Goodbye, Tiger Mother

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.

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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. 


Xiu Min requires I sit for all photos. “Too Tall!” she says.

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!

Xiexie nin,


The mark on the left is my “chop!” Beloved Husband’s on right.

About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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53 Responses to Goodbye, Tiger Mother

  1. That’s a wonderful story of friendship and understanding! I tried to learn Mandarin, too, because I regularly visited my teams in China and HK, and was often mistaken to know the language, only to embarrassingly admit I couldn’t speak it. Well, I tried. Thank you for sharing.


    • Hello Joyce, you can imagine that nobody ever assumed I would know Mandarin, and so I had the tiny moments of pleasure when I would shock someone with a bit of Mandarin. Of course, then they would reply and all would be lost! Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Mary Ellen Yost says:

    Wonderful post today. Brought a tear to my eye that your friend is moving away. I am sure the friendship will continue. Thanks. M.E.


    • Michigan, Guangdong, why do my friends desert me? Clearly priorities are skewed in this matter, but what can I do? It’s almost September, ME, I am hoping you have still a few more weeks of nice warm weather.


  3. If only we could all learn the sorts of things about each other’s cultures that you’ve learned from your Tiger Mother, language itself would be so much less important.


  4. I liked the idea of explaining the origins of every new word….so much culture is hidden under language….


  5. Both of my children (now 23 & 20) were lucky enough to have Mandarin taught in our public school–started in their elementary school when my oldest (Caroline) was in 1st grade. The language & teacher(s) followed that grade all the way through high school. The teachers were the most amazing, warm, caring Asian ladies–mothers themselves–who treated the children they taught like their own. Mrs. Chang and Mrs. Hou helped Caroline compete in a national Mandarin competition held at The Confucius Center in Boston where she tied for 1st as a sophomore and 3rd as a junior in high school. Her natural ability to learn the language we thing was aided by her musical ability–especially with the tones. She went on to minor in Mandarin at Georgetown University. While she doesn’t use it in her chosen career, like playing an instrument, she will always have that experience and knowledge.
    You should know that the prime window to learn a different language (especially one as difficult as Mandarin) is btwn birth and about 12-14!! So don’t feel bad!!! I never could figure out more than 1-10, hello, thank-you and a few other words you mentioned!!
    P.S. I’m the one with Bittersweet Stella of Verona!!
    Regards, Cindy


    • I know exactly who you are, Cindy! And thanks for this comment. Your kids are at a huge advantage knowing this language, and I am so impressed with your daughter’s prize-winning accomplishments, really! And who knows how knowledge of Mandarin may benefit her in future years?

      I am pretty darn good at reading Pinyin Chinese at my entry level; it’s the understanding of the spoken words that I couldn’t get. Deer in Headlights!! I would beg them to speak a bit slower but to no avail. Also, freakishly, when I would be searching for a word, darn if the French word wouldn’t pop into my mind.

      All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world and again, I think it is wonderful that your kids have this knowledge.


  6. nrhatch says:

    Now you’ll have someone else to visit when you travel to China! A neighbor just moved to China this week ~ she’ll be teaching high school students who want to come to the US for college for the next 2 years.

    At her farewell party, we encouraged her to learn the important words first: chocolate, wine, bathroom, . . .


    • We’ve already discussed this – the possibility of me going with Xiu Min to Beijing. We shall see…..
      I used your three words as a litmus test for how much I remember of random vocabulary and evidently “wine” is permanently ingrained.


  7. Diane Ahlberg says:

    Sorry your friend is moving but sure that the friendship will continue. Learning another language and culture I believe to be helpful in understanding our own- different but somehow we are all intertwined . I wish they taught a foreign language in our public schools from 1st grade all the way to high school graduation. I remember my father signing us up on Saturday mornings to learn Russian- but gave in to us all complaining. One of those things I today wish I had done .
    Thanks for sharing


    • Di, you are absolutely right. Yes, we understand our own culture better through learning about others, and I am firmly convinced we are all much more alike than we are different. And I so agree about learning a language from grade 1 on. In Taiwan, the kids start with English immediately and by the time they are entering middle school, they are pretty conversant. We could have a regular UN if we all were speaking our native tongues, couldn’t we? Russian, Swedish, German, and Gaelic just in our little foursome!


  8. Barbara … I’m sorry your friend, your Tiger Mother, is moving. I suspect Xiu Min is right. Immersion is the best setting to learn a language.

    As a teacher, I’ve had quite a few ESOL students (English Speakers of Other Languages). The student who learned the most the fastest was a Thai student. We did authentic journaling. I wrote something about myself, my interests in music, etc. Then, she responded. She picked up Spanish as well as English quite quickly. Another ESOL student got in a comfort zone with friends who spoke her language. She didn’t pick up English as fast and that hurt her, overall, in her other classes as well.

    Several years later, I met my former Thai student at a restaurant that my husband and I frequented. It turns out she kept that journal. The restaurant owner showed it to me. I hadn’t realized that we’d written so much to each other. 😉


    • Hi Judy, authentic journaling sounds challenging as a method to learn a language and also highly effective. I like that your Thai student hung onto that journal as a symbol of her days learning English. What a rewarding thing for you to do. I agree that total immersion is the only way to go, at least for me. The last time I was in Taiwan, things were starting to slowly click by the end of two weeks. I heard an old Taiwanese lady mutter “Meiguo-ren” – “Americans” as we walked by. And I wondered how she knew. We could have been Aussies, right?


  9. dorannrule says:

    I am so impressed with your efforts to learn Mandarin and with your connections and visits to China. My book club just reviewed “Factory Girls” this afternoon and it was truly fascinating. I would highly recommend it if you haven’t read it already. It does go into the family ties and the trend to “going out” for young women. When do you go to China next?


    • HI Dor, I’ve not read “Factory Girls” and will look into its details on Amazon shortly. My husband leaves for China next month, but I am not going this time. Too many balls in the air on the home front. The next definite visit will be October 2015. Roughly a 26-hour flight. I have seen only a tiny fraction of what I would like to in China.


  10. Sheryl says:

    I’m impressed that you are learning Mandarin. It’s really interesting how the language has special terms for family which provides an indication of the importance of family.


  11. Parnassus says:

    Hello Barbara, How right you are that language learning involves much more than just the mechanics of speech. Only by getting to know a different culture and mindset can one understand how each language puts thought together. And of course that in turn paves the way for friendship and for appreciation of another way of life.


  12. Even if you only gained a little Mandarin, it seems you gained much more from the relationship. That’s so special.


  13. Almost Iowa says:

    I work in a neighborhood that is predominantly Hmong (Laotian). It is both inspiring and sad to hear kids with pitch-perfect Midwestern accents, translating for parents who struggle to master simple English.


    • I wonder, Greg, if you have noticed what I have with these second-generation kids: a sort of disdain….that’s too strong of a word….maybe impatience or embarrassment with their parents? I’ve seen it with a Mexican and Vietnamese family I know where the kid is just chagrined by the halting English of the parent. Of course, now that I think of it, all kids are horrified by their parents, so maybe this is just typical behavior after all.


      • Almost Iowa says:

        Kids are naturally horrified by their parents, but are especially horrified by anything that draws notice. Even having a dad who wears a funny hat can drive a child to tears. What I have seen in immigrant neighborhoods is a common bond among the kids, at least they feel that they are all going through the same thing together..

        But there is another lesson to draw from watching these kids. Think about this: if the child’s accent is pitch-perfect Midwestern, who did they learn that from? The answer is: from their peers. Beyond a certain age, kids learn more from each other than they do from their family, including their values. So if you want to ensure that you child becomes a giving and successful person, mind who they hang out with.


      • Couldn’t agree more, Greg, and I hope that these families retain some of their culture as these children you describe grow up. Interesting how so many Laotians have come to Minnesota. What was the draw, do you know? And I just have to tell you – I was at a party recently where a middle-aged Japanese woman was seated next to me. When she opened her mouth, you would have thought you were sitting next to Scarlett O’Hara because of her drawl. It was a bit of a jolt, to be frank, but really sort of fascinating. And she confesses to knowing very little Japanese.


  14. kristieinbc says:

    I really enjoyed this post! I have a Chinese daughter-in-law, and made an unsuccessful bid to learn some Chinese a few years ago. I laughed when you said the average Chinese dog probably understands more Chinese than you do. I would say a similar thing, only it was an average six month old Chinese baby. 🙂

    This isn’t meant to be an advertisement, but since you have an interest in China and travel there, I did want to mention the book I have written. It’s called Ting Ting, and is very loosely based on my daughter-in-law’s story. You can click on the link in my side bar if you are interested.



    • Nihao, Kristie. Now I’m laughing because, when strained, I would think of the Chinese toddler and his far-superior ability to understand all these completely foreign sounds and would gain a renewed burst of commitment. I am interested in Ting Ting and will pop over shortly.

      Which brings me to a question for you. I enjoy your blog and have tried to follow unsuccessfully as you are not WordPress based. I went over to bloglovin’ to try to find you there and North of 49 didn’t appear to be your blog. Any suggestions? Zaijian!


      • kristieinbc says:

        Thanks for making such an effort to follow my blog. I’m sorry it’s been so much trouble! Did you try searching for journeynorthof49? That might do it, as it’s the actual name of the blog, but I cut out the word “journey” in my blog header. If that doesn’t work please email me and I’ll see if I can figure something out for you. I would apologize in Mandarin, but sadly I never got that far. Ha!


      • Hen hao, Kristie. “Journey” did the trick. Xie xie!


  15. Sue Mayo says:

    I met your Tiger Mother at your picnic a couple of years ago. Very sweet lady.


  16. Phil Taylor says:

    Wow. I’m envious of your ambition in attempting to learn another language. You may have more Tiger Mother in you than you think!


  17. fadedvelvet says:

    Barbara, Such a great story of the friendship you gained with a teacher. I love that she’s a tiger mother (being a bit of one myself) and that she also had the same work ethic she expected of you. Lovely to remind us that friendships come from the most unexpected places in our lives. You aare a great story teller.
    Faded Velvet


  18. Dianna says:

    As small as our world is today, it’s nice that you’ll be able to keep in touch with your friend – even after she moves so far away!


  19. Eliza Waters says:

    I’m impressed with your tackling Mandarin. My brain can hardly remember yesterday let alone how to conjugate verbs in a foreign language. I did an immersion Spanish course in my 20s and I’m glad I did. Though not fluent by any means, I find that after speaking a few days, the rust wears off and I can communicate pretty well.
    When is your next trip?


    • I am a firm believer in the immersion system and Xiu Min is sure that it would do the trick for me. It’s funny how the foreign words are resting in a dormant state in your brain, isn’t it? I plan to go again in October 2015.


  20. Susanne K. Williams says:

    Fascinating, Barbara! So lucky to have had Xiu Min in your life!



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