The Journey of a Tiger Child and Beyond (guest article)
Guest article written by "anonymous"
October 2012 (postdoc)
In this poignant guest article, the author reflects on her upbringing in an overbearing Asian household and the lasting consequences of her childhood experiences.
This guest article is an email sent to me by a medical school student in response to reading articles such as Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents. She wanted me to publish her email verbatim, so I have done so here. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
Dear Dr. Philip Guo,
I read your articles and other peoples' responses to the topic "Overbearing Asian parents". Here is my response, my story, my saga, per se - my experience of what it was like. I know that you are a very busy person at Google, but if you have about 10-15 minutes, please look over this. This is my story of what it's like to go through the experience, and the outcomes that happened as a result. I wrote this in one setting [sic], and am sending it to you right away, with few corrections, because I feel that this would give a more visceral, raw evocation of the events that transpired. Please feel free to post my response on your website; nay, if it is okay, please post it. I really would love for the world to hear of this response and what really happened.
Note: I am currently a first-year medical student. I graduated from college with high honors, was the valedictorian of my college, and am what many of the community members of my hometown Asian community call "a success". I, however, have a slightly different view.
Here it is:
After reading your articles and other students' responses, a whole wave of emotions swept over me. It was as if I was living a vivid, profound, detail-rich nightmare that at the same time felt eons away. It was something I will definitely never forget.
I came to the States at the age of 5. My parents, being first-generation East Asian immigrants, did not know about American culture, so naturally, they raised me in the only culture they knew of - East Asian culture. Looking back, I know that they wanted the best for me. They used the "magic formula" that they found worked for them back in the East - focus strictly on studies, don't play sports, play the violin, do tons of extracurricular activities, study for the SATs, etc.
I remember the first time I got into an argument with my parents. I was in the 2nd grade and was the star of my class; that is, academically. However, I had gotten a bad grade on a Saturday Chinese school math test, and my parents were yelling at me for not understanding the math behind it. I remember trying to voice my thoughts, again and again, about why it was so frustrating - I didn't understand it, it was hard, and I wanted to play like all of my other friends at school. What did my parents say, or rather, yell? "You're going to be a janitor! You can't even make it into community college! You're a failure! You failed the reason why we came to the States! You're not my daughter!" etc.
Of course, eventually, I broke down. I admitted my mistakes and vowed to study harder. And I did, and eventually I made better grades.
But since that time, I remember that just about every 2 to 3 weeks, another one of these shouting matches would happen, along with slaps and pinches. I was so angry, that I would have to withstand such things and learn things that were taught in the 5th grade while my friends were still playing outside. I remember looking forward to school as a form of respite; summers were when the actual work happened, when I really learned more than normal.
Throughout all of this, though, I learned to grow up faster. I started babysitting myself when I was 5. When I was 8, I became a second mom to my younger brother, changing his diapers, teaching him how to brush his teeth, do addition and subtraction, etc.
During the sixth grade, my family had moved to a new city and I had just started middle school. Remember those stories of being bullied and popular kids excluding the unpopular kids and everything? Well, quite naturally, that happened to me. I was singled out - ridiculed by both my classmates and my teachers, for being unpopular, for being poor, for being nerdy with glasses and braces, etc etc etc. I begged my mom to buy me a new pair of jeans, for the only two pairs I had were for boys, and they did not fit well (I was going through puberty at the time) and I looked ridiculous in them. I so longed for a pair of bell-bottoms.
"Cut off the boy jean tags! You're not getting more clothes! Don't think about clothing! Think about school and your studies!"
I hated school and my life even more because of my grades. I was in a pretty discriminatory school in middle school - with the teachers favoring the rich Caucasian kids - and my grades suffered as a result. I got 2 B's in the sixth grade. My parents were furious. How on earth did I get such low grades? Naturally, the whole Asian parenting treatment just got worse. The stereotype goes "A = Average, B= Beating, C = Crap, D = Death, F = F*%(ed". Well, it was basically Death for me. I was not allowed to play anymore, I was not allowed to do fun things with my friends. I was confined and basically doomed. My parents would say, everyday, "You're going to become a janitor! You're never going to Harvard! You can't even get into the local community college! You're a failure!" I would cry all the time because in school, I was miserable. At home, I was even more miserable.
