I once told my friend that I would send my future kids to boarding school.
“You’re a sadist,” my friend said.
Maybe I am.
Or maybe it’s the Chinese “mother tiger” instinct in me, so aptly described by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua in her essay in the Jan. 7 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Not all Chinese parents are as extreme as Chua, but I have seen her child-rearing philosophy in action several times in my life. I know Chinese and Chinese-American parents who demand absolute perfection in their children, which often translates to winning math contests, piano competitions and science fairs. For the children, it amounts to multiplication drills, sore fingers and endless hours in labs. Is it worth it, you ask?
Just look at the plaques, trophies and medals collecting dust in my room at home. My dad took a picture of me and my winnings to show my relatives back home. I only polished them to gloat to my grandmother when she came to visit from Hangzhou, China last Christmas. I felt proud, yet disgusted by the whole thing.
In some ways, my mom reminded me of Chua. When I was attending elementary school in Hangzhou, I once got a 95 on a math test. To my mom, it was sacrilege; in anger, she broke the glass covering of our dining table. I still remember the clear packing tape with which she fixed it. Needless to say, I got a 100 on my next math test.
As I got older, I absorbed my parents’ expectations and learned to discipline myself. In this way, I became their ideal child. I demanded A’s, I signed up for SAT classes, I made flash cards for the geography bee. But soon, my own quest for perfection took me away from my mom and dad. Knowing my local high school could not provide me with the best education, I applied to boarding school.
Suddenly, at age 14, I was on my own. My parents had taught me how to be an academic star, but the lesson didn’t include a section on adolescence.
Right before my first winter break, I checked into the school psychologist. In that dimly lit office, I broke down in convulsive sobs: I had no social skills, I didn’t know what “The OC” was about. But I wanted to be normal; I wanted to have friends. Sitting on that prickly gray couch with crumpled, wet napkins at my feet, I realized I needed to get a life of my own.
So I tuned in and inevitably dropped out of my parents’ way of life.
I made friends who might have made them cringe. I learned to play the guitar, and expanded the rock’n’roll collection on my iPod. I left the Southern Baptist Church I was baptized into and was confirmed by the Episcopal Church. Asserting my own identity meant battles over the telephone with my mom and restless nights of my tossing in guilt. Fortunately, the conversation between my parents and me toned down from screaming to talking after a few months.
My parents didn’t intend for me to turn into a poetry-writing, dulcimer-playing, news-junkie thespian when they sent me to boarding school. But by my senior year in high school, they understood that their child had changed. Though Harvard sounded better, they consented to my early application to the University of Chicago. Then Yale offered me a better deal, and my dad, secretly wishing I would become a biology major, ended up buying my Directed Studies textbooks.
Looking back, I am beginning to understand why my parents wanted me to be the best, why they pushed me to work extra hard. In part, they were driven by the fear that Asian-Americans must put in twice the effort to compete with Caucasians. And they are concerned that I will meet glass ceilings everywhere I go. Education and extra dedication, they believe, will liberate me.
Go to grad school, then become a TV journalist like that Indian man, my mom tells me, referring to Fareed Zakaria. In her opinion, I could not become a successful journalist as a Chinese-American with a bachelor’s degree; I must be a Chinese-American with a master’s — if not a Ph.D.
The scary part is, I fear my mom is right. I turn on the TV and I rarely see faces like mine. I turn the page in newspapers and magazines and I rarely read names like mine. Maybe that is why I stay up all night to finish research for my advisor when I could be sleeping, why I feel compelled to choose Ethics, Politics and Economics over Humanities, or why I will be studying for the GRE this summer in addition to interning at a TV studio. I cannot believe discrimination doesn’t exists just because I go to Yale.
Often, I wish I could disregard Amy Chua as someone who wants to live vicariously through the success of her daughters. But the tiger mother is partly right. So I’ll tell this to my kids: You don’t have to play the piano or the violin, but you better learn to play the guitar like Eric Clapton.