I was miserable. Hot, sweaty, feverish, and just about ready to cry.
And I did.
“Do you think I could just sit out of class today?” I croaked, feeling the cold sweat squirm down the base of my neck.
“If you really feel so bad, why don’t you just go to the nurse and then go home for the day?” My gym instructor’s eyebrows were raised in a condescending arch as she stared at me with an airy disdain.
“I–I can’t…” I said in a vague manner. “I have to stay at school for the day.”
By some extraordinary capacity, my teacher’s eyebrows bunched up even higher than they were before. Short, stout, and wary-looking, she cast her eyes downwards on me with a tiring suspicion.
“Is it because your mom is a tiger mom?”
I paused my sniveling. Where did that come from?
“Like does your mom not let you come home from school because you need to be present in order to learn and get good grades and all? You know?”
This time it was my eyebrows performing supernatural physical feats.
“No. She’s not.” I said flatly.
I didn’t bother furthering my plea to sit out anymore. I got up, changed into my uniform, and in a hazy exhaustion, completed the physical activities with the rest of my classmates.
Years later, I find myself wondering whether she was right. Was my mom a tiger mom? How angry would my parents have been if they found out that I had left school on account of being “sick”? I remember the reason I insisted on staying at school for the rest of the day: my rebellious teenager pride and fear of embarrassment. I hadn’t listened to my mom when she insisted that wearing my new, Black Friday “discounted”, semi-sheer long sleeve from Hollister amidst the negative wind chill ravaging the outdoors that winter was going to get me sick. And for that, I had felt too foolish and ashamed to go home.
Now, that wasn’t the first time I had been asked “casually” about my parents’ parenting style. To my fourteen-year old self, the phrase “tiger mom” was nothing new. Neither was hearing about how I must be naturally smart, secretly eating dog for dinner or aspiring to become a doctor one day. What was new to me that day in gym class was that the conversation came from an adult figure. For the first, but most definitely not last, time in my life, a fully grown individual dropped racially-charged questions on me.
So, today I want to deconstruct the “tiger mom.” What it means, what it doesn’t mean, and what it means to me.
A tiger mom is known to be aggressive. Overbearing. Unreasonably strict. She is pictured hovering above her daughter, controlling the tempo for little Jenny’s piano practice session. She is imagined micromanaging the kids of the household, stowing away all electronics and monitoring homework time. She is envisioned restricting her children from hanging out with their friends and attending social events. She is no fun. She is too harsh. She is, in essence, a Chinese woman.
So let me tell you a little bit about my mom. Her name is Zhuping, but she sometimes goes by Virginia. She has the sweetest smile, with these soft laugh lines that can tell any onlooker how much love she has in her life. She has brown eyes that twinkle in her joys and baby moles that decorate her face. She is beautiful, kind, and most important of all, strong.
Don’t get me wrong though. She can also be aggressive. If I ever find myself in a verbal argument with her, I know that my best choice is to stay silent because my mom can talk my ear off for ages. She can be overbearing too. Sometimes she brings up so many questions, to-do’s, things to give me, or articles of clothing to make me wear, that it makes my head want to explode. And at times, she can be oddly strict. Can I open this chocolate cake from Trader Joe’s? No. Not unless I get an explicit go-ahead. But I know that all of these are because my mom has a loving heart. It’s hard to understand sometimes, but with time and perspective, I have grown to know how amazing of a person she really is. Every now and then, she yells at me without end so that I can be the best version of myself, so that I can be the responsible, young woman she raised me to be. She asks me over and over if I want this, or if I need to do this, or if I would please wear this so I won’t get sick, and I know she hovers so often because she cares about me. She tells me not to eat the cake because she’s actually saving it for someone else, a family she’s going to visit over the weekend. She has a heart of gold. It manifests itself in different ways — it manifests itself in tiger mom ways, but they’re all really just a testimony to how deep the love, care, and generosity she has for others, including her children, go.
But what parent is not aggressive, overbearing, or strict to a certain degree? Parents take care of their children with a ferocious love, just like a tiger does with her cubs. Just like any actual tiger mom.
My mom is a tiger. She is a tiger because she is fierce. She is a tiger because she has never quit teaching me this lifelong lesson of strength, independence, power, and resilience. She is a tiger because she encourages me to defy, to push back against the world, and to stand up for my own being. This is what a tiger mom really is. This is my tiger mom. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.