It was August 2008, and Jed and I were in Rhode Island. For reasons mysterious to everyone, including myself, I had insisted that we get a second dog, and we were at the same breeder’s where we’d gotten Coco. Pacing around a rustic room with a wooden floor were three large, regal Samoyeds. Two of them, we learned, were the proud parents of the new litter; the third was the grandfather, worldly and magisterial at the venerable age of six. Scampering around the big dogs were four boisterous puppies, each an adorable yelping cotton ball.
“Yours is the one over there,” the breeder said, “under the stairs.”
Turning around, Jed and I saw, standing in a different part of the room by itself, something that looked quite different from the other puppies. It was taller, leaner, less furry—and less cute. Its hind legs were two inches longer than its front legs, giving it an awkward tilt. Its eyes were narrow and very slanted; its ears, oddly protuberant. Its tail was longer and fuller than the others’ , but maybe because it was too heavy, it didn’t curl up, but instead swung from side to side like a rat’s tail.
“Are you sure that’s a dog?” I asked dubiously. This wasn’t as preposterous a question as it may sound. If anything, the creature most resembled a baby lamb, and given that the breeders raised some farm animals on their property, one easily could have wandered in.
But the breeder was sure. She winked at us, and said, “You’ll see. She’ll be a great beauty. She’s got that great high Samoyed rear, just like her grandmother.”
We brought our new puppy home and named her Pushkin—“Push” for short—even though she was a girl. When our family and friends first met her, they felt sorry for us. As a puppy, Push hopped like a bunny and stumbled over her own feet. “Can you return her?” my mother asked at one point, as she watched Push bump into walls and chairs. “I know what the problem is—she’s blind,” it dawned on Jed one day, and he raced her to the vet, who concluded that Push’s eyesight was fine.
As Push grew bigger, she remained awkward, often tripping as she came down stairs. The trunk of her body was so long that she didn’t seem to have full control over her back half, so she moved like a Slinky. At the same time, she was strangely limber; to this day, she likes to sleep with her stomach plastered against a cold floor and all four limbs splayed out. It’s as if someone dropped her from the sky and she landed splat on the floor—in fact we call her “Splat” when we see her like that.
The breeder was right about one thing. Push was an ugly duckling. Within a year, she had transformed into a dog so breathtakingly magnificent that when we took walks cars constantly stopped short to marvel at her. She was bigger than Coco (who, due to the oddities of breeding, was actually Push’s grandniece), with snow-white fur and exotic cat’s eyes. Some dormant muscles had clearly developed because now her tail curled high up over her back like an enormous, lush plume.
But in terms of talent, Push stayed solidly in the lowest decile. Coco was not especially impressive, but compared to Push she was a genius. For some reason, Push—while even sweeter and gentler than Coco—couldn’t do things that normal dogs could. She couldn’t fetch and didn’t like running. She kept getting stuck in funny places—under the sink, in berry bushes, halfway in and halfway out of the bathtub—and needing to be extricated. At first, I denied that there was anything different about Pushkin, and I spent hours trying to teach her to do things, but all to no avail. Oddly enough, Push seemed to love music. Her favorite thing to do was to sit next to Sophia’s piano, singing (or in Jed’s view, howling) along as Sophia played.
Despite her shortcomings, the four of us adored Push, just as we did Coco. In fact, her failings were what made her so endearing. “Oh-h-h, poor thing! What a cutie,” we’d coo when she’d try to jump onto something and miss by a foot, and we’d rush to comfort her. Or we’d say, “Aw-w-w, just look at that. She can’t see the Frisbee! She’s so cu-u-ute.” Initially, Coco was wary of her new sibling; we saw her testing Push in cagey ways. Push, by contrast, had a more limited range of emotions; wariness and caginess were not among them. She was content to follow Coco around amiably, avoiding any moves that required agility.
As sweet as Push was, it made absolutely no sense for our family to have a second dog, and no one knew it better than me. The distribution of dog responsibility in our household was 90% me, 10% the other three. Every day, starting at six in the morning, I was the one who fed, ran, and cleaned up after them; I also took them to all their grooming and vet appointments. To make matters worse, my second book had just been published, and in addition to teaching a full course load and working with the girls on their music, I was constantly flying around the country giving lectures. I’d always find ways to compress trips to D.C., Chicago, or Miami into one day. More than once, I got up at 3:00 A.M., flew to California and gave a lunch talk, then took the redeye home. “What were you thinking?” friends would ask me. “With so much on your plate already, why on earth would you get a second dog?”
