d take her back to the Sydney Opera House for a proper show when I’m older and I’m a lawyer/action hero/pop singer. When I came down with chicken pox after the trip she  nursed me patiently and dribbled medicine down my ear canal because the chicken pox popped up there too. She sat through my precocious tantrums and listened to me go on and on about the weird kids at kindergarten and brought me pastries from busy market stalls on our way to my ballet lessons.

What I’m trying to say here, is that by taking an aspect of anything out of context the whole story becomes vastly distorted. When it comes to school, the way my mum treated me seems very cruel through other perspectives. And yet when it comes to other universal parenting challenges, like dealing with illnesses and simply spending time with their child, my mum also seems very caring. I guess that she’s both. Chinese culture demands something different from their youth. I don’t feel as though I was ever hurt or traumatized by what happened, because that’s what the children around me also went through. If I was raised differently and then passed off to my mother at the age of ten, then of course I would feel unhappy and pressured and outraged. Mainly because I would know I should be unhappy and pressured and outraged. I believe children are more flexible than what most adults believe. We don’t know what’s Right and what’s Wrong so early on –  I thought how my Hardass Asian Parents acted was the same for all parents. I got angry at them to the verge of tears, but then in a few hours I would forget it all and my parents would hug me and make me a cup of jasmine tea and it gets better anyways. There was nothing unusual about that. Some of us simply have a different set of rules for these kind of things then other people.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve already been damaged so throughly by this crazy merciless parenting that I’m trying to make excuses for something inexcusable. I really hope I’m not. I admit that right now I do carry a little of that burden around with me. I am, as all children are, intrinsically influenced by my parents. I feel intense guilt if I slack off for even a little while, I work very hard for good grades and yet I feel nothing upon receiving because they could always be better, and I never believe my friends when they tell me “I just don’t have a knack for this subject”. My mum always maintained that there was nothing I couldn’t do as long as I pushed myself enough, and part of me would always believe her. In an odd passive- passive (I’m so non-confrontational with my parents I can’t even summon up passive-aggressive.) way to fight back, I almost never discuss my schoolwork or my grades with my parents. I don’t want anyone’s opinion of my grades. In fact, I detest it. I hate those snot-faced little bastards who asks me what my report card’s like. It’s made of paper and printed in black ink, that’s what it’s like. I know for sure I’d never have children of my own becuase I’m terrified of the idea I’d do the same thing to them. I’m worried about myself, and that I’d go through the same motions as my mum. I’ve spent almost six years in Montreal by now, and I know I can never do what my parents have done. No matter how much I respect them for it.

We have to acknowledge that everyone is different. Asian parents hardly come off an industrial assembly line of Hardass Parenting Plant Co. They share similar values, but filtered through their own personalities and experiences. Their offspring each have different reactions depending on their own personality and their own environment and their own perception of reality. My parents are very mellow compared to Chua’s early  standards, and I think I’m a pretty happy well-adjusted (if occasionally very awkward and very irritated by the world) teenager.

Me, with my mom at The Fullerton Waterboat House Garden, and later at one of my ballet recitals

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Images: High Expectations Asian Father, Baby Doctor, WSJ article, Disgrasian, Tiger Mom

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