Sophia is my firstborn daughter. My husband, Jed, is Jewish, and I’m Chinese, which makes our children Chinese-Jewish-American, an ethnic group that may sound exotic but actually forms a majority in certain circles, especially in university towns.
Sophia’s name in English means “wisdom,” as does Si Hui, the Chinese name my mother gave her. From the moment Sophia was born, she displayed a rational temperament and exceptional powers of concentration. She got those qualities from her father. As an infant Sophia quickly slept through the night, and cried only if it achieved a purpose. I was struggling to write a law article at the time—I was on leave from my Wall Street law firm and desperate to get a teaching job so I wouldn’t have to go back—and at two months Sophia understood this. Calm and contemplative, she basically slept, ate, and watched me have writer’s block until she was a year old.
Sophia was intellectually precocious, and at eighteen months she knew the alphabet. Our pediatrician denied that this was neurologically possible, insisting that she was only mimicking sounds. To prove his point, he pulled out a big tricky chart, with the alphabet disguised as snakes and unicorns. The doctor looked at the chart, then at Sophia, and back at the chart. Cunningly, he pointed to a toad wearing a nightgown and a beret.
“Q,” piped Sophia.
The doctor grunted. “No coaching,” he said to me.
I was relieved when we got to the last letter: a hydra with lots of red tongues flapping around, which Sophia correctly identified as “I.”
Sophia excelled in nursery school, particularly in math. While the other kids were learning to count from 1 to 10 the creative American way—with rods, beads, and cones—I taught Sophia addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals the rote Chinese way. The hard part was displaying the right answer using the rods, beads, and cones.
The deal Jed and I struck when we got married was that our children would speak Mandarin Chinese and be raised Jewish. (I was brought up Catholic, but that was easy to give up. Catholicism has barely any roots in my family, but more of that later.) In retrospect, this was a funny deal, because I myself don’t speak Mandarin—my native dialect is Hokkien Chinese—and Jed is not religious in the least. But the arrangement somehow worked. I hired a Chinese nanny to speak Mandarin constantly to Sophia, and we celebrated our first Hanukkah when Sophia was two months old.
As Sophia got older, it seemed like she got the best of both cultures. She was probing and questioning, from the Jewish side. And from me, the Chinese side, she got skills—lots of skills. I don’t mean inborn skills or anything like that, just skills learned the diligent, disciplined, confidence-expanding Chinese way. By the time Sophia was three, she was reading Sartre, doing simple set theory, and could write one hundred Chinese characters. (Jed’s translation: She recognized the words “No Exit,” could draw two overlapping circles, and okay maybe on the Chinese characters.) As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks—drawing a squiggle or waving a stick—I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.
Of course, I also wanted Sophia to benefit from the best aspects of American society. I did not want her to end up like one of those weird Asian automatons who feel so much pressure from their parents that they kill themselves after coming in second on the national civil service exam. I wanted her to be well rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like “crafts,” which can lead nowhere—or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs—but rather a hobby that was meaningful and highly difficult with the potential for depth and virtuosity.
And that’s where the piano came in.
In 1996, when she was three, Sophia got two new things: her first piano lesson, and a little sister.
There’s a country music song that goes, “She’s a wild one with an angel’s face.” That’s my younger daughter, Lulu. When I think of her, I think of trying to tame a feral horse. Even when she was in utero she kicked so hard it left visible imprints on my stomach. Lulu’s real name is Louisa, which means “famous warrior.” I’m not sure how we called that one so early.
Lulu’s Chinese name is Si Shan, which means “coral” and connotes delicacy. This fits Lulu too. From the day she was born, Lulu had a discriminating palate. She didn’t like the infant formula I fed her, and she was so outraged by the soy milk alternative suggested by our pediatrician that she went on a hunger strike. But unlike Mahatma Gandhi, who was selfless and meditative while he starved himself, Lulu had colic and screamed and clawed violently for hours every night. Jed and I were in ear-plugs and tearing our hair out when fortunately our Chinese nanny Grace came to the rescue. She prepared a silken tofu braised in a light abalone and shiitake sauce with a cilantro garnish, which Lulu ended up quite liking.
It’s hard to find the words to describe my relationship with Lulu. “All-out nuclear warfare” doesn’t quite capture it. The irony is that Lulu and I are very much alike: She inherited my hot-tempered, viper-tongued, fast-forgiving personality.
Speaking of personalities, I don’t believe in astrology—and I think people who do have serious problems—but the Chinese Zodiac describes Sophia and Lulu perfectly. Sophia was born in the Year of the Monkey, and Monkey people are curious, intellectual, and “generally can accomplish any given task. They appreciate difficult or challenging work as it stimulates them.” By contrast, people born in the Year of the Boar are “willful” and “obstinate” and often “fly into a rage,” although they “never harbor a grudge,” being fundamentally honest and warmhearted. That’s Lulu exactly.
I was born in the Year of the Tiger. I don’t want to boast or anything, but Tiger people are noble, fearless, powerful, authoritative, and magnetic. They’re also supposed to be lucky. Beethoven and Sun Yat-sen were both Tigers.
I had my first face-off with Lulu when she was about three. It was a freezing winter afternoon in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the coldest days of the year. Jed was at work—he was a professor at Yale Law School—and Sophia was at kindergarten. I decided that it would be a perfect time to introduce Lulu to the piano. Excited about working together—with her brown curls, round eyes, and china doll face, Lulu was deceptively cute—I put her on the piano bench, on top of some comfortable pillows. I then demonstrated how to play a single note with a single finger, evenly, three times, and asked her to do the same. A small request, but Lulu refused, preferring instead to smash at many notes at the same time with two open palms. When I asked her to stop, she smashed harder and faster. When I tried to pull her away from the piano, she began yelling, crying, and kicking furiously.
Fifteen minutes later, she was still yelling, crying, and kicking, and I’d had it. Dodging her blows, I dragged the screeching demon to our back porch door, and threw it open.
The wind chill was twenty degrees, and my own face hurt from just a few seconds’ exposure to the icy air. But I was determined to raise an obedient Chinese child—in the West, obedience is associated with dogs and the caste system, but in Chinese culture, it is considered among the highest of virtues—if it killed me. “You can’t stay in the house if you don’t listen to Mommy,” I said sternly. “Now, are you ready to be a good girl? Or do you want to go outside?”
Lulu stepped outside. She faced me, defiant.
A dull dread began seeping though my body. Lulu was wearing only a sweater, a ruffled skirt, and tights. She had stopped crying. Indeed, she was eerily still.
“Okay good—you’ve decided to behave,” I said quickly. “You can come in now.”
Lulu shook her head.
“Don’t be silly, Lulu.” I was panicking. “It’s freezing. You’re going to get sick. Come in now.”
Lulu’s teeth were chattering, but she shook her head again. And right then I saw it all, as clear as day. I had underestimated Lulu, not understood what she was made of. She would sooner freeze to death than give in.
I had to change tactics immediately; I couldn’t win this one. Plus I might be locked up by Child Services. My mind racing, I reversed course, now begging, coddling, and bribing Lulu to come back into the house. When Jed and Sophia arrived home, they found Lulu contentedly soaking in a hot bath, dipping a brownie in a steaming cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows.
But Lulu had underestimated me too. I was just rearming. The battle lines were drawn, and she didn’t even know it.
My last name is Chua—Cài in Mandarin—and I love it. My family comes from southern China’s Fujian Province, which is famous for producing scholars and scientists. One of my direct ancestors on my father’s side, Chua Wu Neng, was the royal astronomer to Emperor Shen Zong of the Ming Dynasty, as well as a philosopher and poet. Obviously wide-ranging in his skills, Wu Neng was appointed by the emperor to be the chief of military staff in 1644, when China faced a Manchu invasion. My family’s most prized heirloom—in fact, our only heirloom—is a 2000-page treatise, handwritten by Wu Neng, interpreting the I Ching, or Book of Changes, one of the oldest of the classic Chinese texts. A leather-bound copy of Wu Neng’s treatise—with the character for “Chua” on the cover—now sits prominently on my living room coffee table.
