I’m a failed tiger cub. I was the kind of child that would have given infamous Tiger Mum, Amy Chua, heart palpitations. Most of us are familiar with the Tiger Mother’s rigorous parenting style, where academic and musical achievement is forced on the child and failure (as signified by an A minus) is not an option. It’s an approach that makes the SAS selection process look like a tea party.
My mum and dad were Tiger Parents Lite. Sure, they wanted to elevate me to great academic and musical heights, but after trying to push me, an idle panda, through a tiger-shaped hole, they realised it was futile.
Like all good Asian tiger cubs, I was forced to take piano lessons. My teacher’s house was on the train line and, as I enthusiastically butchered sonata after sonata, I saw Mr Murrel thanking the gods for the few blissful moments when I was drowned out. After several years of lessons, I amazed everyone by making absolutely no progress whatsoever and Mr Murrel begged my father to save his money and let me quit.
Like all good Asian tiger cubs, I was forced to take piano lessons.
So, the piano was a no go, but what about something from the string family? I chose the violin’s more mellow sister - the cello. My teacher, the delightful Mrs Keunaman, loved music. Though something about the way I dragged that horse-hair over the taut strings conjured up creaky attic doors and cats in heat. I’m sure it was this that led her to bring my unbearable sawing to an end after about 10 minutes and turn each lesson into a private concert given by herself (with the occasional lecture on the importance of women being financially independent thrown in for good measure).
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t become the next Yo Yo Ma. Indeed, the biggest impact I made on the classical music scene was when I left my cello in the school hallway with the endpin sticking out. My friend walked straight into the razor-sharp spike, shin-first. The result was a bloody hallway and stitches, though thankfully she was spared tetanus.
Science and mathematics are also a tiger cub’s natural calling and Dad encouraged me whenever he could. For the school science competition, my peers made papier mâché volcanoes and model solar systems using polystyrene balls and coat hangers. In hindsight, my project about primary colours was more a postmodern art piece than science project. I thought it perfectly reasonable to hand in a blank sheet of paper and three tubs of paint so that the examiner could have a dabble. A shameful A minus? Not even - I scraped by with a pass.
Science and mathematics are also a tiger cub’s natural calling and Dad encouraged me whenever he could.
Sadly, maths wasn’t my strong suit either. My brother and I loved potato chips and I felt it was my moral duty to inform him that crushing your chips into tiny pieces actually resulted in more chips. He patiently tried to explain the concepts of mass and volume, but I wasn’t convinced. (I’m still not.) While I pecked away at my pulverised potato dust, my brother shrugged and lifted a perfectly intact crisp to his gob.
This was not an untypical scene. My pathetic attempts at excellence were in stark contrast to those of my older brother, who was effortlessly every immigrant parent’s dream tiger boy: scholarship, prefect, athletic star and dux. You’ve heard of Type A personalities? Well he was Type A+. As he stormed home in running races and had his name etched in gold lettering on school honour boards, I was wondering when I could get my next potato chip hit.
But there was a glimmer of hope. Like all Tiger Parents, mine would set me homework during the holidays. Dad asked me to write an essay and I penned a damning exposé of my family, which included insights such as who read the newspaper on the toilet and who had the baggiest undies. My aunt read the essay and threatened to show my parents. I would not be silenced, and for the first time I saw how the written word could move people – even if it was to disgust.
It turned out that I was less bad at English. I enjoyed telling stories and, unlike maths or science, there was no wrong answer. After graduating high school, I went on to study arts while my brother studied medicine.
“But what job will you do?” Mum asked, envisioning a future where I’d be living rough with nothing to keep me warm but my unfurled Arts diploma.
“Would you like fries with that?” my brother quipped unhelpfully.
A couple of decades on, and my parents have come to terms with the fact that I’m not a doctor. (My brother is.) While they’ve given up on me, they’ve got their eyes set on the next generation.
The other day, Dad asked after my three-year-old daughter.
“How is Holly’s counting going?” Dad asked.
“Pretty good.” I said.
“Time to introduce her to some maths, then,” he purred.
Stay tuned for the battle roar of the Tiger Grandpa.
Kelly Eng is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.
This article is part of a series on Multicultural Motherhood, exploring diverse experiences of birth and parenting, edited by Saman Shad.
Other articles in the series can be found here: