The Chinese parent
by David Weinshilboum
My mother is a tiny thing. She is five feet tall in high heels and has a fragile frame. Underneath her large, owl-like glasses, her eyes seem to be in a constant state of merriment.
Her looks, however, belie her bulldog nature. She is Chinese, and her culture significantly influenced her parenting strategies. Her expectations are high; her candor unlimited. She was hands-on, pushing me to improve myself. At times she expected more than I could give.
Needless to say, mom drove me crazy when I was a teenager.
She would use Chinese parables to make her point. When I would forget to put my dirty clothes in the laundry, she would utter a Chinese phrase that I didn’t understand then say, “Don’t be the one to leave a tail, David-ah.” When my report cards would come in all A’s save one B, she would focus on the B. “Straight A’s takes the strength of two water buffalo and three tigers,” she would say, her head shaking back and forth.
Unsurprisingly, I rebelled. I would curse in front of her in an attempt to shock her.
“Is that saying a real Chinese saying or is it just some bullshit line you made up?”
My mother, accustomed to politesse, had trouble responding to vulgar language. She unsuccessfully tried to fight fire with fire.
“David-ah, do not make fun of my parables or I will shit on you!”
I swore to myself that when I had kids, I would parent differently than my mother.
Even after I left college and began my career, my mother’s expectations remained high. Luckily, as a young man, I had begun to accept my mom’s personality. When I was a journalist (with a master’s degree) she urged me to obtain a doctoral degree, never mind that no doctoral degree in journalism existed at the time! Showing a modicum of maturity, I would usually ignore my mother’s comments.
One day, however, I was thin on patience. I didn’t need to hear how my schooling was lacking. “Ma,” I blurted out. “There’s no such THING as a PhD in journalism!”
Mom calmly digested my retort, gave a moment’s thought, and replied, “So?”
She wants me to do the impossible, I told myself. She wants me to obtain a degree that doesn’t exist. The days following our little exchange left me muttering to myself: Why does she demand so much of me? Can I ever meet her expectations? No doubt, my youthful experiences influenced these negative thoughts that swam about my mind.
*** *** ***
Just last week, my mother travelled halfway across the country to see my family and me. It was a nice visit. She was in town for a week and had a chance to spend time with the grandkids — my sons Alex and Merret. In many ways, her stay was uneventful: we didn’t do anything exciting. We just spent time together as a family. Mom urged me to get Merret, my 2-year-old, to speak in sentences more often. She told me I needed to improve my diet — and she’d tsk-tsk me when I ate dessert. She chastised me for not shaving every single day.
Her remarks didn’t bother me in the least.
Of course, I’m older, and have kids of my own. I actually understand my mother now. When she wanted me to attain a degree that didn’t exist, it wasn’t about my educational shortcomings — it reflected what I was capable of doing. She believed that I could alter the world, mold it to meet my needs. She had that much faith in me — more faith than I’ve ever had in myself.
Though I do my best to temper myself, I sometimes remind my eldest son to pick up the trash he leaves on the floor. I push him to do his best in school. And when he asks whether he can be an architect when he grows up, I tell him he can do anything he wants —t hough it might take the strength of two water buffalo and three tigers.
(David Weinshilboum, who tries combine patience and high expectations in his parenting, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)