Eye of The Tiger (Mom)

We might make compromises in Dongguan, but the buck tends to stop when it comes to our children’s education

live love sweat

I was a high-flyer as a kid. I went to top schools, studied hard, obeyed the rules, and got perfect grades. By the tender age of 14, I already had a diploma in Piano Performing and played a variety of instruments with ease. I could shoot rifles and excelled in sports—all a result of being raised by ultra-strict middle-class parents who demanded total respect, and were very, very tough.

I have not-so-fond memories of my dad forcing me, kicking and screaming, to practice the piano. When I hysterically threw up all over him and the piano, he calmly wiped it all off, and told me to continue. Life was an endless cycle of school, tutoring, homework, memorizing, and extra lessons.

One day I had enough. I turned to the dark side. What followed were years of self-indulgence, indignation and pig-headedness. When I had kids, I vowed never to put them through the stressful academic environment I had suffered. I wanted them just to be happy.

When my children started school, I was the most “chill” mom ever. I did not stress about their homework (or lack of), never complained or bothered their teachers or principals with anything. If I could help it, I did not even bother going to their school. I trusted their teachers.

For a while everything was fine and dandy. My children seemed to thrive at school, and bounced home everyday with smiles on their faces and fun stories to tell. They learnt to play the piano and the violin, but they only had to practice for ten minutes each day, not hours and hours.

Then, I had a rude awakening. What if decisions based on my own emotional baggage were doing more harm than good? A few home truths hit me:

1) They could not spell or write properly.
They spoke beautifully and were fluent in reading. But give them a piece of paper and pen, they struggled. They did not know where to put their punctuation, and their grammar and spelling were atrocious. It hit me hard. Did my girls have some kind of learning disability? Was it all my fault?

2) Guilt.
Next, I decided to get them tested. I wanted to see how they did in the same tests I did growing up. I was shocked and appalled. They failed every single subject, badly. When I collected the results, head hung in shame, all I felt was guilt. Guilt that I had failed as a mother. The principal was understanding, but warned me that something had to be done.

3) The Ivy League
I have big dreams for my daughters and I want to make it my mission in life to get them into Ivy League schools. Not because of the academics, not because of the promise of high-paying jobs, but because of the social circle they will be exposed to.

The friends we make in high school and university will be our friends for life. And these friends are the ones who will open doors to opportunities. Once one has a good social network of friends in high places, he or she is pretty much set.

4) I refuse to settle.
Here we are in Dongguan, which one of my best friend affectionately calls, “The Armpit of China”. We are so used to settling. We settle for the internet and VPN whose speed fluctuates according to the weather. We settle for restaurants that do not “hit the spot’. We settle for sub-par medical care that we pay a fortune for and questionable local medicine.

Many expat parents here share my frustrations. We cannot find a school that is good in all areas. We have to settle for ones we can make peace with.

Not when it comes to my children.

I plucked my children out of their school, mid- year, put them into a smaller school which could tailor to their needs, and decided to give them intensive home tutoring.

Surprisingly, my daughters seem to love me more for it. They embraced their rigorous new schedule, and in just two months, they have improved leaps and bounds. Audrey, 6, came home beaming one day, and said, “Mommy, test me; I can spell all the months of the year”. I did, and she nailed it. This was coming from a child who could not spell ‘girl’ two months ago.

So, from now on, I will be a Tiger Mom. I will believe in my children more than anyone else, and help them realize their potential. If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I would choose the former in a heartbeat. But life is not so simple. It can be a tough world out there, and true self-esteem has to be earned.