Like all true Asian parents, mine drilled the work first, play later mentality into me.
(Though in fairness they were nowhere near Amy Chua tiger mother levels.)
And along with modelling delayed gratification, my Asian family also taught me a few things about money over the years that I’ve never forgotten.
Shop the sales
Apparently I once asked Mum, “why don’t you ever buy anything that’s not on special?”
She is the most frugal person I know. Never overpays for anything, and knows how to get the best price on everything.
Back when we were in primary school, I once went to the supermarket with my best friend in primary school to get snacks. We were so proud to find and buy bottles of Coke on special for 99c. Even my friend’s dad praised us for our bargain hunting ways!
Not my mum. At their lowest price, she informed us, you could get those bottles on special for even less than that.
She is the queen of thrift shopping and I didn’t really appreciate it until adulthood. Now I’m like, tell me all your secrets.
We spent a lot of time at garage sales when I was a kid and I watched the master bargainers in action. Whether it was a $2 doll or a $600 TV, they would always ask for a better deal (as it turns out, basically everything is negotiable).
Despite all that, I could barely bring myself to haggle at markets while travelling through Asia. And I think back on the times I didn’t negotiate salary and mentally kick myself.
I get the theory, but actually doing it is a different kettle of fish.
Needs vs wants
Wants never masqueraded as needs in our household, not even for a second. People bleat on about how extravagant parents are with presents for their kids, but we literally didn’t get gifts. I feel like we could have done with more wants, growing up.
(For years we didn’t have a TV – before broadband, before streaming, and so I never got to participate in conversations about last night’s TV shows at school. #firstworldproblems)
OTOH, sometimes needs can be disguised as wants…
Props to them for trying to pass off buying me a sleeping bag (you know, for school camp) as an early birthday present. (Spoiler: didn’t fall for it.) Even 10-year-old me knew better.
I’ve always stood by the belief that gifts are for things you want, not things you need. That will never change.
One of my earliest memories is being a helpless bystander to an argument between my parents. In particular, at the end of it, being told to choose which of them I wanted to live with.
It didn’t happen. For better or worse, they’re still together, decades on.
In some ways I’m not very good at being in a relationship. I guess I just am not all that good at partnerly communication. In my very first relationship, I became acutely aware of some of the ways in which I behaved and how those habits echoed those of my parents. Years on, I still struggle with those same issues.
Like it or not, I inherited that emotional tempestuousness. It’s probably a blessing in disguise that I struggle to get words out, because honestly, some of the ugly thoughts in my head in my worst moments should never be uttered. I know, even as they occur to me, how hurtful they are, and that they’re not necessarily fair. Succumbing to the heat of the moment would be awful. I don’t want to play that game.
Do you struggle with any particular traits you’ve inherited from your parents?
“You can have quite a fabulous life without kids, and you’d be so much wealthier.”
That (more or less) was something I heard from a mother-of-two recently.
As someone who didn’t start feeling any maternal urges until a couple of years ago (although I guess I’m still young in the grand scale of things) this really struck home.
My current state of thinking is that I do want kids … eventually. Two. Ideally a boy and girl, just like me and my brother. But not for some years yet. Kids don’t trump my other life dreams. And if for whatever reason kids don’t come easily to us, I don’t want to spend oodles (or go into debt) trying to conceive. If for whatever reason it wasn’t on the cards, I think I would be quite content. There are children enough on T’s side of the family for us to play cool aunt and uncle to, and they could definitely use any money we directed to them in lieu of having our own.
I’m not Christina from Grey’s Anatomy, but I’m definitely not the kind who squeeeeeeees at pregnancy announcements and clamours to hold infants. In fact, please never ask me to hold your baby, thus forcing me to find an awkward way to refuse. Every twitch and every movement scares this noob. Watching me cradle a baby has provided fodder for others’ amusement on multiple occasions (although thankfully the sight of my face has yet to send one into a crying fit – my biggest fear).
Sure, procreators are still the majority among us, but it seems that being childless by choice is increasingly socially acceptable (or is it just the blogs that I read?). You skip the baby brain, the physical strain, the demands on time and wallet by offspring. Living an entirely adult may be a “selfish” choice to some, but choosing to further strain the world’s resources is selfish in another sense. That also depends, I guess, on where you live and whether your population is ageing overall.
I didn’t always want children, but then again, I didn’t used to think that I could ever get married – I couldn’t imagine kissing somebody in public, in front of my family. T wants kids and I imagine those fledgling instincts of mine will pick up steam over the years.
