The story Two Kinds written by Amy Tan reminds me of my own experience with my daughter. Like the narrator’s mother, I also want my daughter to be a prodigy. When Angie—my only daughter—was two years old, I taught her to read. I bought a lot of children books full of colorful pictures. She was really interested so that she enjoyed opening the books, looking at the colorful pictures, and trying to memorize alphabets under each picture. I was very pleased when she could read and distinguish many kinds of colors—red, blue, white, yellow, pink, purple, black, green, brown, orange, and grey—at three years old. Her teachers at playgroup were astonished to know that. She said that children of that age usually could not read yet, and they were expected to know only three main colors—red, yellow, and green.
At kindergarten, she excelled over her classmates. She got her first trophy in dancing competition during her two years in kindergarten. Her teacher told me that she has talent in dancing. I did not send her to a special dancing class yet at that time. She got dancing lesson at school. In welfare party of kindergarten, besides leading her classmates recite Holy Alquran—we are Muslim—she performed dances and read a poem. I was very proud of her at that time though I knew that Angie was very tired at the end of the party.
At the first year of elementary school, besides going to school in the morning, she joined some activities in the afternoon—she joined English course, dancing, drawing, and also fashion modeling and a kind of leadership class to boost her self-confidence. This is because I realize that I am not a confident person to perform something in front of audience. I want her to be self-confident. Once in a while, my sister who worked as a radio announcer asked Angie to accompany her as an announcer in a children program in her workplace.
Different from my daughter, I never joined any kind of courses when I was a kid. At that time, joining courses was not a popular pastime. Besides, for my parents, to be a pious person is much more important than to be a prodigy. Therefore, I was sent to an Islamic elementary school. (I sent Angie to a public/state elementary school.) I believe my parents expected me to grow up to be a pious woman who would do the teachings of Islam strictly, just like them. They gave more attention whether I did the teachings of Islam—praying five times a day and fasting in Ramadhan month for 30 days besides reciting the Holy Alquran daily—than whether I studied at home, e.g. to do homework. My parents would be angry if I did not pray or recite Alquran, but they were not angry if I did not study. Besides, my parents taught me to obey whatever they told me to do. In Indonesia, children are taught like that, they are not supposed to oppose their parents in all aspects (except if the parents ask something considered sinful in the religion teachings, e.g. stealing). Parents are considered to know better what is good or bad for their children because of their advancement in age and experience.
During the last decade, I saw the culture changing. I think this is due to the globalization era. Indonesian people get influence from other countries; e.g. from movies, news, etc. when I was a kid, my parents did not give a special attention to my study—to be the best student in class for example. Now parents expect their children to study in the best school and to be the best student in class. Besides, they also want their children to have other activities outside school, such as joining English course, computer, drawing, dancing, playing music instrument, fashion modeling classes, and so on. (To meet the parents’ demand, people open such courses because they see it as lucrative business.) When I was a kid, it was not common for parents to talk about their children’s achievement in and outside school. Now, it becomes very common. A’s parents may ask B’s parents about the child’s achievement, while the children themselves ask each other, “Have you ever won a competition? What kind of competition? How many trophies have you got?” or “What kind of activities do you join outside school?” and so on, just like in the story of Two Kinds. And like in Two Kinds, I also find some parents who really want to see their children on the screen on television. They will do everything they can as long as they can make their dream—and not always their children’s—come true.
This phenomenon also influenced me. Having only one child, maybe I unconsciously gave a heavy burden to Angie. I wanted her to be the best student at school while at the same time I also wanted her to get a lot of achievements from her activities outside school. If I had more than one child, maybe I would share the burden with other children. For example, Angie got achievement at school (e.g. as the best student), another child would be a national swimmer, another one again a famous fashion model. Well, I do not know.
While the narrator in Two Kinds did not like her mother’s idea to make her prodigy, my daughter enjoyed all her activities outside school at that time. Especially she enjoyed most when she joined some competitions and became the winner, e.g. reading poem in English, reciting the Holy Alquran, dancing, and fashion modeling. I did not ignore her school though, she was the second best student in her class.
When she was at the third grade of elementary school (eight years old at that time), I started to teach her to ‘argue’ things when she did not like things I said or did to her. different from the narrator’s mother in Two Kinds, I did not really want her to obey anything I said or asked her to do for my sake. I wanted her to do things because she enjoyed it, and she felt that she needed and wanted to do it, not because she wanted to make me happy. I did not want our relationship like common mother-daughter relationship in Indonesia, and old-fashioned way where the mother commands and the daughter obeys—a kind of relationship I had with my mother when I was a kid. I want our relationship just like between friends. She was free to express her opinion to me about everything.
As I said earlier, my parents taught me to obey what they said. I was not supposed to disagree with their idea. In fact, I did not feel happy for that. However, I was taught that to oppose parents is sinful. Raised in a religious family, I did not dare to commit sin, because I was taught that sinful people would go to hell, the worst place that God has ever created, a very terrible place. On the other hand, if I obeyed what my parents said, I would go to heaven, the best and most comfortable place that God has created.
