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Rebellion



 

The Chinese virtuous circle didn’t work with Lulu. I just couldn’t understand it. Everything seemed to be going exactly according to plan. At considerable cost—but nothing I wasn’t prepared to pay—Lulu succeeded in all the ways I’d always dreamed she would. After months of grueling preparation and the usual fights, threats, and yelling and screaming at home, Lulu auditioned for and won the position of concertmaster of a prestigious youth orchestra, even though she was only twelve and much younger than most of the other musicians. She received a statewide “prodigy” award and made the newspapers. She got straight As and won her school’s top French and Latin recitation prizes. But instead of her success producing confidence, gratitude toward parents, and the desire to work harder, the opposite happened. Lulu started rebelling: not just against practicing, but against everything I’d ever stood for.

Looking back, I think things started to turn when Lulu was in sixth grade—I just didn’t realize it. One of the things Lulu hated most was my insistence on pulling her out of school to get in some extra violin practicing. I felt they wasted a lot of time at Lulu’s school, so several times a week I’d write a note to her teacher explaining that she had a recital or an audition coming up and requesting permission to take her out of school during lunch period or gym class. Sometimes I’d be able to cobble together a two-hour block by combining lunch, two recesses, and, say, music class, where they’d be playing cowbells, or art class, where they’d be decorating booths for the Halloween Fair. I could see that Lulu dreaded the sight of me every time I appeared at her school, and her classmates always looked at me oddly, but she was only eleven then, and I could still impose my will on her. And I’m sure it was because of the extra practicing that Lulu won all those music honors.

It wasn’t easy on my end either. I’d be having office hours with my students, then suddenly have to excuse myself for a “meeting.” I’d race to Lulu’s school to pick her up, race to Kiwon’s apartment to drop her off, then race back to my office, where there would be a line of students waiting for me. Half an hour later, I’d have to excuse myself again to return Lulu to school, then I’d screech back to my own office for another three hours of meetings. The reason I took Lulu to Kiwon’s rather than supervise her practicing myself was that I didn’t think she’d resist Kiwon, and certainly not fight with her. After all, Kiwon wasn’t family.

One afternoon, just fifteen minutes after I’d dropped Lulu off, I got a call from Kiwon. She sounded flustered and frustrated. “Lulu doesn’t want to play,” she said. “Maybe you’d better come pick her up.” When I got there, I apologized profusely to Kiwon, mumbling something about Lulu being tired because she hadn’t gotten enough sleep. But it turned out that Lulu hadn’t just refused to play. She’d been rude to Kiwon, talking back, challenging her advice. I was mortified and disciplined Lulu severely at home.

But things got worse as time went on. Whenever I arrived at Lulu’s school to pick her up, her face would darken. She’d turn her back on me and say she didn’t want to leave. When I finally got her to Kiwon’s place, she’d sometimes refuse to get out of the car. If somehow I succeeded in getting her up to Kiwon’s apartment—by then there might be only twenty minutes left—she’d either refuse to play or purposely play badly, out of tune or with no emotion. She’d also deliberately provoke Kiwon, slowly infuriating her, then maddeningly asking, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Once, in passing, Kiwon let slip that her boyfriend, Aaron, after witnessing a practice session, had said, “If I had a daughter I’d never allow her to act like that—to be so disrespectful.”

That was a slap. Aaron, who’d always adored Lulu, was as easygoing as they come. He was raised in the most liberal and lenient of Western households, where the kids didn’t get in trouble for skipping school and did pretty much anything they wanted. And yet he was criticizing my parenting, my daughter’s behavior—and he was totally right.

Around the same time, Lulu started talking back to me and openly disobeying me in front of my parents when they visited. This might not sound like a big deal to Westerners, but in our household it was like desecrating a temple. In fact, it was so out of the realm of the acceptable that no one knew what to do. My father pulled me aside and privately urged me to let Lulu give up the violin. My mother, who was close to Lulu (they were e-mail pen pals), told me flat out, “You have to stop being so stubborn, Amy. You’re too strict with Lulu—too extreme. You’re going to regret it.”

“Why are you turning on me now?” I shot back. “This is how you raised me.”

“You can’t do what Daddy and I did,” my mother replied. “Things are different now. Lulu’s not you—and she’s not Sophia. She has a different personality, and you can’t force her.”

“I’m sticking to the Chinese way,” I said. “It works better. I don’t care if nobody supports me.You’ve been brainwashed by your Western friends.”

My mother just shook her head. “I’m telling you, I’m worried about Lulu,” she said. “There’s something wrong in her eyes.” This hurt me more than anything.

Instead of a virtuous circle, we were in a vicious spiral downward. Lulu turned thirteen and grew more alienated and resentful. She wore a constant apathetic look on her face, and every other word out of her mouth was “No” or “I don’t care.” She rejected my vision of a valuable life. “Why can’t I hang out with my friends like everyone else does?” she’d demand. “Why are you so against shopping malls? Why can’t I have sleepovers? Why does every second of my day have to be filled up with work?”

“You’re concertmaster, Lulu,” I’d reply. “It’s a great honor they’ve given you, and you have a huge responsibility. The entire orchestra is counting on you.”

Lulu would respond, “Why am I in this family?”

The odd thing was that Lulu actually loved orchestra. She had lots of friends, she liked being a leader, and she had great chemistry with the conductor, Mr. Brooks. I’d see her joking around and laughing spiritedly at rehearsals—maybe because rehearsal was time away from me.

