Bombay I guess I have a tendency to be a little preachy. And like many preachers, I have a few favorite themes I return to over and over. For example, there’s my Anti-Provincialism Lecture Series. Just thinking about this subject makes me mad.
Whenever I hear Sophia or Lulu giggle at a foreign name—whether it’s Freek de Groot or Kwok Gum—I go wild. “Do you know how ignorant and close-minded you sound?” I’ll blow up at them. “Jasminder and Parminder are popular names in India. And coming from this family! What a disgrace. My mother’s father’s name was Go Ga Yong—do you think that’s funny? I should have named one of you that. Never judge people by their names.”
I don’t believe my girls would ever make fun of someone’s foreign accent, but maybe they would have if I hadn’t preempted it. Children can be terribly cruel. “Never ever make fun of foreign accents,” I’ve exhorted them on many occasions. “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery. Those are people who crossed an ocean to come to this country. My parents had accents—I had an accent. I was thrown into nursery school not speaking a word of English. Even in third grade, classmates made fun of me. Do you know where those people are now? They’re janitors, that’s where.”
“How do you know?” Sophia asked.
“I think it’s more important, Sophia, for you to ask yourself what it would be like if you moved to China. How perfect do you think your accent would be? I don’t want you to be a provincial American. Do you know how fat Americans are? And now after 3000 years of being skinny, the Chinese in China are suddenly getting fat too, and it’s because they’re eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
“But wait,” said Sophia. “Didn’t you say you were so fat when you were little you couldn’t fit into anything in stores and your mom had to sew you clothes?”
“And you were so fat because you stuffed yourself with your mom’s noodles and dumplings,” Sophia continued. “Didn’t you once eat forty-five sio mai?”
“I sure did,” I replied. “My dad was so proud of me. That was ten more than he could eat. And three times as many as my sister Michelle could eat. She was skinny.”
“So Chinese food can make you fat too,” pressed Sophia.
Maybe my logic wasn’t airtight. But I was trying to make a point. I value cosmopolitanism, and to make sure the girls are exposed to different cultures, Jed and I have always taken them with us everywhere we traveled—even though, when the girls were little, we sometimes had to sleep in one bed to make it affordable. As a result, by the time they were twelve and nine, the girls had been to London, Paris, Nice, Rome,Venice, Milan, Amsterdam, the Hague, Barcelona, Madrid, Málaga, Lichtenstein, Monaco, Munich, Dublin, Brussels, Bruges, Strasbourg, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila, Istanbul, Mexico City, Cancún, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, La Paz, Sucre, Cochabamba, Jamaica, Tangier, Fez, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and the Rock of Gibraltar.
The four of us looked forward to our vacations all year. Often, we’d time our trips to coincide with my parents and Cindy’s trips abroad, and the seven of us would travel around together in a giant rental van driven by Jed. We’d giggle as passersby stared at us, trying to figure out our weird racial combination. (Was Jed the adopted white son of an Asian family? Or a human trafficker selling the rest of us into slavery?) Sophia and Lulu adored their grandparents, who doted on them and acted ridiculously unstrict in a way completely inconsistent with the way they’d raised me.
The girls were especially fascinated by my father, who was unlike anyone they’d ever met. He was constantly disappearing into alleys, returning with his arms full of local specialties like soup dumplings in Shanghai or socca in Nice. (My dad likes to try everything; at Western restaurants he often orders two main meals.) We’d always find ourselves in nutty situations: out of gas at the top of a mountain pass or sharing a train car with Moroccan smugglers. We had great adventures, and those are memories we all cherish.
There was just one problem: practicing.
At home, the girls never missed a single day at the piano and violin, not even on their birthdays or on days when they were sick (Advil) or had just had dental surgery (Tylenol-3, with codeine). I didn’t see why we should miss a day when we were traveling. Even my parents were disapproving. “That’s crazy,” they’d say, shaking their heads. “Let the girls enjoy their vacation. A few days of not practicing won’t make a difference.” But serious musicians don’t see it that way. In the words of Lulu’s violin teacher Mr. Shugart, “Every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.” Also, as I pointed out to my girls, “Do you know what the Kims will be doing while we’re on vacation? Practicing. The Kims don’t take vacation. Do we want them to get ahead of us?”
