The most difficult conversation

My mum is so whacked and I can’t take all of the credit for giving her her issues from raising me.

I live on the West Coast and mum lives in the East Coast and Lil Sis lives in the eastern part of the country. We’ve all been living apart for three, nearly four, years because where we grew up does not sustain life (as we would like it).

So, we were sitting on the couch with mum sitting between us and Lil Sis texted messaged me, “Can you tell Mummy I have a boyfriend? :)” It’s news to me but I roll with it. I put up a bit of a fight in text message because I’ve had to broach the sticky subject myself each and every time but she wheedled in text messages and I chose my words carefully and in consultation with her. Abruptly, I said, “Mummy… Little Sister has a nam pung yao jai.”

I chose such a term meaning “little boyfriend” because “boyfriend” sounded way too mature for me to say. I chose to say it in Chinese because after all these years with mum, I can’t say “boyfriend” in English except like the way she does, spitting the word out, emphasis on the first syllable. Mum has categorically called them all my “friend” and also spits out the one-syllable word, whether she’s referring to a male or female. It’s a loaded word for mum because “friend” are people who infringe on my undivided attention on and love for her.

Mum’s first question was, predictably, “What kind of person is he?” That doesn’t mean, “What is he like?” It means, “What race is he?”

“He’s half European… and half Korean.”

There is palpable disappointment on mum’s part who makes no mystery about it. “I always wanted, hoped, dreamed you would be with someone Chinese.”

Why?! Why! I jump to Lil Sis’ defence although she is perfectly capable of it herself. I’ve thought long about it, had this argument prepared in my mind. “Just because you spoke to us in Chinese?! Although we lived in a small town and went to private school. You were too snooty to befriend other Chinese ladies who would have children to make interacting with Chinese seem normal. WHY on earth would you think we’d just get along so well with Chinese males? We’re naturally going to be more comfortable with white guys like we went to school with.” Although, with an older sister who dated some non-Chinese in her youth, Lil Sis has surely heard about mum’s expectations that we date and settle down with Chinese men. Ad nauseum.

I had fun rapidfire asking questions about what matters. Where is he from? What did he study and where? What does he do for fun? And I chuckled in delicious delight as mum asked uncomfortable questions and drew unfortunate conclusions about the guy. I’ve been through it, I’m so happy to be married at present to be beyond this kind of scrutiny.

Lil Sis was happy to show us a picture of her guy, a wide angle headshot from which you can see his whole upper body. His hair is so dark and his glasses so nerdy you would have thought he was all Asian from that photo!

But mum strangely fixated on his European half, calling him European, exclusive of his Korean heritage. From my experience (gleaned from one mixed boyfriend), the primary caregiver, presumably the mother, can impart more of her culture than the father can. To discount the mother’s contribution, to consider him European on account of his name and the father’s side reeks of the traditional patriarchal views she has long harangued she is beyond. And, according to mum, even if his mother impressed upon him Korean culture, it is still not Chinese.

The questions mum asked are loaded and I would raise my eyebrow at Lil Sis as a warning. “How often do you spend time together?” You don’t even know what mum’s threshold is: too little and mum prefers to think it is not a serious relationship, too much and she frets about, well, that. Lil Sis chose to tell the truth and mum chooses to believe it’s not that serous. Uhm, Lil Sis wouldn’t be telling us if it wasn’t kind of serious.

Mum’s other loaded question is asking Lil Sis what she likes about her boyfriend and what she doesn’t like. We know full well know mum is hell-bent on disliking him, proving Lil Sis has made a mistake so any criticisms raised are not taken as benign chatter but a weapon mum can brandish again and again. I joked it was like the interview question where you’re asked to name your weakness. How do spin a strength into a weakness? Off the cuff, I suggested Lil Sis say, “I don’t really like how he wins more cases than I do.” How could that be bad? Here is a potential train of thought: “He wins more than you do? How smart he is! But you’re in the same field. Why isn’t he helping you with your cases? How selfish! What kind of bad person is he?” And that whole train of thought would get verbalized.

In my experience, I’ve been threatened with being disowned if I marry someone not Chinese. Mum, who prides her English ability as sufficient to obtain a degree at a Canadian university, doesn’t want to speak to a son-in-law in English. A landed immigrant to Canada of 30 years and supposedly modern thinker but the narrow traditional view rears its ugly head.