This has got to be the most notorious book of the past year. You might recall seeing an extract from it in the WSJ, after which a gigantic firestorm erupted, with battle lines drawn between author Amy Chua’s supporters and detractors.
Image via Wikipedia
In a nutshell, this is a memoir about parenting, revolving largely around Chua’s quest to constantly push her daughters to excel at piano and violin respectively. There are no days off, even on holidays. There are no sleepovers, no other extracurriculars, no boys, definitely. A traditionally strict Chinese “tiger mother”, Chua’s methods work well on older daughter Sophia, a piano prodigy of sorts who goes on to play at Carnegie Hall. Younger daughter Lulu, however, is not as easy to mould. And it’s clear that if something doesn’t change in their relationship, she will lose Lulu forever.
As she writes:
“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”
And she concludes:
“When Chinese parenting succeeds, there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed.”
Not since My Wedding and Other Secrets (which I cried in) have I had so much fun contemplating cross-cultural differences. I love her writing style; it’s clear, concise, immediately engaging, kind of self-deprecating.
Here are some of my favourite passages:
“By the time Sophia was three, she was reading Sartre, doing simple set theory, and could recognise 100 Chinese characters. (Jed’s translation: She recognised the words “no exit”, could draw two overlapping circles, and okay maybe on the Chinese characters).”
“A tiny part of me regrets that I didn’t marry another Chinese person and worries that i am letting down 4000 years of civilisation.”
“Jed’s parents gave him choices … and thought of him as a human being with views.”
“Like every Asian American woman in her late twenties, I had the idea of writing an epic novel about mother-daughter relationships spanning several generations, based loosely on my own family’s story.”
Chapter 5, On Generational Decline, struck a particular chord with me. There goes a common pattern: the first immigrant generation is the hardest working, building lives from the ground up. The second generation, aka Chua’s and mine (although in my case, technically still a first generation immigrant as I wasn’t born here) will typically go on to be high achieving professionals, less frugal than their parents, and often marry a white person (tick tick tick). The third generation – because of the hard work of their ancestors – will be born into middle class comforts, be surrounded by wealthy friends, expect all the trappings of middle class life, much more westernised and be more likely to disobey their parents.
I know I definitely worry about this – I can’t imagine anything worse than raising a spoilt, entitled child. I don’t want my kids to be as petrified/cowed of me as I was by my parents for most of my life, but I would hope to instil a basic level of respect from the beginning. I want to encourage confidence and individualism, without allowing them to get away with anything they want.
Let me be upfront about where I’m coming from. I didn’t have an Amy Chua for a mother. But mine was certainly more tiger than Western. I never ever nagged them for anything, never ever talked back, never ever challenged my parents, even if I knew I had reason to.
Well, until I did. It was a battle of wills. They pushed, I pushed. I won. I moved out of home while still at high school, went on to win a full scholarship, got my degree, entered the working world. For the first few years, yeah, I kind of hated my parents. The conflict pushed me away, much like Chua’s own father distanced himself from his family. As Chua learns, every child is different. Having the flexibility to adapt is key.
As Chua points out, Asian parents don’t generally blanch at comparing their offspring. This can be tough, especially when siblings are close in age, and one is clearly the more talented/driven. I was aware that I was that sibling, and my own mother expected more of me (which she articulated).
I was a good daughter. I didn’t drink, do drugs, have sex (not that I was exactly awash in temptation even if I wanted to, being a total nerd). Was that ever appreciated? Nope, I only got exhorted to compare myself to those above me, rather than all those slack white kids. Sophia’s diatribe towards the end runs exactly along these lines – railing against that inescapable push to always aim higher, that nothing is ever sufficient.
That said, personally, I’m a Chua supporter. Unlike my family, she knew when to stop, although she very nearly didn’t. I think her methods were extreme – the screams, the threats, the spending every waking hour outside of school practising music. But her daughters do not actually hate her for that; they’re grateful. They achieved amazing things as a result. The same might not work for other families, but as we know, one size does not fit all.
What I didn’t like about her? She comes across as a bit of a snob. Law and medicine were her only acceptable career paths – typical. She and husband Jed are well off by any standards – law professors who both have books to their name, who travel a lot and take multiple holidays a year. Not all of us can afford to live such a cultured lifestyle by her definition. (Sure, I wish my parents had taken us travelling more. We never went on holidays, domestic or otherwise. And yet, can I really blame them? I found myself perusing the specials board at the fish and chip shop the other day; a family pack was $20, and if our kids inherit our appetites, $30 is probably a more realistic figure. That’s Friday night dinner. And with bread nearly $2 a loaf and milk nearly $4 for two litres, even my dad’s so-called “simple meals” don’t cost what they used to.)
Also, she slammed guitar and drums. (!!!) Granted, neither are as subtle or, perhaps, sophisticated as piano or violin. (I’ll speak as a 6-year dilettante school violinist who never even approached the bar of ‘adequate’. The fretless fingerboard, the bow, the awkward chin resting – it’s got to be one of the hardest instruments to conquer.) But do you know how much hard graft, coordination and rhythm a kickass drummer needs? Are you aware just how many techniques there are to be learned, across different kinds of drums, sticks, genres? And as a guitarist, I will also defend six-stringers. Music theory applies here, too – chords, scales – plus the huge variety offered by alternate tunings, and of course, learning to use sound effects effectively. Different does not have to mean inferior.
Contemplating my future children
This all got me thinking about what kind of a parent I want to be.
I have always maintained I would not make the same mistake my parents did. But I also hope I don’t go too far in the other direction.
Like Amy’s (white, Jewish) husband, T was raised in a totally opposite environment. And personally – I hate conflict. I like being liked. I’m stubborn, but not that stubborn. I am not a high energy person. And most of all, I do not want to fight my children.
Ultimately, Battle Hymn is about a struggle for control. Chua decides her children must play a classical instrument. She chooses one for each, and sets out on a path to turn her daughters into stars.
I disagree with this. And I personally see no reason to push my children into pursuing any activity professionally. That takes serious money (which we mostly likely won’t have) and time (which I simply am not prepared to give) – the exacting attention devoted to studying her daughters’ technique, the detailed practice notes she’d write, the office hours lost shuttling the girls to lessons, the hours of driving to another city to see their out-of-town music teacher every weekend. Of course, if they were to be truly amazing at something and wanted to do that of their own accord, that would be a different story.
I also disagree with the notion that children owe their parents everything and personally I don’t subscribe to the whole filial piety thing (as I always used to shout at my father in my head “respect is earned!”).
But I do believe in the quest for excellence and a strong work ethic – because it’s 90 percent hard work and 10 percent talent. It’s that tension, really, between helping your kids find what they like and exhorting them to stick with it. I fully agree with Chua that most things are not fun unless you’re good at them, which takes practice (and passion), which in turn often requires external motivation.
Thinking back, I do sometimes wish my parents had pushed me more in a couple of regards – to continue with swimming (I can’t swim more than a stroke or two now), to get braces – or rather, stick with them through a second round – learning another language, even. I wouldn’t call myself a quitter, but I do go through bursts and spurts of interest. Phases, if you like. Piano, tennis, violin and guitar (which I’ve gotten back into); songwriting. writing my great teen novel. While I am motivated enough to keep going with things that are truly important to me, I could’ve used a an extra push sometimes.
Tons of you urged us to pretend to T’s family that we are equally broke following the latest saga with them. I love this in theory and believe me, it’s crossed my mind many times – but it’s impossible.
For one, T is pathologically honest. Also, he sees his family a lot. As in, pretty much every week, often more than once (I don’t understand it either, seeing as visits are often short and IMO kind of pointless. But I guess that’s the kind of family they are, where facetime and frequency are important). Moving away isn’t something either of us want to do, either! Possibly for a couple of years, but this is our city and where we see ourselves longterm.
For another, it’s simply not logistically viable. We have a car. We go on the odd holiday (in fact, just returned from our first trip abroad together). We have gadgets (Xbox, smartphones, digital cameras). We even go to concerts from time to time. This is all pretty obvious. If we’re not a total mess, then we are already miles ahead. Trust me when I say the bell curve in this case is rather low.
And while I’m not flashy, he likes his toys, and he likes to show them off. Thinking back to when he had his motorbike, for example; hiding that would have meant not talking at all about the single biggest most exciting thing in his life and not riding it over to visit his mother/sister/nieces etc.
So while we definitely live modestly – within our means rather than beyond – meaning they don’t know the extent of our financial situation, there’s just no way to pretend that we are as broke as any of them. So if we can’t hide it, what to do? I suppose we’re fortunate in that it’s mainly only one family member who tends to need bailing out, and that T now says enough is enough. I honestly do think this is enough for more than just a brief reprieve, but I’m not under the illusion that this will be the end of it.
Have any of you successfully – and completely – concealed your financial status from relatives?
When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be white. I wanted to look like everybody else, I wanted to lose my accent, and perhaps most of all, I wanted my parents to act like all the other parents. The kind who would welcome me having friends over to play. Who knew why other kids knocked on our door on Halloween night dressed in all manner of weird costumers – because I didn’t. Who didn’t shop at op shops and garage sales or buy me baby bonnets instead of sporty caps. My parents were by no means stereotypically FOB immigrants, with broken accents, who struggle to catch a bus or dispute a bill. But they were just different enough to set them apart.
I remember borrowing a cheongsam to wear on Cultural Day in my first year of primary school. I wonder if I looked as awkward as I felt in it From then on, I wore my own jeans and a tee.
I hated in-class exercises where everyone was urged to get in touch with their heritage. People would look at me and say, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you actually have a culture!” Uh, no, not really. (This is made even more complex by way of hailing from Malaysia but being ethnically Chinese.) We’re not religious, we speak English at home, the extent of our CNY celebrations are gorging on moon cake (the one time of year I halfheartedly lay claim to my heritage). Name a traditional custom or ritual you associate with the Chinese and I’ll probably never even have heard of it. We ate rice almost every day, though. That counts for something, surely.
And yet, I’m not a total cultural vacuum. Celebrity chef Rick Stein was in Malaysia on his Far Eastern Odyssey this week. Mesmerised by the familiar accents, the hearty laughs, the general conduct of the locals, I watched, entranced, as they whipped up fish head curry and beef rendang. If nothing else, culture, to me, is associated with cuisine. And no matter how long ago, the “aiyahs” and the inability to enunciate the h in “three” still instantly transport me back to a certain place.
There are things that are going to stop with me, that I won’t pass down to future generations. My kids will have straight English names. They won’t hear their parents talking on the phone in another language, or hear foreign words peppered throughout conversation – random pet terms substituted for English for no real reason, apart from maybe habit. They may occasionally eat dishes featuring strange ingredients like shrimp paste, but most likely they’ll eat steak and pasta and my version of Thai curry.
That’s okay. Because what’s really important is that they learn to be decent human beings. Hopefully they’ll be intelligent. Not weakling klutzes like me. And ideally semi-attractive, because life is enough of a bitch as it is. But ultimately, as long as they appreciate the importance of hard work, doing right by others and themselves, and grow up with a respect and appreciation for people of all backgrounds.
Some things may be more prized, where I come from, than they are for others. Family. Pride. Standing on your own two feet. But ultimately, these are values that transcend time, space, and ethnicity.
Remember the days of primary school when boys who had a crush on you would tease you and pull your hair to get your attention?
That’s exactly how my niece (or T’s rather) shows affection. She’ll walk up to me and give me a gentle smack on the leg. If I’m lucky, she’ll fling a purple plastic flipper at my head.
It was the first time I’d seen her in a few months, and I was expecting her to have grown in leaps and bounds again – but I think it’s levelled off. She’s still the same toddler-sized creature, albeit a little steadier on her feet, and among her streams of gibberish the occasional word emerges.
Example: She picks up a packet of cigarette filters. Waves them in her mother’s direction. “Mum!”
She also has a little brother, although he’s not quite as entertaining. He sits in his playchair (is that what you call them?) drools, and chews on his kingdom of neverending toys.
But oh, when they cry! There’s nothing like the sound of a distressed child. And they can stem from the simplest of things – not being allowed to follow their big sisters outside to play, for example. It reminds me of how frustrating it was for me as a kid, having to pander to my brother, as the lowest common denominator, all the time. Six years is a big age gap.
Kids, huh! Especially when they dip their plastic comb into the dregs of a coffee mug and proceed to rub it all over their head.
Continuing on in my vein of chick-lit with a difference, I finished Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown last month. To start with, it’s kind of autobiographical – it’s in the non fiction section, and it’s based on Lorna Martin’s Grazia (shudder) column Conversations with my Therapist. Although she’s a first time novelist, she happens to be an award winning Observer journalist who’s reported from Bosnia, Albania, Romania, Benin, Malawi, Jamaica and Thailand (talk about an impressive CV!).
Basically, she seems like the kind of accomplished, together modern woman we all aspire to be. But she’s lonely, stressed, and depressed. Oh, and her relationships with men! She’s brave enough to admit she’s seeing a married man, and to lay it all out on the line – the clinginess, the desperate texts, calls and emails. It was all so self destructive, it was hard to read. For someone so afraid of rejection, she sure didn’t seem to have a problem making a fool of herself (I mean that in the kindest possible way).
Like many people, she says, she never thought she needed therapy. That was for the weak and needy, the self-absorbed. But as she found out, uncovering memories she didn’t know she had helped her to identify patterns in her life, to deal with issues and learn to like and respect herself again. Apparently, everything we do in our adult lives stems from childhood. This is very much a theme toward the end, as Lorna grows more self-aware, and (a little cringingly) describes herself as learning to be her “own parent”. This was probably the part I least enjoyed .
(Incidentally…I once harboured ambitions of becoming a psychologist. Nobly, perhaps, I wanted to help others, who didn’t breeze through life, but, like me, stumbled over cracks in the ground, or over their own feet.)
Looking inward, I don’t think I have to explore very far into my past to see where some of my biggest issues come from. I’ve got an ingrained fear of conflict; I hate arguments and I don’t even like debating with my closest friends. I don’t feel like I was ever taught how to. I was on the debating team briefly in high school, which helped, but growing up, my parents didn’t argue constructively. I have memories of hiding in my room listening to their raised voices through the walls, and feeling a little ball of stress form in my stomach. To this day, when I’m worried or nervous, I feel it in my tummy first. They would not negotiate with me, either: their word was always final and inflexible.
On a related note (and I don’t know specifically why this is) I have a fear just of speaking up and voicing my opinion. Maybe it’s a fear of being wrong, looking stupid, losing face. After a few years in my current job, and feeling confident in my understanding of our systems and my contributions, I’m a lot better about piping up at work. I also think having a fairly tight-knit and supportive environment in third-year journalism helped my confidence quotient a lot. I still detest public speaking, but thankfully, I’m not in a field where I have to make presentations or give speeches.
The other thing that cripples me is a fear of criticism. I think I’ve gotten a lot better over the years, but let’s face it, I haven’t had to deal with too much of it. I did well in school and university; I seem to be good at my job. Probably the worst part is under pressure, I blush bright red and start sweating. Even if I’m taking constructive criticism to heart (ie, not personally), I don’t exactly look like I’m keeping my cool…more like I’m about to rush off to the ladies’ for a cry.
One other thing which stuck with me from the book was the assertion that most people can benefit from some kind of therapy, but that some things are just too painful for some people to deal with- and it can be better for them simply to almost bury it and move on. While generally I think ignoring problems is a bad idea, I kind of agree on this count – but of course, it depends on so many things. I had a patch of trouble with my family towards the end of high school. I moved out on bad terms, made a life for myself and never went back, although I’m sure they envisaged I eventually would. We’ve never really talked it out or acknowledged that time, but I think the distance and independence has done the job. I was angry and hurt for a long time; but now, I can have a conversation with my parents, tolerate their idiosyncracies, and ask for their opinions or advice if I need to.
Anyone ever get repeat requests to borrow money from family members? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
I used to lend a member of T’s family money quite regularly. Small amounts – I’m talking $20 at a time. She always repaid it within the week; it just got annoying after a while. You know how once you’ve set a precedent, it’s hard to stop?
Anyway, it did stop, to my surprise (and fairly painlessly, too). Until recently. It all comes through T, though, who then relays it on to me. Mostly. In the past week or two I’ve called him up to ask about random cash withdrawals, which turn out to be for her. GAH.
It’s easy to be a bit blase – after all, my overdraft facility isn’t costing me anything right now. (And after all, they’re more than generous with what they have: we’ve borrowed their snorkelling gear, tools, and currently have their gas BBQ at our place – I’m not sure if that’s permanent, or if they’ll want it back once they move.) But that’s not going to be forever, and like I’ve told T, we need to get out of the habit of falling back on it, especially for non-necessities. And while his income’s not regular and he still has a CC balance to pay off…he just has to keep saying no, no matter how hard it is.
Odd but true: I have a bunch of relatives I’ve never met before. Cousins and uncles. I couldn’t even tell you their names or where they live, but it’s somewhere in Australia (and both lots could live on opposite sides of the country for all I know).
I’d like to think it’s not completely weird, because there are something like 10 siblings on my paternal side. And at least I’m pretty sure I’ve met all the ones who reside in Malaysia. What IS weird for me is the fact that our extended family isn’t close at all, and weren’t even when we still lived there. It makes me a little sad that my kids won’t grow up with heaps of cousins to play with. T’s nieces will be way older than our kids, although his younger brothers – and mine, I guess – might come through 😛
Hopefully they’ll get to grow up alongside my friends’ offspring (although that is an incredibly strange thought. I wonder how us all getting married and procreating one day will change things?) If they don’t have a big, loud extended family, it’d be nice if they at least had friends who were like part of the family.*
* Something I, again, never had. Is my bitterness really obvious?