In Lulu’s case, the logistics were easy. The violin was Lulu’s airplane carry-on and fit nicely into the overhead compartment. Things were more complicated with Sophia. If we were going somewhere in the United States, a couple of long-distance phone calls usually did the trick. It turns out that American hotels are overflowing with pianos. There’s typically one in the lobby bar and at least two in the various conference reception rooms. I’d just call the concierge in advance and book the Grand Ballroom at the Chicago Marriott from 6:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M. or The Went-worth Room at the Pasadena Langham Hotel from 10:00 P.M. to midnight. Occasionally, there were glitches. In Maui, the concierge at the Grand Wailea hotel set Sophia up at an electric keyboard in the Volcano Bar. But the keyboard was two octaves too short for Chopin’s Polonaise in C-sharp Minor, and there was a distracting snorkeling class going on at the same time, so Sophia ended up practicing in a basement storage room, where they were refurbishing the hotel’s baby grand.
It was much harder to find pianos for Sophia in foreign countries, and ingenuity was often required. London, of all places, proved surprisingly difficult. We were there for four days, because Jed was receiving an award for his book The Interpretation of Murder, a historical thriller based on Sigmund Freud’s one and only visit to the United States in 1909. Jed’s book was the #1 best seller in the UK for a while, and he was treated as something of a celebrity. This didn’t help me one bit on the music front. When I asked the concierge at our boutique Chelsea hotel (courtesy of Jed’s publisher) if we might find a time to practice on the piano in their library, she looked horrified, as if I’d asked to turn the hotel into a Laotian refugee camp.
“The library? Oh my goodness, no. I’m afraid not.”
Later that day, a maid evidently reported to her superiors that Lulu was practicing violin in our room, and she was asked to stop. Fortunately, through the Internet I found a place in London that rented piano practice rooms for a small hourly fee. Every day, while Jed was doing his radio and television interviews, the girls and I would march out of the hotel and take a bus to the store, which resembled a funeral parlor and was squeezed between two falafel shops. After ninety minutes of practicing, we’d take a bus back to the hotel.
We did this kind of thing all over the place. In Leuven, Belgium, we practiced in a former convent. In another city, which I no longer recall, I found a Spanish restaurant with a piano that allowed Sophia to practice between 3:00 P.M. and 5:00 P.M., while the staff mopped the floor and set the tables for dinner. Occasionally, Jed got annoyed at me for making our vacations tense. “So, shall we see the Coliseum this afternoon,” he’d say sardonically, “or go to that piano store again?”
Sophia got mad at me too. She hated it when I told hotel people she was a “concert pianist.” “Don’t say that, Mommy! It’s not true and it’s embarrassing.”
I totally disagreed. “You’re a pianist, and you give concerts, Sophia. That’s makes you a concert pianist.”
Finally, all too often, Lulu and I got into tedious, escalating arguments, wasting so much time we’d miss a museum’s opening hours or have to cancel a dinner reservation.
It was worth it. Whenever we got back to New Haven, Sophia and Lulu always stunned their music teachers with the progress they’d made away from home. Shortly after a trip to Xi’an, China—where I made Sophia practice at the crack of dawn for two hours before I would allow us to go see the 8000 life-sized Terracotta Warriors commissioned by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to serve him in the afterlife—Sophia won her second concerto competition, this time playing Mozart’s Concerto no. 15 in B-flat Major. Meanwhile, Lulu was invited to play as the first violinist in all kinds of trios and quartets, and we suddenly found ourselves being wooed by other violin teachers, who were always on the lookout for young talent.
But even I have to admit that it sometimes got hard. I remember once we took a vacation to Greece with my parents. After seeing Athens (where we managed to slip in a little practicing between the Acropolis and the Temple of Poseidon), we took a small plane to the island of Crete. We arrived at our bed-and-breakfast around three in the afternoon, and my father wanted to head out immediately. He couldn’t wait to show the girls the Palace of Knossos, where according to legend the Minoan King Minos kept the Minotaur, a monster with a man’s body and bull’s head, imprisoned in an underground labyrinth.
“Okay, Dad,” I said. “But Lulu and I just have ten minutes of violin to do first.”
