I personally am not a big fan of the title of this week’s post. The reason I use it is because it came from an article in The Wall Street Journal, which is not only controversial, but also very disturbing.
I had lunch with my buddy a few days ago. We dined alfresco at a Thai restaurant in Hardware Lane, spending the hour telling each other stories from our trips, laughing at some of the outrageousness of our experiences. Towards the end of lunch, after the glasses have been filled, emptied and re-filled several times with water, she mentioned an article a co-worker had posted on his Facebook, asking people what their views were on the subject. She briefly told me about the article and immediately my interest was piqued.
“Send the link to me,” I said before we both rose from our seats to pay. That afternoon, she emailed me the link. When I clicked on it and had it opened on my computer, the first thing that stirred something within me was the title itself – Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. My eyeballs raced across the screen from left-to-right, and then left again, running across and then downwards almost too frantically. Sitting in front of the computer reading those words, I saw my mother and episodes from my childhood before my eyes, and it awakened feelings of angst and resentment that I thought I had banished to the dungeons of my past.
Asian parents, in general, parent very differently relative to their Western counterparts. This, I agree. Even amongst Asian parents, the model of parenting varies depending on upbringing and the school system in which they came from. My parents both came from a Chinese school system, where corporal punishment is the acceptable form of disciplinary model. And that was how it was in our household – we were very Asian and very conventional in more ways than one. Most of what I remember of my childhood consisted of the image of my mother standing over me with a rattan cane in her hand, her eyebrows bunched together and her lips in a tight line. There were a lot of yelling, a lot of “Why are you so stupid?”, and a lot of hitting. Even the teachers knew not to ask what I had done wrong when I showed up in school the next day, limping, with swollen purple gashes on my calves. This went on until I had learned my lesson to not cry when I was hit no matter how painful it was, to stand very still and be quiet when I was yelled at, and to just do as I was told even if I didn’t agree with it. All through those years, I accepted that that was how it was – that children would be punished unless they were obedient and perfect. And I wasn’t perfect, so the best that I could do to stay out of trouble was to keep to myself as much as I could.
I remember a moment when I was fifteen years old and didn’t know any better, when a group of friends and I were sitting around talking about our childhood, and I told them that my mother had several rattan canes lying around the house so that there was always one within easy reach if she needed it. I had found that comical at that time so I laughed at it myself but that comment left them aghast. Their eyes widened in disbelief and their jaws dropped in horror. It came as a rude shock to me when they told me that, unlike my parents, theirs have never raised their voices, let alone a rattan cane or a leather belt at them for not getting the grades that they were supposed to in school. I remember feeling very shortchanged, and very envious of my friends, wishing that I had grown up in their households instead of mine. That was when I realised, that being beaten up was not the norm, that being yelled at and called names were not the accepted convention for raising children, that instead of one filled with hurt, anger and resentment, there was a place where a childhood could be a happy one. It was from that moment onwards, that I started to suffer from the realisation that I was dealt the short end of the stick compared to my friends.
As I read that article, I could see a lot of my mother in the author – Amy Chua. My mother used to yell at my younger sister when she came home with a 98% score in her mathematics exam. She yelled at her for not getting the 2% to make it a perfect 100. She used to call me names, yelled at me because I was stupid – even stupider than a potato, brainless as it is. She used to wail about how much harder her life became after I was born. And she cursed God and wondered what she had done in her past life to deserve a child like me. I often thought, in those moments, that I hadn’t asked to be born, and if I had known that my existence would cause her that much suffering, I would not have chosen to exist. She constantly compared me to my brother, to my older sister, to my cousin, to anyone she could think of, and criticized me about my flaws – about me being stupid and lazy, being slow, about how lacking I was compared to them. Even though all that did move me to study harder and to be better, I always felt that in her eyes, I was never good enough. And no matter what I did, she would never love me as much as she loves my brother and my older sister.
After reading the article, I felt compelled to respond. And so I did. I wrote to tell the author about the other side of the story – the side that parents don’t know about, the one that comes from the child’s perspective. I told her that I saw a lot of my mother in her words. I told her how my mother used to raise me, and how I became depressed when I was 15 years old. I was trapped in a depression closet and suffered for twelve long years, feeling that I was never good enough and that my life was insignificant. I told her I left home the first chance I had when I was 17, moved overseas when I was 19 and never turned back. I made sure that I had a barrier of a few thousand miles separating me from my family because I was tired of having to listen to my mother criticizing me and comparing me to other people – about how much weight I have to lose to be as skinny as my cousin, how much I should be making to be as successful as the other kid in my class – who didn’t do all that well academically etc etc etc. I was tired of having to answer questions like why I’m not making more money, why I wasn’t promoted, why I don’t have a boyfriend etc. because the answers inevitably would lead to because I’m not good enough.
I believe that there are no hard and fast rules to parenting, that every child needs to be raised in the way that supports him or her. Whilst the Asian way of parenting may work for many Asians, it didn’t work for me. Even though I eventually excelled at school and did really well in extracurricular activities, there was a gaping hole in my life. I felt that no one understood me, and no one appreciated me for who I was and what my true gifts and talents were. I was a lone ranger, an anti-social who preferred to spend time in my own company than in others, and through experience, learned that I didn’t have a strong bond with anyone – not my family and definitely not my school mates. It wasn’t until after I left home that I started to meet people who shared similar values as I do, when I began to feel that maybe I wasn’t a misfit after all. It took many years for me to reach the point of realization that I had grown up, that my parents no longer had power over me, that they are not always right, and my life was mine to live in any way I want. I realized that the power of choice was in my hands, and that even though in life, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. So, I made a choice. I chose to exit the vicious circle of not-being-good-enough and end the suffering that I had been drowning in for way too long.
I re-visited the book The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran last week. In it he wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” When I was in Stephen Pierce’s home in Whitney, Texas in the summer of 2008, I read a quote on one of the opened books on his shelves which said, “Don’t prepare the path for the child, prepare the child for the path.” I had an image in my mind where, before I was born, God had a conversation with me and told me that He had a mission for me, and that He had assigned my parents to me as part of my preparation to carry out His mission. I accepted that this was the life that I was meant to live and everything that has happened was part of the plan to prepare me for whatever it was that I had to deliver on.
Perhaps Amy’s two daughters may not have to go down the path that I took as a result of my upbringing, perhaps they had a happy childhood, perhaps they genuinely loved playing the violin and the piano. After having read her article, and after reflecting on my own experience, I think the question of whether or not Asian mothers are superior is one that does not have a black and white answer. If superiority was defined by academic excellence, then perhaps the answer is ‘Yes’. But if superiority was defined by other less quantifiable, less tangible outcome such as the closeness of the mother-daughter relationship, then my experience would tell me that the answer is ‘No’. Either way, from where I’m sitting, it seems to me that the article is nothing more than a publicity stunt for the up-coming release of her book. To read Amy’s original article on The Wall Street Journal, go HERE.
To mothers everywhere – Asian or otherwise,
Copyright © Chiao Kee Lim 2011
No part of this article may be reproduced or re-posted without the author’s permission.