We recently hosted a formal dinner at our home for judges from all over the world. One of the most humbling things about being a Yale law professor is that you get to meet some awe-inspiring figures—some of the greatest jurists of the day. For ten years now, Yale’s global constitutionalism seminar has brought in supreme court justices from dozens of countries, including the United States.
For entertainment, we invited Sophia’s piano professor, Wei-Yi Yang, to perform part of the program he was preparing for Yale’s famous Horowitz Piano Series. Wei-Yi generously suggested that his young pupil Sophia perform as well. For fun, teacher and student could also play a duet together: “En Bateau” from Debussy’s Petite Suite.
I was incredibly excited and nervous about the idea and nurturingly said to Sophia, “Don’t blow this. Everything turns on your performance. The justices aren’t coming to New Haven to hear a high school talent show. If you’re not over-the-top perfect we’ll have insulted them. Now go to the piano and don’t leave it.” I guess there’s still a bit of the Chinese mother in me.
The next few weeks were like a replay of the run-up to Carnegie Hall, except that now Sophia did almost all her practicing herself. As in the past, I immersed myself in her pieces—Saint-Saëns’s Allegro Appassionato and a polonaise and Fantaisie Impromptu by Chopin—but the truth was that Sophia barely needed me anymore. She knew exactly what she had to do, and only occasionally would I yell out a critique from the kitchen or upstairs. Meanwhile, Jed and I had all our living room furniture moved out except the piano. I scrubbed the floor myself, and we rented chairs for fifty people.
The evening of the performance Sophia wore a red dress, and as she walked in to take her opening bow, panic seized me. I was practically frozen during the polonaise. I couldn’t enjoy the Saint-Saëns either, even though Sophia played it brilliantly. That piece is meant to be sheer virtuosic entertainment, and I was too tense to be entertained. Could Sophia keep her runs sparkling and clean? Had she over practiced, and would her hands give out? I had to force myself not to rock and back forth and hum robotically, which is what I usually do when the girls perform a difficult piece.
But when Sophia played her last piece, Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu, everything changed. For some reason, the tension in me dissipated, the lockjaw released, and all I could think was, She owns this piece. When she got up to take her bow, a radiant smile on her face, I thought, That’s my girl—she’s happy; the music is making her happy. Right then I knew that it had all been worth it.
Sophia received three ovations, and afterward the justices—including many I’ve idolized for years—were effusive in their praise. One said Sophia’s playing was sublime and that he could have listened to her all night. Another insisted that she had to pursue the piano professionally because it would be a crime to waste her talent. And a surprising number of the justices, being parents themselves, asked me personal questions like, “What is your secret? Do you think it’s something about the Asian family culture that tends to produce so many exceptional musicians?” Or: “Tell me: Does Sophia practice on her own because she loves music or do you have to force her? I could never make my own children practice more than fifteen minutes.” And: “How about your other daughter? I hear she’s a fabulous violinist. Will we hear her next time?”
I told them that I was struggling to finish a book on just those questions and that I would send them a copy when it was done. Around the same time as Sophia’s performance for the justices, I picked Lulu up from some godforsaken tennis place in Connecticut about an hour away.
“Guess what, Mommy—I won!”
“Won what?” I asked.
“The tournament,” Lulu said.
“What does that mean?”
“I won three matches, and I beat the top seed in the finals. She was ranked #60 in New England. I can’t believe I beat her!”
This took me aback. I’d played tennis as a teenager myself, but always just for fun with my family or school friends. As an adult, I tried a few tournaments but quickly found that I couldn’t stand the pressure of competition. Mainly so we could have a family activity, Jed and I had made both Sophia and Lulu take tennis lessons, but we’d never had any hopes.
“Are you still playing at the Novice level?” I asked Lulu. “The lowest level?”
“Yes,” she answered amiably. Ever since I’d given her the choice, we’d gotten along much better. My pain seemed to be her gain, and she was more patient and good-humored. “But I’m going to try the next level soon. I’m sure I’ll lose, but I want to try it for fun.”
And then, out of the blue: “I miss orchestra so much,” Lulu said.
Over the next six weeks, Lulu won three more tournaments. At the last two, I went to watch her play. I was struck by what a fireball she was on the court: how fiercely she hit, how concentrated she looked, and how she never gave up.
As Lulu notched herself up, the competition got much tougher. At one tournament, she lost to a girl twice her size. When Lulu came off the court, she was smiling and gracious, but the second she got in the car she said to me, “I’m going to beat her next time. I’m not good enough yet—but soon.” Then she asked me if I could sign her up for extra tennis lessons.