Everyone exchanged alarmed glances. “How about practicing after dinner?” my mother suggested.
“No, Mom,” I said firmly. “Lulu promised she’d do this, because she wanted to stop early yesterday. But if she cooperates, it really should just take ten minutes. We’ll go easy today.”
I wouldn’t wish the misery that followed on anyone: Jed, Sophia, Lulu, and I cooped up in one claustrophobic room, with Jed lying on top of the bedspread, grimly trying to focus on an old issue of the International Herald Tribune; Sophia hiding in the bathroom reading; my parents waiting in the lobby, afraid to interfere and afraid other guests would overhear Lulu and me bickering, yelling, and provoking each other. (“That note was flat again, Lulu.” “Actually, it was sharp, Mommy, you don’t know anything.”) Obviously, I couldn’t stop after ten minutes when Lulu had refused to play even a single scale properly. When it was all over, Lulu was furious and tear-stained, Jed was tight-lipped, my parents were sleepy—and the Palace of Knossos was closed for the day.
I don’t know how my daughters will look back on all this twenty years from now. Will they tell their own children, “My mother was a controlling fanatic who even in India made us practice before we could see Bombay and New Delhi”? Or will they have softer memories? Perhaps Lulu will recall playing the first movement of the Bruch Violin Concerto beautifully in Agra, in front of an arched hotel window that looked straight out to the Taj Mahal; we didn’t fight that day for some reason—probably jet lag. Will Sophia recall with bitterness the time I laid into her at a piano in Barcelona because her fingers were not kicking high enough? If so, I hope she also remembers Rocquebrune, a village perched on a cliff in France, where the manager of our hotel heard Sophia practicing and invited her to perform for the entire restaurant that evening. In a glass-windowed room overlooking the Mediterranean, Sophia played Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, and got bravos and hugs from all the guests.
Florence In January 2006, my mother-in-law, Florence, called from her apartment in Manhattan. “I just got a call from the doctor’s office,” she said in an odd, slightly exasperated voice, “and now they’re telling me that I have acute leukemia.” Just two months earlier, Florence had been diagnosed with earlystage breast cancer, but true to her indomitable personality, she’d gone through surgery and radiation without a complaint. The last I’d heard, everything was fine, and she was back on the NewYork art scene, thinking about writing a second book.
My stomach tightened. Florence looked sixty but was about to turn seventy-five. “That can’t be right, Florence, it must be a mistake,” I said aloud, stupidly. “Let me get Jed on the phone, and he’ll figure out what’s going on. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”
Everything wasn’t all right. A week after our conversation, Florence had checked into New York Presbyterian Hospital and was starting chemotherapy. After hours of agonizing research and third and fourth opinions, Jed had helped Florence choose a less harsh arsenic-based treatment plan that wouldn’t make her as sick. Florence always listened to Jed. As she liked to tell Sophia and Lulu, she had adored him from the moment he was born, one month premature. “He was jaundiced and all yellow and looked like a wrinkled old man,” she used to laugh. “But I thought he was perfect.” Jed and Florence had a lot in common. He shared his mother’s aesthetic sensibilities and eye for good proportions. Everyone said he was her spitting image, and that was always meant as a compliment.
My mother-in-law was gorgeous when she was young. In her college yearbook, she looks like Rita Hayworth. Even at fifty, which is how old she was when I first met her, she turned heads at parties. She was also witty and charming, but definitely judgmental. You could always tell which outfits she found tacky, which dishes too rich, which people too eager. Once I came downstairs in a new suit, and Florence’s face brightened. “You look terrific, Amy,” she said warmly. “You’re putting yourself together so much better these days.”
Florence was an unusual combination. She was fascinated by grotesque objects and always said that “pretty” things bored her. She had an amazing eye, and had made some money in the 1970s by investing in works by relatively unknown modern artists. These artists—among them Robert Arneson and Sam Gilliam—all eventually got discovered, and Florence’s purchases skyrocketed in value. Florence never envied anyone, and could be strangely insensitive to people who envied her. She didn’t mind being alone; she prized her independence and had turned down offers of second marriage from many rich and successful men. Although she liked stylish clothes and art gallery openings, her favorite things in the world were swimming in Crystal Lake (where she had spent every summer as a child), making dinner for old friends, and most of all, being with her granddaughters Sophia and Lulu, who, at Florence’s request, had always called her “Popo.”
