My Tiger Mom Prepared Me for the Ultimate Sin: Not Being the Perfect Daughter

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Yup, my mom had workbooks so I could do extra studying.Photo: Jordin Althaus/ABC

In one of the first episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, Constance Wu’s Jessica Huang is suspicious that her kids have gotten high grades on their report cards because she doesn’t think they worked hard enough to earn them. She shows up at the school to complain and request that they be transferred into a gifted program, except no such program exists. Later, when she can’t find a Chinese Learning Center in Orlando, she refuses to be thwarted, and buys workbooks to teach her sons on her own. Jessica Huang reminds me of my mother and the majority of Chinese mothers I knew growing up in Brooklyn.

In 2011, when Amy Chua published the polarizing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, concerned (non-Chinese) parents everywhere collectively freaked out. In the book, Chua describes a wildly different approach to child-rearing than what’s often depicted on your typical American sitcom. This parenting style doesn’t prioritize building a child’s sense of self-esteem but on making sure the child meets solid metrics of success like conquering a difficult piano piece or getting straight A’s. Tiger kids aren’t praised for their achievements, and tiger parents never miss a chance to berate them for their academic “failures” (getting less than A’s). Showing proper respect for authority figures is held in high regard. In one pivotal scene from the book, Chua’s daughter Sophia disrespects her and Chua calls her “garbage.”

To many people who were not Chinese (or even just a child of immigrants), this method of parenting sounded excessive, if not borderline abusive. To my friends and I it was just normal — our way of life repackaged with a catchy new name. I bought the book at the time, curious about the uproar. Reading it made me feel deeply conflicted. I recognized a lot of the good things about my mother’s values, but I began to process the effects of my upbringing on my life as an adult. I realized I was both the daughter fighting her tiger mom and that I have internalized her ideas about my self-worth — essentially becoming my own inner tiger mom.

Growing up the only child of immigrants (my mother is ethnic Chinese by way of Burma, my father is from Hong Kong), I received a potent message from the moment I started kindergarten: You’re lucky to have been born in America — don’t screw it up. Get good grades, go to a top college, and above all else, find a stable job as a doctor. I have a distinct memory from the second grade: I’m sitting with a pile of math workbooks, attempting to learn complicated long division meant for a fifth-grade level on a Friday night at 7 p.m. I solve it only to have my mother make me do one after another, until the page is complete. Bedtime was at 9:30 p.m., because I’d have to leave for Chinese school at 7 a.m. the next day. That would last three hours, followed by another two hours of piano lessons — every Saturday for six years. No one ever asked me if I liked piano and it never occurred to me to ask myself. I never questioned the logic of this schedule, it was simply a fact of life among my Asian-American friends, as common as drinking lemon soju while underage in Koreatown or skipping school on the Lunar New Year.

We didn’t have much money, especially when it came to extracurricular activities. Throughout my elementary-school years, I lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly white, and I was constantly reminded of how poor we were. I didn’t take ballet lessons like the other girls in my fourth-grade class, much less go on summer vacations at Disney World or Busch Gardens. But what money we did have, my mom used to make sure that someday I wouldn’t have to feel this isolation. She hustled, first as a bookkeeper and then working the night shift at Victory Memorial Hospital as a nurse’s aide. My mom would use the money for extra workbooks, exam-prep classes, or Chinese summer school. When I complained, the carrot dangled before me was that if I worked hard enough, I wouldn’t struggle like she did. I could enjoy a vacation, live in a nice home, and have that stable, luxurious (by her standards) life.

And so I studied. In the sixth grade I passed an exam that gave me admission to Hunter College High School — one of the most competitive New York City schools. There I often stayed up all night studying even in seventh grade but especially during my sophomore and junior years. I ended up at Cornell University for undergrad, followed by a master’s degree from Harvard University with the assumption I’d apply to medical school right after. I lived in constant fear of failing, which to me meant not being in the top 10 percent of my class. Cornell was especially difficult. Premed students were graded on a curve, so even if I had done well on an exam, it would be graded in relation to how everyone else performed. I struggled through my first year — I’d cycle through sleeping too little or sleeping too much. I’d have panic attacks in the middle of my more difficult exams, where I’d hear a roar through my ears or break into a cold sweat. I barely maintained a 3.0 GPA. I managed to hide this “failure” from from my parents since report cards were electronic. But I knew I had to get my act together in the next three years, so I popped caffeine pills and smoked cigarettes to stay up studying. Even so, I had to go to graduate school to boost my overall GPA and have a realistic chance at medical school.

At the time I was deeply unhappy working as a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, about to apply to medical school. One of the questions on the application was “Why do you want to be a doctor?” Whenever an interviewer or adviser asked that of me, I’d slip into robot tiger child mode, and give an articulate, abstract reply about “wanting to help people.” But I knew the truth wasn’t so simple, and that I was merely living out my parents’ ideas about what I should be.

MCAT scores stay valid for three years. I had two left before I had to retake the exam. I was deeply miserable. My boyfriend at the time (also Chinese but raised with far more permissive parents), encouraged me to take six months off and pursue something I’d been too afraid to express an interest in: a career in fashion. He made me realize not all Chinese parents were as intense, and there was room to breathe and be true to myself. The worst thing that could happen, he argued, was that I would be unable to find a job (and prove my mom right). I could fall back on medical school but at least I would apply knowing that I tried another path. I saved all my earnings from the hospital and made a plan to move back to New York. Only now, I had to tell my parents.

