(If you missed Part I, it’s here: “My Chinese Mom: A Superstar’s Secret Weapon.”)
So it’s been almost 2 weeks since the Wall Street Journal ran the story “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and I find myself both amused and surprised at the amount of outrage that has ensued. I’d have to say that Amy Chua, the Yale professor who wrote the book (“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”) of which this article was an excerpt from, is really freakin’ brilliant. She’s been interviewed on NPR and BBC and obviously the WSJ article was meant to provoke people while promoting her new book.
Seriously, people need to chill. Her 18-year-old daughter wrote an article a couple days ago that was just published on the New York Post “Why I love my strict Chinese mom.”
I personally think that Prof. Amy Chua kicks ass and a lot of people don’t understand her sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek humor. I can totally relate to this because some people don’t get my sense of humor either. Chinese people are actually really funny. Just watch Kung Fu Hustle or some old Jackie Chan movies.
It’s not like she is telling people how to raise their kids, it’s just her memoir on how she raised her own. Then again, there’s a reason you hardly (if ever?) see Asian families on parenting reality shows like Nanny 911.
Coach was right. Americans are way too soft. They totally get their panties all in a tangle when confronted with truths they don’t want to hear.
I also realize that some of my Chinese-American peers have grown up pretty resentful and angry at the way their parents brought them up. Some of them were pushed into careers they were never interested in. I was lucky in that my parents allowed me and my siblings to choose whatever college major and career we wanted. We just had to go to college. That was a non-negotiable, though NOT going to college never even crossed my mind. And while they were never too crazy with the idea of me becoming a professional triathlete, I made sure I finished my graduate education, residencies, and board exams for prosthetics & orthotics before I dove head-first into this pro triathlon world. Education always came before sports. But now they are my biggest fans.
my gorgeous Chinese mom before she became our mom
ANYWAY. My reflections on my strict Chinese upbringing was to analyze how it helped me not just survive but thrive at training camp with my strict Australian coach. It wasn’t until I read the Chinese moms article that I came to the realization that I was brought up with a certain mindset. It was always assumed that we were smart and would therefore get excellent grades in school. It never occurred to me that I was stupid or incapable. If I got bad grades, it was because I was being lazy and didn’t try hard enough.
I was also lucky in the sense that I have an older sister who served as my role model. She’d been getting straight A’s since elementary school. I didn’t see what the big deal was and didn’t try that hard. But I soon got tired of hearing “Why can’t you be more like your older sister?” and decided to put an end to it. I’ll get into the whole Jan Brady syndrome in another blog (the sister’s birthday is next month, haha) and how by pitting me against my sister, the parents created the uber competitive monster I am today. But having my sister get the grades made it seem to me that it wasn’t THAT hard, and that I could do it too.
If I could summarize my parents’ philosophy into a few words, it would be “Assume greatness and achieve greatness.”
Now Coach was the same. He’s always said that anyone with two arms and two legs can go X:XX in an Ironman without taking drugs. During one of these talks (at one of my first training camps) he looked me in the eye and said “even you, Wongstar.” I wasn’t so sure then. But from the beginning, he had always said that it wasn’t my ability that was holding me back, but my belief in myself. When I stopped improving in the swim and actually got slower last year, he said it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I didn’t want it bad enough. I was being lazy.
He rode me hard those first few camps. I cried a couple times, and then I hardened up. I learned to take criticism, and I often received the harshest. Later I learned this was completely intentional on Coach’s end. I was the weakest and slowest athlete in the squad and therefore I was driven the hardest.
I learned to accept and appreciate Coach’s cold, hard truths and knew the comments about my weight were not to hurt my feelings but to make me a better athlete. It’s not like it’s a secret that I like to eat and that getting leaner makes you go faster. I learned to listen objectively and could deflect comments that certainly made some of my former teammates cringe, if not traumatized them. I got tougher and he knew I could take it. It’s been said before that he coaches us as individuals and this is completely true. He is very good at reading people and will treat us differently (i.e. manipulate and push our buttons differently) depending on our backgrounds. I think somehow he just knew that I could take harsh criticism from my Chinese upbringing.
When I did things right, Coach would say it was because I was Chinese. But when I screwed up, I was “being an American.” This is an excerpt from the WSJ that resonates with me as well:
“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. … Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.”
Now, just like how Prof. Chua has been harshly criticized, my coach has also had the reputation of being rather controversial, strict, and extreme. But you know what? There’s a reason for that. He’s here to create CHAMPIONS, not to coddle us. I’m not here busting my ass as a pro triathlete to be a mediocre nobody. And I would agree with the above…being mediocre is not fun. Winning is fun. Another of Coach’s favorite quotes I have written somewhere is “Moderation is for the mediocre.”
Chinese parents hardly ever praise you but it’s not because they aren’t proud of you. It’s just a tough love type of approach, instead of the “everyone’s a winner! you’re so awesome!” attitude that seems to prevail in American culture. You can say that this upbringing in no way damaged my self-esteem (I’m awesome and I know it ) but it’s almost like what I said earlier. They assume awesomeness, so what’s the point of getting a big head about it? The only times I ever knew my parents were proud of me were when I overheard them bragging to their friends and our relatives. Well scratch that–when you hear their friends or relatives tell you that you’ve been bragged about.
Coach has been similar…he hardly gives compliments but when he does, it counts many times the world over. Sure there was bit of blood, tons of sweat, and some tears inflicted by a very demanding Coach, but I will always remember the first time he saw me race at Embrunman… and I demolished all his expectations. I’ll never forget the look of pride on his face when he caught me at the finish line. It was that point that I started believing everything he had been shoving down our throats from Day One: you can achieve anything you want to, you just have to want it bad enough.
So you can get outraged and debate about it all you want, but as one of the few (if not the only) professional triathletes of Chinese descent on the Ironman circuit, from now on I know that I have that one secret weapon that nobody else has: my strict Chinese mother.
And for that, I’m thankful.