Meanwhile, the disagreements between Jed and me were growing. Privately, he’d tell me furiously to show more restraint or to stop making crazy overgeneralizations about “Westerners” and “Chinese people.” “I know you think you do people a huge favor by criticizing them, so that they can improve themselves,” he’d say, “but have you ever considered that you just make people feel bad?” His biggest criticism was “Why do you insist on saying such glowing things about Sophia in front of Lulu all the time? How do you think that makes Lulu feel? Can’t you see what’s happening?”

“I refuse to cheat Sophia out of praise she deserves, just to ‘protect Lulu’s feelings,’” I’d say, infusing the last three words with as much sarcasm as I could muster. “This way, Lulu knows I think she’s every bit as good as Sophia. She doesn’t need affirmative action.”

But apart from intervening occasionally to defuse blowups, Jed always took my side in front of the girls. From the beginning, we’d had a united-front strategy, and despite his misgivings, Jed didn’t go back on it. Instead, he tried his best to bring balance to the family, making us go on family biking trips, teaching the girls how to play poker and pool, reading them science fiction, Shakespeare, and Dickens.

Then Lulu did something else unimaginable: She went public with her insurgency. As Lulu well knew, Chinese parenting in the West is an inherently closet practice. If it comes out that you push your kids against their will, or want them to do better than other kids, or god forbid ban sleepovers, other parents will heap opprobrium on you, and your children will pay the price. As a result, immigrant parents learn to conceal things. They learn to look jovial in public and pat their kids on the back and say things like, “Good try, buddy!” and “Go team spirit!” No one wants to be a pariah.

That’s why Lulu’s maneuver was so smart. She’d argue loudly with me on the street, at a restaurant, or in stores, and strangers would turn their heads to stare when they heard her say things like, “Leave me alone! I don’t like you. Go away.” When friends were over for dinner and asked her how her violin playing was going, she’d say, “Oh, I have to practice all the time. My mom makes me. I don’t have a choice.” Once she screamed so loudly in a parking lot—she was enraged at something I’d said and refused to get out of the car—that she attracted the attention of a policeman, who came over to see “what the problem was.”

Oddly enough, school remained an inviolable bastion—Lulu left me that much. When Western kids rebel, their grades typically suffer, and occasionally they even flunk out. By contrast, as a half-Chinese rebel, Lulu continued to be a straight-A student, liked by all her teachers and repeatedly described in report cards as generous, kind, and helpful to other students. “Lulu is a joy,” one of her teachers wrote. “She is perceptive and compassionate, a favorite among her classmates.”

But Lulu saw it differently. “I have no friends. No one likes me,” she announced one day.

“Lulu, why do you say that?” I asked anxiously. “Everyone likes you. You’re so funny and pretty.”

“I’m ugly,” Lulu retorted. “And you don’t know anything. How can I have any friends? You won’t let me do anything. I can’t go anywhere. It’s all your fault. You’re a freak.”

Lulu refused to help run the dogs. She refused to take out the garbage. It was glaringly unfair for Sophia to do chores and not Lulu. But how do you physically make someone five feet tall do something they don’t want to do? This problem is not supposed to come up in Chinese households, and I had no answer. So I did the only thing I knew: I fought fire with fire. I gave not one inch. I called her a disgrace as a daughter, to which Lulu replied, “I know, I know. You’ve told me.” I told her she ate too much. (“Stop it. You’re diseased.”) I compared her to Amy Jiang, Amy Wang, Amy Liu, and Harvard Wong—all first-generation Asian kids—none of whom ever talked back to their parents. I asked her what I had done wrong. Had I not been strict enough? Given her too much? Allowed her to mix with bad-influence kids? (“Don’t you dare insult my friends.”) I told her I was thinking of adopting a third child from China, one who would practice when I told her to, and maybe even play the cello in addition to the violin and piano.

“When you’re eighteen,” I would shout as she stalked away from me up the stairs, “I’ll let you make all the mistakes you want. But until then, I will not give up on you.”

“I want you to give up on me!” Lulu yelled back more than once.

When it came to stamina, Lulu and I were evenly matched. But I had an advantage. I was the parent. I had the car keys, the bank account, the right not to sign permission slips. And that was all under U.S. law.

“I need a haircut,” Lulu said one day.

I replied, “After you spoke to me so rudely and refused to play the Mendelssohn musically, you expect me to get in the car now and drive you where you want?”

“Why do I have to bargain for everything?” Lulu asked bitterly.

That night, we had another big argument, and Lulu locked herself in her room. She refused to come out and wouldn’t answer when I tried to talk to her through the door. Much later, from my study, I heard the click of her door unlocking. I went to see her and found her sitting calmly on her bed.

“I think I’m going to go to sleep now,” she said in a normal voice. “I’ve finished all my homework.”

But I wasn’t listening. I was staring at her.

Lulu had taken a pair of scissors and cut her own hair. On one side, it hung unevenly to about her chin. On the other, it was chopped off above the ear in an ugly, jagged line.

My heart skipped a beat. I almost exploded at her, but something—I think it was fear—made me hold my tongue.

A moment passed.

“Lulu—” I began.

“I like short hair,” she interrupted.

I glanced away. I couldn’t stand to look at her. Lulu had always had hair that everyone envied: wavy, brown-black—a Chinese-Jewish special. Part of me wanted to scream hysterically at Lulu and throw something at her. Another part of me wanted to wrap my arms around her and cry uncontrollably.

Instead, I said calmly, “I’ll make an appointment with a hair salon first thing in the morning. We’ll find someone to fix it.”

“Okay.” Lulu shrugged.

Later, Jed said to me, “Something has to change, Amy. We have a serious problem.”

For the second time that night, I felt like crying uncontrollably. But instead, I rolled my eyes. “It’s not a big deal, Jed,” I said. “Don’t create a problem where there isn’t one. I can handle this.”

 




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