At the next lesson, I watched Lulu drill her backhand with a focus and tenacity I’d never seen in her. Afterward, she asked me if I would feed her more balls so that she could keep practicing, and we went for another hour. On the way home, when I told her how much better her backhand looked, she said, “No, it’s not right yet. It’s still terrible. Can we get a court tomorrow?”
She’s so driven, I thought to myself. So . . . intense.
I talked to Lulu’s tennis instructor. “There’s no way Lulu can ever be really good, right? I mean, she’s thirteen—that’s got to be ten years too late.” I’d heard about the explosion of high-powered tennis academies and four-year-olds with personal trainers. “Also, she’s so short, like me.”
“The important thing is that Lulu loves tennis,” the instructor said, very Americanly. “And she has an unbelievable work ethic—I’ve never seen anyone improve so fast. She’s a great kid. You and your husband have done an amazing job with her. She never settles for less than 110 percent. And she’s always so upbeat and polite.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. But despite myself, my spirits lifted. Could this be the Chinese virtuous circle in action? Had I perhaps just chosen the wrong activity for Lulu? Tennis was very respectable—it wasn’t like bowling. Michael Chang had played tennis.
I started to gear up. I familiarized myself with the USTA rules and procedures and the national ranking system. I also looked into trainers and started calling around about the best tennis clinics in the area.
Lulu overheard me one day. “What are you doing?” she demanded. When I explained that I was just doing a little research, she suddenly got furious. “No, Mommy—no!” she said fiercely. “Don’t wreck tennis for me like you wrecked violin.”
That really hurt. I backed off.
The next day I tried again. “Lulu, there’s a place in Massachusetts—”
“No, Mommy—please stop,” Lulu said. “I can do this on my own. I don’t need you to be involved.”
“Lulu, what we need to do is to channel your strength—”
“Mommy, I get it. I’ve watched you and listened to your lectures a million times. But I don’t want you controlling my life.”
I focused my eyes on Lulu, taking her in. Everyone had always said she looked just like me, something that I loved to hear but that she vehemently denied. An image of her at age three standing outside, defiant in the cold, came to my mind. She’s indomitable, I thought to myself, and always has been. Wherever she ends up, she’s going to be amazing.
“Okay, Lulu, I can accept that,” I said. “See how undefensive and flexible I am? To succeed in this world, you always have to be willing to adapt. That’s something I’m especially good at that you should learn from me.”
But I didn’t really give up. I’m still in the fight, albeit with some significant modifications to my strategy. I’ve become newly accepting and open-minded. The other day Lulu told me she would have even less time for violin because she wanted to pursue other interests, like writing and “improve.” Instead of choking, I was supportive and proactive. I’m taking the long view. Lulu can do side-splitting imitations, and while improve does seems un-Chinese and the opposite of classical music, it is definitely a skill. I also harbor hopes that Lulu won’t be able to escape her love of music and that someday—maybe soon—she’ll return to the violin of her own accord.
Meanwhile, every weekend, I drive Lulu to tennis tournaments and watch her play. She recently made the high school varsity team, the only middle school kid to do so. Because Lulu has insisted that she wants no advice or criticism from me, I’ve resorted to espionage and guerrilla warfare. I secretly plant ideas in her tennis coach’s head, texting her with questions and practice strategies, then deleting the text messages so Lulu won’t see them. Sometimes, when Lulu’s least expecting it—at breakfast or when I’m saying good night—I’ll suddenly yell out, “More rotation on the swing volley!” or “Don’t move your right foot on your kick serve!” And Lulu will plug her ears, and we’ll fight, but I’ll have gotten my message out, and I know she knows I’m right.
Tigers are passionate and rash, blinding themselves to danger. But they draw on experience, gaining new energies and great strength. I started writing this book on June 29, 2009, the day after we got back from Russia. I didn’t know why I was doing it or how the book was going to end, but even though I usually have writer’s block, this time the words streamed out of me. The first two thirds of the book took me just eight weeks to write. (The last third was agonizing.) I showed every page to Jed and the girls. “We’re writing this together,” I said to Sophia and Lulu.
“No, we’re not,” they both said. “It’s your book, Mommy, not ours.”
“I’m sure it’s all about you anyway,” added Lulu.
But as time went on, the more the girls read, the more they contributed. The truth is, it’s been therapeutic—a Western concept, the girls remind me.
