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Going West

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I wasn’t bluffing. I’d always engaged in brinkmanship with Lulu, but this time I was serious. I’m still not exactly sure why. Maybe I finally allowed myself to admire Lulu’s immovable strength for what it was, even if I bitterly disagreed with her choices. Or maybe it was Katrin. Watching her struggle and seeing what became important to her in those desperate months shook things up for all of us.

It could also have been my mother. To me, she’ll always be the quintessential Chinese mother. Growing up, nothing was ever good enough for her. (“You say you got first place, but actually you only tied for first, right?”) She used to practice piano with Cindy three hours a day until the teacher gently told her that they’d hit a limit. Even after I became a professor and invited her to some of my public lectures, she always offered painfully accurate criticisms while everyone else was telling me what a good job I’d done. (“You get too excited and talk too fast. Try to stay cool, and you’ll be better.”) Yet my own Chinese mother had been warning me for a long time that something wasn’t working with Lulu. “Every child is different,” she said. “You have to adjust, Amy. Look what happened to your father,” she added ominously.

So—about my father. I guess it’s time to come clean with something. I’d always told Jed, myself, and everyone else that the ultimate proof of the superiority of Chinese parenting is how the children end up feeling about their parents. Despite their parents’ brutal demands, verbal abuse, and disregard for their children’s desires, Chinese kids end up adoring and respecting their parents and wanting to care for them in their old age. From the beginning, Jed had always asked,

“What about your dad, Amy?” I’d never had a good answer.

My father was the black sheep in his family. His mother disfavored him and treated him unfairly. In his household, comparisons among the children were common, and my father—the fourth of six—was always on the short end of the stick. He wasn’t interested in business like the rest of his family. He loved science and fast cars; at age eight, he built a radio from scratch. Compared to his siblings, my father was the family outlaw, risk-taking and rebellious. To put it mildly, his mother didn’t respect his choices, value his individualism, or worry about his self-esteem—all those Western clichés. The result was that my father hated his family—found it suffocating and undermining—and as soon as he had a chance he moved as far away as he could, never once looking back.

What my father’s story illustrates is something I suppose I never wanted to think about. When Chinese parenting succeeds, there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed. For my own father it hadn’t. He barely spoke to his mother and never thought about her except in anger. By the end of her life, my father’s family was almost dead to him.

I couldn’t lose Lulu. Nothing was more important. So I did the most Western thing imaginable: I gave her the choice. I told her that she could quit the violin if she wanted and do what she liked instead, which at the time was to play tennis.

At first, Lulu assumed it was a trap. Over the years, the two of us had played so many games of chicken and engaged in such elaborate forms of psychological warfare that she was naturally suspicious. But when Lulu realized I was sincere, she surprised me.

“I don’t want to quit,” she said. “I love the violin. I would never give it up.”

“Oh please,” I said, shaking my head. “Let’s not go in circles again.”

“I don’t want to quit violin,” Lulu repeated. “I just don’t want to be so intense about it. It’s not the main thing I want to do with my life.You picked it, not me.”

It turns out that not being intense had some radical, and for me heartbreaking, implications. First, Lulu decided to quit orchestra, giving up her concertmaster position in order to free up Saturday mornings for tennis. Not a second goes by that this doesn’t cause me pain. When she played her last piece as concertmaster at a recital at Tanglewood and then shook the conductor’s hand, I almost wept. Second, Lulu decided that she didn’t want to go to New York every Sunday for violin lessons anymore, so we gave up our spot in Miss Tanaka’s studio—our precious spot with a famous Juilliard teacher that had been so hard to get!

Instead, I found Lulu a local teacher in New Haven. After a long talk, we also agreed that Lulu would practice by herself, without me or regular coaches, and for just thirty minutes a day—not nearly enough, I knew, to maintain her high level of playing.

For the first few weeks after Lulu’s decision, I wandered around the house like a person who’d lost their mission, their reason for living.

At a recent lunch, I met Elizabeth Alexander, the Yale professor who read her original poem at President Obama’s inauguration. I told her how much I admired her work, and we exchanged a few words.

Then she said, “Wait a minute—I think I know you. Do you have two daughters who studied at the Neighborhood Music School? Aren’t you the mother of those two incredibly talented musicians?”

It turns out that Elizabeth had two kids, younger than mine, who studied at the Neighborhood Music School also, and they’d heard Sophia and Lulu perform on several occasions. “Your daughters are amazing,” she said.

In the old days, I would have said modestly, “Oh they’re really not that good,” hoping desperately that she’d ask me more so I could tell her about Sophia’s and Lulu’s latest music accomplishments. Now I just shook my head.

“Do they still play?” Elizabeth continued. “I don’t see them at the school anymore.”

“My older daughter still plays piano,” I replied. “My younger daughter—the violinist—she doesn’t really play so much anymore.” This was like a knife to my heart. “She prefers to play tennis instead.” Even if she is ranked #10,000 in New England, I thought to myself. Out of 10,000.

“Oh no!” Elizabeth said. “That’s too bad. I remember she was so gifted. She inspired my two little ones.”

“It was her decision,” I heard myself saying. “It was too much of a time commitment. You know how thirteen-year-olds are.” What a Western parent I’ve become, I thought to myself. What a failure.

But I kept my word. I let Lulu play tennis as she pleased, at her own pace, making her own decisions. I remember the first time she signed herself up for a Novice USTA tournament. She came back in a good mood, visibly charged with adrenaline.

“How did you do?” I asked.

“Oh, I lost—but it was my first tournament, and my strategy was all wrong.”

“What was the score?”

“Love-six, love-six,” Lulu said. “But the girl I played was really good.”

If she’s so good, why is she playing in a Novice tournament? I thought darkly to myself, but aloud I said, “Bill Clinton recently told some Yale students that you can only be really great at something if you love it. So it’s good that you love tennis.”

But just because you love something, I added to myself, doesn’t mean you’ll ever be great. Not if you don’t work. Most people stink at the things they love.


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