Mournful hymn of the Tiger Cub

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains material about suicide ideation of a minor that some may find distressing.

Lin Po Chien // August 13, 2021, 3:49 pm


In a competitive East Asian society, tuition was a given, piano was expected, ending Primary 1 schoolwork at 11pm was normal, recalls Lin Po Chien. Photo by Marcus Winkler from Unsplash.

This reflection was written in response to “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, and begs the question: At what cost to our youth is “Tiger Parenting”?

Hey mum, do you remember that Wednesday afternoon? I was five years old and you came to pick me up from art class. You asked me to show you my artwork, only to find a torn, crumpled piece of A3 craft paper. 

“I don’t want Grandpa to laugh at my drawing” I said. 

My dad has five sisters and I have two. I am the sole, direct successor of my grandfather’s legacy and surname. Maybe that was why family politics was such a longstanding issue. You needed your kids to excel in absolutely everything to prove your worth as an Asian mother.

Surely you must have felt the brunt of it. If not, why was my schedule packed to the brim by seven years old? Why was I not given the right to play, to make mistakes, to cry when I felt down, to be consoled when I could not make sense of things?

As I was growing up in Taipei, you were going through the Tiger Mum culture. In a competitive East Asian society, tuition was a given, piano was expected, ending Primary 1 schoolwork at 11pm was normal, and the cane probably touched my palm more than your hand did. I know it was for my good. 

Municipal Guangfu Primary School in Taipei, where I had my first two years of formal education. Like many others, I started on Math, piano and English before I started primary school. Classes ended around 2pm; tuition started at 3:30pm. After dinner, I’d head for another tuition class or get down to schoolwork. Lights out at 11pm or later if I could not finish my schoolwork. Photo from Wikipedia.

It was another Wednesday afternoon. I was seven. My teacher pulled me aside to check on me and ask me why my palm was swollen. 

To others, this may come across as a clichéd storyline in some Taiwanese drama, but to my siblings and me, it was a documentary.

In retrospect, it was clear why they were concerned: My grubby hands were purple and red and I had difficulty gripping the pencil. I told them I had made two mistakes on the Math homework yesterday. This probably made them more confused, if anything. Yet I know it was for my good. I know you love me and I love you all the same. 

It was around this period that you first told my sisters and me your troubles. The troubles you faced, the infighting between your in-laws, the unkind world that faced you simply because you married an only son of a somewhat successful local businessman. If only my father did not have to work overseas. Surely you missed him so much more than I could comprehend. 

To others, this may come across as a clichéd storyline in some Taiwanese drama, but to my siblings and me, it was a documentary. Our documentary.

Yes, it was dramatised, it was over the top, it was “entertaining”, but in every victim in these fictional dramas, we saw a shadow of our mother. A victim, a perpetrator, a young woman under the kind of pressure that drove her mental wellbeing to a dark corner.

Into the Lion City

It was a Wednesday afternoon. I was nine. We were on our first family trip overseas in Singapore. I squealed in delight as a pink dolphin plunges into the tank, lifting a wave of water over us in the splash zone. 

“Do you like Singapore?” you asked. “Yeah! Of course we do!” I said.

“How about we move here?”

I gave you the false impression that everything was fine … I was told all along that men cannot cry.

I thought you were joking. My sisters and I did not know you had brought us here on a mission. You needed space, you needed a way out, you needed distance from your in-laws for your sake and for ours.

The timing was perfect: Taipei was swamped with protests against then-President Chen Shui-bian. For the future of your kids, you would pitch to my grandparents, we should move to Singapore.

You knew this meant you could not be there to see your father on his deathbed, you knew this meant another 12 arduous years before you could stay with the love of your life who had just returned to Taiwan, you knew this meant you had to survive in an English-speaking island without even knowing where the markets were. Yet you did it for my good.

I gave you the false impression that everything was fine. I never cried infront of you when you broke the news to us that we were moving. I was told all along that men cannot cry. It was a lot harder for you than it was for me.

With quick goodbyes, we flew to a new country, far from the place we called home.

We stopped talking

Soon, I learnt the slang, I made friends, I joined CCAs, and as per your expectations, I studied hard every day. I did not know any other way to please you.

Yet somehow you did not get better. You did not find happiness.

You scrolled through Facebook everyday, and when you spoke you spoke only of school work. I stopped sharing about school, about my friends, about my problems. At the end of the day, you wanted results.

You were depressed, but you did not know it. I was depressed, and neither did I.

Did you know the only reason I stopped holding a knife in my hand was because I did not want to make you cry? 

It did not help that my older sister scored so ridiculously well in PSLE: A flashy 279 points, ranking her 13th in her cohort nation-wide. Chicken essence brands rang our phones. You had no idea how much pressure that was for me to live up to.

It was a Wednesday night and I was in my room. I could not sleep because the preliminary exams were starting soon. I was not fearful, I was not worried, nor was I sad. I was numb. What good would it be that I walk through the gates of that prestigious school? What good would it be that I go on to have a high paying career? What good would it be that I gain all this but lose the smiling mother I once knew?

Hey Ma, did you know that I went to the kitchen that day and held a knife in my hand for the first time? Did you know how many more times I would contemplate suicide? Did you know the only reason I stopped was because I did not want to make you cry? 

We stopped talking. For the whole of Primary 5 and 6, when we talked, we argued. When I woke up, I was either studying or getting ready to go study. You would pick fights over the smallest things, and I would constantly do my best to study in school to avoid contact with you.

I recalled one music class around National Day when I heard the song “Home”. I went to the toilet and cried because it hit me – what I was missing in my life the whole time.

A home yet to come

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I went to church because a senior had invited me for Christmas. I went there cynically, and left there with a renewed heart. There was something about this healing message of forgiveness that struck a chord with me, even if I could not wrap my head around it fully.

The life I so eagerly cast aside, now a gift for me. The life God sacrificed, now a gift to my family and more.

On the bus home I eagerly emptied the new believer pack that I had received, and in that one bus ride I devoured the book of John. I read and found the verse I had heard before I went up to pray:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

The life I so eagerly cast aside, now a gift for me. The life God sacrificed, now a gift to my family and more.

Of course, my grandparents would be furious if they found out that I wanted to be a Christian. They would blame you for snuffing out the incense of their altar, leading astray their only direct grandson.

You screamed at me, took away any semblance of that message, and told me “No!” without telling me why. I knew it was difficult for you. I knew you did what you did out of love. I just wanted to know you were on my side for once.

But God saw you as a parent too.

Hey Ma, did you know that I prayed for you? God showed me the burdens that weighed you down. God showed me the hurts that you had to go through. God showed me that you cared not for the things I thought you cared about.

All you really wanted was to have your home back. God showed me that you, too, felt the same.

With my grandfather at a yakiniku place when he visited Singapore for a vacation years ago. I have yet to talk to him about my faith. On his trip, he would wake me up at 5am for morning walks at East Coast Park, close to where I stayed.

For the first time, I saw you as a fellow victim.

God wants you to know that you are forgiven and loved. God wants you to know that He mourns your pain.

God placed in me empathy, tenderness, forgiveness.

It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was sitting in the hawker centre near my school slurping down some tau huey, dreading the thought of heading home knowing you had just argued with my sister. This time, I prayed for you.

God placed in me empathy, tenderness, forgiveness. I wanted to care for you but I did not know how. After all, we had not spoken like family members in a good few years. I headed to the bus stop, planting in my 14-year-old heart a mustard seed of faith.

“Eh? What did you buy?” as I cracked the door open, you quickly spotted the plastic bag in my hand.

“There’s this new type of tau huey that’s been going around recently and there was some near school …” I blurted out as naturally as I could, pretending that I had not rehearsed this over and over on the bus.

“… Thought I should buy some back for you all to try.”

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and for the first time in a good few years … a smile on your face. In my home.


I am an Asian mum but I’m opting out of the Tiger Mum race

About the author

Lin Po Chien

Salt&Light intern, Po Chien, is a social sciences and info systems student in Singapore Management University. As a first-generation Christian, his greatest joy is to be the first, among many to come from his family, to have tasted the transformative grace of God. A close second would be the joy of studying from home, when he can wake up at 8am for an 8:15am lecture.