All of my grandparents were born in Fujian, but at different points in the 1920s and 1930s they boarded boats for the Philippines, where there was said to be more opportunity. My mother’s father was a kind, mild-mannered schoolteacher who became a rice merchant to support his family. He was not religious and not particularly good at business. His wife, my grandmother, was a great beauty and devout Buddhist. Despite the antimaterialistic teachings of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, she always wished her husband were more successful.
My father’s father, a good-natured fish-paste merchant, was also not religious and not particularly good at business. His wife, my Dragon Lady grandmother, made a fortune after World War II by going into plastics, then investing her profits in gold bars and diamonds. After she became wealthy—securing an account to produce containers for Johnson & Johnson was key—she moved into a grand hacienda in one of Manila’s most prestigious neighborhoods. She and my uncles started buying upTiffany glass, Mary Cassatts, Braques, and condos in Honolulu. They also converted to Protestantism and began using forks and spoons instead of chopsticks, to be more like Americans.
Born in China in 1936, my mother arrived in the Philippines with her family when she was two. During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, she lost her infant brother, and I’ll never forget her description of Japanese soldiers holding her uncle’s jaws open, forcing water down his throat, and laughing about how he was going to burst like an overfilled balloon. When General Douglas MacArthur liberated the Philippines in 1945, my mother remembers running after American jeeps, cheering wildly, as U.S. troops tossed out free cans of Spam. After the war, my mother attended a Dominican high school, where she was converted to Catholicism. She eventually graduated from the University of Santo Tomas first in her class, summa cum laude, with a degree in chemical engineering.
My father was the one who wanted to immigrate to America. Brilliant at math, in love with astronomy and philosophy, he hated the grubbing, backstabbing world of his family’s plastics business and defied every plan they had for him. Even as a boy, he was desperate to get to America, so it was a dream come true when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology accepted his application. He proposed to my mother in 1960, and later the same year my parents arrived in Boston, knowing not a soul in the country. With only their student scholarships to live on, they couldn’t afford heat their first two winters, and wore blankets around to keep warm. My father got his Ph.D. in less than two years and became an assistant professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Growing up in the Midwest, my three younger sisters and I always knew that we were different from everyone else. Mortifyingly, we brought Chinese food in thermoses to school; how I wished I could have a bologna sandwich like everyone else! We were required to speak Chinese at home—the punishment was one whack of the chopsticks for every English word accidentally uttered. We drilled math and piano every afternoon and were never allowed to sleep over at our friends’ houses. Every evening when my father came home from work, I took off his shoes and socks and brought him his slippers. Our report cards had to be perfect; while our friends were rewarded for Bs, for us getting an A-minus was unthinkable. In eighth grade, I won second place in a history contest and brought my family to the awards ceremony. Somebody else had won the Kiwanis prize for best all-around student. Afterward, my father said to me: “Never, never disgrace me like that again.”
When my friends hear these stories, they often imagine that I had a horrible childhood. But that’s not true at all; I found strength and confidence in my peculiar family. We started off as outsiders together, and we discovered America together, becoming Americans in the process. I remember my father working until three in the morning every night, so driven he wouldn’t even notice us entering the room. But I also remember how excited he was introducing us to tacos, sloppy joes, Dairy Queen, and all-you-can-eat buffets, not to mention sledding, skiing, crabbing, and camping. I remember a boy in grade school making slanty-eyed gestures at me, guffawing as he mimicked the way I pronounced restaurant (rest-OW-rant)—I vowed at that moment to rid myself of my Chinese accent. But I also remember Girl Scouts and hula hoops; roller skating and public libraries; winning a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest; and the proud, momentous day my parents were naturalized.
