In defense of Chinese dads

I owe a lot to the discipline of my own Tiger Mother. But it's my father's relaxed presence that saved my life

Topics: Real Families, Fatherhood, Life stories, Parenting,

In defense of Chinese dadsThe author's father, second from the left.

When my restaurant got a zero-star review from the New York Times, my mom roasted me in an e-mail according to Chinese Mom Tradition. Everyone loved it. So recently someone sent me Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and they wanted my feedback: Do I think Chinese moms are, indeed, superior?

Well, I like my mom and her shape-ups, but if it weren’t for my dad, I would have been destined to a life of violins and Izod shirts. Chinese moms love buying Izod because it’s cheaper than polo and people laugh at you, but for the record, looking like an ass clown and not having friends definitely doesn’t help your SAT scores.

My dad is the homie in the photo with a snap-back Magic hat. (Like father like son.) He tried to be a Chinese mom and break my spirit, but it never worked. When he decided I needed to learn how to ride a bike, he put me at the top of a hill and told me to pedal fast. For three hours, I looked like a human egg roll falling down the hill. My mom came out and saw me bleeding all over the place so she powdered me with a bottle of yunan baiyao. It was settled that day that my dad couldn’t teach a crackhead to spend money. So teaching became my mom’s domain.

Like a lot of kids, I grew up really not liking my dad. But when I was around 8 years old, my dad left home by himself and set out for Orlando, Fla., to make a living. He worked two jobs at Steak & Ale and L&N Seafood at the same time. After the first month, he opened his own: Atlantic Bay Seafood and Grill. Your dad bootlegged DVDs? Deuces: My dad bootlegged restaurants.

Once Pops left, I really missed him. Even though he was irresponsible, he was hilarious. My mom was always responsible, put food on the table, made sure we weren’t cold, but she had no jokes! I remember when my mom had my dad beat us up for getting “B’s.” She’d stand on the side saying things like, “I was the salutatorian at my high school, and I didn’t even speak English!” My dad would try to school us about the importance of good grades and we’d cry back, “Dad wasn’t a salutatorian!” And of course he would respond with something like, “This f*cking belt was a salutatorian!”

My mom wouldn’t let us watch R-rated movies, so of course when she went on vacation, Pops rented “Coming to America” and put the “Royal Penis is clean” scene on loop. He said, “Boys, in Taiwan, girls don’t give it up. But in America, you have an opportunity. It’s OK to have sports sex. Just for fun, you should practice as much as possible.” I’m not paraphrasing. This was the quintessential Louis Huang breakfast speech. I have to give it to the man, he was a bad teacher, but that one night he had a plan when he rented “Coming to America.”

By the time my mom came back from her vacation, my name was Eddie (or, if you’re the government, Edwyn) and my brothers and I were reenacting scenes from the movie. Of course, my mom got in an argument with my dad about having a united front and being irresponsible, but he’d wink at us and let us know he had it under control. The best part was that he’d prep us for the showdown. He knew she’d go off, so he would have my brother Emery and me stage remorse by telling us that he was going to call us stupid rice buckets (fan tong). Afterward, we’d have to eat vegetables, play piano and practice kumon so that our mom wouldn’t go nuts. But we knew if we did all that, he’d let us watch WWF and practice DDT’s on our youngest brother, Evan, when she wasn’t paying attention.

My dad wasn’t a dad at all. He was our older brother, and it’s exactly what I needed. He encouraged us to be friends with all different kinds of people. He worked with Haitians and Mexicans at the restaurant all day and told us to respect everyone. The head chef he trained and hired was Jamaican. In a lot of ways, he was the most futuristic Chinaman I know. He was charged with the task of doling out punishment on us, but his heart wasn’t behind it. He loved us whether we were A or B students. I mean, C’s, come on, he’s still Chinese … But the point is, he thought we were cool kids and that was enough for him.

I remember in third grade, a kid named Edgar pushed me down in the lunch line at school and said, “Chinks get to the back.” My dad had taught me the meaning of the word when I was young. I knew exactly what that kid was saying to me. So I took his arm and slammed it in the microwave. From that moment on, my life changed. The teacher bugged out and locked me in the principal’s closet. I went to a new school, but some kids had heard what I did and I was stigmatized as a deviant. Everyone treated me like a crazy person when all I did was stick up for myself. I ended up going to six schools in six years, but my parents had my back. They still beat me if I got B’s, but if it was a fight that got me kicked out, they always said, “You’re too good for that school.” They knew that my brothers and I were the only Chinese kids at every school we went to (except one) and they didn’t want me to roll over for anyone.

Life isn’t about A’s, making National Guild or paying back your parents. When I got my first paycheck as an attorney, my mom demanded a Judith Leiber bag. I bought it. To this day, my dad hasn’t asked for anything. I love them both. But my point is this, Chinese moms and the Model Minority Chinese kid get too much play. For every National Merit Scholar (my brother is a National Merit Scholar who failed gym and then won the Fantasy Writers of the Future Award), there’s a kid who beat up your honor student, won the Zora Neale Hurston Award, opened Baohaus, and there’s a Chinese dad who had his back.

None of this would have happened if my dad hadn’t let me live. The day in high school he found out I was doing E, he didn’t bring out the belt. We rowed out on a lake. I thought he was gonna end me like Fredo, but he talked to me like a man. He made it clear: This was my life. I’m not doing this for anyone but myself so if I wanted to be self-destructive and break the Model Minority stereotype by ruining my own life, it didn’t prove anything to anyone.

I was so conflicted. I wasn’t like the white kids, I wasn’t like the Chinese kids, I was just me: a self-destructive teenager who knew he wouldn’t live up to anyone’s expectations. I had posters of other unwilling individuals all over my room: Allen-I, Chuck Barkley, Mark Twain (for real, had that) and Big Sheed. I was a fan of those brothers, but what did they do for me? Charles Barkley was right, he wasn’t a role model. My pops was my role model, and he was my biggest fan.

Amy Chua, you make great points about how kids need to learn a work ethic. They need discipline, they need practice, they need repetition. (Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” has your back there.) Your lack of political correctness is brave, honest and welcome. My mom pretty much had the same approach, and I owe a lot to moms like you. But there needs to be a balance. Booker T. Washington needed W.E.B. Dubois; Hulk Hogan needed Andre the Giant; and sometimes a chink wants his homies to stay over and play “Mortal Kombat.”

Asian American women 15 to 24 lead in the highest suicide rate among all ethnic groups, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Model Minority stereotype is a problem and perpetuating it just makes life harder for those of us who don’t want to be gunners and work behind the modern great wall (cubicles). Some of us aren’t cut out for the Ivy League, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be successful in our own ways. A lot of us find our way late. It took going to law school, working at a firm, and hitting rock bottom for me to finally rid myself of Asian Expectations.

But what did I do after leaving the law? I came back to my roots, repped my family, our food, and did what every Chinese mom wants their kids to do: I bought Judith Leiber bags. Did I do that because my mom had me play piano? Did I do that because my dad put the belt to me? No, I did it because I’m proud of who I am, who my family is, and what our people eat. There are a million Amy Chuas pumping out Ivory Tower Lap Dog Asians but there’s one Louis Huang and he had a Money Gettin’ Chinkstronaut Like Me.

Eddie Huang is chef and owner of BaoHaus restaurant in New York City. He writes the blog, Fresh Off the Boat.

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