I did eventually make better grades. In the 7th grade, I was moved into a group of students who were mostly Asians, and the discriminatory factor appeared to be much less. I made great grades. I actually made 100s, straight 100s, on all of my report cards. I started studying for the SAT Reasoning Test in the 7th grade. Yet my parents still called me a failure. I was never going to get into a good college. I was doomed for eternal academic and monetary Hades.
I remember this distinct incident in the 7th grade when there was an orchestra field trip. It was going to be a week-long trip for the advanced orchestra, and I had really wanted to go. I saw the other kids board the bus for the across-the-state trip, and told my mom, as I getting in the car, "I really wish I could go."
"No! You don't deserve to go! You are a failure! You will never be as successful as those kids (Asian kids A, B, and C) and you don't deserve anything! They got better grades than you did and you will never be as good as them! Shut up!"
Of course I cried. I cried and cried and cried. I was inconsolable. The ironic thing was, at that point in time, I actually got higher grades than those kids.
Eventually, I just became a broken person. I was super depressed during middle school in general. I got perfect grades, I learned things, I became the captain of my school's math team, and I didn't know Algebra well but I eventually learned it. Sadly though, after every competition, if I didn't get a medal or award, I would be chastised by my parents, terminating into a lecture session with my dad about what I should do - aka a practice math routine/ritual - in order to get more awards.
Then, just before the 9th grade, I transferred school districts.
I remember going to the pre-9th grade orientation. There was a girl there (an Asian girl, who turned out to be one of the people in my class) who stated, "I want to be valedictorian." Wow, I thought. I could never become like her.
By this time, I had become a person who was broken. Completely broken. No, wait - not necessarily. I resolved to myself that my parents were always going to lecture me, always going to have high expectations for me. But what if I performed above their expectations? I resolved to myself that the only way I could redeem myself was if I became valedictorian, or at least tried to get as high of grades as I could to become valedictorian. If I got perfect grades, and exceeded their expectations, then at least I would get them to shut up.
So, from the 9th grade onward, all I did was strive for every minute detail on every test, strive to learn everything, get the highest GPA possible. Every time my parents stated anything about my grades, all I would do was say "I'm getting high enough grades, so don't tell me what to do, you should be satisfied!"
We ranked every semester - that is, class rankings. After the first semester, I was rank #1. My parents finally shut up.
I continued to work as hard as I did, however. I continued to be #1. By this time, my parents just simply told me, "get enough sleep". I just didn't listen to them, and told them "I'm stupid! I can't do anything! It takes me 4X as long as everyone else to learn just 1/2 of what they know!" Everything. I was just broken. People would say, "you're so smart!" and "you're so brilliant!"
"No", I would reply. "I'm stupid and I have to take 4X as long to learn 1/2 of what you know."
I took 14 AP exams, I believe, in total. I was valedictorian. I got an almost perfect score on the SAT Reasoning test, and several perfect and almost-perfect scores on 5 SAT Subject tests. I performed about 1,000 hours of volunteer service, I was the president of X club, treasurer of Y organization, historian of Z society, etc etc etc. I won lots of awards in math and science, and quiz bowl as well. I got scholarships from several national organizations and was featured on newspapers in my community. I became known as a local celebrity among other students who were below my grade. I was a National Merit Scholar and got into a joint baccalaureate-MD program. I was a superstar.
All the while, inside, I felt like a failure.
I made a very comparatively banal graduation speech. It was censored because during previous years the speeches had been pretty acerbic and derogatory to the school. But that was okay. I had my moment. The moment I became valedictorian, I just cried. It was as if my life was vindicated, that all I had gone through during those years was worth it, or at least, the sacrifice had paid off. I felt as if I was beginning to heal.