I’d forgotten a lot of things over the years, good and bad, which the girls and Jed helped me remember. To try to piece things together, I dug up old e-mails, computer files, music programs, and photo albums. Often, Jed and I were overcome with nostalgia. Sophia was just a baby yesterday, it seemed, and now she was a year away from applying to college. Sophia and Lulu were mainly overcome with how cute they used to be.
Don’t get me wrong: Writing this book hasn’t been easy. Nothing in our family ever is. I had to produce multiple drafts, revising constantly to address the girls’ objections. I ended up leaving out big chunks about Jed, because that’s a whole other book, and it’s really his story to tell. Some parts I had to rewrite two dozen times before I could satisfy both Sophia and Lulu. On several occasions, one of them would be reading a draft chapter, then suddenly burst into tears and storm off. Or I’d get a curt, “This is great, Ma, very funny. I just don’t know who you’re writing about, that’s all. It’s definitely not our family.”
“Oh no!” Lulu cried out once. “Am I supposed to be Pushkin, the dumb one? And Sophia is Coco, who’s smart and learns everything?” I pointed out that Coco wasn’t smart and couldn’t learn anything either. I assured the girls that the dogs weren’t supposed to be metaphors for them.
“So what purpose are they serving?” Sophia asked, ever logical. “Why are they in the book?”
“I don’t know yet,” I admitted. “But I know they’re important. There’s something inherently unstable about a Chinese mother raising dogs.”
Another time, Lulu complained, “I think you’re exaggerating the difference between Sophia and me to try to make the book interesting. You make me sound like a typical rebellious American teenager, when I’m not even close.” Sophia, meanwhile, had just said, “I think you tone down Lulu too much. You make her sound like an angel.”
Naturally, both girls felt the book shortchanged them. “You should definitely dedicate this book to Lulu,” Sophia once said magnanimously. “She’s obviously the heroine. I’m the boring one readers will cheer against. She’s the one with verve and panache.” And from Lulu: “Maybe you should call your book The Perfect Child and the Flesh-Eating Devil. Or Why Oldest Children Are Better. That’s what it’s about, right?”
As the summer went on, the girls never stopped nagging me, “So how’s the book going to end, Mommy? Is it going to be a happy ending?”
I’d always say something like, “It depends on you guys. But I’m guessing it’ll be a tragedy.”
Months passed, but I just couldn’t figure out how to end the book. Once, I came running up to the girls. “I’ve got it! I’m about to finish the book.”
The girls were excited. “So how will it end?” Sophia asked. “What’s your point going to be?”
“I’ve decided to favor a hybrid approach,” I said. “The best of both worlds. The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and the value of excellence, then the Western way after that. Every individual has to find their own path,” I added gallantly.
“Wait—until eighteen?” asked Sophia. “That’s not a hybrid approach. That’s just Chinese parenting all through childhood.”
“I think you’re being too technical, Sophia.”
Nevertheless, I went back to the drawing board. I spun more wheels, cranked out some more duds. Finally, one day—actually yesterday—I asked the girls how they thought the book should end.
“Well,” said Sophia, “are you trying to tell the truth in this book or just a good story?”
“The truth,” I replied.
“That’s going to be hard, because the truth keeps changing,” said Sophia.
“No it doesn’t,” I said. “I have a perfect memory.”
“Then why do you keep revising the ending all the time?” asked Sophia.
“Because she doesn’t know what she wants to say,” Lulu offered.
“It’s not possible for you to tell the complete truth,” said Sophia. “You’ve left out so many facts. But that means no one can really understand. For example, everyone’s going to think that I was subjected to Chinese parenting, but I wasn’t. I went along with it, by my own choice.”
“Not when you were little,” Lulu said. “Mommy never gave us a choice when we were little. Unless it was, ‘Do you want to practice six hours or five?’”
“Choice . . . I wonder if that’s what it all comes down to,” I mused. “Westerners believe in choice; the Chinese don’t. I used to make fun of Popo for giving Daddy a choice about violin lessons. Of course he chose not to. But now, Lulu, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t forced you to audition for Juilliard or practice so many hours a day. Who knows? Maybe you’d still like violin. Or what if I’d let you choose your own instrument? Or no instrument? After all, Daddy turned out fine.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lulu. “Of course I’m glad you forced me to play the violin.”
“Oh, right. Hello Dr. Jekyll! Where’s Mr. Hyde?”
“No—I mean it,” Lulu said. “I’m always going to love the violin. I’m even glad you made me drill exponents. And study Chinese for two hours every day.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Yeah,” nodded Lulu.
