I sent you a quick text two days ago, wishing you Happy Mother’s Day. I didn’t say anything else, because at that time, I wasn’t sure what else to say.
You know that saying “I love you” doesn’t come easy in our culture, and the relationship between a Tiger Mom and a Tiger Cub is extremely complex. After thinking about it, I’ve penned this letter with all my sweet, sour, bitter feelings － the 酸甜苦辣 (suān tián kǔ là) as you would say.
Giving a child a cross-cultural upbringing must’ve been difficult. You had to reconcile the caring, gentle approach you observed from Western mothers with the harsh way you were raised. Coming from a country of 1.3 billion people, you understood that it took a lot of extra work just to stand out from the crowd.
People are always so quick to judge your parenting style, but I think it’s because they don’t understand.
I still remember how shocked those Western mothers were when you pinched my belly and unapologetically declared that I was eating too much (or too little.) Or how you had to decline an invitation to a sleepover or birthday party because I didn’t get that A in Math class. And how my weekends were constantly occupied with Chinese lessons for kids, extra Math lessons, and supplementary Science lessons – not because I’d fallen behind in those subjects, but because you wanted me to surge beyond my peers.
I know I had it easier than many of my “tiger cub” friends. You were also quick to remind me that at every instant: “Alice’s mom makes her practice piano for three hours a day!” or “Jessica took Chinese lessons every day and got a 100% on her essay!” It certainly made my 98% look unacceptable.
Some assumed that the strict way you raised me would lead to depression or low-self-esteem, or make me socially inept. Well, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Your blunt criticism and authoritarian approach hardened me and made me stronger. I never went through the “teenage rebellion” years. I never did drugs or got mixed up with the wrong crowd. I did get into one fight, but that was because you taught me to stand up for myself and to never let myself be bullied.
If anything, the way you raised me taught me to be independent. To prioritize. As I grew older, you granted me more leniencies to do the things I wanted – after I finished piano practice, that is.
And you were right to take away certain privileges when I didn’t do well in school, because if you’d let me have my way, I’m sure I would’ve skirted through school lazily. I probably would have never had the privilege of attending a prestigious U.S university if it hadn’t been for you.
I'm sure you know that I’ve resented your parenting style from time to time as well. You and Dad both have Science PhDs, but I was always the artsy, creative one in the family. And I understand how frustrating it was for you when I declared that I wanted to write for a living.
You told me just as much. If I remember correctly, your exact words were, “You want to be a writer? You’ll be living on the streets in a cardboard box and your father and I won’t bail you out of jail.”
(I never understood how being a writer suddenly equated to being homeless and a criminal, but you always exaggerated to get your point across. I now find it endearing.)
I know you had other sky-high hopes for me. You wanted me to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. The Asian “holy trinity” of careers.
That’s what your parents did for you, after all. They dictated your futures and your careers. Knowing the hardships of U.S immigrants, you and Dad wisely targeted your education towards more lucrative, stable professions. I know you only wanted to make it easier for me.
But Tiger Mom, you’ve already made it easier for me. Raising me as a cross-cultural, bilingual child is possibly the smartest thing you’ve ever done. That alone has greatly contributed to my success. My unique understanding of Chinese language, heritage, and culture has set me apart from others. I now know the true value of being fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
My work ethic was inspired by you. For the past two decades, I’ve seen you toil endlessly to give me a better life, a better future. Penny by penny, you achieved your American dream.
So, thank you. Thank you for giving me the freedom to achieve mine. (Within reason.)
Do I wish that you'd let me study Creative Writing in college instead? Some days I do, especially when I’m finding it difficult to churn out an eloquently written article. But honestly, you’ve given me the best education and skill set I could’ve asked for. If I were raising a Tiger Cub of my own, I don’t think I would’ve done anything different.
(Except for summer school. I know you thought it was good for my education, but Mom, it was brutal.)