A Tiger Mother’s Slumber This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

March 27, 2013
When I was little, there were times I'd sit on the cold marble steps in front of my room and cry for hours. Tears streaked in a kamikaze mission toward the floor. The reason behind my sadness was largely a mystery; I had never been able to place my chubby baby finger on the problem, beyond pointing it weakly at my mother.

She was the definition of a Tiger Mother. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she was more than that. She could eat tigers for breakfast (and she sometimes did, ground into a fine powder and stirred into her morning coffee), and still have strength left to battle the fire and brimstone of my sister. While my sibling, only one year my senior, stood toe to toe and fought bravely against her, from an early age I was different.

In my mother's eyes I was merely the mushroom-minion she squashed to reach the boss at the final level. I buckled under her fiery glare, and not a word would slip from my mouth as she handed me my sentence: eight more hours of violin practice. Even as the tears trailed down my instrument, leaving grooves in the varnish and questions to be asked in the future, I never had the courage to oppose her. I'd practice late into the night, my shoulders aching, my fingers blackened and cut by my strings, my bow hair slowly losing its luster from overuse, as she chomped through a brimming bowl of briny kimchi, ready to pounce if I dared stop or take a break.

In some ways, our discord was a result of the vast differences between my mother and me. She was physically an amazingly strong woman, a fact she would prove with her aptitude for avoiding all ailments, her ability to eat an entire watermelon at two in the morning, and her uncanny efficiency in molding her children into perfection. My brother finished calculus by the fourth grade, won national math awards at 13, was scouted by schools all over the world, and at 19 started his PhD in astrophysics. My sister walked at seven months, talked at 10 months, started doing math at 21 months, and was eventually accepted into Juilliard's pre-college program.

And me? Well, I stood at an unflattering five feet, three inches. My allergies to various foods, combined with my delicate immune system, only deepened my mother's confusion. But I dutifully followed my sister's footsteps and was also accepted into Juilliard. I refused to talk for the first two years of school, and earned a C in math in fifth grade. I was a different breed: a poodle in a family of wolves.

My one saving grace was my cowardice. Instead of viewing my meek acceptance of her tyranny as a lack of chutzpah, my mother saw it as a glowing sign of a good daughter. I would never disrespect her, I would honor her in her old age, and I would take care of her in her times of need.

And I did.


I blame my father's job for her downfall.

His occupation requires constant travel to exotic places. An experience some call a privilege has always been a necessary evil for my family. However, after moving from China to Japan to the United States, my mother was finished moving and utterly determined for us to continue our education in the United States. This selfless wish placed upon her two shoulders the burden of three kids, an alien country, and cancer. My father traveled alone to Mongolia, France, and Switzerland, while my mom single-handedly fed three children, fearlessly waged her war on cancer, and waited hopefully for some genius to sprout within my spineless soul.

And just like the fate of every hero in literature, the strength I had hated and admired in my mother, the strength that had caused me buckets of tears, the strength I had one day hoped to inherit, waned. White dominated the previously black and uncontrollable cloud of her hair, which fell out from chemotherapy. Her eyesight dimmed, and her ability to eat enormous amounts of food disappeared. The edicts, the demands, the pressure disappeared too.

She spent the mornings in her room, curled up in a ball, her hand reaching out toward my father's side of the bed. She cleaned the house with the silent tears of grief, tears we never saw but felt on her sleeve when we hugged her at night. She allowed me to go to parties, wake up late, leave homework undone, and abandon the violin she so loved to hear. But above all that, she let me help her.

At night, I would enter the kitchen, add the unwrapped remnants of meals to the towering stack of dirty dishes, and then slowly work my way through them. As I washed, each clang resonated the disappointment I felt in my mother. She acknowledged my help not as she once would have – by stating that it was a waste of valuable study time – but with stoic silence, which I understood was the only way she could express gratitude without admitting she was not indeed Superwoman. Perhaps it was the cancer, or the disappearance of her first and last true love, my father, but slowly the mother I had feared wasted away and this new mom took her place – a weaker, milder, and kinder woman I slowly learned to hate.

Perhaps it would have been easier to cope if I could have found respite, but the realities of my mom's fragility haunted me at every turn. When I went to school and overheard teachers talking about how nice it was to meet the parents of their students, it laughed at me. My mom had stayed home that night, shuffling through old wedding pictures and sobbing her way through a box of tissues. When I hung out with friends and they complained about how much trouble they got into for staying out past curfew, it stood there, grinning evilly as I passed. My mom had nodded to me as I stepped through the door at midnight, after working on a “project” we both knew didn't exist. When I reached the end of To Kill a Mockingbird and saw Atticus reading to Jem as he slept peacefully, it snickered at me, and I closed the book with a thud. My mom had lain expressionless as I pulled her blanket up to her chin, turned off the lights, and wished her good night.

For a year after my mom's fall, I resented her. I took care of her because I loved her, but I could never defeat the ugly monster inside that lunged every time my mom's weakness came to light. After so many years of seeing her as a goddess, the reality of her debility was something I could not face.

And of course no one else was to know. When asked about my mom, I rehashed edited versions of the times of my youth: being woken up at four in the morning, practicing for hours, getting yelled at. If I spoke the truth, I believed the chances of her returning would fade and I would be stuck with this new mom forever. However, I eventually broke down and told my best friend how difficult it was shouldering my mom's sadness, her loneliness missing my father, and the pressures of academics, and she simply said, “Don't worry, your mom's strong.”

At the time I assumed she meant, “Your mom used to be strong,” because there was no way my mom was strong now. Not anymore. She wasn't even my mother anymore. This woman of mistakes and melancholy was an impostor, an interloper, an outsider.

Yet as the passing days dulled the pain of my losses, I found my mother again. I found the woman who, after a year of depression, clawed her way back up and tried to find her old determined grimace. She started drinking her tiger-powder coffee again. She started yelling at me to do better in school. My violin was watered once more with my tears.

Today, she is not back to the mother she once was. I happily doubt she will ever be that mother again. But the cancer is in remission, and my mom once again eats her favorite kimchi while berating me. Today I need only offer her my smile. Looking back, the battle we fought to develop into the people we are today is crystal clear.

The Tiger Mother of my youth, I respected. The mom of that lonely, turbulent phase, I resented. The imperfect, fallible, resilient woman of today, I love.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the February 2014 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.

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