Like most good, loving, and respectful daughters, I gripe about my mom all the time. So recently, when three of my friends began to share lighthearted stories about their “overbearing” mothers while we huddled together on a crowded subway platform, I knew I was well qualified to contribute my own. “My mother is ridiculous,” I started. “This one time in high school–”
“–But your story is understandable,” one friend interrupted. “You have a ‘tiger mom’. Our mothers have no excuses.”
I stared blankly, completely annoyed and unsure how to respond, while all three of my buddies on the platform chuckled and nodded their assent at this sudden, impromptu analysis of a story that hadn’t even been told. I hated how, almost three years after Amy Chua penned “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“, this tiger-mom trope was still perpetuating faulty perceptions about Asian women and motherhood. I was reminded that, in our “post-racial” world, my mother and I would always be defined by harmful racial ideologies, that our voices would have to compete with lazy tropes that define Asian women as delicate flowers, exotic schoolgirls, and culturally backward tiger-moms.
I also, however, see my own complicity in de-legitimizing my mother’s stories; I can unwittingly make my mother seem like a stagnant relic of Korean culture. “She’s being so Korean,” I often say to my friends. “She’s being backwards.” While there’s nothing wrong with recognizing cultural influences on behavior, I really can’t kid myself; repeating these kinds of statements does nothing to paint a fuller, more human picture of Asian motherhood. My mom, a Korean-American woman who immigrated to this country when she was eleven years old, has so many stories that continue to shape her life. Shouldn’t they be recognized? Does simplifying her entire existence into the racialized label “tiger mother” really do her any justice?
When I was thirteen years old, after my parents got into a particularly nasty argument, my father threw on his jacket, got into his car and drove away. He didn’t return to our family for several years. I was heartbroken over my father, but I also developed a bit of resentment for my mother during this time. I couldn’t understand how she could stay so emotionless, how she could silently watch her Korean television dramas while my brother and I found comfort in each other. Even after my father returned to our family, a part of me blamed my mother for the whole ordeal. If only she had been more emotionally available, I thought. If Mom were a better person, Dad would’ve stayed.
It took me over a decade to realize how much I had misunderstood my mother. I remember, now, hearing her cry alone in her bedroom, muffling her sobs with pillows that stained over time with remnants of her makeup. I remember hearing her leaving the house early and returning late — she worked three jobs to get the bills paid — while I made a big fuss every night about having to help my brother with his homework. I see now that all of my mom’s actions — all of her steely silence and her occasionally harsh words — were her methods of coping with the mounting stacks of unpaid bills and the glaring absence of a man she once loved. Looking back, I now understand that my mom is made up of so much more than cultural stereotypes or even the rituals, trials, and expectations of motherhood. Her unique life, a colorful amalgam of stories that wind across Korea & the United States, cannot be understood or spoken for by any misguided racial trope.
Sayantani DasGupta explains in “Butterflies, Slumdogs, and Tiger Moms” that the “tiger mom” trope draws its strength from a combination of already existing racial stereotypes that paint Asian women as the perpetually deluded victims of a “backward” culture. While stories about overly-strict Asian mothers certainly exist and can be told, DasGupta urges us to move away from what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of of the singular story. “We should examine how such stories are told, by whom, and for what purpose,” DasGupta emphasizes. “Most importantly, we should ask what other stories are being silenced for not fitting into these narrow tropes.”
Like all racial tropes, the image of the tiger-mom promotes a simplified understanding of a particular community while blurring the details of other real, lived experiences within that demographic. Google “Asian mothers”, and you’ll be presented with a plethora of articles — written by both Asians and non-Asians — that either pathologize all Asian mothers or extol them as the harsh, robotic, stick-carrying caretakers of a new generation of model minority superstars. It’s strange; I imagine that Asian mothers experience all the joys, hardships, and desires of motherhood, that they don’t all carry some sadistic penchant for making children cry their way to the top of of their violin classes.
My mother and I want to read more articles that highlight nuanced facets of Asian motherhood. We want to read stories like Sharlene Chiang’s, a powerful piece on one mother’s struggle with Postpartum Depression Spectrum; Momo Chang’s, a look into ancient post-birth traditions embraced by Asian & Pacific Islander mothers; and Mimi Khúc’s, an honest reflection on “What It Means to Love Mothers“. These stories do exist, and they deserve to be highlighted. We need to promote stories that dare to venture outside of the current confines of the tiger-mom parenting debate (mostly limited to “It’s good!” or “It’s bad!”), and recognize the underlying, harmful racial ideologies that undergird that so-called “conversation.”
So this Thanksgiving, I want to give an overdue shout-out to my beautiful, loving, and sometimes infuriating mother. Thank you for being my rock when my father was was gone, for being the rock for our entire family in our current season of loss. Thank you the small things, too: for scolding that bully who pilfered all my gel pens in second grade, for dealing with my dramatic outbursts after my first high school boyfriend broke up with me, and for holding my hair up that one time I drank too much soju in Los Angeles (just don’t laugh at me next time). Thank you for opening up to me over time, for entrusting me with stories about your carefree childhood, your first love, and what you’ve learned after decades of family strife. Thank you for teaching me to rejoice in life always. I’m grateful that you’ve loved my entire being, that you’ve never limited my capabilities and existence into a handful of narrow tropes. I promise to try harder to get to know you, to recognize and love your complexities. Mom, I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving!