It’s almost reflexive to explain away any deficits in meeting commitments by dragging out the old chestnut, “I’ve just been so busy!” And usually you’ll get the understanding nod of the head in response, “Oh yes, I understand, isn’t it ridiculous how busy we all are?”
Yeah. Don’t try that on my Tiger Mother. It doesn’t work. Even when she is your paid tutor in an ill-fated expedition into learning Mandarin, she accepts nothing less than “best effort!” She faced me with her steely gaze the first (and last) time I trotted out that rather lame excuse, and I felt myself shrivel, devolving into a fourth-grader on the spot.
Bottom line here: If I was going to take up her time teaching me Mandarin, I was going to work hard….or else. Well, the “or else” part was unspoken, but I felt it.
We all remember the Amy Chua book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“, which caused an uproar amongst Western parents appalled at her perceived overly rigorous and highly-disciplined parenting style. My Tiger Mother and I had very frank conversations about the topic because she, too, considers herself a Tiger Mother and is proud of it. It’s refreshing to sit with a mother who, while clearly devoted to them, is not particularly concerned with her sons’ self-esteem. Self-esteem comes later, she says, first we work hard and learn. Hmmmm, not so very different from the dark ages of my own rearing. Once I realized that here was a person with high expectations of me and a dedication to do her very best to bring Mandarin alive for me, I snapped to it and hit the books a bit more diligently.
We travel to Taiwan and China about every 18 months, part business/part pleasure. We have dear friends in Taipei, Jennifer and Leonard, and it’s a given they will speak English when we visit. Jennifer looks forward to our visits as an opportunity to brush up on her idioms; she loves nothing more than learning something new to incorporate into her repertoire of English phrases. “Small potatoes” she learned from an Englishman; “Crack me up!” courtesy of yours truly.
During one of these trips to Taiwan, I decided enough was enough. I wanted to learn a bit of Mandarin, at least enough to make basic conversation and exchange a few pleasantries. And another motivation was to show a sort of respect, I guess you could call it. When we got back to Richmond, I sought out a tutor and my little adventure into Mandarin began.
The Tiger Mother has a name. Actually two names: her English name is Donna, her Chinese is Xiu Min, pronounced “show-min.” It was a step towards cementing our friendship when she eventually asked me to begin calling her by her Chinese name.
She speaks four languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and English. She works here in Richmond at a Starbucks and also for the courts system as a translator. And on weekends, she works at the Chinese school teaching Mandarin to whomever (business people, Cantonese-only speakers, etc.) She puts me to shame with her hard work and industriousness.
Sad to admit that after one-plus years of lessons, the average Chinese dog probably understands more Mandarin than I do. It’s all well and good in the lesson books, but in actual practice, my aging synapses just cannot process the completely foreign combinations of sounds and tones into anything comprehensible. Xiu Min feels confident that were I to actually live in Taiwan for three months, it would all fall into place. I’m not so sure. Smart enough to admit defeat, we agreed to suspend lessons but maintain our friendship. And now, sadly, I learn Xiu Min is moving to China soon as her husband has landed a great opportunity in Guangdong province. For her as a Taiwanese national, this will be almost as much a move into a foreign land as it would be for a Westerner. Almost.
People come in and out of our lives in many ways. Even though I didn’t emerge from our lessons with as much Mandarin as I would have liked, I learned so much from Xiu Min in other ways including getting the inside scoop on the locations of the most authentic noodle houses in town. Aaaah, slurping noodles together over vocabulary words is a good thing. Hen hao!
She taught me much about the complicated relationship between Taiwan and China. I learned about the devotion of the Chinese to their families, so much of which is evident in their very vocabulary with its special terms for members of the family: Jie jie, big sister, mei mei, little sister, for starters. Xiu Min never taught me a word without explaining its origins; many Mandarin words are compounds of other words and make a sort of lyrical sense once you understand the whys and wherefores. Most of all, through her instruction, I felt the enormous pride the Chinese have in their beautiful and ancient culture.
I learned when a certain little Tiger Mother makes you her friend, you’ve got a friend for life.
Zaijian, Xiu Min, wo de pengyou!