My friend Anne thought there was a conventional explanation. “All my friends,” she said, “get dogs the moment their kids become teenagers. They’re preparing for the empty nest. Dogs are substitutes for children.”
It’s funny that Anne would say that, because Chinese parenting is nothing like dog raising. In fact it’s kind of the opposite. For one thing, dog raising is social. When you meet other dog owners, you have lots to talk about. By contrast, Chinese parenting is incredibly lonely—at least if you’re trying to do it in the West, where you’re on your own. You have to go up against an entire value system—rooted in the Enlightenment, individual autonomy, child development theory, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and there’s no one you can talk to honestly, not even people you like and deeply respect.
For example, when Sophia and Lulu were little, what I used to dread most was when other parents invited one of them over for a playdate. Why why why this terrible Western institution? I tried telling the truth once, explaining to another mother that Lulu had no free time because she had to practice violin. But the woman couldn’t absorb this. I had to resort to the kinds of excuses that Westerners find valid: eye appointments, physical therapy, community service. At a certain point, the other mother got a hurt look on her face and began treating me icily, as if I thought Lulu were too good for her daughter. It really was a clash of worldviews. After fending off one playdate invitation, I couldn’t believe it when another one would immediately come along. “How about Saturday?”—Saturday was the day before Lulu’s lesson with Miss Tanaka in New York—“or two Fridays from today?” From their point of view, Western mothers just couldn’t comprehend how Lulu could be busy every afternoon, for the whole year.
There’s another huge difference between dog raising and Chinese parenting. Dog raising is easy. It requires patience, love, and possibly an initial investment of training time. By contrast, Chinese parenting is one of the most difficult things I can think of. You have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy. Just the opposite, Chinese parenting—at least if you’re trying to do it in America, where all odds are against you—is a never-ending uphill battle, requiring a 24-7 time commitment, resilience, and guile. You have to be able to swallow pride and change tactics at any moment. And you have to be creative.
Last year, for instance, I had some students over for an end-of-the-semester party, one of my favorite things to do. “You’re so nice to your students,” Sophia and Lulu are always saying. “They have no idea what you’re really like. They all think you’re nurturing and supportive.” The girls are actually right about that. I treat my law students (especially the ones with strict Asian parents) the exact opposite of the way I treat my kids.
On this occasion, the party was upstairs in our third-floor Ping-Pong room, which was also where Lulu practiced her violin. One of my students, named Ronan, found some practice notes I’d left for Lulu.
“What in the world—?” he said, reading the notes in disbelief. “Professor Chua, did you—did you write this?”
“Ronan, can you please put that down? And yes, I did write that,” I admitted staunchly, not seeing any alternative. “I leave instructions like that every day for my violinist daughter, to help her practice when I’m not here.”
But Ronan didn’t seem to be listening. “Oh, my god—there’s more,” he said, incredulous. And he was right. Lying around were dozens of instruction sheets, some typed, some handwritten, that I’d forgotten to hide. “I can’t believe it. These are so—weird.”
I didn’t think they were weird. But you can judge for yourself. Here are three unedited examples of the daily practice notes I wrote up for Lulu. Just ignore the nutty titles; I made those up to attract Lulu’s attention. By the way, in the second one, the “m.” means “measure”—so yes, I’m giving measure-by measure instructions.
CHOW CHOW LeBOEUF Installation
One. Only 55 minutes!! HELLO LULU!!! You are doing great. Light!! Light!!!! LIGHT!!! APOLLO Mission: Keeping violin in the position that allows it to stay up by itself sans hands, even on hard parts.
15 minutes: Schradieck: (1) Higher lighter fingers. (2) Hand position, so pinky always stands up and hovers. Do the whole thing with metronome once. Then DRILL hard sections, 25x each. Then do whole thing again. 15 minutes: Kreutzer octaves. Pick ONE new one. Do it slowly first INTONATION 2x.
CHALLENGE OF THE DAY:
10 minutes: Kreutzer #32. Work it through YOURSELF, with a metronome. SLOW. Light bows. If you can do this, you rock. LOS BOBOS DI MCNAMARA BRUCH CONCERTO
GOALS: (1) KEEP YOUR VIOLIN UP! Especially during chords! (2) articulation focus on making the “little” notes clear and bright use quicker, lighter fingers (standing up more) (3) shaping passages; dynamics start with slower bow and get faster DRILLS
PAGE 7 Opening measures: mm.
18 & 19:
a. Use ½ the bow pressure & faster bow on chords. Lower elbow. Keep violin still!
b. Drill little notes (da da dum) to make them clear drop fingers more quickly and relax them more quickly
a. triplets on the string 25x each!
b. make 8th notes clearer drill!
