You and your parents have developed your own, unique language, made up of some parts English and some parts Chinese. Every Chinese-American family has their own version of Chinglish. Some of my family favorites: “I bought hen duo (a lot) of your favorite snacks.” “It’s too mafan (troublesome).” And: “That’s so diu lian (humiliating).” When you were younger you felt embarrassed to speak Chinglish in public, but now that you’re older, you cherish having such an intimate language that you share with only a few other people in the world.
For you, the Tiger Mom is neither myth nor satire. Got an A- in your super hard Physics class? Too much TV. Can’t master that piano concerto at the age of eight? Practice more. Not as good as your math whiz cousin who got into MIT at the age of 13? No more video games. Play was considered a four letter word when you were growing up. While this may have made for a stressful childhood, once you were out in the world on your own, you appreciated the discipline your Tiger Mom taught you. But she still hassles you on the phone, no matter how old you are.
Your Chinese parents may be completely Americanized otherwise, but one cultural habit from the old country they can’t let go of is collecting gold jewelry for their daughters’ weddings. We’re not talking tasteful, subtle, delicate pieces. We’re talking blingy, 24K pieces with dragon and flower motifs and big-ass rubies. We’re talking the kind of jewelry that doesn’t go with anything. Except the super uncomfortable red qipao dress with gold embroidery that you’re not looking forward to wearing at your Big Fat Chinese Wedding banquet.
While your American friends had bacon, eggs, and pancakes for weekend brunch, you went out for dim sum. The phrase means “little hearts” in Cantonese, and consists of tapas-like portions on small plates. In traditional dim sum restaurants, the dishes are pushed around on carts for customers to look and choose while seated at their tables. Dim sum favorites like har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), char siu bao (barbeque pork-stuffed buns), and lo baak gou (turnip cake) are best washed down with strong Chinese tea. If you don’t live near good Chinese food nowadays, you are craving this stuff like crazy.
Your Chinese parents have taught you that there’s no such thing as going Dutch — when you go out to eat with others, you must always fight for the check. And this fight is no gentle affair. Tiger Moms, in particular, will crawl over the table, push, shove, and scream at the waiter in order to snatch the check away. You’re also skilled in all the stealth tactics — like slipping the waitress your credit card before the meal begins. Check out this video if you need a refresher on check-fighting skills.
Chinese parents want their American-born kids to have a better life than what they experienced. They don’t want their kids to struggle for money. So they over-emphasize certain careers, and can’t understand why their kid would waste an American education to become a food-truck owner, photographer, or, worst of all, travel writer. Chinese dads typically just give you the silent guilt trip, and defer to Tiger Moms to chew you out about your wasteful life choices.
Like other Chinese-American kids, you grew up playing and hating the piano. Ever hopeful that you’d become a famous classical pianist (while also practicing medicine), your Chinese parents insisted on buying the best piano in the store. When you look at the dusty, unused piano today taking up half of your living room, you remember how your parents drove the same Toyota Corolla for two decades so you could always have the best of everything.
So long as you stay unmarried, you get a cash gift in a red envelope every year as part of the Chinese new year tradition. Even if you’re 40 years old, you’re still considered a kid until you get hitched. Once you get married , you’ve got to start doing the giving. But until then, mommy and daddy gotta pay up.
It’s one of those stereotypes based on fact — many Chinese immigrants do work in the restaurant or laundry businesses. You know you grew up in a Chinese-American family if you’ve ever had to spend your summer vacation wiping down tables or taking orders for chow fun and sweet-and-sour chicken.
This is actually called the Expatriate Youth Summer Formosa Tour, but we ABCs (American Born Chinese) all know it as the Love Boat. The summer program in Taiwan is meant to re-acquaint young people to their cultural heritage through language courses, history lectures, and scenic tours. Yeah, right. It’s just a great big scam to get our parents to pay for what we all know is the Chinese-American hookup scene.
Your parents had no qualms about double parking on a busy street, and jumping out to pick up some bok choy or barbequed duck. That’s why the traffic is so bad in Chinatown — too many Chinese parents double parking. You have many memories of shouting at them to hurry up as the meter maid advances upon your car.
Only once you move into the dorms at college do you realize that most Americans shower in the morning. “Aiyaaaa, disgusting!” you can hear your mom saying. “Who goes to bed with dirty feet and dirty underwear?” You realize later on in life the benefit of night showering — you never have to compete for the bathroom with your non-Chinese roommates.
After Chinese school on Sundays, your dad would sometimes take you to old, run-down theaters in Chinatown. Like your dad, you agree that Hollywood blockbusters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are lame in comparison to movies like Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. You have memories of eating dried mango and salted cuttlefish in the theater, and leaving roasted watermelon seeds all over the floor.
Chinese dads are typically just as adept in the kitchen as Chinese moms. Which means a hard landing when you grow up and realize your non-Chinese boyfriend does not know how to whip up a four-course meal out of leftovers in the fridge.
Chinese parents aren’t prone to saying “I love you” or giving spontaneous bear hugs. They express love in other ways — such as cleaning your car while you’re at work, making sure to always stock up on your favorite drinks from Costco, buying you a space-age digital rice cooker for your first apartment, or “accidentally” forgetting to tell you that no-good American boy stopped by to see you.
Chinese parents — especially if they are immigrants to the U.S. and have worked hard to provide for their families — love a great deal. Ask any Chinese mom or dad and they’ll have an opinion on the best all-you-can-eat buffet. My dad’s pick: The seafood buffet at the Rio in Las Vegas. But you can’t just go and wing it — you have to have a strategy. I can still hear my dad yelling at me to skip the bread rolls and mashed potatoes and head straight for the crab legs and shrimp.
Chinese parents slather this stuff on for just about any ailment, from a mosquito bite to a twisted ankle to bronchitis. It used to embarrass you when your American friends came over and noticed the smell of menthol lingering in the air. Now you find yourself buying Tiger Balm off of Amazon and realizing it’s gained a kind of cult popularity.