What my Tiger Parents taught us

June 23, 2016

Thanks, Mom & Dad.

How to be successful

1. Things are fun when you get good at them, and getting good at things requires effort.

When I first started getting into giving conference talks, I had a conversation with a co-worker about a potential topic idea. He said it didn’t sound like I was that excited about it, which I wasn’t, but in my eyes, the point was the giving a talk part. He then shared that for his whole life, he’d only ever been able to do things that he was interested in, and I was so surprised! I feel that literally my entire childhood was about training to acquire the discipline to go after what I want, even if the process wasn’t always fun right then.

In fact, when my mom got a bunch of old home videos digitized and we were watching them, there was a clip of me in the backyard and my mom telling to “go play!” and I teased her that it was good she had this on video, because I would never of believed it happened. She was slightly offended.

In any case, I have absolute confidence in myself that I have the capability to do boring things I don’t want to do, when I need to.

2. If something was worth doing, it was worth trying to do well.

True story: I took up chess club in high school because I thought it might be considered highbrow enough by my parents that I could get away with playing a game for fun. I know they weren’t fooled though, because otherwise they would’ve gotten me books and learned to play themselves to help me get better at it.

They always, always helped my sister and me get better at what we wanted to do, pouring themselves in studying some activity to try to crack it and pass their insights onto us.

3. Confidence and self-esteem comes from a deep belief in yourself, with evidence from a track record of success in what you pursued.

They always had high expectations of us, to the point where I once complained to my mom that it felt like in their eyes, we were at the highest potential at the point of birth and it’s been downhill since then, due to lectures about how we used to be doing so well and now were failing in some way--but never having heard the “doing well” part at the time.

I learned from reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that really, they were trying to transfer their *own* belief in us and our potential, to have their confidence us become our own. I mentioned this epiphany to my mom and she was very matter-of-factly like, “Of course. If you didn’t have the potential, there would have been no point in trying to help you realize it.” lol

See Mindy Kaling’s essay on this as well.

4. Education isn’t about the actual content you learn.

My parents always emphasized that all education was about “learning how to think” and that it didn’t matter whether they could remember the details of calculus or whether they used it in their daily lives now. What was important was that they *had* learned it at some point in the past, and it was the process of learning that was important.

Also, sometimes you just have to jump through hoops. As immigrants to a new culture, you learn how to figure out and play the rules within the system to get what you want.

Another consequence of this is that cheating is completely besides the point. If you work hard, you’ll learn that there is a correlation between your effort and the results--maybe not always as tight a correlation as you would like, but working backwards gets you nothing.

Related: Asian parents teach far more than just "rote memorization"

5. Always look for where you could have improved.

This is the famous “oh you got 99% on a math test? What did you get wrong?” scenario, but a reflexive quest for excellence is a useful one.

6. Get realistic and pragmatic feedback and don’t give up.

This could sometimes be a bit brutal, and my sister and I later taught our mother the role of encouragement in effectively getting people to listen to your feedback, but their goal was toughen us up to hear the message in pursuit of getting better.

7. Make arguments based on logic, not authority.

We definitely have the “respect your elders for their greater life experience” thing, but it was rarely a “because I said so” situation. They lectured us with logic—“why shouldn’t we do better than they did with their lives, with all the advantages that they didn’t have?” Hard to refute, and really, this is the earliest formulation of the idea of privilege that I learned.

8. Do the best you can.

It always makes me tear up a bit when I think of the love involved here: my mom always read to us before we went to bed, in English, even when English was hard for her. I have a warm memory of my mom reading Winnie-the-Pooh to me and struggling over the words a bit, until I corrected her pronunciation. But she was fine with that, she was proud of me for knowing more than her, and kept going.

They *tried* to do American rituals, like Santa and the tooth fairy. Even if the execution wasn’t always particularly solid (I stopped believing in Santa at something like age 3, because I saw the presents in the back of the car on the way home from the mall), they tried to give us a normal American childhood.

They always did what was best for us, even when we hated it. “You’ll thank me some day” was a frequent phrase. And, well, it’s true, they were right! It was never about their own egos, and we never doubted their intent.

How to be independent

9. Have a healthy dose of fear of consequences, but not that much.

My mom has told me that she sees the duty of parents as to watch over their kids in environments where the kids *felt* like there was risk and danger but not in any actual severe sense, so we could learn how to handle ourselves when they could still be around to help us recover, if needed.

  • my mom gave me a credit card when I was 15 to start learning about credit and had me still mail all the credit card statements home through college, to make sure I didn’t accidentally end up over my head in debt.
  • my dad would often get us to drive on the highway back from airports to make sure we still practiced that despite no longer driving regularly after moving out

10. You are capable and in charge of handling your own life, but we’re here to back you up.

At my wedding, my mom gave a toast that was about how the second-to-last time she ever involved herself directly with my education, it was to ask the teacher why I’d gotten a 99 on a standardized test in elementary school. When the teacher told her this was the highest score you could get because it was measured in percentiles, she expressed that that never occurred to her because in China, there is only 100 as the top score! That toast was a huge hit.

For most of the rest of my schooling, she wanted us to manage our own homework schedules and such—just like a good boss, she made sure we knew the objectives and desired end goal (good grades) and then let us accomplish them however we thought best. She never read any of the permission slips we brought home and just signed wherever we told her. (Note that never once did it occur to us to take advantage of this in some way.)

The last time she involved herself was when my high school principal was considering blocking me from going on a trip for an Academic Team (Quizbowl/trivia team) competition because I’d missed too many days of school attending other competitions and visiting colleges. She got him on the phone and after she was through with him, we never heard a peep again. I think she basically argued, isn’t the purpose of being in class to get those grades, and if her grades are impeccable without being there all the time, isn’t that proof that being in class doesn’t matter that much? Do you really want to set a precedent for penalizing a student for being too successful? Ha.

11. You can adapt to most things.

My parents took us traveling pretty often and picked up the whole family when my mom was transferred to work in Bangkok for a few years. I switched schools every 2 years up until high school, so being “the new girl” never seemed like a big deal to me.

12. Everyone has a job in a family unit.

Our job as the kids was do well at school. I think this is why we didn’t fall prey to caring (very much) about popularity in school.


13. Don’t take advantage of other people when you’re more fortunate than they are.

This doesn’t apply to businesses though, my mom always said, “it’s not like they’re going to ring me up to tell me when they’ve overcharged me.”