Lil Sis has always handled mum differently and better than I have and she can perhaps train mum to sound kinder on the subject of boyfriends. By default, mum wants to say “friend” because “boyfriend” to her connotates something serous. Mum prefers not to refer to him by name which is one syllable like mine and hard to pronounce. The way mum refers to him as “keuy”, the gender ambiguous third person singular pronoun in Cantonese, sounds spiteful and harsh.

Until checked, mum wants to believe it is not serious. She even asked Lil Sis if there wasn’t anyone else at this time… someone mum would like better! And if Chinese men in her field and specialization are in short supply, mum suggested Lil Sis looks outside her own field. Mum asked how Lil Sis would go about meeting a doctor or engineer! All of which is highly disrespectful of Lil Sis’ relationship status!

And, mum wants the guy to learn Chinese! It’s sooooooo useful these days, mum never fails to mention each time we are together and pointed in the direction of the tv stuck on the Chinese channel, or a number of other triggers that prompt her to say, again, “Mummy really wants you to learn Mandarin, it’s so useful these days.” Like that’s going to happen for any of us. Gosh, I’m so glad my husband already speaks both Chinese dialects and I am the “more Chinese daughter” to not have to deal with this (once I met my husband).

We meet the much discussed person in person tomorrow at a family lunch. It was deemed an appropriate scenario since mum will meet him with me and a male cousin around to carry on conversation and she can sit back and do, well, that thing she does regarding our boyfriends.

I like him already and wish him and Lil Sis the best of luck at gaining that elusive acceptance.

The most difficult conversation

Thoughts on “Outmarriage Is Cultural Failure”

My Google Alert on “Asian American Literature” brought me Dali Zheng’s blog article, “Outmarriage Is Cultural Failure”.

Even before I read it, I already had an idea of what I think the title might be leading to. And more than likely, it will not be what Zheng is writing about because it’s just a feeling growing up, as opposed to well thought-out researched hypothesis.

Growing up with nary a Chinese person in sight given the double-whammy of living in a small city and being sent to private school, I was more comfortable with non-Chinese people than I was with Chinese people. This was despite my mother’s Chinese language training and admonition to date and marry a Chinese boy. Chinese culture might be familiar to me through our household, but Chinese people were the “exotic”/rare species to me. I was tongue-tied around any Chinese person, wanting to talk about being Chinese because that was so fascinating to me and something we had in common. Awkward.

So it was far easier and comfortable for me to date someone, anyone, not Chinese. This, of course, devastated my mother who wondered how it could come to be, which is quite narrow-sighted. And when I dated someone who wasn’t Chinese, while in the throes of my prolonged identity crisis, I would punish him for not being Chinese–I never said I was fair. All the while, I felt like a huge failure of my upbringing, culture, and myself. Since I would have to wait longer, look further, and try harder to date a Chinese boy, dating non-Chinese was “the easy route”.

This is quite in contrast to my take-home message from the original Asian American literature where the female meets a Chinese man that makes her happy for a time and her family really happy but her destiny is to leave him because something is missing (or really wrong) and she finds her complete happiness with a Caucasian man. It’s as if it was easy for those girls who grew up in San Fransisco Chinatown with Chinese classmates and their mothers trying to set them up with their friends’ sons to date a Chinese male, and escaping expectations, going for what their heart wants (love) is the successful outcome.

Enough about my own take, I did find myself agreeing with Zheng’s article, and was quite pleased with his bold statements.

  • “Asian America is a non-community. It exists in its current form solely because of the economic incentives for skilled immigrant labour and the prestige of certain American universities.” I’ve noticed in the past how different the Chinese community is from the Vietnamese community that I’ve had the fortunate to be welcomed into. What gives? Is the Vietnamese community a truer community? In general, I also feel that while it is convenient and inclusive-sounding to say “Asian American” the real communities are along country lines–each country traditionally is so different and still passes that thinking down such that my generation (the second generation) doesn’t believe in mixing so much. The constant flow of immigration of Asians with country-allegiance will ensure a continued supply of second generation Americans who also favour their own country over “Asian.”
  • Zheng also performs a calculation of the fertility of Asian American women (slightly less than the national average of 2, replenishing) but points out that if half of Asian American women marry non-Asian and their mixed Asian children honestly don’t truly self-identify as Asian, then the non-mixed Asian American birth rate is under 1. Huh, a logical reason to contribute to replenishment when I’m currently loathed to have a child. I need more than logic.
Thoughts on “Outmarriage Is Cultural Failure”

Got Rice?