Florence made it into remission by March, after six weeks of chemotherapy. By then, she was a frail shadow of herself—I remember how small she looked against the white hospital pillows, like a 75% photocopy reduction of herself—but she still had all her hair, a decent appetite, and the same buoyant personality. She was ecstatic about being discharged.
Jed and I knew the remission was only temporary. The doctors had repeatedly warned us that Florence’s prognosis was poor. Her leukemia was aggressive and would almost certainly relapse within six months to a year. Because of her age, there was no possibility of a bone marrow transplant—in short, no possibility of a cure. But Florence didn’t understand her disease and had no idea how hopeless things were. Jed tried a few times to explain the situation, but Florence was always stubbornly obtuse and upbeat, and nothing seemed to sink in. “Oh, dear—I’m going to have to spend a lot of time at the gym when this is all over,” she’d say surreally. “My muscle tone’s all gone.”
In the immediate term, we had to decide what to do with Florence. Living on her own was out of the question: She was too weak to walk and needed frequent blood transfusions. And she really didn’t have much family she could turn to. By her choice she had almost no contact with her ex-husband, Sy, and her daughter lived much farther away.
I proposed what seemed the obvious solution: Florence would come live with us in New Haven. My mother’s elderly parents lived with us in Indiana when I was little. My father’s mother lived with my uncle in Chicago until she died at the age of eighty-seven. I’ve always assumed that I would take in my parents if the need arose. This is the Chinese way.
To my astonishment, Jed was reluctant. There was no question of his devotion to Florence. But he reminded me that I had often had trouble with Florence and gotten angry at her; that she and I had wildly different views about child-rearing; that we both had strong personalities; and that, even ill, Florence was unlikely to keep her views to herself. He asked me to imagine what it would be like if Lulu and I got into one of our raging, thrashing fights and Florence felt the need to intervene on behalf of her granddaughter.
Jed was right of course. Florence and I got along great for years—she introduced me to the world of modern art, and I used to love accompanying her to museum and gallery events—but we started having conflicts after Sophia was born. In fact, it was through butting heads with Florence that I first became aware of some of the deep differences between Chinese and (at least one variant of) Western parenting. Above all, Florence had taste. She was a connoisseur of art, food, and wine. She liked luxurious fabrics and dark chocolate. Whenever we returned from travels, she always asked the girls about the colors and smells they’d encountered. Another thing Florence had definite taste about was childhood. She believed that childhood should be full of spontaneity, freedom, discovery, and experience.
At Crystal Lake, Florence felt that her granddaughters should be able to swim, walk, and explore wherever they pleased. By contrast, I told them that if they stepped off our front porch, kidnappers would get them. I also told them that the deep parts of the lake had ferocious biting fish. I may have gone overboard, but sometimes being carefree means being careless. Once when Florence was babysitting for us at the lake, I came home to find two-year-old Sophia running around outside by herself with a pair of garden shears as large was she was. I snatched them furiously away. “She was going to cut some wildflowers,” Florence said wistfully.
The truth is I’m not good at enjoying life. It’s not one of my strengths. I keep a lot of to-do lists and hate massages and Caribbean vacations. Florence saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed. I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future. Florence always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl—she begged me for that. But I never had a full day for them to spare. The girls barely had time as it was to do their homework, speak Chinese with their tutor, and practice their instruments.
Florence liked rebelliousness and moral dilemmas. She also liked psychological complexity. I did too, but not when it was applied to my kids. “Sophia is so envious of her new sister,” Florence once giggled, shortly after Lulu was born. “She just wants to ship Lulu back where she came from.”
“No, she doesn’t,” I snapped. “Sophia loves her new sister.” I felt that Florence was generating sibling rivalry by looking for it. There are all kinds of psychological disorders in the West that don’t exist in Asia.
Being Chinese, I almost never had any open confrontations with Florence. When I said “butting heads with Florence” earlier, what I meant was criticizing and railing against her to Jed behind her back. With Florence I was always accommodating and hypocritically good-natured about her many suggestions. So Jed had a point, especially since he’d borne the brunt of the conflict.