In 1971, my father accepted an offer from the University of California at Berkeley, and we packed up and moved west. My father grew his hair and wore jackets with peace signs on them. Then he got interested in wine collecting and built himself a one-thousand-bottle cellar. As he became internationally known for his work on chaos theory, we began traveling around the world. I spent my junior year in high school studying in London, Munich, and Lausanne, and my father took us to the Arctic Circle.
But my father was also a Chinese patriarch. When it came time to apply to colleges, he declared that I was going to live at home and attend Berkeley (where I had already been accepted), and that was that—no visiting campuses and agonizing choices for me. Disobeying him, as he had disobeyed his family, I forged his signature and secretly applied to a school on the East Coast that I’d heard people talking about. When I told him what I had done—and that Harvard had accepted me—my father’s reaction surprised me. He went from anger to pride literally overnight. He was equally proud when I later graduated from Harvard Law School and when Michelle, his next daughter, graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School. He was proudest of all (but perhaps also a little heartbroken) when Katrin, his third daughter, left home for Harvard, eventually to get her M.D./Ph.D. there.
America changes people. When I was four, my father said to me, “You will marry a non-Chinese over my dead body.” But I ended up marrying Jed, and today my husband and my father are the best of friends. When I was little, my parents had no sympathy for disabled people. In much of Asia, disabilities are seen as shameful, so when my youngest sister Cynthia was born with Down syndrome, my mother initially cried all the time, and some of my relatives encouraged us to send Cindy away to an institution in the Philippines. But my mother was put in touch with special education teachers and other parents of children with disabilities, and soon she was spending hours patiently doing puzzles with Cindy and teaching her to draw. When Cindy started grade school, my mother taught her to read and drilled multiplication tables with her. Today, Cindy holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming.
A tiny part of me regrets that I didn’t marry another Chinese person and worries that I am letting down four thousand years of civilization. But most of me feels tremendous gratitude for the freedom and creative opportunity that America has given me. My daughters don’t feel like outsiders in America. I sometimes still do. But for me, that is less a burden than a privilege.
Newborn me and my brave parents, two years after they arrived in America
One of my greatest fears is family decline.There’s an old Chinese saying that “prosperity can never last for three generations.” I’ll bet that if someone with empirical skills conducted a longitudinal survey about intergenerational performance, they’d find a remarkably common pattern among Chinese immigrants fortunate enough to have come to the United States as graduate students or skilled workers over the last fifty years. The pattern would go something like this:
• The immigrant generation (like my parents) is the hardest-working. Many will have started off in the United States almost penniless, but they will work nonstop until they become successful engineers, scientists, doctors, academics, or businesspeople. As parents, they will be extremely strict and rabidly thrifty. (“Don’t throw out those leftovers! Why are you using so much dishwasher liquid?You don’t need a beauty salon—I can cut your hair even nicer.”) They will invest in real estate. They will not drink much. Everything they do and earn will go toward their children’s education and future.
• The next generation (mine), the first to be born in America, will typically be high-achieving. They will usually play the piano and/or violin.They will attend an Ivy League or Top Ten university. They will tend to be professionals—lawyers, doctors, bankers, television anchors—and surpass their parents in income, but that’s partly because they started off with more money and because their parents invested so much in them. They will be less frugal than their parents. They will enjoy cocktails. If they are female, they will often marry a white person. Whether male or female, they will not be as strict with their children as their parents were with them.
• The next generation (Sophia and Lulu’s) is the one I spend nights lying awake worrying about. Because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents, this generation will be born into the great comforts of the upper middle class. Even as children they will own many hardcover books (an almost criminal luxury from the point of view of immigrant parents). They will have wealthy friends who get paid for B-pluses.They may or may not attend private schools, but in either case they will expect expensive, brand-name clothes. Finally and most problematically, they will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice. In short, all factors point to this generation being headed straight for decline.
Well, not on my watch. From the moment Sophia was born and I looked into her cute and knowing face, I was determined not to let it happen to her, not to raise a soft, entitled child—not to let my family fall.
