Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lost: my exobrain

I lost my iPhone two days ago.

I am completely lost without my exobrain and am trying to convince my husband that I need to get a replacement (upgraded model, though, of course) ASAP. Vic and I are not on the same page about this. He reluctantly bought me my first iPhone (now the one he uses) for my birthday in April two years ago.

Here's an excerpted transcript of our phone conversation this morning:

Vic: I'm looking into the iPhone stuff. I emailed you a bunch of links.
me: OK.
Vic: You should probably go to the Apple store. Find out what your options are - correction - find out what your CHEAPEST options are.
me: Cheapest?
Vic: Yeah. Don't just walk in there with the mindset of "I'm coming out with a new iPhone."
me: Uh-huh.
Vic: I mean, if you have to get another phone, your best bet may be a refurbished iPhone 3Gs.
me: Hmm. I was thinking iPhone 4.
Vic: Well, I'm due next for the upgrade.
me: I knew you would say that. I'll see what it costs.
Vic: Don't buy anything or sign any new contracts without calling me first.
me: I have to go.

What iPhone should I get?
Get the top-of-the line model. You deserve it!
Get a refurbished older model - the cheaper the better. free polls

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tiger Mom = Mother Martyr

As a college senior, I had written this essay for an English class, The Immigrant Experience. It was published in CWRU, the magazine for Case Western Reserve University, my undergraduate alma mater, in May 1993.

The Mother Martyr

No matter what she is saying to me, my mother's voice sounds sharp, urgent, and usually angry. Her voice is a knife. At college, my suite mate once said to me that she could always tell when I was talking to my mom on the phone because my voice would suddenly get loud. It is true. My mother's voice demands boldness. I am forced to speak as loudly as she does. Tenderness is rare between me and my mother and sometimes the only way to handle my mom is to be the same way she is.

When I was younger, I used to watch my mother cook. When she cooks, she stir-fries vegetables the same way she talks–with speed and aggressiveness–so that they are cooked in seconds. She chops meat just as swiftly. I have seen my mother cut herself only a few times while chopping, which is amazing considering her speed. When she does cut herself, though, my mom's chopping is so fast and powerful that it never leaves anything but a deep wound.

On the rare occasions that she does cut herself, my mom wipes the blood from her fingers and laughs at her clumsiness. When I was young, it seemed that her wounds hurt me more than they hurt her. I cringed when I saw the blood while my mom laughed. Once, I had a nightmare about having my eyes cut with razor blades. The worst form of torture to me is not one of stabbing or burning or drowning, but of slicing.

When you slice with a knife, there is a moment of commitment, when there is no turning back. I am tentative. I do not want to commit too soon and risk getting cut.

I wonder sometimes if my mother's agreement to marry my father was a fast choice, a deep cut. My mother married my father knowing that he was planning to study in Canada. She knew that if she married him, she would have to leave her family and friends and learn a whole new culture. I know my mother loved my father very much when she agreed to marry him, but I wonder how she felt about leaving Taiwan.

My parents had me while my father studied at the University of Alberta. When I was born, my parents taught me to speak Taiwanese before I learned English. After I went to school, though, I forgot a lot of my Taiwanese. There are still some Taiwanese words I have never learned. For example, I don't think I was ever taught the word "regret". Instead, I learned words like "hungry."

I learned practical survival words in Taiwanese. My mother learned the same in English. I have never learned enough Taiwanese, nor my mother enough English, to convey nuances or subtleties–only facts. When I was little, my childhood conversations with my mom were business transactions–negotiations, deals. "Please," I would whine, in the most dignified way a second-grader could. "Please let me play outside now and when I come back, I will practice piano for a whole hour." "NO," she would reply firmly. "NO BAH-GAINS."

I was constantly trying to "bah-gain" with my mother. I wanted her to give me more freedom so I could be like everyone else in school. Trying to assimilate into the American culture was very painful for both of us at times. It was harder for me, a cry-baby and whiner. My mother was more stoic. She never complained.

