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How to Be Your Own Tiger Mother

I never saw myself as a Harvard type. “You have a duty to go to art school,” my high school art teacher told me sophomore year, holding my pen and watercolor sketches in one hand. It was delivered with the same weight as “thou shalt not kill.”

The shock from his comment warmed me. I went home that day and started researching art schools: FIT, Parsons, Pratt, RISD. What bothered me was their breezy academic requirements. After all, I’d been getting straight A’s since elementary school – would they even care?

I was really trying to ask: am I too smart to be an artist?

*

Then, I saw my future as a dichotomy. Either I’d end up fingerpainting in a rented cardboard box, or weeping myself to sleep as a doctor-banker-lawyer. Even worse, this mental prison was entirely self-imposed.

I’m a first generation immigrant, but my parents are not the Amy Chua type. I told my father recently that I was foregoing full-time employment in favor of traveling for a year. He was cool with it. Similarly, when I agonized over the stray A-, my mother told me I was being too hard on myself. Their endless support and forgiveness is, in many cases, unwarranted.

External judgement came instead from a classmate. I find it hilarious that TV shows show jocks and cheerleaders as the tormentors. A ditzy cheerleader would never lean over and comment to a classmate that my Physics midterm grade “wasn’t very good,” or that my hard-won 85 on a brutal AP Chemistry test was unacceptable. The worst were the arguments in front of mutual friends, where I had to fend for myself. High school breeds peculiar bullies: so perfect they seem self-manifested.

*

My parents never issued a curfew. This was because I rarely left my room. Sometimes I wondered if I was mildly autistic during my teen years. Social interactions were confusing and infrequent; while other people trolled the local mall on Friday nights, I would design websites, write novels, or update my Livejournal.

Being totally clueless had its advantages. I was free to whatever I wanted, after all, no one cared. Somehow, I ended up writing articles for the local paper. I had never conducted an interview before, but it was in journalism that I lost my fear of cold calling strangers with no idea what to say.

It was an exciting but lonely endeavor. I liked talking to drug dealers, doctors, and marginalized teens. I was writing a piece about local teens using drugs when an English teacher pressured me to not make the school look bad. I continued reporting in college, where prominent academics berated me, a movie star flirted with me, and the House of Blues kicked me out after a tense conversation.

It can be isolating to believe that no one cares, but I found it be my most useful piece of rhetoric. It’s how I conquered my fear of talking to strangers, of entering a beauty pageant, of a million social failures. No one cares. Your real friends get over it. When I become too deeply engrained in something that I lose that naivete, I’ll make some major change to bring it back.

I love the stories and experiences I’ve collected as a result. The ex-con in a New Haven bus stop who opined on racism in jail. Walden Pond in the dark. Eating dinner with locals in Pudong, and the stew of beef bones that made my stomach churn later.

*

Still considering art school, I went on a college tour junior year of high school. The Harvard student guide was a tall, spindly blond named Ben. As we walked through Memorial Hall’s yawning corridor – where I’d arrive late to Ec10 three years later – he complained that high schoolers were now on Facebook. Of course, I resolved to friend him. I listened to the admissions spiel, feeling chills course through my body. Maybe it was the steady drumbeat of sunshine outside, the stained glasses casting fractal rainbows, or the creme-de-la-creme culture. Suddenly, I had something to aspire to.

My family and I were staying at friend’s house in the suburbs. I drank cup after cup of tea at dinner and couldn’t fall asleep. My SAT scores raced through my brain. My search had narrowed from a universe of college picks – from South University Tampa to Stanford –  to the tunnel vision of just one.

For better or worse, when I want something, I pursue it with the ferocity and grace of a high-speed bulldozer.

My unvarnished ambition is not a particularly feminine trait, which I was reminded of when I heard through the grapevine that an acquaintance remarked, “I hear she gets what she wants.”

I was upset. “Would he say that if I were a guy?” I asked my friend, not sure what it meant.

*

I ended up getting into Harvard. It was December 15th, a data I had circled, then tore out in my calendar to represent a nuclear bomb crater. It was just in time, since my soul had already been tractored from reading too many posts on the College Confidential forum by neurotic overachieving applicants. After a week of joy, I promptly fell into a tailspin, decided I wanted to go to Brown instead, and passed through senior spring like a hospice patient. The bully delivered a quickly forgotten speech at graduation; I fidgeted with my robe and felt no nostalgia.

I ran into the art teacher again before I graduated. We chatted about college, and he said something offhand about remembering I was a decent artist.

Remembering his near-religious conviction two years prior – and how it’d nearly ended changed the course of my life – the remark felt like a blade revealing nothing in a balloon but stale air.

*

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said something really interesting. “I realized,” he said over Thai food, “that it’s not about picking the most creative field. It’s about being the most creative one in your field.”

Discussion

10 Responses to “How to Be Your Own Tiger Mother”

  1. Great food for thought Lingbo!

    Posted by Michelle | February 6, 2011, 3:56 pm
  2. How have these experiences – and you subsequent realizations – informed your parenting style? :)

    It has been great to read about 虎妈 in Chinese as well in English, because there are quite different reactions in the press vs. on Sina.

    Posted by Sam Jackson | February 6, 2011, 6:58 pm
  3. I have always thought that not all Chinese parents subscribe to Amy Chua’s theory about strict parenting and those who don’t may be offended by the methods she promotes in her book. Your article has proved that I am right.

    Posted by Elli Davis | February 7, 2011, 3:31 am
    • Funny, my parents actually agree with the article (as far as I can tell). They definitely weren’t the “self esteeming” type of parents, but they were far from the supposed slave drivers that the media is getting worked up about.

      Posted by Lingbo Li | February 7, 2011, 8:55 am
  4. Hi Lingbo,

    I’ve been following your blog for a while, but I’m finally commenting! I had a similar experience thinking I would pursue the fine arts after high school. parental nudging and other factors (not being a starving artist) have put me on my current path (PhD in the sciences). I agree with your friend’s quote and wish someone had shared that wisdom with me much sooner. best of luck after graduation. Definitely go travel for a year if you can afford it.

    Posted by Lori | February 8, 2011, 2:34 pm
  5. Lingbo,

    This is your uncle Desheng. Your parents are one of the best parents I have ever known as my friend. We are so proud of you when we get to talk about you. Just a brink, you are gratulating. Congratulations! As my niece is going to taste Harvard Summer School, I got the information to see your blog. Great job done. I liked your Tiger mom view.
    As my experience, I found that the bigest hurdle or enemy to my success was myself. To be content with what I have but not stop with what I have. Never, never, never give up your dream but always with your feet on solid ground. Happiness is in the hope and enjoying the procedure to reach your dream or goal rather in the goal itself. A calm mind comes from determination and committment you make. So, even a true LOVE can not last without determination!!!

    So, wish you joyful commencement and a fruitful and happy trip ahead! I hope to see you and your parents during your commencement!

    Happy Easter!

    Posted by Desheng Wang | April 20, 2011, 11:35 am

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Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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