That’s one of the reasons that I insisted Sophia and Lulu do classical music. I knew that I couldn’t artificially make them feel like poor immigrant kids. There was no getting around the fact that we lived in a large old house, owned two decent cars, and stayed in nice hotels when we vacationed. But I could make sure that Sophia and Lulu were deeper and more cultivated than my parents and I were. Classical music was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness. It was a way for my children to achieve something I hadn’t. But it was also a tie-in to the high cultural tradition of my ancient ancestors.
My antidecline campaign had other components too. Like my parents, I required Sophia and Lulu to be fluent in Chinese and to be straight-A students. “Always check your test answers three times,” I told them. “Look up every word you don’t know and memorize the exact definition.” To make sure that Sophia and Lulu weren’t pampered and decadent like the Romans when their empire fell, I also insisted that they do physical labor.
“When I was fourteen, I dug a swimming pool for my father by myself with a pick and shovel,” I told my daughters more than once. This is actually true. The pool was only three feet deep and ten feet in diameter and came in a kit, but I really did dig it in the backyard of a cabin near Lake Tahoe that my father bought, after saving up for years. “Every Saturday morning,” I also loved to harp, “I vacuumed half the house while my sister did the other half. I cleaned toilets, weeded the lawn, and chopped wood. Once I built a rock garden for my father, and I had to carry boulders that were over fifty pounds each. That’s why I’m so tough.”
Because I wanted them to practice as much as possible, I didn’t ask my daughters to chop wood or dig a pool. But I did try to make them carry heavy objects—overflowing laundry baskets up and down stairs, garbage out on Sundays, suitcases when we traveled—as often as I could. Interestingly, Jed had the opposite instinct. It bothered him to see the girls loaded down, and he always worried about their backs.
In imparting these lessons to the girls, I’d constantly remember things my own parents had said to me. “Be modest, be humble, be simple,” my mother used to chide. “The last shall come first.” What she really meant of course was, “Make sure you come in first so that you have something to be humble about.” One of my father’s bedrock principles was, “Never complain or make excuses. If something seems unfair at school, just prove yourself by working twice as hard and being twice as good.” These tenets too I tried to convey to Sophia and Lulu.
Finally, I tried to demand as much respect from the girls as my parents did of me. This is where I was least successful. Growing up, I was terrified of my parents’ disapproval. Not so with Sophia and especially Lulu. America seems to convey something to kids that Chinese culture doesn’t. In Chinese culture, it just wouldn’t occur to children to question, disobey, or talk back to their parents. In American culture, kids in books, TV shows, and movies constantly score points with their snappy backtalk and independent streaks. Typically, it’s the parents who need to be taught a life lesson—by their children.
The Virtuous Circle
Sophia’s first three piano teachers were not good fits. The first, whom Sophia met when she was three, was a dour old Bulgarian woman named Elina, who lived in our neighborhood. She wore a shapeless skirt and knee-high stockings, and seemed to carry the sorrows of the world on her shoulders. Her idea of a piano lesson was to come to our house and play the piano herself for an hour, while Sophia and I sat on the couch and listened to her tortured anguish. When the first session ended, I felt like sticking my head in the oven; Sophia was playing with paper dolls. I was terrified to tell Elina it wouldn’t work out, for fear that she might throw herself wailing over a parapet. So I told her we were incredibly excited about having another lesson, and that I’d contact her soon.
The next teacher we tried was a peculiar little person with short hair and round, wire-rimmed glasses named MJ, who had been in the military. We couldn’t tell if MJ was male or female, but it always wore a suit and bow tie, and I liked its matter-of-fact style. MJ told us the first time we met that Sophia was definitely musically gifted. Unfortunately, MJ disappeared after three weeks. One day we arrived at MJ’s house for a lesson as usual, and found no trace of MJ. Instead, there were strangers living in the house, with completely different furniture.