A few days after I graduated, I went back to my old middle school - the very one I once was bullied, heckled, and humiliated at. There, in the building, I shook my fist at the ceiling and cried, just cried, thinking of how hard I had worked and what I had done, that it didn't matter that I was hurt so much - that I became a successful person, was going to go to a great college, and would have a successful life. I spent a brilliant summer visiting the East Coast, not thinking about school. My mom had complained about my weight and how I was too fat and unattractive and everything (according to East Asian standards) but at that point, it seemed like stress was starting to come off, at least a little bit, and I lost about 10 pounds that summer.
I came into college knowing that I was already accepted into medical school, so I did not worry about it. All I did was try to work hard. It was during this time that I started hating my parents; really hating my parents. I had never been able to really associate with my classmates, people who were outside of the East Asian culture, apart from at school. I didn't even know how to properly use a fork and knife. I initially talked, acted, etc in the manners that were dictated by East Asian culture of a girl - demure, submissive, deflecting conflict, being humble, etc. But it didn't work. I had to learn American, true American, culture, from scratch. I hated my parents for never giving me the chance to learn the things my classmates had learned - how to communicate in this world, how to survive in such a world.
I distinctly remember during orientation week, when some of my classmates were talking about what we were going to do once we got out of college. Other people stated, "I want to have a good life", "I want to start a business", "I want to become an engineer", etc. What did I say? "I want to make enough money to make my parents happy, to pay them back for all of the hard work they did." My classmates were so astonished; it was as if I was brainwashed into the East Asian mindset.
College is where I grew up.
I remember that this was the period of time when I barely talked to my parents. I would just not pick up their calls. When I did talk to them, especially my mom, if she mentioned something that was even the least bit confrontational or conflicting, I would just retort back with "I'm doing well in college, I got into my bacc-MD program, I gave you the glory of the community, etc, so that should be enough." Literally. That's what I said. I remember hanging up on my parents a lot on the phone. I know that it was wrong of me to do so, but I was just so fed up with the system. I was trying to escape my past. I was trying to let go of painful memories and move onto the future.
When I did go home, I would often cry to my parents about my painful past in middle school and high school and everything. "Why can't you just forget about it? It's so long ago". Of course my parents said this. But it was just too vivid - all of the painful memories came back and things were so painful, so tiring, so exhausting, so overwhelmingly depressing.
I became a lot less stressed during college, especially knowing that I was already accepted to medical school. I didn't even need to take the MCAT. But the inherent learning drive that I had picked up throughout my life under the tyranny of my parents was still there, still rooted, still instilled in me. Like a "proper Asian", I worked hard and did more than my share. I joined several clubs, and volunteered extensively. I got not one, not two, but three degrees. I graduated in the top 10% of my class, and made Phi Beta Kappa. I did a honors senior thesis. I was a good kid.
But, like I stated previously, it was during this time that I had started hating my parents. I wouldn't listen to them. I was angry; nay, furious at them for everything. I was furious at my mother for putting me through all of that stress and "ruining" my life. I was furious at them for depriving me of a proper childhood, for never letting me enjoy it. I hated them. And even more, I hated the fact that they let my brother have sleepovers, go fishing, play basketball, etc when I never got to. I was furious that my parents would always complain about the cost of violin lessons for me, and about how little I practiced everyday (30 min to an hour, at most) while if my brother practiced piano for 30 minutes, they would be happy, although his lessons cost twice that of mine.
Granted, by this time, my family was in a better financial situation, but it still didn't seem fair.
Going back, I would often get mad at my parents, asking them why did they ruin my life. Don't you regret what you did? Do you see the damage you've done to me? What you've made my life into? The thing is, my mom states that she doesn't regret it - that she's not sorry, that she did the best she could, that in her eyes as an immigrant it seemed like the only route to take, and that it worked, and that now that she understood American culture better, she adapted and taught my brother more in that style.
She would say "good job!" to my brother. So would my dad. I never got that. All I would get is "finally you didn't fail" instead.
My mom states that a big reason of why she is raising my brother in this manner is because she doesn't want another kid hating her. That she would rather have a kid who would go to a local or state school who still liked her rather than a kid who went to an Ivy League but hated her. And that makes me even more mad - that she was looser for my brother than she ever was for me.