I was culling my digital music collection on a solo Friday night which probably influenced which songs and genres got cut. That is, I was veering towards R&B and loud rock music. I gave my last few ‘rave’ songs a listen and ditched them all.

Then I came across Got Rice?, that MP3 that spread like wildfire in the Asian-American online community in the late 90’s (1998?). Omigosh, all those memories of AsianAvenue.com come back in a rush. I looked up the song on Wikipedia because that was my source for verifying my music collection information, but came away dissatisfied with their entry: who wrote the song and when was it released?

So I had to go to the general Google search results and get exposed to stuck-in-the-90s/early-2000s “pimpin'” websites. The 1:43 rap tune to the same melody as Tupac’s 1998 “Changes” is penned and rapped by an anonymous rapped going by “Azn Pride”. A few suggestions that Jin was behind it are quickly snuffed out by people in the know it’s not at all his sound or musical standard.

I like to think the song thus belongs to the 90’s generation Asian-Americans, my coming-of-age years. The activism that propagated down to little people like us and paved a new way to the world where the new generation do not have to live so self-consciously.

Got Rice?

Currently reading: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

While many Asian-American bloggers and writers cried foul after reading Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, I cheered for the title and then sat down to read the WSJ article. I didn’t like the know-it-all tone to the excerpt and quickly realized that the “article” was only a calculated publicity-stirring stunt by WSJ and/or Chua and if you only browse to the Amazon site and read just the cover of the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, you’d know that she has her come-uppance sometime after that self-righteous parenting phase. I blogged this opinion the same week the book came out and only now got around to acquiring a library copy to read it for myself.

I cheered because while I don’t think I’d do exactly as what Chua tried to do as a parent, I have some pretty narrow ideas of my own that eschew a lot of “Western” parenting, or what I think my mum did right and my only hope of having kids who don’t shrug and think they are white and not Chinese at all. Here were some of the things I thought I would do:

  • Although I’m nowhere fluent enough, I’d create a Chinese language environment from the first day; mum as a nanny helps since her Chinese is better than English–kid might start school as “ESL” but they pick up English frighteningly quickly
  • Take the kids to Asia both when young enough to form indelible memories and then when they are old enough to consciously remember
  • Carefully select/restrict their extracurricular activities so they are well-rounded with the “best” skills
  • Guide their life/career selections to equally honourable and stable careers but not be restrict to doctor/lawyer paths

All I can do is wax philosophic about what I would do while Battle Hymn is the memoir of a second-generation (like me!) American-born Chinese mother of immigrant parents (me too!) actually did it trying to carry out strict parenting inspired by Chinese parents. Warning: this is going to be a long one.

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As it turns out the WSJ article is largely excerpted from the first chapter of the book where she draws you in with snappy lists of rules and statistics, and disclaimers that don’t really endear her to the readers but rather to stir them up. Even if the reader gets beyond the cover and book jacket, I guess you still have to pile on the verbal firepower to keep them turning pages and investing time reading the book.

Early on, Chua provides a brief family portrait of her family background and that frustrated me. Granted her parents were penniless arriving in America, but they were highly educated, not dysfunction (by her account), and could teach Chua and her sisters “do as I say and as I do”. Success among Chua’s generation is much more likely than the circle I am more familiar with. That is, my circle where less fortunate immigrants arrive in the New World penniless, not so highly educated, and pick up odd jobs. They may have held a “white collar” job in China but children born to them here see them only as labourers and it’s all the harder for those parents to teach “do as I say, not as I do”. When you start splitting hairs, second generation born to professionals have an easier time than the second generation born to labourers, who were raised in kitchens, worked the store front from age 8; so I question the role of Chinese parenting in Chua and her sister’s success. However, I do share the paralyzing fear that the third generation Chinese-American/Canadian is born to be “lost” with respect to holding the Chinese cultural values of their parents and grandparents. There is even a Japanese term for Chua’s and my generation (nisei) and her children’s (sansei).

