Sophia, age sixteen I came home from work one evening to find a carpet of raw rice on the kitchen floor. I was tired and tense. I’d just taught, then met with students for four hours, and I was thinking about driving to Boston after dinner. A big burlap sack lay in shreds, there were rags and plastic bags all over, and Coco and Pushkin were barking up a storm outside. I knew exactly what had happened.
At that moment Sophia came into the kitchen with a broom, a distraught look on her face.
I exploded at her. “Sophia, you did it again! You left the pantry door open, didn’t you? How many times have I told you the dogs would get into the rice? The entire fifty pound bag is gone—the dogs are probably going to die now. You never listen. You always say, ‘Oh I’m so sorry, I’ll never do that again—I’m so terrible—kill me now,’ but you never change. The only thing you care about is staying out of trouble. You have no concern for anyone else. I’m sick of you not listening—sick of it!”
Jed has always accused me of a tendency to use disproportionate force, attaching huge moral opprobrium to the smallest of oversights. But Sophia’s strategy was usually just to take it and wait for the tempest to pass.
This time, however, Sophia exploded back. “Mommy! I’ll clean it up, okay? You’re acting like I just robbed a bank. Do you know what a good daughter I am? Everyone else I know parties all the time, and they drink and do drugs. And do you know what I do? Every day I run straight home from school. I run. Do you know how weird that is? I suddenly thought the other day, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I running home?’ To practice more piano! You’re always talking about gratitude, but you should be grateful to me. Don’t take out your frustrations on me just because you can’t control Lulu.”
Sophia was completely right. She’d made me proud and my life so easy for sixteen years. But sometimes when I know I’m wrong and dislike myself, something inside me hardens and pushes me to go even further. So I said, “I never asked you to run home—that’s stupid. You must look ridiculous. And if you want to do drugs, go ahead. Maybe you can meet a nice guy in Rehab.”
“The dynamic in this household is ridiculous,” Sophia protested. “I do all the work, and I do everything you say, and I make one mistake and you scream at me. Lulu doesn’t do anything you say. She talks back to you and throws things. You bribe her with presents. What kind of ‘Chinese mother’ are you?”
Sophia really nailed that one. This might be a good time to raise an important point about Chinese parenting and birth order. Or maybe just birth order. I have a student named Stephanie, who recently told me a funny story. An eldest child and the daughter of Korean immigrants, Stephanie told me that when she was in high school (straight As, math whiz, concert pianist), her mother used to threaten her, “If you don’t do X, I won’t take you to school.” And this prospect would strike terror in Stephanie’s heart—miss school! So she would do whatever her mother asked, desperately hoping she wasn’t too late. By contrast, when her mother threatened Stephanie’s younger sister with the same thing, her sister responded, “Awesome. I’d love to stay home. I hate school.”
There are lots of exceptions of course, but this pattern—model first kid, rebellious second—is definitely one I’ve noticed in many families, especially immigrant families. I just thought I could beat it in Lulu’s case through sheer will and hard work.
“As you know, Sophia, I’m having trouble with Lulu,” I conceded. “What worked with you isn’t working with her. It’s a mess.”
“Oh . . . don’t worry, Ma,” Sophia said, her voice suddenly kind. “It’s just a stage. It’s awful to be thirteen—I was miserable. But things will get better.”
I hadn’t even known that Sophia was miserable at thirteen. Come to think of it, my mother hadn’t known I was miserable at thirteen either. Like most Asian immigrant households, we didn’t have heart-to-heart “talks” in my family. My mother never told me about adolescence and especially not about the gross seven-letter word that starts with p-u and ends withy and is what happens to adolescents. We absolutely never talked about the Facts of Life—just trying to imagine that conversation retroactively sends shivers up my spine.
“Sophia,” I said, “you’re just like I was in my family: the oldest, the one that everyone counts on and no one has to worry about. It’s an honor to play that role. The problem is that Western culture doesn’t see it that way. In Disney movies, the ‘good daughter’ always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes and run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom—not running into the ocean.”
I was deeply moved by my oration. All the same, I felt a pang. An image of Sophia racing home from school, arms full of books, flashed into my head, and I almost couldn’t take it. “Give me the broom,” I said. “You need time to practice piano. I’ll clean this up.”