Trigger warning: a depressing childhood from tiger parenting lies ahead
You need to do well on the final exam to go to a good school.
You need to go to a good school to get a good job.
You need a good job to make lots of money.
How are you going to find a girlfriend if you have no money?
Look at those doctors, they change their cars every other month!
Your sister got straight A's.
Your cousin got straight A's.
Your neighbour got straight A's.
Your classmate got straight A's.
Why can't you get straight A's?
I don't care what your friend got for his birthday, don't compare yourself to others.
I've written this post too many times to count. Writing is an effective coping mechanism. This time, I'm not deleting it when I'm done.
I'm turning twenty three next week, and I'm still dealing with demons from my childhood. Tiger parenting leaves lifelong scars, some are double my age and still suffering.
I'm not going to mince words here: I believe that tiger parenting is the narcissist's euphemism for child abuse. Society can pressure well-meaning parents into doing awful things to their children -- I don't think that parents take any pleasure in beating a child. However, when parents drink too much of the Kool-Aid, they start to do dangerous things. They start to project their own desires on their children. They play mind games to manipulate their children into making the decisions they want for them. They blame their children for frustrating them. They make their children listen to them, but don't listen to their children. Somehow, they always believe that one day their children will be grateful for this abuse. They become narcissists, and their children will be torn to pieces on the inside as they enter adulthood, too ashamed to seek therapy because of their outward success.
A fear of failure. An incessant urge to compare myself to everyone else. Chronic workaholism.
With conscious effort, and a lot of time, I've gotten my demons somewhat under control.
If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell him to spend more time outside playing, because it became the single biggest regret of his adult self.
If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell him to stop worrying about the subjects he wasn't good at, and to spend more time on those he enjoyed.
If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell him to let go of his anger for his parents, because they too are victims of the toxic culture in Singapore.
Then I would tell him the story of how he grew up, so he knew that the fears he had about his future were placed in his head by people who measured him with the wrong stick.
Two hundred and thirty five. This was my score on the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Tears were shed over how poorly I performed. Imagine how devastating it feels at eleven years old to have your parents cry because your future was ruined.
What does it say about a society when its parents feel ashamed because their child wasn't the best? When parents compare their children's test scores when they get picked up from school? When teachers expect parents to pay for remedial tuition for their underperforming children?
I was literally told that I wasn't special. I was performing too poorly to stay in the "special" stream at my secondary school, and my school dropped me into the "express" stream.
Express isn't even the lowest academic stream. It's the middle track. Yes, it could have been worse -- I could have been in the Normal stream! Yes, being normal is shameful in this education system. Let that terrifying thought sink in.
No tears were shed this time. No surprises there -- I could feel that people had given up on me. After all, the streaming ritual had destined me for mediocrity.
It was at this point that I gave up on myself, too.
I won the lottery many kids in Singapore dreamt about winning but didn't dare hope for.
My family was moving to California.
Months of dodging envious eyes at school followed. I noticed that even my teachers treated me differently once they learnt I was leaving.
Now that I think about it, it was because many of them had children my age, going through the same things I was going through.
A new beginning. Freedom to pick my classes! Standardized tests I can take as many times as I want, whenever I want! Teachers who seem to care about me!
I'm doing terrible at school, but I'm happy.
I like this girl, Dana.
I think she likes me too.
I don't know if I have the courage to ask her out.
"Hey, do you want to go to Yogurt Shack with me?"
I am good for nothing. Private good-for-nothing.
I am good for something after all. Sergeant good-for-something.
I enter college with nothing from high school left in my brain. I must be the only engineer taking Calculus I.
I've forgotten more Calculus than some of my classmates will ever know. As I'm sitting in class I wonder how I ended up at this school, with the odds stacked against me. Would I even survive my first semester?
As I'm studying for finals one night, I started chatting with my cousin back in Singapore. She complains that she's horrible at Physics, and that she hopes to just pass the class.
I don't know if she realizes that she's sixteen and learning the same physics material I am. I can't imagine how stressed out she is. Does she know that she's even more capable than half my college-age classmates?
It's Monday morning. The Sun pierces through the window of my San Francisco apartment and wakes me up just before my alarm goes off.
The quirky girl who prank called me over five years ago is sleeping next to me. She's now a beautiful young woman -- my best friend, my greatest weakness, and my partner in crime.
I attempt to sneak out of bed to get ready for work, but trip over the cat whose apartment we live in. The cat drools on the floor in protest.
A peck on the cheek and I'm out the door, off to an exciting job that pays me to do something I love, with people I admire. After watching Dad put on a tie every morning for years, it's weird to be biking to my first job in jeans. Who knew work could be so much fun?
I'm doing really well in college. I have a near perfect GPA in one of the best engineering programs in the world, and I'm working almost as many hours as my Dad does.
I don't think anybody who knew me as a child would believe I was capable of doing this. I was destined for mediocrity. I was judged by metrics that didn't matter, told to learn things I didn't care about, and fooled into believing that there was only one path to success, and more importantly, that success was having lots of money.
Tiger parenting almost ruined me. I was lucky that people gave up on me. I might have been too scared to apply to the college I'm at now. I might never have developed the courage to ask a girl out. I might never have dared to find a job so young.
Parents, if you want your child to remain a child forever, go ahead and make these decisions for them (because you know best). Otherwise, let go, and let them find their own path to happiness.
Tell them to judge themselves by how much they've improved, not by comparing themselves to other people.
Be their safety net, not their leash.
Finally, teach them how to think, not what to think.