When Chua wrote, “what Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it”, it was like a blast from the past. Because of my own challenges, it was said to me ad nauseum but what is a child to do in response? The elder daughter accepted Chua’s rules and direction as being best for her while the younger daughter fought back. I took a path in between to seem to have accepted it and never truly internalize the values lying behind the effort. The particularly interesting result–I discovered while reading, like it’s a self-help book–is that I was successful early on but was more like a precarious house of cards, an empty shell. It’s true, a Chinese parent delays their own gratification and continues to fight with her child to follow her Chinese values while Chua disparages the (Western) parents who give up. Although the Western parents cite that children have individual rights, Chua wonders if the parents who give up/in aren’t serving their own sanity mostly by backing off.  Chua outs Chinese parents like my mother who not-so-secretly believe they care more for their children than the daughter’s classmates’ parents, and the evidence is glaring by what they are willing to do for their children. (I’ve made a note that this deserves its own blog post, we’ll see.)

The book was like an exposé of the inner workings of Chinese parenting which she discloses is an inherently closet practice: “If it comes out that you push your kids against their will, or want them to do better than other kids, or God forbid ban sleepovers, other parents will heap opprobrium on you, and your children will pay the price. As a result, immigrant parents learn to conceal things. They learn to look jovial in public and pat their kids on the back.” Although Chua’s book is not the first on Chinese parenting, it is highly accessible and it gathers in one place–if only one parent’s view and experience–all the thoughts rather than counting on stumbling across them on the Internet in various blogs and posts. The writing process encourages complete exploration of the topic and I found all the values my mother expressed in print; it was eerie and very familiar. I sat in a café alone reading and chuckling at the truth of her words and NPY saw me and won’t let me down!

Bloggers have remarked on the absence of mention of the husband, Jed, but I ate up all the details of his role. While Chua directed the methodical acquisition of skills and enrolled the daughters in Chinese classes, his side determined their religion–the funniest part to me being that Jed is not really religious and the daughters learned Mandarin, the most useful dialect to know but one Hokkien-speaking Chua does not understand. It shows what a second generation does, what I would need to do. At times, Jed sounds like the voice of reason and certainly would not hang back and be a trounced-upon husband of a strong Chinese woman; Chua humanizes herself admitting to crazy generalizations about “Westerners” and “Chinese people” despite her intelligent legal mind. Jed represents silent husbands and the daughters’ generation in pointing out, “I know you think you do people a huge favor by criticizing them, so that they can improve themselves, but have you ever considered that you just make people feel bad?” Her ultimate defense is, “the ultimate proof of the superiority of Chinese parenting is how the children end up feeling about their parents. Despite their parents’ brutal demands, verbal abuse, and disregard for their children’s desires, Chinese kids end up adoring and respecting their parents and wanting to care for them in their old age.” It took me years of self-absorbedness and only now that I’m older, facing the prospect of having kid(s) and seeing my parents getting old to realize this. It was mini-cathartic to see this written.

The book seems to boil down to a story about music lessons as a representative of strict Chinese parenting. The school where the daughters learned piano and violin practiced the Suzuki method that requires parent attendance in class and supervision during practice. It was the perfect opportunity for Chua to micromanage their music careers. The book further boils down to the relationship between Chua and the younger daughter who does not naturally and gracefully flourish by Chua’s rules and, incidentally, has the same personality as the Tiger (zodiac sign) mother. Having been through both piano and violin (entirely unsupervised by my mother), I could understand the learning trials but also did not really cared so much about the achievements. I had been most tantalized by the requirements list in the WSJ journal and observed the virtual absence of mention about the battles over academics and social life. Still, the sacrifices everyone made for music are palpable through the anecdotes and detail that is given: although they are an affluent household, the proportion of resources and time Chua committed sounds staggering. It reminds me of the private school and childhood-long lessons in everything that was invested in me, especially as I now learn the mind-boggling cost of enrolment in extracurricular activities. Chua also wrote something that echoed what my mum would say, “There is no rest for the Chinese mother, no time to recharge, no possibility of flying off with friends for a few days to mud springs in California.”

I liked Chua’s deadpan wit that strikes me as ironic and intelligent at its best. Her writing style is breezy with substance and I was drawn in with the rapid-fire statistics in the first chapter, with her stating that what 70% of Western mothers believe about parenting “roughly 0% of Chinese mothers said the same thing”. She introduced her family with a note of self-deprecation, describing her Chinese-Jewish-American children “an ethnic group that may sound exotic but actually forms a majority in certain circles, especially in university towns” and youngest daughter who later fights the most, “Lulu was deceptively cute”.  One of my other favourite parts I can empathize with was when she was grumbling, “besides I was already disadvantaged because I had an American husband who believe that childhood should be fun”.

