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Ms. Tiger Mom

Up until fairly recently, I used to roll my eyes whenever someone complained about being “frustrated.” To me, “frustrated” was a synonym for “over the age of 15 and continuing to exhibit emotional incontinence.” Obviously, the superior option to being frustrated would be to smile cheerfully through one’s anger while silently plotting the murder of one’s enemies. Anyone who has worked in customer service or was raised in an Asian household can undoubtedly sympathize.

Lately, however, I am finding myself becoming increasingly emotionally incontinent. It has been a rough few weeks in Teacherland. Between this year and last, the number of courses I teach in which students actually have to care about their grades has doubled, and that reality seems to have just begun to dawn on many of them. I am running into quintessential middle school teacher-student dialogues such as these:

“Ms. Liu, why did you take off all these points on my test?”
“Well, you wrote everything in pinyin. All your answers should have been in characters.”
“Wait, we had to write in characters?”
“But that’s so much harder!”

“Timmy, why is your homework blank?”
“I didn’t understand this question.”
“So you didn’t do…any of the homework?”
“Yeah. Can I get extra credit?”

“Ms. Liu, why do you time our quizzes? 20 minutes isn’t enough time to finish a quiz!”
“The quiz is a page long. And open book.”
“Oh. So when can we not have timed quizzes anymore?”
“When you are able to take the quizzes without the book.”

And so on.

There have been a couple of instances in the past two weeks where I have definitively lost my temper in front of my students. I am not proud of this. A part of me tries to justify these bouts of emotional incontinence by the fact that any other sane, non-teacher adult would lose their marbles after seeing a kid try to flip a water bottle for the ten millionth time in the middle of a lesson. There is a lot of irrational nonsense that happens within the preteen universe, and it is clear that I am finally beginning to fold under its prepubescent, undeoderanted weight.

It is, in fact, the irrationality of it all that is making me very, very frustrated. If there’s anything I’ve internalized from being raised in a Chinese household and a Chinese church, it’s the phrase “你為什麼不能,” which translates to “Why can’t you just.” As in: “Why can’t you just sit down and do your work quietly,” “Why can’t you just listen to me when I’m talking to you,” or “Why couldn’t you have just studied a little harder and gotten that extra point,” which has the added elements of remorse and guilt, two other key Chinese moral touchstones.

I find myself using this phrase more and more in class these days, and the only redeeming factor in this is that most of my students would know enough Chinese to understand it should I ever lack the filter to express my emotional incontinence in English. Again, I am not proud of this. What’s worse, however, is that I feel myself getting closer to outgrowing this phrase and upgrading to its uglier stepsister: “你知道嗎,在中國我們從來不會…,” which translates to, “Did you know that in China, we would never…”

And I know that this is starting to get ridiculous because I have never lived in China before. I have never actually even been to China. But somehow I have turned myself into my students’ own personal Chinese Tiger Mom, because the only remedy to this appalling lack of diligence and moral compass (sloth is a mortal sin!) is a kung-fu, Amy Chua-style beatdown to one’s self-esteem. None of this irrational behavior would have been tolerated in my home or the homes of my Asian peers. The test was too hard? Should’ve studied more! The teacher yelled at you in class today? Go kneel in the corner and face the wall! No time for anything other than homework? Good!

Basically, I have turned into this parody video of teachers who teach in Taiwan.

Again, this is ridiculous. Not only was I not raised in China, but my parents weren’t even close to being Tiger Parents. I’ve never had to do an extra practice math problem in my life. In the sixth grade, I got a B in social studies and my parents actually yelled at me to stop crying. Nothing about my upbringing suggests that I am projecting my own Asian childhood experiences onto my non-Asian students. So where, pray tell, is this projection coming from?

Growing up, I did the exact opposite of what any other socially aware Asian kid was supposed to do — instead of trying to blend in with the rest of the white kids, I put my Asianness on full display. I was unabashed (or maybe just clueless) in my desire to stay weird and not blend in, wearing my weird Asian long sleeved underwear shirts tucked into my elastic waistband pants to school with pride.

But as weird as I was, I think I knew that this weirdness was actually my normal. That I wasn’t trying to be a special Asian snowflake on purpose; these were just the weird shirts and elastic waistband pants that my grandma would send from Taiwan and that my mom would send me to school in every morning. I didn’t have a hard time accepting this normal, nor did I shy away from presenting this normal to my Americanized classmates; I might’ve even hoped that they would accept my normal as just another version of normal, too.

But when they didn’t (and who could blame them really, because let’s be real, elastic waistband pants aren’t cool in any culture), it only drove me to push my narrative of normal even further. Freshman year of high school, I remember that every other girl owned a tote bag from Victoria’s Secret and used it to carry their books. I, however, used a reusable shopping bag to carry my books, a decision that made perfect sense to me because they were way cheaper, and what decent Asian mom lets her 13 year old shop at Victoria’s Secret anyway?

Staying weird had its consequences. I wasn’t very popular throughout grade school, to say the least. Sometimes I wonder how much of my Asian weirdness was involuntary, and how much of it was just me trying a little too hard to own my differentness. Or are the two inextricably intertwined? Now that I’m teaching at a school with almost little to no culture of Asian-American Tiger Mom excellence, I can’t help but think that I am, at times, guilty of overprojecting my Asianness onto my students in an attempt to maintain my own narrative of Asian normal (whether or not it reflects my actual own experiences!) within a place that defines “normal” as something completely different. It’s not an active, conscious effort to fight assimilation or anything quite that extreme; no, it feels more like trying to preserve one’s sense of reality while in an environment that constantly contradicts it. Like trying to assert your very yellow existence in a white world determined to erase you.

It’s interesting how folks tend to think of cultural assimilation as a choice: you either learn to accept your new culture and melt into the landscape, or you hang on stubbornly to your old (inferior?) way of life and refuse to blend in. One assumes that the act of assimilating is as simple as exchanging your chopsticks for forks, or your tamales for beef Wellington, or your hip-hop for Aerosmith. But even when foreign, “cultural” habits have been neatly swapped for those that are more palatable to mainstream white America, certain base instincts remain. Your normal might look different, but at its core, it never really changes. You never really lose your Asianness. It’s funny how comforting and damning that sounds.

At any rate, I’ll admit that, as a teacher, it is probably a little unethical to assimilate my students into little Asian tiger cubs against their will. But I tend to think that I am a little justified in doing so, if only because I teach Chinese. If there was ever a reason for non-Chinese kids to work their tails off to learn Chinese, it’s the fact that there are already millions of Chinese-American kids going to school on the weekends just to learn the exact same language. And if they’re working that hard to learn a language they already speak at home, you better bet that my students ought to be working at least twice as hard just to keep up.

And hey — if that’s the only piece of Tiger Parenting that sticks in my classes this year, I’ll take it.