Be a Co-Pilot, Not a Backseat Driver

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Photo by SplitShire on

I recently went on a road-trip with a friend’s family. There we were, three adult Tiger Cubs, crammed into the back of a mini-van driven by my friend’s parents. It was pretty much how you’d expect it to go: between the sightseeing, the friend got berated for choosing an Unapproved Profession and lectured about this and that. It drove her nuts.

It got me thinking about Asian-American children’s relationships with their parents.

I used to feel like I was stuck in the parent-child dynamic where my parents gave the instructions/commands and my only choices were to obey or to rebel. It was like my parents drove the bus and I was a mere passenger.

We tend to fall into old roles and patterns with our parents, particularly when we’re thrown back into familiar environments, such as our childhood homes. No matter how old I get, when I visit my parents, I often find myself being treated like, and subsequently behaving like, a teenager.

I would sleep in my old bed surrounded by my childhood furniture. If I go out with friends, it would be the Spanish inquisition: “Who is this friend? Are they a guy or a girl? What do they do? Do they know them? Who are their parents?” My parents were expert interrogators.

My mom also set curfews. Once (not so long ago), my mother required me to be home by sundown. Since this was in June, that meant 6.30pm. I was a twenty-something-year-old for god’s sake!

The thing is – we are culpable. We let it happen to us. We enable them. If we don’t examine the state of our relationship with our parents and don’t actively consider what kind of relationship we want with our parents, we are doomed to default to the relationship we currently have.

We end up feeling like we have no control over the relationship (or for that matter, our own life), like our voice is not heard, like our opinions and views don’t matter. We end up letting the parents drive the bus. And we just sit in the back, feeling helpless, commiserating with our friends about it.

But I’m not a kid anymore and you’re not a kid anymore. Step up to the front of that bus and start co-piloting. Decide what kind of relationship you want with your parents.

Is the relationship irreparable? Do you want to maintain some sort of relationship with your parents but also a bit of distance or space? Do you want to be viewed by your parents as an equal? [I make no comments here about what kind of relationship you should want. I’ll talk about that another day.]

Now look at what kind of relationship you have with your parents right now. What aspect of your relationship needs to change?

A while ago, I realized that I wanted to develop a healthier and closer relationship with my parents. For me, this meant getting them to really see me as an adult. To that end, I’ve become more aware of aspects of my behavior that enable my parents to continue to treat me as a child.

Case in point: A few years ago, there was an imperceptible but seismic shift in my relationship with my mother. I was going out for dinner with friends and just as I was out the door, my mother invoked the Spanish inquisition (as usual). I dutifully answered each question in turn – dinner with a high school friend, yes you’ve met her, yes this is a female friend, and she’s in an Approved Profession. Satisfied, my mother wished me a fun evening and turned to leave.

Immediately, I felt the urge to ask her “what time should I be home by?” but I caught myself just in time. For the first time ever, in the history of this Tiger Cub’s life, Tiger Mom did not set a curfew. And I had almost blown it by voluntarily asking her to set one!

It had become a habit. If my mother didn’t set a curfew, I asked her. I had, over time, acknowledged my mom’s authority to set curfews for my adult self. Only by realizing that I had done that, did I manage to break the cycle.

I’m happy to report that I no longer have a curfew when I visit my parents. Hooray! Achievement unlocked.

Are you letting your parents drive the bus on your relationship with them (or with respect to your life generally)? Did you also have ridiculous curfews or other similar revelations? I’d love to hear your stories. Let me know in the comments box or send me an email at

The “Average Graphite” Theory: What makes you think you’re so special?

In my experience,  there are two types of people in the world – those who believe you’re special and those who don’t. Asian parents tend to fall in the latter category.

That’s not to say they don’t love their children or they’re not proud of their children’s achievements. It’s just they don’t believe in the Special Snowflake theory.

macro photography of snowflake
Photo by Egor Kamelev on

You’re all familiar with this theory: you’re unique because of your specific genetic make-up, there is no one else like you out there, you bring something special to the table, and so on and so forth.

Yeaaaaah … Asian parents don’t believe that. If the Special Snowflake theory is the signature of Western millennial upbringing, then the “Average Graphite” theory is the hallmark of Tiger Cub upbringing.

The Average Graphite theory is the ying to the Special Snowflake theory’s yang. Every snowflake has a distinctive pattern, whereas every piece of graphite has the same molecular structure. A snowflake is unique by nature and one appreciates its beauty for what it is. In contrast, graphite can become a diamond (i.e., special and valuable), but only if compressed under immense pressure.

The Special Snowflake theory believes in a person’s natural talent. The Average Graphite theory believes in hard work.

How does the “Average Graphite” manifest itself? Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: Oh you want to be an artist/writer/[fill in Unapproved Profession]? What makes you think you’re so special? There are millions of works of art / books out there on this subject. What makes you think people will want to buy your painting / read your book? Be realistic. Get your head out of the clouds. Pursue an Approved Profession.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe everyone is a Special Snowflake. Some people are more like Average Graphite and could do with a reality check (those are usually the ones who think they’re Special Snowflakes).

However, I think every Tiger Cub could do with a bit of Special Snowflake therapy. Nobody who ever became somebody did so because they thought they were just Average Graphite. Do you think Beyonce thought she was just Average Graphite? Roger Federer? Any of the Presidents of the United States?

I’m not saying you’ll be the next Beyonce. But maybe there’s something you’ve been thinking about pursuing, an inkling that you may be really good at it, a suspicion that you may bring something unique to the table. Try it. What’s the worst that could happen?






The Dragon Awakens

Thanks for reading my inaugural post!

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” – King Lear

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Do you have a Tiger Mom, Wolf Dad or Dragon Parent (term of my own invention)? Are you a disappointment to your parents because you didn’t become a doctor, lawyer, or other Approved Professional? Are you an Approved Professional per your parents’ wishes but wonder if you were meant to do something else? Do you feel like nothing you do is ever good enough for your parents or that your parents just don’t get you? If so, then this blog is meant for you.

The title of this blog, Sharper Than a Dragon’s Tooth, was inspired by King Lear. Cliff’s notes version for those who, like me, have a fuzzy memory: King Lear is old and wants to retire. He declares that he will divvy up his kingdom and grant the largest portion to the daughter who loves him the most (and who’ll look after him in his old age). His eldest two daughters, Goneril and Regan, put on a great show (even though they just want his kingdom). Cordelia, King Lear’s youngest and favorite daughter, refuses to play the game even though she actually loves him. Goneril and Regan are rewarded with chunks of King Lear’s kingdom and Cordelia is banished from his kingdom. Of course, Goneril and Regan later kick King Lear to the curb and King Lear goes mad. In Act 1 Scene 4, upon discovering Goneril’s betrayal, King Lear exclaims, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

This must be what our parents feel when we refuse to pursue an Approved Profession, choose to work in another city/state/country or don’t visit as often as they would like us to. They, like King Lear, fear that we, finding them to be of no further use, will kick them to the proverbial curb (otherwise known as The Hospice or The Retirement Home). What our parents may not realize is that we, like Cordelia, are trying to be the daughters or sons that they want us to be, but that we have our own views, goals and aspirations that are equally valid. At its core, the question is: How do we pursue our own happiness without disappointing our parents? Maybe that’s impossible. But I want to know. Perhaps we could be a step closer to the answer if we could bridge the generational and cultural gaps between us and our parents. Perhaps we could repair and develop healthier and closer relationships with our parents if we knew how to communicate with them. That’s what we’re here to find out.