Our third teacher was a soft-spoken jazz guy named Richard, with wide hips. He said he had a two-year-old daughter. At our first meeting, he gave Sophia and me a big lecture about the importance of living in the moment and playing for oneself. Unlike traditional teachers, he said he didn’t believe in using books written by others, and instead would emphasize improvisation and self-expression. Richard said there were no rules in music, only what felt right, and no one had the right to judge you, and the piano world had been destroyed by commercialism and cut-throat competition. Poor guy—I guess he just didn’t have what it took.
As the eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants, I don’t have time to improvise or make up my own rules. I have a family name to uphold, aging parents to make proud. I like clear goals, and clear ways of measuring success.
That’s why I liked the Suzuki method of teaching piano. There are seven books, and everybody has to start with Book One. Each book includes ten to fifteen songs, and you have to go in order. Kids who practice hard get assigned new songs each week, whereas kids who don’t practice get stuck on the same song for weeks, even months, and sometimes just quit because they’re bored out of their minds. Anyway, the bottom line is that some kids go through the Suzuki books much faster than others. So a hardworking four-year-old can be ahead of a six-year-old, a six-year-old can be way ahead of a sixteen-year-old, and so on—which is why the Suzuki system is known for producing “child prodigies.”
That’s what happened with Sophia. By the time she was five, we had settled in with a fabulous Suzuki teacher named Michelle, who had a big piano studio in New Haven at a place called the Neighborhood Music School. Patient and perceptive, Michelle got Sophia—appreciated her aptitude but saw beyond it—and it was Michelle who instilled the love of music in her.
The Suzuki method was perfect for Sophia. She learned really quickly and could stay focused for a long time. She also had a big cultural advantage: Most of the other students at the school had liberal Western parents, who were weak-willed and indulgent when it came to practicing. I remember a girl named Aubrey, who was required to practice one minute per day for every year of her age. She was seven. Other kids got paid for practicing, with giant ice cream sundaes or big Lego kits. And many were excused from practicing altogether on lesson days.
A key feature of the Suzuki approach is that a parent is expected to attend every music lesson and then to supervise practice sessions at home. What this meant was that every moment Sophia was at the piano, I was there with her, and I was being educated too. I had taken piano lessons as a child, but my parents didn’t have the money to hire anyone good, so I ended up studying with a neighbor, who sometimes hosted Tupperware parties during my lesson. With Sophia’s teacher, I started learning all kinds of things about music theory and music history that I’d never known before.
With me at her side, Sophia practiced at least ninety minutes every day, including weekends. On lesson days, we practiced twice as long. I made Sophia memorize everything, even if it wasn’t required, and I never paid her a penny. That’s how we blasted through those Suzuki books. Other parents aimed for one book a year. We started off with the “Twinkle, Twinkle” variations (Book One); three months later Sophia was playing Schumann (Book Two); six months after that, she was playing a sonatina by Clementi (Book Three). And I still felt we were going too slow.
This seems like a good time to get something off my chest. The truth is, it wasn’t always enjoyable for Sophia to have me as a mother. According to Sophia, here are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:
1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.
2. I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality!
3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!
In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme. On the other hand, they were highly effective. Sophia and I were a great mother-daughter fit. I had the conviction and the tunnel-vision drive. Sophia had the maturity, patience, and empathy I should have had, but didn’t. She accepted my premise that I knew and wanted what was best for her—and she cut me a break when I was bad-tempered or said hurtful things.
When Sophia was nine, she won a local piano award, performing a piece called Butterfly by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Butterfly is one of Grieg’s sixty-six Lyric Pieces, which are miniature compositions, each meant to evoke a particular mood or image. Butterfly is supposed to be light and carefree—and it takes hours and hours of grueling drudge-drilling to get it to sound that way.
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching, or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
At the Winners Concert where Sophia performed, as I watched her deft fingers fluttering and tumbling up and down the piano like real butterfly wings, I was overcome with pride, exhilaration, and hope. I couldn’t wait for the next day, to work more with Sophia, and to learn more music together.