And now though, I hated my dad as well. I talked to him many times, and told him that he could tell how my mom was treating me, and how unfair it was and how temperamental she was. And what I was even more angry at him was that he never did anything about it, and just sided with her. What was his response? I have to keep the family together. Great. He sacrificed my happiness, my sanity, my confidence, my life for my mother's. Well, okay, I guess. I guess that's true.
I am now in my first year of medical school. I graduated from college. One my [sic] say that I am going to medical school to please my parents. Well, no. Perhaps partially. Yes, it is one of the professions that is "approved" by Asian families for children to go into. However, I am going into medicine because I want to. I first really was inspired to go into it by my 9th grade biology teacher. She is one of the best people I have ever known, and has always been my staunch advocate. We are still friends to this day.
I still live about 30 min away from my parents. But what is my goal? I want to match into a residency out of state. Away from my parents. Away from this whole hullabaloo of a mess. I told my mom this, and what did she say? "You're so selfish, all you want to do is go away after everything we've done for you." Well, mom, I've got to say. You hurt me too much. I need to go away, to grow up.
Of course, I didn't say this to her. I said, instead, "just like you moved from China to the United States, and truly grew up here, I need to make my own journey and grow up to see life by myself as well."
I told her I might come back home when I become an attending, an actual doctor, but I don't think I will.
Right now, what is going on? Well, I had a beautiful 6-month relationship with a boy who I went to high school with, who I went to college with. I broke up with him because my parents didn't approve of him. They felt that he was not enough of a man, that he wasn't mature enough. Pity. He was the only person who truly understood what I was going through - the situation I grew up in, why I acted the way I did, why my mannerisms were the way they were, and still are. He loved me and accepted me for what I was, and was flexible. He wanted to propose to me, after I finished med school.
Perhaps that is never meant to be.
I know, it sounds sad and all. But the thing is that my parents don't control my life anymore. Just the other day he told me he still loves me. Coincidentally, he is currently working in the same state/regional area I want to match to for residency. We keep in contact regularly, and talk, and everything. I tell him about my frustrations, joys, sorrows, and struggles of med school, and he tells me about work and his life. Perhaps we will end up together. After all, it is I who will be the person who gets married, not my parents.
And, at the same time, my parents pressure me to date people, to look for and find other people, etc. What the heck? During middle school and high school, they told me that boys didn't exist, and for me to not think about them. Now, they just expect me to "know how to date" and go out and find someone." I had a person, who loved me, who accepted me, who knew me, and was willing to be with me. And they took it away.
I'm growing teary just thinking about this.
Right now, the plan is to just finish med school, pass everything, and match into the residency of my choice. Hopefully. To get as far away from my parents as possible, to match into the specialty that I want to match into. I don't want to be hailed as the genius child of my community anymore. I don't want to be known for all of my past awards, triumphs, accomplishments, scholarships, etc. All I want to be known for is being a simple, humble, caring doctor. A doctor who loves her patients and does everything she can to help them. A doctor. A simple profession.
I hope that I can heal. I know that I already am healing. I just need to continue on this path, and heal. And get away.
Remember that book, Tiger Mom? Many people think the book's words are absurd, that the things that Amy Chua made her kids go through were just overly exaggerated. Well, the truth is, the things do exist. Heck, I told my mom about how apart from the whole not making me practice violin 3 hours a day thing, she was the same. Well, she vehemently denied it. I guess she is just in denial.
Next steps? Well, I'm just going to do what I want to do. Become a doctor. Match into residency. Reunite with my childhood love, hopefully, and get married to him, if possible. Love him and cherish him. Have children with him. Live my life the way I want to live it, and leave the past behind.
Ironically, I think I'm going to be volunteering for a health clinic booth at my middle school, the very middle school where I was once terrorized in. Many of my old teachers are still there - many of the great, good ones, and many of the ones who belittled, heckled, and jeered me, even egging on the bullies to bully me more or turning a blind eye to the bullying. I wonder what they will think, if they remember me, when they see me again. Perhaps they will forget the past? Or perhaps they will remember the nerdy kid who knew every single vocabulary word? Or perhaps they will feel regret for what happened?
Anyway, that's my story as of up to now. I hope this gives some insight into a Tiger kid's life.
Last modified: 2012-10-20