An Unconventional Upbringing

This is Wendy. She’s not a regular mom. She’s a cool mom.

I feel bad for the children I may or may not someday give birth to, because they’ll never know what it’s like to be raised by a Chinese mother. They won’t get the opportunity to experience toughness, love and compassion in their respective, purest forms. My mom brought me up with these three guiding principles in mind — which don’t exactly follow aspects of the immigrant mom narrative through which Chinese mothers have been typecast. Consider, for example, the Tiger Mom. Amy Chua’s label, which incited massive hubbub back in 2011 when an excerpt of her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” was published by the Wall Street Journal, infuriated so-called “Western mothers” who were horrified by accounts of harsh, heartless Chinese moms describing their children as “trash” and making them practice piano for up to three hours a day.

“Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother. This is so wrong,” Chua wrote. “Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.”

All of these classifications are 100% true, and I can provide anecdotes from my upbringing to supplement them. I used to grow irate by my mom’s tendency to side with my teachers, admonishing me for situations that went down in the classroom I swore weren’t my fault. In elementary school, an A- on my report card sent me running down Manila Avenue, eager to show mom how well I’d done. Instead, I was met with a short, “Next time, get an A+.” Any time a neighbor or friend commented on how I was growing into a beautiful young woman! Or how polite I was! Mom would simply look at me, smile and nod. It was too dangerous to compliment me publicly. She didn’t want my head to get too big, nor did she want to provide too much praise, worried the subject of such blatant and puffed-up adoration would be struck down.

Perfection and success were paramount in mine and my sister’s upbringing. We simply had to be the best at anything we did. There were no other questions or exceptions to that end. And in this way, mom was very much a Tiger Mother.

But despite mom fulfilling many of the stereotypes of a “typical” Chinese mother, I feel I am doing her a disservice by putting her in this, frankly, limiting light. There is also, in my estimation, no archetypal mother, one who raises her children in exactly the same way as another mom. There are only certain traits and values that are learned culturally, then passed on to the offspring.

My mom is a deeply emotional and complex person — enigmatic, passionate, fiercely protective and, above all, private. Sometimes I look at her and feel as though I do not fully know her. In short, she is a Scorpio.

In more lengthy terms: she loves nature, and appreciates particularly the rings on trees stumps, tufts of moss, small blue flowers and all kinds of birds. Last year, we went on a hike together at Muir Woods. Halfway through the trek, she insisted we were in the midst of a “forest bath!,” referencing the Shinrin-yoku practice of taking in a forest’s atmosphere as a form of therapy. From that point on, she didn’t refer to our trip any other way. I realized she was immensely calmed by the presence of natural life on earth — what is, perhaps, an extension of god.

Growing up, mom frequently reminded me that I needed a “thicker skin.” “Max, you need to toughen up.” That was another cornerstone lesson for my life. In adulthood I have found mom truly meant it, and hoped I’d adopt that hardened attitude in my dealings with the rest of the world. But it wasn’t because she herself was impervious to emotion. Quite the opposite. Mom is highly tuned in to the depth of feeling in most situations. She recognized strength in society — especially for a young woman — was essential for success. Sensitivity and striving toward triumph, qualities seemingly at odds in Chinese culture, were ingredients in a recipe that mom cooked up and served to me and Oona with lots of love. It’s just how we were brought up. Perhaps I’m not mourning my future children missing out on the hilarity, uniqueness and great stories that come along with having an immigrant mother. Maybe I just think it’s a shame they won’t get to be raised by my mom.