Dear J, my Precious Son
Guess what? I never thought it’d happen, but I learned recently that I was in fact a bona fide “Tiger Mom” Dad!
Okay okay, I hear you. What’s that you’re asking?
Well, in a nutshell, this term was made popular globally by a ‘nutty’ professor called Amy Chua. She’s this ethnic Chinese who lives in America. Besides being a college professor, Amy also happened to be the author of a 2011 book titled Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mom. Just the title alone is enough to scare the living daylights out of any kid right?
The reason why I call her nutty is what she wrote in that book. Kinda like another nutty ethnic Chinese author Kevin Kwan who’s responsible for the book Crazy Rich Asians (which, unfortunately in my opinion, became a box-office hit of a movie in 2018).
To me, they’re both nuts because they presented such skewed stereotypes of Asians, particularly ethnic Chinese like you and me. I wonder how many decades it will take to undo the damage they did! (Thanks a lot Amy & Kevin!)
What stereotypes you ask? Those that suggest we ethnic Chinese are book-smart, work fanatics, filthy rich, and tyrants when it comes to being parents. Every one of these stereotypes has painted ethnic Chinese everywhere with the worst kind of paintbrush. Each has left “permanent paints” on us ordinary ethnic Chinese which are hard to remove, like acrylic paint once it dries.
But arguably the worst of the lot would be that which promotes the notion that Chinese parents, especially mothers, parent like a savage tiger!
Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom
In 2011, when Amy first published her controversial book, I was curious enough by all the hullabaloo surrounding it that I went to check it out.
I won’t bore you with the details son, don’t worry. But this much I will say. You won’t like the book. In fact, none of us should.
It recounts how one super-determined Chinese mom did everything, short of horsewhipping, to get her two daughters from young to master musical instruments at all costs. One of which was the violin. She did things that made my skin crawl. Leaving them out in the winter cold. Making them practice up to six hours a day. Threatening to burn their stuffed toys if they don’t master complex music pieces. In essence, pushing them beyond limits to practice til the cows come home to perfect their playing.
She controlled their entire growing-up years with nothing but music practice after music practice.
Not a pretty picture. And not exactly a flattering portrait of ethnic Chinese everywhere. I was, to put it mildly, repulsed by her near-ruthless methods of parenting, almost bullying her kids to achieve what she wanted for them. Or, more likely I should say, for herself. I mean, she did get a lucrative book deal out of it, and the book is still talked about today after over a decade.
Her story might appear to have ended ‘well’ since both of her girls became accomplished, concert-level musicians. But oh the journey they took.
I remember telling myself I’d never be that parent.
Our Violin Journey — From Verve to…
Fast forward to these past several years, beginning in 2015. That was when you first picked up the violin and journeyed to this point in time where you’re but one grade away from completing your violin lessons.
A couple of years ago I wrote you a letter about this journey. At that point, you had put up your fiercest argument as to why you wanted to cease learning. You weren’t interested in the violin anymore (haven’t in fact for some time). Simply learning exam pieces was a drag. Practicing was killing your enjoyment of music in general.
We in turn coaxed and cajoled you to stick with it because you were already at Grade 7. One more rung and you’ll be done. We promised that afterward, you could drop it completely if you so choose (I cringe now as I recall this line of reasoning)
You reluctantly capitulated and resumed lessons at the start of last year. Your mom and I were then able to heave a collective sigh of relief.
It was a sigh that didn’t last very long.
For the past two years, you requested to suspend violin lessons each time the year-end exam season came around. The suspension can last anything between a month and two months. Even as we agreed, your mom and I also inwardly braced ourselves that the break might become permanent. Which was what nearly happened two years ago. It was already clear then that you had lost any shred of interest in learning. It was simply just one more thing you did to please us.
Unfortunately, we didn’t quite see that. Or, rather, I didn’t. And even if I did, I was prepared to live with it if only you would finish Grade 8.
That’s how I ended up behaving to you like an Amy Chua “Tiger Mom” of a Dad!
Nearly every day I would ask if you had practiced. Nearly every day I would nag you to pick up the violin and play. For the last two years, our relationship around the violin was a see-saw. Me ‘chasing’, and you practicing with decreasing verve and increasing vitriol.
Looking back now, I don’t blame you. I blame myself. How could I have turned into the “tiger mom” stereotype? Was I as nuts as Amy? Granted, I did not push you out into the wintry cold (not that we have winter here in the tropics). Nor did I threaten to burn your favorite stuffed toy. (By the way, it’s been 14 years; when are you giving up your tiny ‘baby’ yellow teddy bear huh?)
But the fact remained. I was blinded by some insane, irrational obsession to see you clear Grade 8 that I kept pushing you and pushing you to finish it up quickly. I even used the materialistic argument that it would save me a bag of lesson money if you wrapped it up pronto! (*Shudder*)
It’s no wonder I slowly, inadvertently, ‘killed off’ any residual interest you might have had in music, let alone the violin, over the past two years!
Any wonder you delivered your most convincing ultimatum last week to say to your mom and me “NO MORE! I WANT OUT!”
The Death Of The Violin / The Birth Of A “Softer” Dad
Allow me to say right here right now that I’m sorry son.
Of course, I can’t deny a part of me is a little brokenhearted you decided last week to ‘hang up’ your violin indefinitely for now. That part of me still feels like it’s such a waste. It’s a throwback to the old days when we were taught by our forebears that it’s important to finish what we start, regardless of how we feel about it. I think that’s been so deeply ingrained in me that it’s no wonder I behaved like the very tiger parent I resented in others like Amy.
But even as Amy herself conceded after her book was published that her actions were reproachable, I too now concede that I had “missed the forest for the trees”. I had focused erroneously on the musical instrument and neglected the musical journey itself. I’d forgotten what your mom and I had agreed upon when you were born. That we wanted to cultivate an organic love for music in you and your younger brother. It’s about the love for music for its own sake. Not about the musical instrument itself.
Thanks for putting up with me all these years. And thanks for teaching me how to be a better partner now with you as, together, we navigate anew this ongoing musical journey (you still tickled the ivories of my keyboard as recently as yesterday).
I will be better. I promise.
Cos I’m so over being a “tiger mom” dad now! Instead, I want to be a “softer” dad.