Parenting as a topic for a book is as old as the hills but not being at that stage I have read only very sparsely that literature. From my own extended family as a sample, where most family units have two children quite opposite of each other, and my own jaded ideas of parenting, I don’t see the sense of a large swath of the parenting book industry because every parent-child relationship is different. I think empathy is required at the core and only after that is achieved can the parent understand how to push the child to greater heights. Still, since it is so contentious, I love how Chua wrote a book that was so initially reviled for casting a “bad light” and so forth on the culture. I might share a lot of the beliefs but I could not write this book with any credibility without raising at least one child and having a degree that allows you to be called Dr. to not be criticized as a stage mom, a shrew.

Chua explains Chinese parenting in an eloquent and sardonic way that an immigrant who is ESL couldn’t. In a way, I saw the book a bit as her tribute to her parents who very naturally practiced Chinese parenting and have four uber-successful daughters (Harvard/Yale post-grads or athletic prowess resulting in Olympic gold) to show for their efforts. It was also a tribute to her daughters–the brilliant obedient one and the still-lovable willful and rebellious one.

Still, I wondered how natural it was for Chua to be a “Chinese parent”. She was born here!! The mind can be entirely convinced on the “Chinese rules” but the heart has to warm to the success achieved by other methods, right? I was not particularly impressed when she confessed that she did not have heart-to-heart talks with her daughters and talk to them about puberty and the Facts of Life–is she somewhat proud to have continued this immigrant family habit? I don’t see those conversations as contravening with the stated strict rules, but I suppose to reproduce Chinese parenting from the previous era, then you continue ignoring those topics. I bristled when she referred to herself, in all seriousness, as a “Chinese mother” instead of what she really is, at the end of the day, after her humbling and changed ways, a Chinese-American mother.

Currently reading: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

“Hello, is Wing there?”

Have you heard the crank call that goes like this:
Caller: Hi, is Wing there?
Answer: No.
Caller: Oh, I guess I must have Wing’ed the Wong number! Hahahahahahahah

You see, my name sounds a bit like “Wing” so when my mother answered such a call decades ago when I was probably still in elementary school, she called me to the phone.

I answered, eagerly, naively hoping a classmate had called me (I was vastly unpopular in school). The caller was incredulous because the joke had backfired and my eagerness turned to paranoia that it had been a targeted crank call as opposed to the truly random call it probably was and I started accusing the caller of being some of popular girls from school. So shocked, the caller couldn’t get out her punchline and it was awkward all around.

For years, I felt ashamed when I remembered that crank call. I was ashamed that my mother couldn’t discern the difference between “Wing” and my name over the phone line. I was ashamed of showing my insecurity and lashing back over the phone. I felt ashamed for my culture to have names like “Wing” and “Wong” out of which you could make these stupid jokes.

It was only very recently when it occurred to me that the crank call just might not be as racist as I had thought all along. Suppose the “joke” had been concocted to make fun of Elmer Fudd who famously could not pronounce his “r”s and would say “wing the wong number” if he were trying to say “ring the wrong number”….?

But I’ve turned the “joke” over some more since this “revelation” and conclude it is still racist.

“Hello, is Wing there?”

Preview: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I’m so behind. I still haven’t read the “Too Asian” article my own country’s weekly magazine published late last year and caused such a stir here and south of the border. But I read the most recent highly inflammatory article, Amy Chua’s WSJ piece, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.

I read the article, linked from Angela Tung’s blog and even left a long comment–apparently I lurk or leave long comments–while also intending to address this article with my own blog post.

The WSJ article was posted two days ago, on January 8, has caused a stir on the Asian-American blogosphere, and garnered 2,501 comments to date. What a headache. I read the article, nodding, frowning, wincing, and noticed at the bottom of the article that it was an excerpt from Amy Chua’s forthcoming book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Huh. And if you read the cover, there is a long “subtitle” on the cover that reads: “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, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” It’s kind of an awkward cover, and I wouldn’t do that for my memoir. (!)

With that, I wasn’t going to take the article that seriously. I’ve read enough memoirs to know exaggeration is the spice to take an author’s story from the story-next-door to being published.

The article starts with a list of what Chua’s daughters were not allowed to do/attend: sleepovers, playdates, star in a school play, watch TV/play computer games, choose their own extracurriculars, get less than an A and not be the top student, play anything but piano and violin.

Continue reading “Preview: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”

Preview: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother