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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


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


Why I hate the word “unique”

February 5, 2011

Alright. I lied. I don’t hate it. I hate people who use it incorrectly and who completely destroys their point because what they just said doesn’t make sense.

UNIQUE Is a wonderful word. We can use it to describe something that is “the only one of a particular type”, or “one without equal”. It is – generally agreed – a good and useful sort of word that conveys an important concept quite clearly. Even the dumbest of schoolchildren could grasp the idea of “uniqueness”, which would mean a person/place/thing that is unparalleled, totally different, and absolutely without peer. Platypuses and the rest of the monotremes are unique in that they lay eggs instead of giving birth. The Eiffel Tower is unique because there exists only one (not counting the facsimiles found in attraction parks). Antarctica is unique because it is the only continent without reptiles or snakes. Despite all my missed stop signs and absence of blinkers, does anyone see what I’m trying to drive at here?

(On an off note, quite a lot of people believe that this adjective apply to themselves. That is true in only the most pedantic way possible. Given what I’m about to type out below, me calling someone else “pedantic” is pushing it a bit. I understand that many kids today are convinced they are precious snowflakes, and maybe they are. Snowflakes are cold, clumpy, and tend to dissolve upon any close inspection. While certainly serving an important function in life and assuring the continuing natural balance of things, a good deal of shoveling is probably the best way to deal with both.)
(Disclaimer: I’m one of you! Please don’t kill me.)

The use (and misuse) of the word unique is irritating: we insist on adding unnecessary superlatives in front of them as if that actually made any sense whatsoever. It’s exactly one of those phrases that sound very good spoken out loud, but then turn out to be nonsensical cat vomit once our brain catches up with our mouths. Most of the time our brains are sluggish and out of shape couch potatoes when compared to our steroid-pumped gym-bunny vocal cords. Vocal cords are the over-eager snots who volunteer to go first during gym class. Brains are the stereotypically withdrawn awkward nerd like things who get pelted with volleyballs. The volleyballs, in this way too drawn out metaphor, are the emotions. The nets can be like human’s natural inhibition towards outright stupidity or something.

Anyways, a singer does not have a “very unique” voice. A tv show is not “the most unique” one on air today . There are no varying degrees of “uniqueness” ; the word should have a black-or-white, yes-or-no, 0-or-1 binary quality. Is this unique? (Y/N). It is or it isn’t. People shouldn’t be able to answer “a little yes”, “somewhat yes”, or “very much so yes”. That confuses people like me who cares a lot about these things. All seven of us. Besides, the only way I know how to respond to something that confuses me is TO RAGE. AND THEN TO KILL.Which, as we can all agree , is not a pleasant way to start off a Monday. For the love of sad nitpicky losers like me, can we stop the unique abuse?

Odds and Ends

February 2, 2011
tags: ,

Collection of fascinating images and links I found on my weekly procrastination rounds on the Internet.

Book Crossing

Back in the far-off days of yore, people would spend half their waking hours tracking the movements of large animals I’ve forgotten the names of. This has lead to countless innovations in hunting techniques, human migrations over vast swathes of territory, and social changes that gave birth to early civilizations. The end result is the Internet, where you can safely sit back and leisurely relive the grim primitive hunting days of your ancestors by watching books cross continents.

Okay, seriously: it’s a very cool idea, and I’m probably going to sign up. This is exactly the kind of social experiment/information gathering thing that can only work on the Internet. It’s quite frankly amazing just how many people will pick up one book. (The small cynical side of me says that the breeding ground for new and exciting germs is staggering, but as usual I have locked it away where it will lie screaming in misery for the rest of my days.) (This might be too much information.)

Impressionist Painting

The first photo is from a beauty magazine, (and if anyone knows, please tell me. It crawled one day into my computer. I have no idea where it came from.) and the picture on the bottom is La Japonaise, painted by Claude Monet. The woman in the painting is his wife, posing for love. The woman standing in the fashion shot is a model, posing for money. Assuming she gets some.

Unusual Deaths, from Wikipedia.

Chief highlights include:

162 BC: Eleazar Maccabeus was crushed to death at the Battle of Beth-zechariah by a war elephant that he believed to be carrying Seleucid King Antiochus V; charging into battle, Eleazar rushed underneath the elephant and thrust a spear into its belly, whereupon it fell dead on top of him.

…which sounds like a scene from a cartoon, except with a real person and probably a lot gorier. And

1978: Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, was assassinated in London with a specially modified umbrella that fired a metal pellet with a small cavity full of ricin into his calf.

…which might be the plot to a James Bond film.

My favourite one is:

1974: Basil Brown, a 48-year-old health food advocate from Croydon, drank himself to death with carrot juice.

…which I can not even possibly begin to comprehend.

I feel slightly horrible for laughing at these poor people though. No matter how humorously they may have kicked the bucket, these really are still real people with real emotions who probably weren’t too pleased with how they ended up. But after working my way through a few hundred of these, my black humour comes out practically shoe-polished.

Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe & Screenwipe

– Toon Pool.

“…and this is a lighthouse keeper being beheaded by a laser beam

(I just love that part so damn much.)

Charlie Brooker is my new hero. He’s a witty, sardonic and very interesting comedian who can go from a passionate and intelligent film analysist to bizarre man-child making love to a loaf of bread without breaking stride. His programmes can go from “heart-warming and endearing tributes to Oliver Postgate, to him sitting alone on a couch screaming swearwords at the piggish cockass git-faced dumbshitignoramous pillocks whom populate TV advertising land.

Joanna Newsom Is Made of Magic

January 30, 2011

The reason I love Joanna Newsom is the same reason why I love poetry. I love the richness of language, and I adore the complex, layered way they’re composed. It’s fair to describe Joanna Newsom as a poet, and perhaps the best modern poet I have ever came across.

Her voice has been described as everything from a melodious choir of silvery angels to the raspy howl of a cat being vivisected with a butter knife. A friend, upon first hearing her told me: “Her lyrics are good, but why does her voice have to be so weird?” I was actually turned off of her when I first heard the Book of Right On, because I found her reminiscent of a door hinge that needed a good oiling.

But after a few listens, it grows on you. It’s different, but different in a way that only emphasizes how beautiful it is. If Joanna Newsom has a normal voice, let’s say a sweet soothing voice like Regina Spektor or Sarah McLachlan, would she be half as effective? Would she force people to slow down and to actually listen, and I mean really listen? She does everything that goes against what is normal and appreciated, and that’s why she’s one of the most brilliant artists of this generation. No one else can paint with words the way she does. No one has the same powerful child-like vocals she has. No one else can throw an unexpected emphasis on a syllable the same way she can. It’s like poetry, only the difference is poetry works naturally with the reader’s rise and fall of breath to emphasize the written words, but Joanna Newsom recites it for you and she forces you to accept the completely unexpected AccENts oN tHE wONG SyLLAble. If I was to type it out the way she sings it:

“Let us go! Though we know it’s a hopeless endeavor
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined and hold us close forever”


“Let US go! Though we KNOW it’s a hopeLESS ENdeavor
The TIES that bind, they are BARbed and SPINED and HOld us close FORever…”


“O, morning without warning like a hole
and I watch you go…”


“O,MORning withOUT WARning like a HOLE
and I watch you go…”

It’s completely brilliant.

In addition to her voice, there’s the songs themselves : one of the best things about poetry is its images. I was only dimly aware of the differences between a river – as the great watery thing we see sometimes- and the river, which is the one I see when I hear her creaky scratchy voice singing (this is my favourite part in her entire work):

“…In a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror”


For a brief and brilliant second, I stopped and I fully realized what a river is. She took something that I see everyday, something that is nice and pretty but mundane – and she captured its essence so well that the river ceased to be just a river and became something even more. The river she just described is far more real then any photograph I had ever seen. No painter in the world could mix the shade of blueish-grey she just captured. If I were to go and sit by this river for a week, I could never pin down or experience the exact river-ness that one line fragment gave me.

**Note of interest: the last two photos are actual baby pictures of me, because that sums up Newsom’s music best of all.

Why I Don’t Understand Cat-Owners

January 26, 2011

Recently we had a substitute teacher in our class. This is the same one that substituted a few months back, and I remember her because I was suffering from the equivalent of being bonked upside the head with a plastic mallet, only in flu form, and she told me that she’s so germaphobic she won’t even touch her cats when she gets home until she takes a shower first. I remember it mainly because the idea of the world being full of BIG BAD GERMS is ridiculously ridiculous and also because I thought she was being ridiculously considerate to cats. People who are obsessed with cats mystify me. What is it about these contemptuous feline quadrupedal fur-balls that makes perfectly sane people throw their sane-ness out a window? (that is incidentally, where it makes me want to throw the cat, just to see their reaction. Look, it’ll survive. They’re tough little bastards.)

Anyways, what I really find irritating is people who show no qualms about tucking into a hearty meal of bacon and chicken nuggets and yet go all huffy when other cultures eat dogs or cats or hamsters or whatever. Hey, at the very least, they don’t judge an animal’s eatability from their “cuteness”, or lack thereof. Can you imagine back in the old days when people were experimenting with eating random things around them, forming a cavemen judge panel to decide which ones to slaughter? Sort of like American Idol or whatever similar reality show that young people today who are are hiptrendy then me find cool. Do they have a very caustic Celtic critic (try saying that out loud) on to make sardonic comments and put animals down?

Look, people – they’re cats. They have the brains of a brainless four year old. Yes, I know – they have large eyes and pink noses and delicate whiskers and are generally very aesthetically pleasing and cuddly and soft, but can we stop the baby talk and the dressing them up bit? Cats don’t like that. If we’re going to domesticate a bunch of animals, can we at least do it in a way that vaguely respects their status as a non-human? If I was supreme ruler of Earth, cats and dogs would be referred to as Cat, or as Dog. That’s what they are. Let’s call them that. Or at least if you’re going to name them, don’t give them birthdays. THEY’RE CATS. AND DOGS. AND MAYBE GERBILS. They don’t have birthdays. They’ve never even heard of birthdays. They probably won’t even understand birthdays, if you set one down and started lecturing at it. Why is it fun to celebrate the annual reminder of your own mortality? watching as another year pas on this bleak grey planet, dragging on day after day in face if our cruel indifferent universe,and yet only to hurtle inevitably towards the pitiless black abyss of Death and his twilight kingdom?

I dunno.

Images (from left to right): Victorian girl with cat, Knee-highs and bonnet girl, Cat, Girl with Cat

“Statisticians estimate that there is no moment during the day when one or more young artists somewhere on the face of the globe are not painting pictures of children holding cats. ”
– The Man Upstairs by P.G Wodehouse

Difficulties of a Pajama Adventure

January 19, 2011

One of those seemingly inconsequential things that I spend a good deal of my time pondering over is the Pajama Problem. So titled because I quite like alliteration. To be exact – what would I do if I suddenly receive the call to adventure while in my pajamas?

I know it sounds crazy, but let me explain: Pajamas are strangely popular adventure attire for many, many people. Adventure doesn’t care if you’re asleep or not  when it knocks on your front door (or bedroom window, which I suppose is more appropriate given the circumstances), it barges straight into your dwelling, knocks over a few knickknacks that you’ve always secretly hated anyways, and rummages through your fridge before whisking you off on some grand journey on about page 26. When this happens, the heroes are never dressed like ordinary people. Ordinary people wear ratty flannel pants and worn out promotional t-shirts that clashes horribly with every colour imaginable. They have terrible hair, their breath smells bad, and they’re probably freezing within ten minutes of setting off. Most importantly, there’s the Bra Bother. That is, most women don’t wear their skivvies to bed. When some strangers clambers through your window and tells you that you must set off at once to rescue their mystical kingdom from prickly slug people, should you or should you not tell them to “Hang on a sec, let me grab some support nipple shields for my heaving bosom”? If you’re already grabbing some underclothing, surely it’s only a few seconds of extra bother to grab a pair of jeans and a sweater? In fact, why go in pajamas at all?

But sadly, the vast majority of my night go relatively peacefully and nothing too exciting happens. I’ve still hung on to the hope though. I’m thinking of buying a few nicer pajama sets though. Why do these heroines always have such impossibly nice nightgowns? Wendy from Peter Pan at least has the excuse that she’s from the past, where we all know is a foreign country in which things are done differently. Amy Pond? In my highly professional opinion – kinda weird.*

*Incidentally, did anyone else make that connection? I can’t believe I missed such an obvious allusion – The Doctor is the mysterious not-human who encourages the girl to never grow up, and they fly around in awesome places while she’s in her nightie.

Images: Doctor Who, Arthur Dent, The BFG, Coraline, Peter Pan


Lonely ramblings from 11AM

January 9, 2011

A few loose ideas from those nights that aren’t made for sleeping

Sometimes I’ll hear noises outside my window. Pouring into my room in trickles and weighing me down until I can’t breathe – until the floorboards are creaking under their weight – so wet and swollen. I hear music,cadenzas created by the wind and the noise of the jet engines above. Both are incessant, they are tireless. They curl in, filtered by the bricks and the concrete and the glass, and clutchclinggrab my heart and curls up about. The steady ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum of my heartbeat drums on, a slow coda to the mad gypsy melodies soaring in my brain. Mad violins and aetherphones and church organs pound out their bursting cacophony in my head. That’s why I feel an immense sadness when I’m sitting alone, on the bustrainmetro, I watch the people walking by and – what music is playing inside their heads? I would like to touch their skin and wait for the static of their thoughts to wash over me. I would like to escape inside someone else’s skin for a while, and listen to the rhythm of their breathing on a lazy summer morning. Feel the electricity running hot beneath their skin and be happy in their charge.

Image credit: Theremin, Shanghai cityscape, Sheet music