My mother sat and listened while I tried to tell her how out of place I felt among Americans. While I felt awkward and shy, I explained, my best friend Jennie Price was the popular trendsetter. She was the first to have a Mandy doll (second grade), Calvin Klein jeans (fourth grade), Atari video games (seventh grade), etc. Jennie's mom was so hip too. She sunbathed and ate pound cake all the time.

I wanted to be like Jennie. My mom knew it. My mom would study the way Jennie dressed and buy me the same clothes just so I would feel better. It wasn't good enough for me, though. I wanted my mom to be like Jennie Price's mom and know what was fashionable before everybody else did, not after. I didn't just want to fit in–I wanted to be in, like Jennie Price.

I wanted my mom to be like Jennie's mom, or at least somewhat like the moms I watched on TV. I wanted my mom to be June Cleaver or Carol Brady. In elementary school, my mom even tried to be this ideal I wished for. She joined the PTA. She made cupcakes for everyone in my class on my birthday. I even remember her going to a Tupperware party once.

One day, there was a Brownie Girl Scout meeting for parents at my friend Ann's house. While the adults had their meeting, the girls played out on Ann's front lawn. While I was pretending to be a normal American, a girl named Debbie ran out of the house and shook my arm. She was totally stunned because my mother had taken off her shoes upon entering the house. "Why?" Debbie kept asking. I don't know what I said to Debbie, in my grade school embarrassment, but I remember scolding my mom later for not knowing better.

When I think about that Brownie meeting now, I realize what a difficult, alien situation I had forced upon my mother. At Ann's house, my mom's voice was soft and unsure. She wasn't the thunder mom I as used to. I shouldn't have made my mom go to that meeting. I cut her that day.

I think my mom cut me too by expecting me to be Superkid. I was a timid child. My mother tried to force me to be strong. Like so many other Asian American parents, my mom was determined to make me The Best Kid in the Universe. I had art, ballet, piano, violin, ice-skating, and swimming lessons, Chinese Saturday School, and Brownie Girl Scouts. When I wasn't in school, I was scooted back and forth between my various self-improvement courses.

I remember initially wanting to take all my various lessons but eventually resenting them. In Chinese School especially, I thought I was cursed for being Taiwanese. I got sick of having Chinese culture jammed down my throat every week–and on Saturdays! I wanted to watch cartoons like everyone else.

Now that I think about it, I know my parents were just trying to give me some advantages over other kids. They wanted me to know more than others. The even taught me how to read before I entered kindergarten. I remember being bored learning that the letter "B" makes a "buh" sound when I could already write my own stories. I would read all the time, especially with my mother enrolling me in library summer reading programs. I was the school spelling champion.

I think it is strange now that my parents don't know why I became an English major in college. "WHAT ABOUT BEING A DOCTOR OR ENGINEER?" my mom still asks. I want to scream that I was molded into this direction. I don't understand why my parents think I betrayed them. After all, they were the ones who taught me how to read and write early. Studying literature was only logical considering the background I had, a background of languages and interpretations and colors and meaning.

Since I'll soon be graduating from college and living on my own, my parents are trying to make me cook more. My mother is disgusted with the way I chop slowly. "YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO CHOP RIGHT. YOU HAVE TO COOK FASTER OR ELSE YOU FAMILY WILL STARVE TO DEATH WAITING FOR YOU," my mother warns.

When my mother chops, she does not worry about getting cut. If she does slice herself, she will simply wash her hands, wrap her wounds and keep chopping. When I think of knives, I think of pain and danger and death. When my mother thinks of knives, she thinks of efficiency, of practicality, of life. I understand now why she chops so fast. She wants to feed her family as quickly as possible. She doesn't want the family to wait. She doesn't want life to wait. Opportunities don't wait. Life is not about deliberating or deciding, but of doing and moving. Cut fast, commit, and never look back.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chinese parenting - right or wrong?

In a Wall Street Journal essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", author and Yale Law School professor Amy Chua shares her perspective on "Chinese parenting".

Where do I begin?

I must emphasize that I'm not speaking for all Asians. I do have some things in common with Amy Chua. I do know what it's like to be the daughter of Asian immigrant parents with high expectations, and I'm also a mom of two facing challenging issues concerning academics and discipline. But Chua and I have different perspectives on parenting.

