THE BLOG
06/19/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

Ode to the Black Tiger Mother

When I read my friend Andrew Lam's graduation speech, I laughed in recognition. Although he -- author, most recently, of Bird of Paradise Lost -- was born in Vietnam and I in the U.S., just to name one of our many differences, we're kindred spirits... and children of different Tiger Mothers. These women wanted nothing second-best for us; but like all children, we had our own ideas of what "best" was.

Andrew said:

Yes, I betrayed my family's demands [to study medicine], but to the Tiger Mothers who insist that your children 'must be doctors, or else!' my answer is simple: Love your children instead. For whatever they do with compassion and with heart, whatever they do to stay in touch with their inner truth -- they are practicing medicine.

And this a good example of his sly, humorous social commentary:

I know you didn't get to choose your speaker, since Michael Cera is not standing where I am, but given your budget crisis, instead of the Arrested Development star who played a freshman at UCI on Netflix, what you got is a "Vietnamese Refugee Boy turned American Writer" instead, and he didn't even go to your school. And besides being much cheaper to get, half of my relatives attended school here, and the other half continue to sell Banh Mi Sandwiches, Pho Soup and café sua da -- to feed the entire campus so I feel that I am very connected with UCI.

I tried to be slyly humorous here. I actually attempted to write this piece in verses to be rhymed to the sounds of Tupac's "Dear Mama." I failed.

I'm not a great satirist, and what my family achieved is too serious to get that tonality wrong. My father and mother split when I was 8, and my mother became the Superparent -- that mix of mom, dad and enforcer who helped me become who I am. She deftly navigated my and my sister's path through the troubled Baltimore City School system, ensuring we got a solid education from a not-so-solid system. I had some extraordinary teachers, but none more so than my mother. She taught me to read, to ride a bike, to speak my truth. She was and is an urban farmer. I didn't think it strange that we had corn and potatoes and fruit trees in our city back yard. She saved her money for educational enrichment: computer coding classes at the local community college; anatomy at Johns Hopkins (I loved the cadaver dissection). I, like Andrew, was supposed to be a doctor.

I switched my Freshman year from pre-med to English, and although I sometimes regret the structural and financial hailstorm hitting journalism and creative writing, I still love the craft. I have two books under contract and one that I'm messing with on my own timeline. The ability to surf the choppy waves of my chosen profession is something I pull from my mother, and I do so in a spirit of reinvention. My mother served in the Peace Corps, got a master's degree in communications and became a writer, then a medical technologist, then a science teacher. Now, in her retirement, she's a master gardener.

Being a Black Tiger Mother has its own specific variations on the theme. Because of the nature of race and class in America, many Black Tiger Mothers (and Fathers) -- including my own -- had to brew an entire racial education curriculum into the tiger's milk. How do you retain a sense of dignity when people treat you as a second class citizen? Do you laugh it off, walk it off, or fight? When do you make that decision, and why? This may substitute for violin lessons in the regular Tiger Mom curriculum.

This isn't just a praise-song, as much as I would like it to be. From my mother's marriage to my father and its dissolution, I learned to value independence over almost all else. That's not a great attitude to bring into relationships, and only now, after years of both useful and navel-gazing therapy sessions, can I admit that in order to have the kind of relationship I crave, I have to become more vulnerable and malleable. Many children of Tiger Mothers I know are warriors. Warriors in full armor are less easy to embrace. We all have our blind spots, and overall, I wouldn't trade my Tiger pup training for anything else. But like all child-rearing, it's left me with with questions about who I might have been if I had been raised differently -- as useless yet addictive a question as there ever was.

I can't remember who coined the phrase "Parents are to be loved, not understood." I've tried my best to both love and understand my Black Tiger Mom, as she has me. In the end, I couldn't say better than Tupac did to his mother:

Everything will be alright if ya hold on
It's a struggle everyday, gotta roll on
And there's no way I can pay you back
But my plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated

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