Ever since Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from Amy Chua’s new book, with a provoking title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” debates ramified from the topic have not abated. Jeff Yang on SFGate.com details the disapproval and questioning from Asian American community in Mother Superior? David Brooks thinks Amy Chua Is a Wimp and claims that Chua shields her children in an ivory tower of academic superiority and dares not let them face the social challenges. And Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother made the cover of Time.
I have not read Chua’s book and I don’t plan to, but here is just a story I want to share about my mother and I. My relationship with my mother is the toughest relationship I have ever had and will ever have.
My name is Szu-ting and in Chinese it roughly translates to “intelligent and beautiful.” My birth was highly anticipated – my father really wanted a daughter after having a son. When the nurse presented me to my parents, “congratulations, it’s a girl!” According to my mom, their hearts sunk when they saw my “ugly” face. My mom said that they dared not to take an ugly daughter out. Luckily after they closely observed other people’s daughters, they had decided that “our daughter is okay,” and I therefore could be part of the family travel.
My elementary years were worry-free and quite pleasant. My mom read books with me and rewarded me when I jotted down beautiful quotes from the books I read to prepare for excellent essay writing. We memorized poems together and I practiced simple polynomial in the 4th grade. I proudly figured out the number of rabbits and hens in a cage by given the numbers of heads and feet. Though I never questioned why rabbits and hens would hang out in a cage to start with.
The honeymoon ended after I started junior high. Since I had no hope to be beautiful, I needed to strive for intelligence. The world out there is cruel, and only academic excellence guarantees a bright future. There are only 3 kinds of jobs – professors, doctors, and lawyers – the competition is fierce and the only way my mother could help me to overcome the obstacles was to become a tiger mom.
Oh yes I know how it feels to disgrace my mom by not being the top student in one subject. I had the best scores for the remaining seven subjects but it was irrelevant. When I screamed and questioned her why she was so stingy on praising her own daughter. She pointed out my childishness for wanting candies, “praise is useless.” Just like candies create cavities and obesity, “praise softens your will of succeeding.” I didn’t want to be a loser, so I sucked it up and never asked for a compliment again. Thanks to her tiger philosophy, I went to the best high school, entered the best college in Taiwan, and eventually got a PhD degree in computer science from University of Pennsylvania. However, the feeling of “I am not good enough” had always jumped out to haunt me at various transitions.
The mother-daughter relationship was often tense. After my college entrance exam, my mother did not speak a single word to me for a month because I refused to go to a medical school. My friends told me stories about calling me and being asked by my mom to hang up and call again because she didn’t want to ask me to answer the phone. Our relationship was about to crash to the bottom when I took a gap year after college and didn’t hop on the graduate school train immediately. Stressed out by living under the same roof while carrying the label of being the shame of the family, I took the best advice of my life and escaped to the United States.
I call my mom rarely because I don’t want to, but the real reason is fear. I am afraid that she is going to point out something I did wrong or not good enough. I knew that deep inside I still want to be praised by my mom but the chance is slim. She once claimed in front of my sister-in-law that she wish she had never had me as her daughter. Surprisingly the comment didn’t register in my mind until my sister-in-law expressed her sympathy a few days later. It hurt. However, it also seemed that I had already accepted that a broken mother-daughter relationship is a price I need to pay if I want to pursue my dreams. Haven’t I fulfilled my mom’s requirements? I am driven, persistent, and tough. Why isn’t she proud? Perhaps that is because I am not a professor, a doctor, or a lawyer. I am a climber and an entrepreneur while a woman should be a mom and has a stable job.
One day her voice was faint and sad on the other end of the phone. She said that she didn’t understand me and complained why I was not like other sweet daughters sharing everything with their moms. A long sigh and a long silence. That was the end of the conversation. I cried after hanging up the phone.
I have been trying really hard to make my mom happy but perhaps I have stopped trying. I have never had a single doubt that my mom loves her children dearly. Her children are her world and she would do anything for her kids. She wants the best for my brothers and me. However, her definition of “best” is very different than mine. To her I am a rebel not wanting to take a paved road she planned for me. To me, she was a tyrant and eager to suffocate my free will. I do not agree with my mom’s approach but I understand where it is all coming from.
My mother grew up in a farmer’s family. As a young kid she had to do much physical labor and help raise younger siblings. If it was not for her school teacher’s protest, my mom’s education would be terminated, because my grandparents thought sending a girl to school is a waste of money and she would be more useful working. My mom married my dad in her early twenties. My dad was poor and as the oldest son he had to support his mom and four younger siblings. My parents had to endure significant financial stress for many many years. My mother always feels guilty about my drinking the cheapest powder milk and the family’s not being able to afford a single toy. She had “eaten enough bitterness” (a Chinese expression, meaning suffering) and she wanted none of that for her kids.
My mom is not a millionaire so in order for her kids not to eat any bitterness, she needed to equip them with essential life skills and education. That desire translated to swimming and English classes and strict requirement towards high performance on subjects evaluated during entrance exams. My mom had lived through scarcity and knows too well about the importance of money. If one cannot fulfill the basic needs of survival, it’s none sense to discuss the importance of other desires. She believes that financial stability is the key to any abstract concepts I had tried to raise to her attention, such as self-fulfillment and happiness. There should not be dreams; there are only goals. Everything we do has to be useful, otherwise we are taking a great risk of eating bitterness.
My mom loves me and therefore she fears that all the bad things that had ever happen to her might happen to me. She fears a great deal especially when in her eyes I am obviously taking a risky life path. Combining other factors such as competitive environment and traditional cultural baggage, her love for me became unbearable. Both of us are good at suppressing our emotions because sharing feelings is a sign of weekness. Once the connection between mother and daughter was broken, it was hard to repair.
I love my mom and there are many things I am grateful about my mom. I am very driven and persistent and these qualities had helped me accomplish many goals in my life, and they are the key to be a successful entrepreneur. Because of her I have a very good standing posture, a healthy diet, and have never wasted my time watching TV. I am not obese because I don’t like sweets; however, I do still want a candy from my mom. I very much want her to tell me that she is proud of me even though I know she brags about me at every possible occasion when I am not around. As the year of Tiger became history, I hope that my mom can take a break from being a tiger mom and acknowledge that it’s the year of Rabbit, which is my year. I am no longer a young child and I will pick up the phone to wish my mom a happy new year.