Chua describes the Chinese attitude toward education, where achievement is not an option. She discusses the shame and humiliation Asian parents subject their children to if expectations are not met. She views this style of parenting as clearly superior to "Western parenting".

After reading the WSJ piece, horrified, one of my friends asked me if I agree with that style of parenting. "I was completely blown away," she said. "It was really hard to read."

To me, it's, well, complicated. In thinking about the Chinese parenting style Chua advocates, on a large scale, I do have concerns about how it contributes to the model minority myth. I worry about how this parenting style affects the mental health of our children. There is research that links parental pressure to high rates of suicide among Asian Pacific American women.

On a personal level, though, I admit I was a bit entertained and amused by some of the examples Chua laid out in her essay. They were so familiar. It was like the first time I read Joy Luck Club. I ticked off the checklist: pushy mom - yes, cowed daughter - yes, outrageously high expectations - yes, oh yes.

In my own experience, I grew up in a close-knit Taiwanese community in Cleveland. My parents and their Taiwanese friends emigrated to the United States to pursue careers in medicine, engineering and natural sciences. They expected their children to excel academically as well.

And for the most part, we did. We graduated from well-regarded colleges and universities. Some did go to Ivies, some did become doctors. I majored in English as an undergrad and studied journalism in grad school; my sister became a social worker. Some people may regard our career choices as a colossal Asian parenting failure, but my sister and I are doing meaningful work that we enjoy.

Still, it is easier to say this now that we are adults. It was painful growing up under the scrutiny of an entire network of overbearing Asian parents. I used to dread the large family gatherings where, after dinner, all the children would be summoned for an impromptu piano recital. On the way home, my mom would list all the amazing awards the other kids had achieved, as told by their mothers - math contests, science fairs, etc.

The pressure to excel is intense. "If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion," Chua says. "The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A."

I can relate to that. In seventh grade, I went through a rebellious period where I thought it was terribly uncool to care about grades and studying. It caught up to me when I got behind in my algebra class and midterm progress reports were sent out. I estimated when the mail would arrive and planned to intercept the envelope, the contents of which were sure to cause an epic parental reaction. When I got home - it was a Wednesday afternoon - my stomach lurched when I saw my father's car in the driveway. He happened to be home early that day, after taking the car in for repair. I walked in the door and saw a tall stack of math books piled on the living room coffee table. "Start on page one," my dad commanded. And that was before Mom arrived on the scene. It was a brutal several weeks.

"Chinese mothers get in the trenches," Chua says, "putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids." She shared her own experience of how she forced her young daughter to learn a difficult piano piece for a recital.

I remembered a piano recital of my own when I was in junior high. At one point, my fingers stumbled, but I quickly recovered. Too late. From the back of the room, I heard my mother cluck her tongue. After the recital, fuming, I told her I did not want her to attend any more of my piano performances. "Good," my mother shot back. "Then I won't have to hear any more of your mistakes."

In exchanging Moms with High Expectations stories with my friend Claire, a playwright, she laughed when I told her that one. "I'm using that!" she said. (See the story come to life in her upcoming theater production, Mother/Tongue, this month!)

Asian moms demand perfection from their children - and not just when it comes to school and piano. Image is important. “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty—lose some weight,’ ” Chua says.

Again, this resonates with me. Years ago, on a family trip to Taiwan, I had such severe food poisoning that I had to go to the emergency room. My mom was disgusted and impatient with me when I fretted over the shots the doctor prepared to administer. "Stop whining. Women your age give birth with less fuss," she said to me in Taiwanese. I was weak and dehydrated, having lost 10 pounds in four days. She added, "You look great, though".

So I'm a mother myself now, and I oscillate between Eastern and Western traditions, customs and values. My husband and I want to find a balance, but it's hard to do. Sometimes I find myself repeating my parents' words and actions. I hear myself using words like "sacrifice" and "responsibility" a lot. But I also do some things differently. I hug and kiss my kids a lot. I have high expectations for my children too, but above all, I want them to be healthy and happy.