Valley Girl With a Brain

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Lions, Tigers, and Overbearing Mothers, Oh My!

Growing up with an Americanized Tiger Mom

Tiger Mommy

It was while reading the 50th of more than 4000 comments on Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," that I began contemplating my own upbringing.

Chua divulges the secret to children's success is a life monitored by discipline, perfect grades and excellence in every activity-- with no traces of enabling, affection or sleepovers in sight.

She lists the following as forbidden activities for her two "stereotypically successful" daughters, Sophia and Louisa:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.

Though her list may seem a little extreme, it must be effective-- after all, Sophia has already played at Carnegie Hall!

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Right?

While I recognize some of Chua's bullet points in my own upbringing, I realize how easy I had it in my family. Sure, sleepovers were reserved only for special occasion, watching television after school was out of the question, getting Bs were frowned upon, and practicing piano and flute were the major activities of my youth, but my mother never exhibited the fierceness of Chua's tigress.

My Korean mother, who grew up in poverty with a single mother, never once criticized, condemned or called me "garbage"-- regardless of my mistakes.

Still, in elementary school, she told me I had a choice between attending Harvard or Yale and becoming a doctor or a lawyer. I picked Harvard and being a doctor. We were both pleased by my choices, until the following year, I fainted at the sight of my own blood.

It was then that I realized I would never go into medicine and began considering a career in--wait for it--acting.

GASP!!!

It's true. Pursuing an entertainment career is every Asian parent's worst nightmare. Worse than failing a test--Worse than premarital sex, worse than murder--actually, the same as murder, because it is essentially killing your parents.

I knew my mother's heart broke when I auditioned for the school play during high school, and I knew it shattered, when it turned out I was actually pretty good in the show. She was proud of me, but begged me to have a fallback career--something sensible, like law or business. I told her I'd think about it. She was terrified, but kept quiet.

To the outside world, I was a model Asian student: excellent grades and standardized test scores, attractive extracurricular activities designed specifically for college admissions.

But, there were always smarter people than me (yes, mostly Asian) and I was acutely aware of it. In high school, I stopped trying so hard at being the best, because I realized that I just couldn't do it.

Instead of pushing me more, my mother became what Chua would describe as a "Western mother." She recognized that I wanted to do more with my life than practice piano and study. In fact, she let me quit piano and never scolded me for my falling grades--including that one C in Chemistry AP, which, by the way, did not ruin my life forever.

In accordance with Chua's parenting style, my mother should have berated me for my academic snafus--humiliated, threatened, or starved me for my unwillingness to be perfect. If she had, maybe I would have been valedictorian or played at Carnegie Hall.

But she didn't. Instead, she let me be who I wanted to be--mistakes and all.

My mother let me write and act, and supported me, even when she wasn't sure she was supposed to. All she asked for was that I do my best.

And that's why she's a good parent--not because she wants the best paying career for her kids--but because she wants them to be happy and pursue the best in themselves.

True success is doing what makes you happy, and that is what I realized while reading Chua's piece.

The story is not so much about extreme parenting techniques or the East-West cultural divide, but about the definition of success.

For Chua, success seems contingent on receiving an Ivy League education, musical accolades and maybe a book deal or two. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be great--but I think there is something wrong with feeling like you are "garbage" if you don't meet a specific quota.

Sad Doctor

Not all doctors are happy and not all sleepovers are dangerous. Trust me-- I've been to a few.

By typical standards, I am nowhere near as financially solvent  or traditionally "successful" as my Asian American peers, but you know what?

I had a wonderful childhood, filled with pleasant memories. I have an amazing, resentment-free relationship with my mother. And every day, I'm happy, which has always been my life's one pursuit.

Follow me on Twitter!  ThisJenKim

Jen Kim is a former Psychology Today intern and a graduate of Northwestern University.

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