Everybody knows

When I read The Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother, a memoir about strict parenting by Amy Chua, the self-described tiger mother who is a high achiever herself, I wonder if I could have been more of the mother that Chua described herself to be. I wanted to believe that  every  child must learn  to think for himself or herself since young age and with some guidance, children  can decide things for themselves, they must want those things and not told that they want whatever the grownups think they should want them. Strict parent and self-proclaimed tiger mom like Amy Chua believes that most children will take the easy way out thus as parents, we have to coax or push them to focus and try harder. If I had known about what and how all these parents were doing to give their children a head start, I might have been the one having a nervous breakdown because I was not as competitive as I would  like to regard myself to be.  We cannot possibly have everyone being super competent. To me, it is our  critical thinking skills that need honing, if not, the world will be between the super smart, super competent and zombies.

Min Jin Lee, the author of Free Food for Millionaires You’ll be OK is working on her third novel of the Koreans trilogy. In what is going to be her third book entitled American Hagwon , Lee will explore the will of Koreans to survive and flourish as global citizens. In their quest, they prioritize  education  as they believe that education is the route for them  to succeed in gaining  power in the world. Lee approaches fiction writing like investigative journalist might, gathering information, doing extensive research for her third book that involved interviews with students, parents, teachers , tutors and admissions officers, and also visits to colleges and hagwons. A Korean child studies from dawn to dusk and their parents would work hard and even impoverish themselves by spending their hard earned money on the children’s education. Hagwons are for-profit South Korean education centers where students take supplemental tuition classes in a range of subjects and also  to pass exams. In her narratives given at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in 2019 , Lee  suggests that the singular focus about the importance of education is rooted in Confucianism that adopts a system allowing those from lower class to rise by passing certain tests.  Lee also  qualifies by  saying that she is not just writing about Koreans diaspora, she is writing about humans. She says that she writes to find answers. I can totally relate to that reason.

Everybody knows that most parents  prize education as the ticket to giving their children a head start, hence the moment your child is born, some insurance guys may be contacting you about education funds or some sale representative for Glen Doman’s books  will be contacting you and you end up investing in these funds and books teaching your children Maths and how  to teach a child to  read as a  toddler et cetera et cetera. As they start to count, you probably will be looking at Kumon programmes and when they can stand on their feet and hold their spoons, you will be considering ballet, tennis, golf, piano, violin, art classes and whatever you might have wished that your parents had sent you ( you never know you might have that hidden artistic talent so you think and if only you had these opportunities…Yes if only … ) As an avid reader, I certainly wanted my daughters to master languages and would instill in them the joy and pleasure of reading. I am glad that my children enjoy reading and they grow up with our bookshelves packed with books. As someone who loves gifting books as presents, it  makes the task of shopping for books as their gifts  delightful indeed.When they were kids, bookshops were places where we enjoyed hanging out. Quite often, we would invariably walk out with new story books in our hand.

In Everything I never told you the debut novel by Celeste Ng, Lydia is the favourite child of Chinese-American parents, Marilyn and James Lee who have three children.  The story is set in 1970s Ohio. The story begins with sixteen-year-old Lydia’s death. When her body is found in the local lake, the delicate fabric  that has been keeping the Lee family together is broken, shattering not only her parents’ unfulfilled dreams of their own, sending the family life into disarray. Throughout the years, by their actions, they have unwittingly alienated their son, Nath who has  unsuspectingly turned out to be the one who has been aiming high so he can leave home. Their youngest daughter, Hannah is the quiet observer. She is sweet, sensitive and perceptive. Your heart goes out to Hannah when  she  tries to stay out of the way for everyone in her family. “ All her life, Hannah had hovered at a distance from her brother and sister, and Lydia and Nath had tacitly tolerated their small, awkward moon.” But Hannah  sees things that the parents and her siblings do not see as she is instinctive and a keen observer. Lydia has always been the favourite of their parents. One of the reasons is that she looks like Marilyn except the hair colour. She has blue eyes and dark ink-black  hair instead of  their mother’s honey-blond. Nath and Hannah take after their father. James Lee is a professor in history at Middlewood College. Marilyn was a student in James’s class when he first taught as a  professor. Marilyn had wanted a life different from her mother who had brought her up singlehandedly. It  was 1952, her mother, Doris Walker was the only home economics teacher at Patrick Henry Senior High. Marilyn made a radical request to the principal, she wanted to join the boys to take shop instead of home economics but her request was refused. ‘It was 1952, and in Boston, researchers were just beginning to develop a pill that would change women’s lives forever.’

When Marilyn was three years old, her father left them and it was only after her father had left home, her mother started to teach. ‘Her mother still powdered her nose after cooking and before eating; she still put on lipstick before coming downstairs to make breakfast.’ Her mother had never left her hometown eighty miles from Charlottesville, who always wore gloves outside the house and who always sent her to school with a hot breakfast. Marilyn had aspired to be a doctor and when she earned a scholarship to Radcliffe,  her mother said,

You know, you’ll meet a lot of wonderful Harvard men.”

Marilyn met James, found him to be different and was attracted to him.  Her mother did not object when she wanted to quit school to marry James who was a professor finishing his Ph.D. in American history. But her mother had not known that James was Chinese American. It was 1958 , she was going to marry James and for the first time her mother had  left the state of Virginia . When  her mother met James, she told her daughter a few things.

“ You’re sure,” she said,” that he doesn’t just want a green card?

James was born in California.  Marilyn told her mother. Their wedding was held at the courthouse in Boston. Her mother said to her that she would regret it later and asked her to think about her children and that they would not fit in anywhere and she would be sorry for the rest of her life. Her mother just wanted her to marry someone more like her. That was the last time Marilyn saw her mother.

All his life, James had tried to fit in and had never felt he belonged there even though he had been born on American soil, and had never set foot anywhere else. He made it to Lloyd Academy and despite having spent twelve years at Lloyd, he had never felt at home.  When his children were born, they also were looking different from everyone else  in the neighbourhood and in school. With Lydia gone, both James and Marilyn have to find ways to reconcile their own personal history and try to patch together the remaining pieces of their life . They had not known that all her life, Lydia had been afraid and she had always said yes to anything her mother had wanted from her. Marilyn  had always bought books for her birthdays ‘Read this book. Yes. Want this. Love this. Yes.’ Marilyn had wanted Lydia to be exceptional while James had wanted her to make friends and fit in and he took an interest in her social life.

In the end, it does not matter whether Lydia’s death was accidental or suicidal, her family will finally try to see her for who she is .

And tomorrow, next month, next year? It will take a long time. Years from now, they will still be arranging the pieces they know, puzzling over her features, redrawing her outlines in their minds. Sure that they’ve got her right his time, positive in this moment that they understand her completely, at last.

Everything I never told you is a fiction that will linger in your mind as it delivers a moving tale about cultural barriers and basic human needs for belonging. The narration is rather haunting and it reminds me of the voice in Desperate Housewives, a television drama series for some reasons. Perhaps it is how its author begins telling the story.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six -thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact : Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks.’

Everything I never told you  is an engaging read and it is a thought-provoking and poignant  tale exploring parenthood , familial love, loss and loneliness .  It is a cautionary tale to all parents who must not try to live their unfulfilled dreams or right their past through their children. Celeste Ng has won several awards  for her debut novel. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan.

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