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Confessions Of A Half-Asian Tiger Cub

January 23, 2017

In 2001, a book written by American author, lawyer, and Yale Law School professor Amy Chua called "Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother" made headlines around the world. It was one that my fellow East Asian (and half East Asian) friends and I could instantly relate to: "It's like the story of my life, sort of!" we exclaimed. The book's summary reads as such: "This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures and a fleeting taste of glory." Many people perceived it as a book about how Asian parenting is in some way superior to the alternatives. The author claims that she didn't mean Asian parenting in the sense of a parent needing to be ethnically Asian - instead, her definition of being a 'Chinese mother' was meant to be parents of any ethnicity that follows a more strict, discipline-focused attitude towards raising your children, and that this could include Western parents as well - and that not all Chinese parents followed these same principles. While the book wasn't intended as a how-to guide, and more of a 'self-mocking memoir', Chua was lambasted by some as being a child abuser, in the sense that she was an overly strict disciplinarian, raising her children in a military-esque manner that allowed for not just no fun, but didn't allow for her children to just be children and grow. One of her daughters wrote an open letter that was published in the New York Post, in which although it did admit that her upbringing was indeed incredibly strict, she was ultimately thankful for it, and defended her mother in doing so. I remember reading comments about the open letter, wherein readers would joke that she had probably written the open letter under threat from her mother. I sincerely doubt that - not just because she insisted otherwise, but because I could really relate.

 

I grew up with my own Tiger Mother. As a child, while I didn't think my mother was a strict disciplinarian until I made friends at school who had very different types of parents - and indeed in many ways, she was a lot more relaxed than Chua seemed to be with her kids - I did have an upbringing that boasted a lot of facets of traditional Chinese parenting. My education was always paramount. My homework had to be done before dinner, and when I got home from school, I didn't question it when I was made to sit at our large wooden dining table, completing it along with as many excellence-inducing exercises as I could. Spelling and grammar drills were so regular that I probably could have won any spelling bee I entered, and "recommended reading" was always interpreted as mandatory. If I struggled in a subject, my parents would immediately hire a tutor, and I would have to work as hard as I could until I overcame that difficulty. I remember when I was a young child, if I fell down and thought I'd hurt myself, making a big fuss about it in order to seek comfort and attention, my mum would first gauge if it was serious or not (in which case of course she'd help me). If it wasn't, she'd make me get up on my own again. At the time, I sulked. In retrospect, I see that she was simply teaching me one of life's harsher truths: That in life, if I didn't really need the help and could indeed recover by myself, that if I didn't learn to get up on my own again, I'd always be helpless and relying on others. 

 

My weekends were filled with countless extracurricular activities: Piano lessons (which I learned until I completed all eight grades of the ABRSM certification), dance classes (I've done everything from ballet to Polynesian dance), martial arts (I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and Aikido), art lessons (I'm a pretty good artist and learned to create artwork in everything from acrylics, oils, and chalks, to Lino print and more), language classes (learning to speak French with an authentic accent wasn't enough - I even got the cursive handwriting down pat), swimming lessons (my first teacher was a former Olympian), and the list goes on. I'm fortunate that my parents could afford to pay for these lessons, but I'm certain that if they couldn't, they would have found a way. My father, an Arab man, also fell under the same attitude, whether that was because of my mum's influence, their shared values in what they wanted for us - excellence, always - or the fact that they both shared the same old cultural beliefs linked to their heritage wherein not only was education one of the most important things in life, and learning as many skills as possible (to get you into the best college or university possible, if anything), but also because both of their upbringings taught them to value future professions such as being a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. I did as I was told, sometimes (often) complaining. I lied through my teeth in creative ways to be able to sleep over at friend's houses and go to parties, after my very first party where my parents dropped me off at someone's house in middle school where my dad freaked out seeing that there were boys there. "Just go, quickly, get out of the car and I'll take care of it," my mum said. See, she was strict, but she was always on my side (and so was my dad, but in this case, he was being a stereotypical Strict Arab Dad and standard overprotective father of his youngest daughter). 

 

I still remember when I came home from Boston during the holidays, where I'd been working as a paralegal intending to complete law school after I'd graduated from university in the USA (one of the top ones, a "New Ivy League" university, naturally) and told them I wanted to be a journalist. "Will you ever make money from that?" my parents insisted, slightly horrified that I was so insistent that my nature meant I had to take a job I loved, even if it was more for the passion not the money, and that I'd voluntarily opted for a career that was notorious for immense amounts of high-stress work for not much pay. But I persisted, and eventually, they caved. When I came home wide-eyed about a boy, they'd sit me down and force me to think about what kind of future that could lead to. I ignored it, and rebelled. But they insisted anyway. I said I was sick of being lectured in how to live my life, and we clashed, a lot.

