A Chinaman's Chance (20 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
4.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Sometimes her soccer schedule or my travels mean we skip a week or two. Summers we skip even more. But we've had the same orange folder for her weekly writing sheets for over five years, and it's overstuffed now. The pockets have just about ripped off, and the outside is covered entirely with years' worth of Olivia's doodles. As she got older, she complained that the dialogues and subject matter in the textbooks were stilted and boring. “Who even talks like that?” she'd ask. “
Is this mountain higher or that one? Is this river longer or that one
? Ugh!” So I asked how we could make it more interesting. She came up with an idea. She would devise ridiculous sentences in English, some drawing on inside jokes from school and some pure farce. I would then have to consult my pocket English-Chinese/Chinese-English dictionary to translate the sentence. And then she'd have to learn how to say and write the Chinese version of such sentences as:

Rabbits used to eat rulers in the Stone Age.

Toes are very important in one's life.

Howdy, pardner, my name's Ol' Greasy Sparehands, and I've come to be your sheriff.

My translations were not grammatically perfect, but the entire process was hilarious and we'd often end up on the kitchen floor laughing at what she'd come up with or how it sounded in Chinese. This went on for a couple of months, until perhaps she realized that it made our lessons much longer. Eventually I returned to a modified traditional format, in which our lines were neither absurdities nor banalities but simply useful everyday sentences, things she might be able to say to Nai Nai, like “I'm playing soccer next week” or “I'm going outside with my friends.”

For all the hours we've spent doing this, my daughter's Chinese hasn't progressed that much. Her vocabulary and sense of syntax are limited mainly to our exercises; she probably would falter in live extended conversation without me there. But part of the victory is that we are doing this at all. She's in high school now, and a foundation has been laid. Flipping through those dozens of sheets in her folder, I see a steadying of her hand from one year to the next. She now has an instinct for what the proper order of strokes should be when writing a new character (top to bottom, left to right, outside to inside). She now knows when a character “looks right”—not just technically correct but calligraphically pleasing. And even though she doesn't ever want to be heard speaking Mandarin by her friends or even by Nei Nei (her pinyin transliteration of Jená's nickname), her pronunciation of Mandarin—her enunciation of the varying tones—is very good. This is what I've given her: a feel, a fighting chance against those new kids on the block.


The linguistic anthropologist Elaine Chun, in a paper called “Ideologies of Legitimate Mockery,” catalogs the elements of a “Mock Asian” accent in elaborate technical detail. Such an accent typically is marked by a set of factors, including:

1. Neutralization of the phonemic difference between /r/ and /w/ (
pronounced as
pronounced as
) . . .

3. Alveolarization of voiceless interdental fricative ‘th' (
thank you
pronounced as
sank you
I think so
pronounced as
I sink so
) . . .

7. Epenthetic ‘ee' at the end of a closed word (break-ee, buy-ee, look-ee)

The point of Chun's paper is that not all mockery is created equal. Context, intention, the ethnic and even political standing of the mimic to engage in mimicry—all these go into the subtle calculation of what separates, say, Rush Limbaugh doing a crude on-air ching-chong riff to imitate China's then-president Hu Jintao, from comedian Margaret Cho using a mock Asian accent to tell a joke about her own family. When is mockery not mockery? When it's homage.


I am often mindful of what Olivia hears. She is a child of interracial marriage and divorce, a third-generation Chinese American, a student at a big, diverse public high school. All around her are whorls and eddies of ideas and vocabularies and bits of thought. As a father, I try to give her the right kinds of words.

And what a listener she is: Olivia has a great ear for how people talk. She is a mimic extraordinaire. She picks up on vocal style, on shadings of timbre and tone and what they are meant to signal.

Sometimes this makes it hard to get “solemn” and “stern” with her as a father, because just as I'm about to say something, she will interrupt with an observation—“Oh, getting all serious now!”—which forces me to pause and stifle a smile. And one running joke in our family comes from a 2011 trip to Taiwan we took with Nai Nai and Nei Nei. We were in Taipei one afternoon, and Jená, pointing at the towering 101 Building, said, “You can see it from anywhere!” Except how Jená pronounced it was, in Olivia's exaggerated mock-Chinese, “You cahn see it from anyweahhh!”

Nei Nei is an actor and often involuntarily echoes the accent of the people she's with—so that when she's with my mom, she ends up sometimes sounding like a white person trying to sound like a native Chinese speaker speaking English. Now, whenever Nei Nei does it, whether with Nai Nai or anyone else with a foreign accent, Olivia drops a “You cahn see it from anyweahhh!” Nei Nei then swats her, objecting in mock offense and mock self-defense.

Mockery of mockery of mockery: so fun and so meta. Olivia and some of her pals, one who's part Cherokee and another who's half black, joke about each other's races and stereotype each other in ways that are quick and ironic and that (I'm pretty sure) represent progress. One time, Olivia walked into the girls' bathroom at school and seeing three or four younger Asian students she didn't know, asked without skipping a beat, “What'd I miss?” The other kids never picked up on the joke: that this was an impromptu meeting of the Asian club. Still, sometimes I have to caution her—not so much to keep her from truly offending others but to keep her from forgetting that she remains, at least in part, subject to mockery with an intent to wound. I have to remind her that when a benighted politician or ignorant celebrity makes fun of Chinese people for being Chinese and speaking in a Chinese way, they are making fun of
. That people still make fun of people who look like
(even though, truth be told, with her freckles and a dyed streak of blonde in her dark brown hair, she and I don't look Chinese in the same way). “Ya, I know,” she'll reply, and move on. And I'll remark to myself that sometimes, unwittingly, Olivia says “Ya” instead of “Yeah.” Just like her Nai Nai.


In 2013, University of Texas child development expert Su Jeong Kim released findings from a study in which she had been following over four hundred Chinese American families for a decade. In most of the families the parents were immigrants from Hong Kong or southern China, and the children were born in the United States. The study showed that children of so-called tiger parents had lower academic achievement and more depression and social alienation than those of parents considered “supportive” or “easygoing.” Kim put it succinctly: “Tiger parenting doesn't produce superior outcomes in kids.” At least as interesting, though less noticed in the media, was her finding that among Chinese American parents the tiger style was no more prevalent than among European American parents.


One thing I noticed when I read Amy Chua's
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
is that there is no mention of anyone speaking Chinese. This is ironic. It's evidence of the way that mores and the patterns of a culture can shed the language that was once their host and hop, virus-like, into other tongues. It's also evidence of the extent to which the very idea of “tiger parenting” is, like the fortune cookie, an American concoction that satisfies a taste for what people imagine to be Chineseness.

This is not to say I am a knee-jerk critic of Chua or even entirely of tiger parenting. Chua was both victim and beneficiary of a media-cultural complex that oversimplified her book and may not have ever read it. She came to stand for something—ruthlessly disciplined parenting—at a time when Americans felt themselves going soft, falling behind. The public version of Amy Chua was a made-for-cable-and-Twitter updating of the old model-minority stereotype: now the storyline was “
inside the making of
a model minority,” and it had violence (burning of stuffed animals!) and tyranny (hours of enforced violin practice with no meals!) and a little insanity (writing multipage memos to the kid after a recital!) to spice it up.

To be sure, Chua was not merely a passive screen upon which anxious, competitive bourgeois American parents were projecting their fears. She did write and sell the book, after all, and do the deeds she wrote about. But if you read the entire book, and not just the infamous excerpt that flew around the Internet, what you see is this: she came, in the second half, to regret the excesses she'd garishly chronicled in the first half. She came to see the psychic costs to her family. And though she felt compelled to report for her kids an ending of achievement and happiness after an interlude of rebellion, it's possible to read into the ending a whiff of wistfulness, even emptiness. What, after the mad meritocratic race to the top, is the point?

As for tiger parenting itself, well, it's all relative. I know Amy Chua. Amy Chua is an acquaintance of mine. And, folks, I am no Amy Chua. She is singularly intense and off-the-charts driven. Next to her I am a hippie. Yet I am also the closest thing to a tiger parent in my own family circle. Neither my father nor my mother was strict. Neither Olivia's mother nor stepmother is by temperament a taskmaster or brutal enforcer. By comparison to them, I have a strong “old school” streak. I am sometimes judgmental, even harsh, when I think Olivia hasn't been responsible or mature. I am rigid about rules, and I have high expectations for her. I occasionally use shame to motivate. I think too many parents think they are their kids' peers, with destabilizing consequences for everyone.

At the same time, I'm more playful, supportive, and simply present in the life of my daughter than my parents were in mine. In fact, I've structured my work life so that during the half week and alternate weekends when Olivia is with me, I am
. I am inclined, by nature and by circumstance, to treat our time together as precious. So if there were a creature from mythology that was half-tiger, half-human—and moreover, was not always sure which half to activate or which half events might rouse from dormancy, that'd be my parenting mascot. It's probably the mascot for many children of immigrants who become parents—maybe for many in my Gen X cohort, regardless of ethnicity. All I know is that from time to time, if I'm pushing her to push herself to learn more and do more, my teenaged daughter will tell me to stop being such an Asian parent. Then we will crack up. And then she will go on doing roughly what I'd hoped she would be doing.


Students of French sometimes find as they are learning nouns that they can develop a gut instinct for whether a noun is masculine or feminine. Beyond the obvious (
la mère
[“the mother”],
le père
[“the father”]), that instinct doesn't emerge from outright associations with masculinity or femininity per se—the word for “war” is feminine (
la guerre)
, after all, and the word for “flower” masculine (
le fleur
). It comes from a sense of patterns that grows stronger the bigger the learner's vocabulary is and the more data there is to crunch. Nouns that end with
tend to be feminine, for instance, while those ending with
tend to be masculine. Of course, almost no student of French is crunching actual data on the gender of new words, or even learning explicit heuristics like the
guideline. It's just about whether something
right or wrong as feminine or masculine.

Chinese does not have this issue, as it doesn't even have definite articles for nouns. But it does have its own form of gendered meaning. Chinese culture famously, perhaps infamously, defaults to the male. That default is found in figures of speech and even how characters are written. One small example is that when women become distinguished and prominent in their fields, they sometimes earn the title “Mr.” In Chinese, the compound word is
Literally, “first-born,” but by convention, “Mister” or, less often, “Teacher.” Though this is long-standing practice, it's raising eyebrows now in a China where gender roles are modernizing along with everything else. “Why should a woman be called a man just because she's clever?” one commentator in Beijing asked. “Why does she have to be a man to be respected?” Yet for some of the younger women in China who are now being addressed as
, the issue isn't patriarchy; it's merit. They don't want the title because they don't think they've earned it yet.


One notable thing about the Tiger Mother craze was that it was mainly about Tiger
—rarely were fathers of any ethnic background in the foreground. As modern as we all are, parenting in our culture continues to have a default gender: female. (That's particularly so when the parenting style is being criticized.)

What, then, is the right way to be a father? What is the right way to be a fatherless father? What is the right way to be a Chinese American fatherless father? What is the right way to be a second-generation Chinese American fatherless father? What is the right way to be a divorced second-generation Chinese American fatherless father?

I'm pretty sure the answer is something my mother still says to me but that I don't remember my father ever saying:
Try your best.
Or maybe it's something I was told by an astrologer the one time I went to see an astrologer, a couple of years after my divorce and not long after I started dating Jená :
Shift now from strength to flexibility.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
4.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Asking For It by Alyssa Kress
Tutored by Allison Whittenberg
Put A Ring On It by Allison Hobbs
Disturbing Ground by Priscilla Masters
Triangular Road: A Memoir by Paule Marshall
Hitler's Olympics by Christopher Hilton