• 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 weinshd@crc.losrios.edu)

      • Judy N

      • July 22, 2012 at 10:26 am
      • Reply

      I liked this a lot. Really an evocative portrait of your mother. I lvoe the parables. Did you read Tiger Mother? I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

    • Loved this David. Your cultural exchange with your Mom and now you son is what life and family and parenting is all about.

      • David Weinshilboum

      • July 22, 2012 at 11:36 pm
      • Reply

      @Judy: I did read Tiger Mother, and it felt like I was witnessing a train wreck. Let me explain: Amy Chua wrote the book seemingly to explain Chinese parenting, to critique the American approach to parenting. I have no problem with that. I abhor America’s low expectations (I believe the California high-school exit exam requires students to read and write at the 9th grade level.) But Chua’s parenting is NOT representative of the Chinese way. It’s extreme, regardless of culture. I really believe that she wrote the book as a way to rationalize her parenting, and some of her parenting is quite horrific. As for the aforementioned train wreck, I was referring to Chua’s future relationship with her two daughters.I was pleased when my mother–who hadn’t read the book but read excerpts–described Chua as a “tyrant.”

      Long-winded, but my 2 cents!

      • David Weinshilboum

      • July 22, 2012 at 11:37 pm
      • Reply

      @ Madge
      I agree completely. I can only hope that my experience as a grandfather (still years and years away) will be just as rewarding!

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