A Tale of Two Failures

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I was in a celebratory mood. Not an hour before, I’d walked across the stage at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., welcomed the piece of paper declaring my new standing as a high school graduate, and thrown up my mortarboard with joy, flinging away four years of late nights, stressful exams, endless cram sessions, more than a few heartaches, and everything else that went along with attending a competitive public high school in the suburbs of our Nation’s Capital.

I was still feeling giddy at dinner with my family at a posh steakhouse when my father revealed what he had been carrying in his head and heart. “I consider your high school experience a failure,” he intoned, straight-faced and stern.

That was it. But he did not have to say more, and anyone who considers herself a “Tiger Mother” (as expressed by Amy Chua in the recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”), would likely agree.

My failures were certainly not due to my parents’ lack of communication of their expectations. Korean immigrants in the 1960s, my parents left behind all that was familiar and comfortable to come to the U.S., and my brother and I knew we embodied their hopes for the future. I began to fulfill those hopes as an early reader who skipped first grade, which my parents mistakenly interpreted to mean they had a prodigy on their hands.

When I was six, my mother went to Back-to-School night and discovered there was a competition to see who would learn all their multiplication tables first. There was no question in her mind who would win that race. The next day, in our tiny, two-bedroom apartment in which roaches freely roamed, the wall of my bedroom was adorned with handwritten number grids on the backs of brown paper bags. I was not allowed to emerge for the morning until I demonstrated sufficient mastery of the day’s tables. Alongside the numbers I drilled were the messages that served as my parents’ mantra for their entire lives: Hard work is the ticket to a better future. Hard work is the key to success.

“Success” for my parents was defined as narrowly as it is for Chua: academic perfection, music trophies, and the Holy Grail of high school—admission into a name-brand, Ivy League school. I was accepted at and chose to attend Williams College, a selective, small, liberal arts school, but hardly of the status of a Harvard or Yale from my parents’ perspective. “She’s just going to a small school in Massachusetts,” they would tell friends who asked them, too embarrassed to reveal anything more. In their eyes, I had not lived up to my potential, and my failures brought shame onto the entire family.

Despite my parent's view of Williams, I loved my time there, where I rediscovered God and began to understand my life's purpose. In the decades that have passed since high school, I’ve grown to appreciate the positive aspects of what my parents taught me, such as a strong work ethic and a high regard for education—values I try to pass on to my own children.

I now understand that my parents placed high expectations on me because they loved me. But that head knowledge has never been able to replace what my heart experienced, which was the message that their love was to be earned by being “successful” in traditionally Asian-accepted ways, and my relationship with my parents has never been close as a result.

While I was struggling as an adolescent under the weight of my parents’ hopes and dreams, a Korean-Canadian teenager in Toronto was practicing his piano as he did every day. But in a departure from what Chua describes as the Tiger-Mother approach, which may resort to bribery or even bodily threats to keep kids laboring for hours at their instruments, my future husband’s parents forged a different path. They never pushed him to play piano nor pressured him about his grades. When it became clear that Brian had a musical gift, they let him be the one to determine how much he would practice and where he would take his talent.

Brian once entered himself into a piano competition, drove himself there, won the competition, and was even mentioned in the local Toronto newspaper, all without his parents’ knowledge until after the fact. “I remember the other Asian kids in the concert hall,” he says of that day, “surrounded by their parents’ criticisms. They played note-perfect, but their music had no heart.”

Brian did not attend an Ivy League school, play at Carnegie Hall in his youth, or earn exceptional standardized test scores and grades. But he continued his lifelong passion of music-making, ultimately getting a doctorate in piano performance at The Juilliard School; as a college professor, he now mentors young people to do the same. And he and his parents are as close as you can imagine an adult son and his parents could be.

By Tiger-Mother standards, my husband and I would both be considered tales of failure.

But if so, I will gladly choose “failure” over “success” any day.

Post by Helen Lee, author of The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home & in the World.