Dragon Lady

A few months ago there was talk of hiring a Chinese teacher to come to the company once a week to teach a conversational Mandarin class during the lunch hour. It seemed like a great idea – we have many Mandarin speakers, but most of the people in Business Planning – the department that deals most closely with our mandarin-speaking suppliers – do not speak it. It was very strange to me. All the Mandarin speakers (myself included) were scattered across accounting, legal, logistics and HR (me). They used it sometimes on conference calls to Taiwan and/or China, but mostly Mandarin was most useful for gossip. I speak Mandarin most often with the overly enthusiastic HR girl downstairs, and with the President. With my boss, I speak Chinglish. It is the language in which we are both most fluent.

When the HR girl told me they were looking for a teacher, I said without thinking that my mother taught Chinese. What I meant was, “My mother has a large network of Chinese teachers and can probably find someone to do the job,” not, “I am nominating my mother for the job.”

But the HR girl clapped her hands gleefully and tugged at my arm and in an eerie baby-girl voice that both suited her yet was utterly inappropriate, said, “Oh my goodness that’s great! Have her come in and teach! I’m sure your mother is wonderful.”

HR girl was right. My mother IS wonderful. She is, in highly sophisticated parlance, a bomb-diggity Chinese teacher. Just listen to my accent when I speak Chinese. Oh wait, I don’t have one. I sound like a native. 

Dragon Lady and her daughter (right) in 1996 with a family friend, Pearl, who was at the right place at the wrong time. Children who unwittingly wandered into the Ho household during Chinese lessons were forced to participate as well.

As tutoring one’s offspring goes, my Chinese education was a tortuous road, filled with beatings and screaming and more sheets of grid paper (for writing each character fifty million times) than I care to count. What’s worse is my mother taught us in addition to our Saturday classes at Cerritos Chinese school, which took place at the run-down Artesia High School, a poor, backwater of a high school that was known for gang violence and underwhelming test scores. It’s interesting that on the weekends, the high school morphed into a center of success – not because kids actually learned Chinese, but because it would be flooded with over-achieving Chinese kids who aimed for perfect SAT scores and thought (and someone actually said this), that the kids from Artesia High would one day mow their lawns. They mostly attended only so they could write Chinese School down as another activity on their college applications. Chinese School was not so much a school as a messy, disorganized network of frizzy-haired and frazzled middle-aged women who had nothing better to do on Saturday mornings than exert power they had nowhere else and teach uninterested children of all ages a language none of them cared to learn.

Wow, that was really mean. That was me looking through the lenses of my bitter classmates – I actually liked most of my Chinese school teachers because they paled in comparison to my mother, who was ten times stricter and could use physical force as punishment. (Most of my classmates were also ruled with similar iron fists, though sadly, a majority of their parents were so eager for their kids to “make” it in the American school system that they let Mandarin fall to the way-side of violin, piano, tennis, golf, and supplementary math courses. A decade or so later, this decision would nip them in the bud when China woke up and said, “Hey, I’m gonna run this town.” (阿,我睡醒了). 

No, my mother saw early on that her children weren’t talented at much else – I hated the piano and my brother froze without fail at every single recital. We were athletic, but not marvelously so – my brother loved basketball but was about a foot too short to consider it seriously and I preferred climbing trees and doing crooked cartwheels to anything with a ball or court. She had unsuccessfully tried to sell golf to me, but I didn’t see the point in standing, squatting, and hitting a small ball as far as it could go. It was like asking a rambunctious two-year old to meditate.  

Most disappointing was that we didn’t even shine academically. Asian kids are nothing if not brainy – and we definitely weren’t. I had tested into GATE, but was always at the back of the class. I did well enough in “language arts,” but my math scores were dismal, way below those of my Asian peers. and my brother was one of those strange fearless kids who just couldn’t be bothered to do homework sometimes, and was able to lie about it. He could lie straight-faced through his teeth, earnestness oozing from his eyes. He once erased the “D” on his report card and changed it to a “B,” and when my mother found out (though even if she hadn’t, I’m not sure the punishment would have been different because you know, a B might as well be a D) was livid and took out the belt to give my brother a memorable thrashing. My brother bore the punishment heroically. He cried a bit, apologized, and when his tears had dried continued to lie in the same way many years down the road up to his college graduation, in which he walked, dressed in cap, gown, and goofy smile but was actually four units shy of a degree. We, the family, stood sweating on the lawn for four hours, wondering if our tired legs were being pulled. Lesson learned then forgotten as quickly as the belt leaves the skin. 

No, my mother was adamant that if we were going to be good at nothing else, we’d at least be fluent in Mandarin. Or else SHE wasn’t a Chinese teacher. She had a reputation to uphold, and as an active member of the Council of Chinese Educators (or something like that) as well as a teacher at the Cerritos Chinese school and eventual owner of her own Chinese school, she would look quite foolish if her own flesh and blood were walking around with stuttering, accented Chinese. So to the extent that she was involved with Chinese school, so were we. We were forced into countless speech and poetry recital competitions as well as National Chinese History Bees. We placed first at several (those were good days) second at some, and none at others (those were terrible, terrible dark days), and all in all, form a rather amusing strip of memories, moments of “Hey, this isn’t so bad if I let myself get as competitive as my mother wants me to be,” intertwined with my earnestly wishing, “Why can’t I have a white mother with lower standards.”

My mother is wonderful now. She went through menopause some seven or eight years ago when, luckily for my brother and I, something snapped in her brain and her personality turned towards the light. She became docile. Patient. Sweet, almost eerily so. The hot flashes also erased part of her memory. Ask her now if she ever raised or voice or hit us, and she’ll say with a look of horror, “Oh God no, I don’t remember ever hitting you two.” 

Really.

Six or seven years ago things were very different. Not to paint a bleak and bloody picture of my childhood, which was for the most part filled with laughter and fun, but there were moments of sheer terror. My my mother was not the same person. She wasn’t a tiger mom – no silly feline cliches for my mother – she was another cliche, born in the year of the Dragon and thus a bona-fide, fire-breathing Dragon Lady.

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