RELAX fingers after tapping!
Again, ½ bow pressure on chords and clearer, faster fingers on short notes
mm 27-30: IMPORTANT: This line is too heavy, and your violin drops! Super light chord. Clearer articulation. MORE the second time.
m. 32: Drop fingers from higher and relax them quicker. Keep violin and head still on the run.
m. 33: Faster bow, lighter! Circle off (up!)! PAGE 8
m. 40: This chord is way too heavy! ½ bow pressure and high violin! Articulate short notes.
m. 44: This chord should still be light, even though more sound use a faster bow!
mm 44-5 soft hand, soft wrist
mm 48-49 make this more lively! Faster, lighter fingers! Stand them up but relax them!
m. 52 articulation!
mm. 54-58 each one should get LONGER BOWS! More exciting grow!
m. 78 higher fingers! Don’t push keep fingers light!
m. 82 really crescendo, start slow then faster bow! Then drop quieter and crescendo huge! FIRST run is TAYLOR SWIFT! SECOND run is LADY GAGA!! THIRD run is BEYONCE!!
m. 87 more direction, follow the phrase (louder going up, quieter going down)
PAGE 9: mm. 115-6 start with less bow and lots of bow on the high A. Direction!
m. 131 get quiet!
mm.136 -145 really SHAPE this (louder and more bow when you go UP, quieter coming down) Drill out-of-tune notes, 50x each
mm. 146-159 tranquillo but GOOD articulation
mm. 156-158 keep crescendoing
m. 160-161 articulation PAGE 10
m. 180: Practice entrance. Direction! Start w/ slower bow, then get faster, most on high B!
m. 181-83: drill clear articulation quick, light fingers!
m. 185: ½ the bow speed on chords lighter! Clearer little notes (da-da-dum) quicker finger
m. 193-195 DRILL shifts exact position! 50x
m. 194: Start less, then really crescendo!
m. 200 memorize correct notes drill 30x
m. 202 practice chords exact hand position intonation!
m. 204 use very soft hand and relaxed wrist! SPUNKY PICKS ALOHA STREAM
7 MENDEL SSOHN! Perpetual Mobile
Page 2 Opening: *On crescendo, energy goes up! *Also, it goes up 3 times, make hem different maybe LESS on last one * Last measure of line 2 is DIFFERENT HARMONY so bring that out
Line 3: Bring out melody notes, less on repeated notes. Then “rolling down”
Line 4: Make sure to play important notes with MUCH LONGER BOW
Line 5: Bring out WEIRD notes
Line 6: So many As! Boring so make them quieter and bring out the OTHER notes.
Line 7: Huge long 2-octave scale start LESS and make a huge crescendo!!
Page 3 Line 5: At the f, use almost the entire bow make it exciting! then diminuendo to tiny
Line 6-7: Follow pattern less, then suddenly EXPLOSION at f!
Line 8-9: same thing quiet and then sudden EXPLOSION at f!
Line 10: Bring out TOP 2 notes, bottom note less important.
Mendelssohn Opening: Andante -a bit faster Make this much more relaxed, intimate, like you are ALL ALONE WITH SLEEPING DOGS. Same thing happens 2x, then BRING OUT the 3rd time -open up a bit!
Line 4: Now, a little more worried, tense. MAYBE ONE SLEEPING DOG SEEMS SICK?
Line 5: MUCH MORE ENERGY ON HIGHEST note! The gradually bring it back to gentle, same low energy, relaxed like beginning. MIDDLE SECTION: 100% different character SCARY! Use very FAST BOW! Much more energy! WHOLE bow in some parts. Change bow speed!!
Last 3 lines, going up little by little So start with less bow -and INCREASE by 1.5 inch each time.
Line -2. P, then forte! Bring out nervous character!
Page 11, line 1: More intense! Crescendo to high point!!
I have hundreds, maybe thousands of these. They have a long history. Even when the girls were little, because I tended to be too harsh in person, I’d leave little notes for them everywhere—on their pillows, in their lunch boxes, on their music scores—saying things like, “Mommy has a bad temper, but Mommy loves you!” or, “You are Mommy’s pride and joy!”
With dogs, you don’t have to do anything like this. And if you did, they probably couldn’t understand it anyway, especially not Pushkin.
My dogs can’t do anything—and what a relief. I don’t make any demands of them, and I don’t try to shape them or their future. For the most part, I trust them to make the right choices for themselves. I always look forward to seeing them, and I love just watching them sleep. What a great relationship.