However, I did not really feel happy to be raised in such an atmosphere. I was not really open to my parents, worrying if my parents could not understand me and I would make them angry when I had a different idea from them. I was more open to my friends, telling them what I felt because they understood me more. It made my relationship with them not so intimate. I do not want such a thing to happen between Angie and me. I am worried if I am strict to my daughter, ask her to obey whatever I say to her, without respecting and listening to what she says, I will make my daughter confide in her friends more than in me. I do not like the idea that she tells her friends more than she tells me. I want her to regard me as someone who will always understand her, so that she will tell me freely what she thinks, feels, and does. I want to be the most trusted friend for her.
Because of my teaching to argue with me, Angie started to refuse to join any kind of activities and competitions. When I asked her why she refused, she just answered, “I just do not want to.” I told her, “It’s okay if you do not want to do something. But when you refuse to do it, or when you choose to do it, you must have a good reason for that. It is not wise to say, “I just do not want to do that!” but she still said the same thing. “I just don’t want to. No other reason.” Frankly speaking, I was disappointed. However, I had to respect what she wanted. Only once in a while she was willing to do the activities she usually did before or joined competition. She did not refuse offers like being a master of ceremony (she was the MC of an opening ceremony of Children’s Day in Central Java last year), a radio announcer, and a fashion model.
Going back to the story Two Kinds, I am very impressed with the narrator’s way to protest her mother. She said frankly, “I’m not going to play anymore. Why should I? I’m not a genius.” … “You want me to be someone that I’m not! I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!” Being born in America, though her mother was a Chinese immigrant, the narrator really had “courage” to oppose her mother. I believe she adopted American culture about freedom that she saw in her surrounding. When you feel like doing something, do it. When you do not like it, don’t do it. I dream that one day my daughter will speak up to me, to express what she feels about something, to give me clear reasons when she decides to do something or refuses to do it, and not just says, “I simply don’t want to do it, Ma!” or “I just want to do it, Ma!”
My comment about the narrator’s mother is that she is “split” into two. I think she migrated to the United States—like any other immigrants—to achieve success, meaning having much money while at the same time to forget her bitter past life. Besides, she also was inspired with one of American dreams—you can be whatever you want to be. She wanted her daughter—the narrator—to be whatever she wanted her daughter to be. In this case, she wanted to make the narrator an American child (to be like Shirley Temple for example). On the other hand, she still adhered to Chinese tradition. She insisted that the narrator be an obedient daughter. In her opinion, a child must obey what the parents command. A child is the property of parents so that the child is not free to decide his/her own future. It means that the narrator’s mother wanted to make her child an American child without forgetting that she has Chinese blood in the body.
I was sorry when the narrator said, “I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother.” In my opinion, it is a terrible thing to hear our daughter saying that. I would be very upset and feel miserable in her position. And it was a shame that in order to ‘defeat’ her mother’s obstinacy, the narrator said, “I wish I’d never been born! I wish I were dead!” I believe it struck her so hard that at last she stopped her ambition to make her daughter a prodigy.
Indeed, we must realize that our children do not rally belong to us. God does not really give them to us, He just lends them to us. Like what Anne Bradstreet wrote in one of her poem “Farewell fair flower that for a space was lent, Then, ta’en away unto eternity.” And in Islam, there is a tradition to say “Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un” which means “in fact everything and everyone on this earth belongs to God, so to Him everything and everyone will go back at the end” when we hear news that someone passes away.
It is true that through us—parents—children were born. However, it does not mean that they are ours so that we can do anything we want to do to them as if they were our properties. They have their own thinking, feeling, interest, which are different from our way of thinking, feeling, and interest.
The story reminds me that maybe it could happen to me too. My ambition to make my daughter a prodigy can ruin our relationship. I have to always remember that she is not me, she has her own world which is different from mine. She has her own way of thinking, feeling, and interest which may be contradictory to mine. And I have to respect that. In fact, I’d love to see her grow up and be a different person from me. in Indonesia—and maybe also in other nations—parents mostly want to see their children be better than they are in all aspects, having better education, job, luck, destiny, and especially for me, I want to see my daughter grow up having better character traits than I do—more intelligent, pious, broadminded, open-minded, confident, successful, and also wise. Too much to ask, yes, I realize that. but I think, other parents may share the same feeling with me.
COMMENT FROM PROFESSOR HUGH EGAN
As I read this revealing essay, I think that your daughter is quite lucky to have a mother as introspective and self-examining as you are. This is a nice meditation on how parental ambition can be self-defeating, turning kids into rebels rather than prodigies. I’m fascinated by a number things. First, you hint that your daughter started to rebel after you encouraged her in the art of argument—although her rebellion did not really take the form of argument, right? Second, you conclude (with Bradstreet) that children are only “lent” by God rather than given permanently, and I wonder if that religious thought actually provides the kind of comfort you say it does. There is something heartbreaking in seeing children willfully turn away from parental preferences, but it is also a normal psychological process by which they must define their own identities. It is this sort of explanation (rather than a religious explanation) that I rely upon when I think of my own children. (And we have some experiences in common.) I’m fascinated by your choice to emphasize education over religion (at least more than your parents emphasized it) in your own household, which leads to my question about whether traditional religion provides the kinds of answers you need. Fine work.
Yogya, June, 2003