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.


Chris said...

Lisa, you write really well.

Karna Converse said...

Wow. This is beautiful and very insightful. I hope you're writing something now, xxx years out of college, to continue the knife metaphor.

Brenna said...

That was a fantastic read.

Anonymous said...


From a Case alum ('94)

Cecilia said...

Wow, I can relate to your whole story, all the way down to wishing my mom was Carol Brady (senior year in high school I wrote a poem for our literary magazine entitled "I wish I was Marcia Brady") and being an English major despite my parents' wishes I had become an engineer ;-)

Thanks for sharing this essay. I get all the frustration, guilt, gratitude, etc. that go with every word...

I haven't been able to find or read too many blogs of Asian American women/mothers and I am glad to have found yours. I'll be poking around...

Lisa said...

Thanks for your kind comments, everyone! Karna, thank you for the encouragement - I think I will write about this again, now that I'm, gulp, close to 20 years out of college and a mother myself. Cecilia, we Asian American English majors should form a support group. :)

Anonymous said...

Terrific essay, Lisa. A vivid, enlightening portrait of child, mother, and cultural divide.

Beautifully and sparely written. You press the knife metaphor just exactly hard enough. More, more.


Lisa said...

Great essay, Lisa! Your posts alway leave me wanting to read more, and I can't wait to hear what you think now that you are a mother, too.

janet said...

Oh Lisa - This was great. And I think it reveals a lot about you now. You are the woman who scratched out the 5s on a job evaluation when your boss he didn't give 5s. I'm sure I'm exaggerating the quote, but I can picture you saying "I don't think you understand. I get 5s!"