Carnegie Mellon University

"To the Tiger Mother Who Nearly Ate Me Alive: Open Letters from an Adoptee"

Honorable Mention for College Prose

Dear Tiger Mother,

We met on a cruise ship sailing along the Mediterranean Sea five summers ago. That was the time of wanderlust and dreams. That was the time of new beginnings. New beginnings that have led to ends, and by ends, I mean childhood, and naiveté, and sanity. But most of all, the end to the way things were before I lived for your approval—the simple life devoid of consumption. A time that I can now only vaguely recall.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

It was love at first sight—I’m sure of it. Your son, proud of his Seattle accent. And me, embarrassed of my Pittsburghese. To think that I’d never met an Asian-American family before then. On the wicker patio sofa, we talked late into the night about what it must be like to live on opposite ends of the map. I’d never disobeyed my own mother, but I couldn’t contain my curiosity. Sipping tea into the early hours of the morning, your son and I were rebels.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

At 16, I was the eldest of seven girls—my cousins through adoption. Our extended family, composed of five western Pennsylvanian families that met halfway across the world, was ready to take on Europe. Weeks before departure, our parents met to review the itinerary and each girl was forced to give a presentation on a specific port. Just as in school, we connected a laptop to projector and stood pointing at a television screen.

Barcelona. Cannes. Ravenna. Florence. Rome. Venice. Dubrovnik.

My youngest cousin, then 12, who was assigned Cannes, had drawn a French mustache on my aunt the previous night. A shadow of permanent marker was still visible as she served us bruschetta.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

I was notoriously known as the responsible one, the goody two shoes, the erudite. The Asian among my Asian cousins. None of them could believe how willing I was to talk to a stranger, but your son wasn’t a stranger—he’d never felt like one at least. Meeting for the first time almost convinced me of fate.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

This past year, Gotcha Day was celebrated at my house. Nineteen years and you’d think we’d all be sick of each other, but tradition never gets old. We sit lined up on the couch and laugh as all seven parents crowd together with seven cameras trying to recapture the first moments of family.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

There is an ancient Chinese proverb in every adoptee’s home. Framed above the mantle, it reads

An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break. 

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

As soon as you returned home from Barcelona, your son ran to his room to call me. As he finished unpacking, I could hear your voice from the hallway.

Vacation’s over!!! Piano practice starts after dinner. Your new SAT books came when we were away. Studying begins tomorrow morning. No more phone.

Your son and I continued to talk like this for three years. In between piano practice, school, and studying. When he wasn’t being yelled at for only winning second place and only scoring in the 99th percentile, he was telling me how lonely he was and I was growing more and more inferior.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

My language partner is from China. Every Sunday we meet at the library, and she brings her five-year-old son. He runs through the aisles of books and returns loudly correcting his mother’s grammar. She asks where my parents are, and I tell her I don’t know. I really did think she was going to cry.

Terrible—and friends who have children still don’t treat them right…very mean…don’t understand.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

Today my Chinese roommate and I compared our 23andMe results.

Her genetic makeup:
75.8% Mainland Chinese
24.2% Mongolian/Manchurian
 
My genetic makeup:
95.5% Mainland Chinese
4.5% Southeast Asian

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

I’ve been going through my closet. Old shoes, old pants, old shirts, and an unworn ball gown. Red covered in sequins. Great Gatsby themed. Everything was set. I would fly out to attend your son’s senior prom. My bags were packed, but a week before departure I got a call. Your son said he couldn’t go. Had to practice. Exams were coming up. You were putting an end to this nonsense. Said you got into an argument. Called me defective. Your family wouldn’t have anything to do with an adoptee. Dishonor to us all.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

I can’t unsay the words I’ve said. To my mom. I thought if she was meaner that I’d be tougher. I would have given anything for her to slap my wrists and tell me how worthless I was. Isn’t that how success is born? I thought she didn’t care. Instead I beat myself. Starved myself. Told myself I was worthless.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

Did you know that China’s One Child Policy was established under a famine scare? My language partner says that the fines were heavy. Monthly pregnancy screenings and abortions were common. Most parents still abort until they have a son. I’d like to believe that I am worth more than a grain of rice.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

A few weeks back, I got an incredible urge to reach out. To dial the old number and hear your son’s voice. I devised an excuse—

Hello, I’d say when he answers the phone, Umm yes…this is…hey, I’ve been wondering how you’ve been. I know it’s been three years, but…do you have a minute—oh, I see…Well, you’re not at home, are you? I’m doing some research for a book…yeah, I’m writing…and uhh…thought you could help me out…it’s about racial identity formation…maybe a few questions about your mom?

—but instead of following through, I did the responsible thing and called my best friend. Per our emergency plan, she had me repeat all the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea to break no-contact. 

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

One semester left until I graduate. It’s funny how three years can feel like a day. Did you think that I’d forget the way you treated me? Did you mean to stitch your words behind my ears?

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

I wish I could take back freshman year. Undo all of the sleepless nights. Replace them with laughter and friends. Anything but tear-stained books. Back then, I thought being Asian meant getting good grades, being skinny, and earning your approval. Even worse, I thought my worth as a person was determined by how Asian I was. But you didn’t care that I was valedictorian. You wouldn’t care that I still make straight A’s. You’ll never know how much I resented my own mother for denying me my birthright—a terribly strict childhood like your son’s.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

I wasn't born of privilege. No, I was born of dirt roads and scorching sun. I was born to parents, who for some reason or another couldn't keep me. I wasn’t born of privilege, but I was raised with dignity. I was raised with love and affection and compassion by a single mother with an immeasurable heart. The only woman I’ll ever be able to call my mom.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

Sometimes when we’ve been at a family gathering for too long, my cousins run out of things to say. We return to the kitchen table and sit by our parents who love to recall past adventures.

That time we took a taxi down Victoria’s Peak—thought we were gonna die! Skiing down the double black diamond. You gave up and slid on your butt the whole way down. You girls used to put on plays in the basement and sell us tickets.  The blue skies in Europe—have we decided when we are going back?

Then my cousins have more to say. They begin to tease me about the boat and your son, and I let them, knowing that there’s simply no use in trying to hide how much I loved that vacation.

*

Dear Tiger Mother,

I know you don’t remember eating breakfast together. You found me sitting next to your son by the window overlooking the water, watching the current flow behind us. It was our last morning together on the cruise. I figured I’d introduce myself. Say my name, think up some clever way to compliment you—but you spoke before I could mutter a word.

Do you speak Chinese, you asked while stabbing your fork into a plate full of scrambled eggs.

I should have known then that I would never be enough.

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