tiger mother in action


I cried today. I was trembling with disgust and kept my bum in my chair by holding on to the table to keep myself from walking over to the guy and punching him in the face

Feeling glum and sullen, I forced myself out of the apartment to avoid going into a spiral down of depressed mood. So I went to a café to write more, as my coach suggested. A man and his assistant sat down on the table next to me, and a mother and her 13 year old daughter arrived two seconds after.

It was bad of me to eavesdrop on the boisterous conversation so I tried to tune it out and focus on researching about hallucinations. However, the conversation in the background continued.
The man asked the little girl about herself. I assumed it was an interview of some sort as she went through her list of hobbies: piano, dance, art, and jewelry design. However, it seemed much more probing than a normal interview, when the man started asking why she enjoyed studying history and literature, or how competitive her sports activities were. Eventually, they touched on the SSAT and TOFEL exams and I realized that this man must be a coach of some sort to guide and help students who want to enroll in US boarding schools in compiling their application package.

I was familiar with this kind of service in the market because I used a counselor as well for my MBA applications a few years ago. They exist for college applications too – and make shit loads of money per hour. It was a factory churning out suave students who present themselves – on paper and at the interviews – in a way that would catch the eye of the targeted institutions, usually prestigious boarding schools, Ivy League universities, and the top business schools in the world.

The little girl sounded like an all round teenager, bright, sparky, had varied interests, and was eager to learn.

tiger mum in China, Chinese upbringing, depression, focus on achievements, how to bring up a child in China

My heart stopped beating when I heard the man pass his verdict after analyzing the girl. The mother, sat next to the girl, was rubbing her fingers in anxiety, wondering if this man would take on her daughter and coach her. These coaches, especially the good ones, are selective in who they take on, for they had to ensure a high acceptance rate amongst their students to establish their reputation.

The man looked the little girl in the eye, peering from behind the writing board reclining on his knee. His exact words to the little girl were, verbatim: “You are no one special….”

She sat there, spellbound in confusion, as the man continued to list her inadequacies.

“Your English is good, but that is your only advantage. You are not an athlete training for the Olympics, you are not a champion figure ice skater, you are not a mathematics prodigy, you do not have awards in your dancing or piano and you haven’t even passed grade 8 exam yet…. And your SSAT score is too low.”

How much does he charge for ruining her self-esteem and confidence? Is this what we allow ourselves to teach our children – that they are not special and they need the list of awards and prizes to prove our worth in the society?

Images of my own teenage years flooded my memory, and tears just kept rolling down. I was not sure if I was crying more for the little girl, for my Tiger Mum upbringing, or for the future I had projected on to the girl.

Contrary to her, I had a list of awards. I was top in something, if not everything. I was all rounded. I achieved, and had certificates to prove it. Yet, it still wasn’t enough for the Ivy League universities to accept me into their realms.

Tiger Mums should not be judged, for they were only doing what the society asked of them. They brought up their children with the best possible intentions. It was not Chinese or Western; it was the world that asked achievements of us. And sadly, if you do not start accumulating awards early – and of course one built up the reputation of a diligent student and led to another – then you will be left out by the other kids sprinting ahead next to you!

We get compared against each other at a young age: this toddler can speak, and that kid can walk first. Its steeped into our minds before we understood what comparison and competition meant.

And so begins the cascade of mentally exhausting ourselves: achieve, work hard for external approval and recognition, compare, compete, achieve.

Perhaps I was thinking too much. Perhaps the little girl would come off as crème de la crème for the boarding schools, be top of the class, and graduate cum laude at one of the best universities in the world, get a well-paid job, and be the source of pride for the family, and be happy about it.

If that is what she wants, I wish her luck and the best. But was she even allowed to think about what she wants, and follow her dream of creating a line of jewelry?

It just hurt me to hear her being told she wasn’t special, like I was told I was a disappointment at the same age.

I banged my MacBook air close, dumped everything into my big green bag, and with a haughty sip of my cappuccino, walked out of the café, unable to listen anymore.

26 Responses

  1. Syl says:

    This post speaks so much to my heart. Beautifully written, Noch! How much is enough before we let society and unkind words trample on our self-worth? Does it take a list of “achievements” to be someone special? With all the achievements I have, I don’t find myself anymore incredible than any person down the street. We are all unique but it takes an open heart and mind to embrace the marvels of each individual soul and what wonders – big or small – that soul can bring.

    • nochnoch says:

      Hey Syl! Thanks for leaving a note here. I’ve been following your travels and journeys and very envious! Yes I agree, we are all special in our own right. Now I think back I really should have done something on the spot to save the girl’s esteem from society’s destruction!
      Noch Noch

  2. Kate says:

    I too would have been very moved if I had overheard that whole exchange. I think I might have written her a little note that said, “You ARE someone special, don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise.” Then, I’d pack up my stuff, refill my drink and pass by their table… “accidentally” stumble and dump my drink in the guy’s lap, deliver the note and leave. 😉

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Kate

      Nice to meet you here – and good strategy. I wasn’t thinking fast enough, too angry and blinded by that emotion to know what to do. Poor girl. I hope she overcomes this dent in her confidence. Really should have dumped a drink on the guy haha

      Noch Noch

  3. Hi Noch Noch,

    I’m sorry to read that the girl’s self-worth had to go through such an ordeal. But it is all too familiar to those who have had an Asian upbringing. Indeed, Tiger Mums should not be judged because they are doing what they think is best. Yet the greatest harm may arise from the best of intentions. The tiger cubs will have to learn to cope with their circumstances, make the best of it and decide for themselves what they should or should not do when they are older. One can only hope the damage is not too severe.