“Really!” I said. “Because come to think of it, I think those were great choices we made too, even though all those people worried that you and Sophia would be permanently damaged psychologically. And you know, the more I think about it, the madder I’m getting. All these Western parents with the same party line about what’s good for children and what’s not—I’m not sure they’re making choices at all. They just do what everyone else does. They’re not questioning anything either, which is what Westerners are supposed to be so good at doing. They just keep repeating things like ‘You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion’ when it’s obvious that the ‘passion’ is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time and eating all that disgusting junk food—I’m telling you this country is going to go straight downhill ! No wonder Western parents get thrown into nursing homes when they’re old! You guys better not put me in one of those. And I don’t want my plug pulled either.”
“Calm down, Mommy,” said Lulu.
“When their kids fail at something, instead of telling them to work harder, the first thing Western parents do is bring a lawsuit!”
“Who exactly are you talking about?” asked Sophia. “I don’t know any Western parents who have brought a lawsuit.”
“I refuse to buckle to politically correct Western social norms that are obviously stupid. And not even rooted historically. What are the origins of the Playdate anyway? Do you think our Founding Fathers had Sleepovers? I actually think America’s Founding Fathers had Chinese values.”
“I hate to break it to you, Mommy, but—”
“Ben Franklin said, ‘If thou loveth life, never ever EVER wasteth time.’ Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I’m a huge believer in luck, and the harder I work the more I have of it.’ And Alexander Hamilton said, ‘Don’t be a whiner.’ That’s a totally Chinese way of thinking.”
“Mommy, if the Founding Fathers thought that way, then it’s an American way of thinking,” said Sophia. “Besides, I think you may be misquoting.”
“Look it up,” I dared her. My sister Katrin is doing better now. Life is definitely tough for her, and she’s not out of the woods yet, but she’s a hero and bears everything with grace, doing research around the clock, writing paper after paper, and spending as much time as she can with her kids.
I often wonder what the lesson of her illness is. Given that life is so short and so fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest?
We all have to die. But which way does that cut? In any case, I’ve just told Jed that I want to get another dog.
Acknowledgments I have so many people to thank:
My mother and father—no one has believed in me more, and they have my deepest admiration and gratitude.
Sophia and Louisa, my greatest source of happiness, the pride and joy of my life.
My extraordinary sisters, Michelle, Katrin, and Cindy.
And most of all, my husband, Jed Rubenfeld, who for twenty-five years has read every word I’ve written. I am the unbelievably lucky beneficiary of his kindness and genius.
My brother-in-law Or Gozani and my nieces and nephews Amalia, Dimitri, Diana, Jake, and Ella.
The following dear friends, for insightful comments, passionate debates, and invaluable support: Alexis Contant and Jordan Smoller, Sylvia and Walter Austerer, Susan and Paul Fiedler, Marina Santilli, Anne Dailey, Jennifer Brown (for “humbled”!), Nancy Greenberg, Anne Tofflemire, Sarah Bilston and Daniel Markovits, and Kathleen Brown-Dorato and Alex Dorato. Thanks also to Elizabeth Alexander, Barbara Rosen, Roger Spottiswoode, Emily Bazelon, Linda Burt, and Annie Witt for their generous encouragement.
All those who helped instill the love of music in Sophia and Lulu, including Michelle Zingale, Carl Shugart, Fiona Murray, Jody Rowitsch, and Alexis Zingale of the Neighborhood Music School; the fabulous Richard Brooks of the Norwalk Youth Symphony; Annette Chang Barger, YingYing Ho,Yu-ting Huang, Nancy Jin, Kiwon Nahm, and Alexandra Newman; the exceptional Naoko
Tanaka and Almita Vamos; and especially my good friend, the incomparable Wei-Yi Yang.
All of the wonderful teachers Sophia and Lulu were lucky enough to have at the Foote School (and I actually loved the Medieval Festival), especially Judy Cuthbertson and Cliff Sahlin.
On the tennis front: Alex Dorato, Christian Appleman, and Stacia Fonseca.
My students Jacqueline Esai, Ronan Farrow, Sue Guan, Stephanie Lee, Jim Ligtenberg, Justin Lo, Peter McElligott, Luke Norris, Amelia Rawls, Nabiha Syed, and Elina Tetelbaum.
Finally, my heartfelt thanks to the amazing Tina Bennett, the best agent imaginable, and to my editor and publisher, the brilliant, unsurpassed Ann Godoff.