Many screaming phone calls ensued when I broke the news that I would be leaving premed and trying to work in fashion. When their guilting didn’t change my mind, they cut me off financially and refused to speak to me until I “came to my senses.” They treated me like an ungrateful, horrible child throwing away all of their sacrifices. At her best, my mother said I should never tell any of their friends my chosen profession because it was shameful and reflected badly on them. At her worst, she screamed that I might as well have killed them and I should never visit their graves. I felt alone, scared, and resentful that they had so little faith in me. I spent many nights crying, wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t make everyone happy.

I vacillated between guilt and anger for the next year, though thankfully my closest friends and boyfriend provided me the emotional support I needed whenever I fell into my crying fits. With their help, I began to see the years of sacrifices I had made to please my folks — the many sleepovers I missed as a child, the intrusive phone calls to my friends and their parents to make sure I was sticking to that med-school path, not being permitted to do study abroad — as real losses that many of my white friends did not have to give up as they grew up. I realized I had to make decisions about my future that I could live with, presumably for the rest of my life.

We were in the ultimate tiger-parenting standoff, and I was determined to win. Every lesson I had absorbed about hard work stuck with me as I shifted my focus and began aggressively pursuing a new career. This time, instead of spending my nights cramming for an exam, I read obsessively through every thread on the Fashion Spot so I could study collections, photographers, and stylists. I sent email after email in hopes of landing an internship (despite having no relevant experience).

Eventually I wound up as a freelance assistant at the now defunct Lucky magazine. I continued to use my tiger-child tendencies to meticulously organize the editors’ fashion-month calendars — often staying all hours of the night to do so. When I started at New York and found myself writing blog posts, I would compare my originals to the edited pieces to see where I could have done better. I’d mentally praise or berate myself, based on how much was changed. My goal was to turn in a perfect article that required little to no editing.

After I had been working in fashion for five years, I read an essay by Wesley Yang called “Paper Tigers.” Yang explored the downside of being an Asian-American child raised by tiger parents, especially as adults making our way through the world. One line especially struck a nerve: “It is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that meritocracy comes to an abrupt end after graduation.” He was describing the bamboo ceiling — the Asian-American equivalent of the glass ceiling, where the behaviors drilled into our heads that led us to succeed academically in turn hold us back in the workforce. There’s a perception that we lack authority, leadership, and creativity because we’ve been taught to be high-achieving robots. All of the lessons my parents espoused, like blanket obedience to authority — don’t argue with your co-workers, don’t cause trouble — are not the qualities that get you promoted or earn you the covetable projects. There are times when I’m too quiet, afraid to speak up and question my superiors and create uncomfortable situations. When you’re raised feeling like you’re never good enough, how do you project the confidence required to get ahead? I see myself in the kids turned adults who work hard and quietly toil away, finding themselves ignored when it comes to moving to the next step in their careers. It’s not healthy to always find yourself relentlessly pursuing perfection in order to please authority figures.

Tiger parenting makes it hard to ask for help and even harder to admit defeat in life. I can be my own worst enemy. Self-doubt circulates in my head all the time and I constantly aspire to be more perfect: I could have found better clothes for a shoot, I could have thought up a more creative approach, I could have been funnier, smarter, more clever — the list never ends. Now that my life isn’t measured by a grade, I search for other metrics like page views or Instagram likes to validate my work and obsessively pursue bigger, better numbers.

Sometimes I default into tiger-mom mode with my friends in ways that can be alienating, but I can’t help myself. I can blurt things out that echo the harsh way my mom spoke to me as a child without even realizing the weight of my words. It also means I have little patience for people complaining about their circumstances. You find a project annoying but you’re stuck working on it? Suck it up. Think a project could be better but you only half-assed it? Go and fix it. I set high expectations for those around me because I have the same for myself — even if it makes me unlikable at times. But I suppose that’s the entire point of being a tiger mom.

In his acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards this year, Master of None writer Alan Yang ended by saying, “Asian parents out there, if you could just do me a favor: If just a couple of you can get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.” It got me thinking — if my mom had applied her tiger zeal toward supporting me in what I wanted to do in life, what could I have achieved? If my friends, some of whom express ambivalence over their career paths, were given more choices, where would they be? Could we live the elusive immigrant dream, but on our own terms?

If you asked me 20 years ago how I expected my life trajectory to go, I would have told you college, med school, become a doctor. But that’s not how things went. I am not the rich medical professional my mother hoped for, though I am economically more secure than my parents, and I am able to enjoy life more than she was. I’d like to say we have a good relationship, but we don’t. Something broke between us when I declared my independence. She still believes I could become a doctor and berates me every so often because she thinks I work too much for too little money. When I ended her dream and began my own, we endured a fraught cold war over the course of the first two years where she’d go from screaming and threatening to not speak to me again to calling me like nothing happened. It could be days or weeks between calls; the longest was two months. All I could do was turn the other cheek because I knew that therapy, the best way to solve this problem, was not in the picture. It would trigger another blowout, because the last thing my mother wanted was for others to hear our dirty laundry. Plus, in her mind, she wasn’t doing anything wrong.

I think a lot about what I would do if I choose to have children, and I’m deeply ambivalent about becoming a parent. Besides the fact that my mother would command a presence in their life, I’m terrified of turning into her. I look at my internal monologue and the offhand comments I make to friends, and I see the effects of her parenting. I worry I’ll be as overly involved, demanding, and strict. But then I think about what I’d truly want: for my kids to work hard toward their happiness, whatever that may be, even if there are unpleasant bumps along the road. And maybe this self-awareness is how you survive growing up a tiger cub.