My daughter Hao Hao was once a timid child who cried at every little thing. She even got kicked out of sports camp because she dissolved into a flood of tears every time she got “out” in softball or tag. Once when she was at Leslie Science Center, she cried on a hike through the woods because she was afraid of the spider webs on the trail. Instead of giving in to her tears as the teachers and moms at Chinese School tended to do, the Leslie Science Center instructor simply handed her a butterfly net to empower her to wave away the spider webs as she marched down the trail, head and butterfly net held up high.
In that transformative moment, I realized that I had to figure out how to select the best from each of the many cultures we had before us, rather than all of one or the other, and that I had to prepare my children for their future lives as adults in America, sometimes even mainstream America.
Many cultures, not just Asian ones, reward the “good girl” who is nice and quiet and obedient. As a parent, it can be a huge pain to have intelligent, articulate girls who question everything you say (I know, I have three), but in the long run, I know those are characteristics that are critical to their success in America. They need to be able to think independently, speak their mind, articulate their reasoning and back it all up with research and evidence. So they are not really “talking back” (for which I used to be scolded), they are “practicing” or developing their public speaking skills. (When I cannot take it anymore, I try to get them to speak up more in school rather than home—just kidding, teachers!)
Since one of the many stereotypes that haunt Asian-American girls and women is that they are nice, quiet and shy, I know that my girls will have to speak twice as loud in order to even be heard. At the same time, the stereotypically brash and loud American style can be especially grating on Asian and Asian-American sensibilities, so they also need to learn how to be assertive without being obnoxious, and how to speak up and lead effectively in different cultural contexts.
For the past 10 years, the children and I have spent every Mother’s Day weekend competing at the Michigan Chinese Schools State Chinese Speech Tournament. Other more normal mothers might like a weekend of pampering and breakfast in bed, but I get a much bigger charge out of watching the kids prepare, practice and communicate their ideas at a speech tournament, followed by a triumphant dinner with their friends at a Chinese buffet.
When the children were little, they had to learn how to stand up straight without fidgeting and to speak loudly enough to be heard. We worked through our entire family with sweet speeches on “My Sister,” “My Brother,” “My Mommy,” “My Grandparents,” “My Dog,” etc.
As they got older, we worked on thesis statements, organization and content. As they became more skilled, we focused on creativity, humor, and harder vocabulary words and expressions.
I was so proud when they blossomed in the Chinese storytelling competition that required preparing a story from pictures—with narration, dialogue, humor, vocabulary words and acting—in 30 minutes with no help from adults or books (only dictionaries), all in Mandarin Chinese. The trick is to amuse the other Chinese-American students while also impressing the Chinese language teachers.
Incredibly nerdy, I know, but Happy Mother’s Day to you, too!
Originally published at AnnArbor.com, reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2011 – 2013, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. All rights reserved.