    There are always two sides to every story. One person can look at a piece of marble and see it as worthless because of a flaw. But another may see the flaw as a strength that enhances the beauty lying within it. All it takes is for a master sculptor to realize its true value. Every one has value. But whether they can meet someone who recognizes that value, who can help them to unleash their fullest potential depends very much on their fate.

    For those who are not so lucky, they have to rely on themselves. They must have the courage to see reality as it is and the courage and vision to see what can be. They must follow their own path or else they will never find their true happiness.

    It is understandable why you left the cafe. We can only hope that the girl will find the path she will be happy on despite all the obstacles she is sure to face in life.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!

    Irving the Vizier

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Irving

      THanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, we must have the courage to see reality as it is and follow our own paths! I wish this this what they teach in schools so we don’t have to look for it 20 years later!

      Noch NOch

  4. Leslie says:

    Wow. I can so picture this conversation, especially since I worked with enough high-achieving Chinese students and their parents to have heard this ridiculously narrow definition of “special.” I can’t believe that he gets paid a huge amount of money per hour to slam the door on hopes and dreams.

    I hope there is at least one person in her life that shows her that success and specialness can be defined in a broader and more personal way.

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Leslie

      How are you doing? good to hear from you again. Yes, I was so annoyed when I heard the conversation. I do hope the little girl finds an inspiration and a mentor somewhere along the way who will tell her to be special in her own right!!!

      Noch Noch

  5. Tony Applebaum says:

    I am sickened by this story. So sad. To say that to someone so young at such an impressible age is reprehensible. I live by Mr. Rogers simple, life-affirming message — that everyone is special just as they are. I wish I could give that girl a hug and tell her not to listen a word that man said. We are not about what we accomplish. We are about who we are inside.

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Tony

      Good to hear from you again – I hope the girl feels our hugs for her. You say it so well, it’s not about what we accomplish but who we are inside. I too was blinded by the fact that I was defined by what I accomplished and that was why I felt such a big void for so long! I really wish the little girl won’t go down my footsteps!

      Noch Noch

  6. TonyB says:

    I probably would have excused myself and interrupted by telling HIM that HE was nobody special and that he only took on kids who would’ve succeeded on their own anyway. Then again, I’ve always been one to wear out my welcome in various places.

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Tony

      That’s the irony isn’t it, that these kids who would have succeeded anyways feel that they can’t accomplish anything because of what some adults tell them!
      THanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts

      Noch NOch

  7. Christina says:

    That’s horrible. All children are special. Every human being is special in there own way. I feel bad for this girl and I’m sure she will achieve great accomplishments without the help of that coach.

  8. The only thing worse than this is when people try to justify it by saying that the criticism drove them to become the success they are today. How do they know they wouldn’t have achieved it without the character assassination?
    Great piece Noch.

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Aisha

      Thanks for dropping by! It also annoys me when people justify it with that reason. But it is slightly more difficult for me because I had a Tiger Mother upbringing, and I did achieve some success, and I don’t know if my success could be attributed to that, or if I would have succeeded anyways…. It’s all in the past and can’t really ask “what if”. But one thing for certain, is that emotionally I have been handicapped because I was not allowed to express signs of weakness or cry, and if I failed, I just carried on again. However, the suppression of anger and frustrations have not been healthy. Either way, I’m where I am now and just learning to look forward 🙂

      Thanks again, and see you again soon
      Noch Noch

  9. I am glad my parents never made me go through anything like that, but I my test scores have always been above average and back in high school I was athletic. Now though, that is a different story! ( :
    Great story! I do not care what anyone says or thinks about me. I do not care how many accomplishments another person has because at the end of the day, I believe we a judged by how we helped this world and in my opinion that starts with helping one another.
    I have learned that life is full of people that will kill your motivation, but only if you let them get into your head.

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi William

      Well said! I am also learning that some people will kill my motivation and perspectives, and I don’t need to mind what they say and judge. It’s my life and all I want to do is also inspire a few people.

      Thanks for coming by again and leaving your thoughts 🙂

      Hope you are well!

      Noch Noch

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    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Andi

      I like what you said, that the children will find peace within themselves. I am going through that journey, resolving the conflicts in myself, the pains, the invisible bruises and coming to terms with it all. What has happened has happened. I can only move on. My mother was well intentioned, but it had its backlashes. I hope other children can come out of the other side as well…

      Noch Noch

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about Noch Noch

Enoch Li, (pen name: Noch Noch) was born and raised in Hong Kong and Australia. She has also studied / worked / lived in the US, France, UK, Japan, The Netherlands, China, and has travelled to more than 40 countries. She loves travelling and her curiosity in foreign cultures and languages has led her to enjoy her life as an international executive in the banking & finance industry. However, she was forced to take time off work in 2010 due to her illnesses and after spending time in recovery, cooking, practising Chinese calligraphy, reading and writing – in short, learning to take care of herself and letting out the residual work stress, she has transitioned into a Social Entrepreneur and founded BEARAPY to help corporates make workplaces mentally healthy, and support executives to become more resilient.