But none of that mattered one bit, because Florence was Jed’s mother. For Chinese people, when it comes to parents, nothing is negotiable. Your parents are your parents, you owe everything to them (even if you don’t), and you have to do everything for them (even if it destroys your life).
In early April, Jed checked Florence out of the hospital and brought her to New Haven, where he carried her up to our second floor. Florence was incredibly excited and happy, as if we were all at a resort together. She stayed in our guest room, next to the girls’ bedroom and just down the hall from our master bedroom. We hired a nurse to cook and care for her, and physical therapists were always coming and going. Almost every night, Jed, the girls, and I had dinner with Florence; for the first couple of weeks, it was always in her room because she couldn’t come downstairs. Once, I invited a few of her friends and threw a wine and cheese party in her room. When Florence saw the cheeses I’d picked, she was aghast and sent me out for different ones. Instead of being mad, I was glad that she was still Florence and that good taste ran in my daughters’ genes. I also made a note of which cheeses never to buy again.
Although there were constant scares—Jed had to race Florence to the New Haven hospital at least twice a week—Florence seemed to recover miraculously in our house. She had an enormous appetite and gained weight rapidly. On her birthday, May 3, we were able to all go out to a nice restaurant. Our friends Henry and Marina came with us and couldn’t believe this was the same Florence they’d seen in the hospital six weeks earlier. In a high-necked asymmetrical Issey Miyake jacket, she was glamorous again and didn’t even look sick.
Just a few days later, on May 7, Sophia had her Bat Mitzvah at our house. Earlier that same morning we’d had another crisis, with Jed rushing Florence to the hospital for an emergency blood transfusion. But they made it back on time, and Florence looked fabulous when the eighty guests arrived. After the ceremony, under a perfect blue sky, on tables with white tulips, we served French toast, strawberries, and dim sum—Sophia and Popo had planned the menu—and Jed and I marveled at how much you have to spend to keep things simple and unpretentious.
A week later, Florence decided that she was well enough to go back to her own New York apartment, as long as the nurse went with her. She died in her apartment on May 21, apparently from a stroke that killed her instantly. She had plans to go out for drinks that evening and never knew that her time was limited.
At the funeral, both Sophia and Lulu read short speeches they’d written themselves. Here’s part of what Lulu said: When Popo was living at my family’s house over the last month, I spent a lot of time with her, whether it was eating lunch together, playing cards with her, or just talking. On two nights, we were left alone together—“babysitting” each other. Even though she was sick and couldn’t walk well, she made me feel not scared at all. She was a very strong person. When I think of Popo, I think of her happy and laughing. She loved to be happy and that made me feel happy too. I’m really going to miss Popo a lot. And here’s part of what Sophia said: Popo always wanted intellectual stimulation, full happiness—to get the utmost vitality and thought out of every minute. And I think she got it, right up to the end. I hope someday I can learn to do the same.
When I heard Sophia and Lulu say these words, several things came to mind. I was proud and glad that Jed and I had taken Florence in, the Chinese way, and that the girls had witnessed us doing it. I was also proud and glad that Sophia and Lulu had helped take care of Florence. But with the words “loved to be happy” and “full happiness” ringing in my head, I also wondered whether down the road if I were sick, the girls would take me into their homes and do the same for me—or whether they would opt for happiness and freedom.
Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me. When I see the piano and violin-induced calluses on my daughters’ fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I’m sometimes seized with doubt.
But here’s the thing. When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart—all the grown sons and daughters who can’t stand to be around their parents or don’t even talk to them—I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness. It’s amazing how many older Western parents I’ve met who’ve said, shaking their heads sadly, “As a parent you just can’t win. No matter what you do, your kids will grow up resenting you.”
By contrast, I can’t tell you how many Asian kids I’ve met who, while acknowledging how oppressively strict and brutally demanding their parents were, happily describe themselves as devoted to their parents and unbelievably grateful to them, seemingly without a trace of bitterness or resentment.
I’m really not sure why this is. Maybe it’s brainwashing. Or maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome. But here’s one thing I’m sure of: Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese ones.