 

Yes, in many ways, it was harsh. But I was lucky - my mum was already more open-minded than the traditional Chinese mother, in the sense that she'd married a foreigner from a faraway land. Perhaps I should have remembered that that she'd soften and allow me to chase my dreams, no matter how far-fetched they might have seemed to her - even though it took me immense amounts of effort to convince her of that. As a sullen teenager, I resented it. I thought they were cruel, boring, and unfair compared to the relaxed attitudes of many of my Western friends' parents, convinced that they didn't understand me and were trying to "ruin my life". Yet when I grew a little older, I realized that it was simply all they knew. They were trying their best to adapt to this - and most importantly, the reason why I was able to think, act, and feel the way I did, was because of the life they had given me - including all of the education that had led me to this manner of thinking. And with that world viewpoint, I was also armed with an unstoppable work ethic that had been instilled in me thanks to that very same upbringing. 

 

I remember a story my mum told me about one of her first few jobs as a child. Having grown up on a farm in the more rural areas of Taipei, her childhood jobs were very different from the office jobs and internships that I'd chased. As a tween, trying to help her single mum with the family finances - her father had passed away at a very young age and she was one of the youngest of 7 siblings - she got a job at a factory two towns away, and rode her bicycle there every day. If her bicycle broke down, she'd walk to get there, no matter how long it took, because she had committed to it, and was determined to finish. It took her over 3 hours, and still, she persisted. When she got a job in Taipei, after years of continually pushing herself to always achieve her best so she could chase those big-city dreams, she did her best to fill the shoes she'd set out for herself - and had an incredible career that spanned everything from working in politics to running a line of jewelry shops. The bicycle incident was just one of many similar experiences she had been through to get to where she did later in life. So it's quite understandable now, with the widened world view that I'm now blessed with in my adult life, how and why giving up when times get tough wasn't in her vocabulary. 

 

Many a time, I've lamented the fact that I was raised to be a machine of sorts. And while I do still feel that that came at a price - I didn't have the chance to develop the emotional side of myself until later in life, for instance, and through sacrificing a lot of my high school social life (not just because I was a nerd masquerading as an In-Betweener through some strange social grace wherein I got along with everyone, no matter what their popularity status was in school), I missed out on a lot of traditional firsts. Despite my emotional maturity and high-achieving grades, I was a late bloomer in many parts of life, and if I'm being honest, it's a pattern that still follows me now. But ultimately, I will always be grateful for the way she raised me. Sure, maybe if I ever decide to have my own kids someday, I'd be a less harsh - I'd be lying if I said I had never resented my upbringing, or that I didn't still have fault with many facets of the way I was raised, thanks to that gap in my social growth, particularly where relationships are concerned. Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, it can be hard learning to grow a heart when you've never spent time in building it, even if all of the other mechanics of who you are are well-oiled and perfectly aligned. But in the same way she taught herself to never give up as a child, I can see that she still tries to push herself to understand me now, even if it isn't always easy convincing her that that's necessary. Whether I'd fallen in love with someone unconventional (to her), or chosen a different path than she'd have wanted for me, she disapproved of some of the choices I'd made - but once she'd made peace with that (with a fair amount of my convincing), she simply warned me of the parts that made her disapprove, then tried to give me the tools I'd need to make my own decision. 

 

Now, even when I catch myself saying things that make me utter the phrase "Oh gosh, I'm turning into my mother" nowadays, the part of me that can defend and support that way of thinking always wins out in the end. Sure, she has her faults (as we all do) and she isn't perfect - but knowing that she always did it for our own good, and what she thought was best for us, goes an extremely long way. We still argue on a regular basis, but it's with a lot more respect and understanding now thanks to the viewpoint I've been able to develop from my adult life. Yes, there's a lot to have tweaked there - I could do without the guilt complex that comes as a side effect of the "shame in no honor" culture, and I often wish I'd become as proficient at managing my issues with romantic relationships as I was with the piano way back then. But I'm also pretty certain that I wouldn't have developed the unstoppable work ethic, unwavering determination, and ability to never give up - not to mention the fierceness in always being proud to be myself - without it. I know now that she did it all for me. We may have often felt like we were at war, but it took me until I had reached my 30's - through a lot of harshly exchanged words, tears, and make-up long chats into the night - to realize that we were always fighting on the same side: Mine, and for me to have a better life in the bigger picture. Perhaps we hardly ever hug, or don't say "I love you" all the time - but when I'm truly in trouble and I really need her, she's always there to support me - even if it may come with the cost of yet another lecture. She taught me that in real life, you can only ever really be your own safety net - yet somehow, she has still always been the safety net underneath the one I'd built for myself. She ultimately taught me how to achieve my dreams with persistent commitment and hard work, to always believe that I can succeed, and that that is how I will achieve my full potential. I've also got a pretty killer set of surprise skills to pull out of my hat, which have come in handy more than I ever could have imagined. Now, when I say I'm a Tiger Cub, I say it with a hint of self-deprecation, and a roll of my eyes - but I also say it with pride. 

 

 Photograph: Shutterstock

 

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