Equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful, Tiger Daughter is an award-winning novel about finding your voice amidst the pressures of growing up in an immigrant home told from the perspective of a remarkable young Chinese girl.
Wen Zhou is a first-generation daughter of Chinese migrant parents. She has high expectations from her parents to succeed in school, especially her father whose strict rules leave her feeling trapped. She dreams of creating a future for herself more satisfying than the one her parents expect her to lead.
Then she befriends a boy named Henry who is also a first generation immigrant. He is the smartest boy at school despite struggling with his English and understands her in a way nobody has lately. Both of them dream of escaping and together they come up with a plan to take an entrance exam for a selective school far from home.
But when tragedy strikes, it will take all of Wen’s resilience and tiger strength to get herself and Henry through the storm that follows.
Tiger Daughter is a coming-of-age novel that will grab hold of you and not let go.
An Excerpt fromTiger Daughter
When my friends ask me what my life has been like so far, mostly I remember the rage.
Like the time last year when I wrote a letter to my aunt in China--the youngest one on my mom’s side, the kind one--about how my dad is so strict that I’m never allowed to go to my friends’ birthday parties. Somehow, the letter got returned while I was at school, and Dad opened it--even though it had my name on it, not his--and read it.
Then he went into my bedroom, and tore down every poster and picture and letter from friends that I had stuck on my walls and set them all on fire in the backyard. He stood there watching them burn to make sure the job was done properly, Mom whispered as I surveyed the empty walls of my bedroom with a crushing weight sitting right in the centre of me. When I got home that day, all that was left of the things I’d drawn and collected since coming to this country as a little girl was a small pile of ashes that was still warm.
I can’t remember if I cried. I’m sure I did. It’s a bit blurry after the part where I was made to understand that because of the letter I wrote, the pile of ashes was all that was left of my most treasured things. Action, consequence. There wasn’t even a corner of anything I could save.
I’ve left my bedroom walls bare since then, because nothing feels like it will be safe or permanent anymore. I haven’t even taken the blobs of Blu Tack down. What’s the point?
Another time, when I tried to discuss the possibility of having ballet lessons like my friends do, straight after school in the assembly hall, Dad rolled up the Chinese newspaper he was reading and hit me across the side of the head with it for being insolent, because There is no point to art. Things like wanting to learn ballet, or reading for fun, or painting Teach you nothing useful.
And there was that time he kicked a footstool clear across the room in front of me because I really, really wanted to have a sleepover at Michaela Shand’s house and I’d begged a few times too many. And the time he hit me across the back of the hands with a bamboo cane because I was rude to my mother. She’d been telling me to do some extra maths--in the spare time I had between doing rounds of extra maths, Chinese calligraphy, piano and violin--and I think I lost it, finally, and screamed at her to Just shut up and leave me alone, because Mom was the safer target.
She’s always been the safer target.
And, well, blam.
Because children don’t ever answer back, in my family. They don’t have opinions. They don’t have the right to run their mouths off. They are the property of their parents, especially if they’re girls, until they are the property of their husbands and are off their parents’ hands at last and for good. (Just another mouth to feed, useless.)
I understand that it’s bad to have daughters, because your family name dies when you have daughters, and girls can’t do everything that boys can. It’s a proven fact. Everyone knows that. I’ve been told this so many times, I go into another space and time dimension in my head when the lectures start.
But you can’t tell people stories like this, because then they will worry, or call home to see if you are all right, and then there will only be more rage.
At me. Or in the air. Rage like air, present but invisible, permeating everything. Taking up the space behind my eyes that is not otherwise occupied by the tight, prickly feeling of wanting to cry.
There is outside the house, and inside the house, and what is spoken of outside is not welcome inside, and vice versa. They are two spheres that must never meet, orbiting politely at a distance. With me in the middle, caught in the heavy gravity, slowly tearing apart.
Actually, more even than the rage, maybe what I mostly feel is the fear.
Not just mine. Which is always present, like a low- level background hum that only I can hear, ready to ramp up in a heartbeat. I’m constantly afraid of setting off all the little bombs I don’t even know I’ve trodden on until they go off in my face. Was it something I said? Was it the missing 48 per cent on my maths quiz? Was it because I asked for more cafeteria money? What?
But there is also always his fear. The fear of people being rude to him because he speaks funny, of people not giving him the respect he deserves because even though he manages a Chinese restaurant now, he was once a promising young doctor in China who couldn’t get into a specialist medical college here, even though he tried four times.
The last time he failed the exam, when I was ten, Dad went missing for hours, and my mother burst into tears the minute she heard his key in the door, at 3:12 the next morning. I know that because the sound woke me up, and the numbers on my alarm clock seemed to grow redder and brighter as she cried, and he yelled.
Lots of things changed after that time, the fourth time. Things seemed even less possible than before.
“I am forced,” Dad shouted once, “to be nice to drunk people who are too stupid to understand that the hot, rolled, steamed cloth napkin that I bring them at the end of the meal is not for eating, but for wiping their faces and hands with!”
Dad is wary of policemen, parking inspectors, council workers, people who aren’t like us. He speaks four Chinese languages fluently, Mom always tells me in a low voice, he loves classical Chinese poetry and can play two instruments to concert standard, but none of it is good enough in this country. I’ve never seen any of this. We don’t have music on in the house, just SBS Mandarin, and I never see anybody read. If Dad loves all that, it’s locked inside his head somewhere.
I think Dad’s problem is that he’s too proud. He’s given up on being the surgeon he always wanted to be because he refuses to sit the exams ever again. He can’t ever take criticism, and he can’t ever yield. There is no other side, except his side. Always.
Even without passing the specialist exams, Dad could work in the emergency department of any hospital tomorrow. They really need people like him--with perfect recall, steady hands and an unflappable demeanor. But he won’t do that. It’s not good enough. It’s too far short of the dreams that he had for himself. So he’s cut and burned that whole part of himself off, years and years of studying and training and dreaming, which is why he is now the angriest, most ruthless floor manager of the Hai Tong Tai Seafood Restaurant in history.
He often spits, “They are missing out!”
Meaning all the hospitals in this country and, possibly, everywhere else in the world.
But I think he’s missing out. Because he won’t try anymore. One life, this life, that’s it, finished and done and over.
Which explains why, sometimes, my dad doesn’t get out of bed for days, and only goes back to work at the restaurant when they call Mom to say they’re giving him the sack, and she is forced to plead on the phone, in rapid, desperate Cantonese, for his job. My mom, who wouldn’t usually say boo to a goose yet can speak four languages herself, though she only uses one of them at home and another one at the Chinese grocery shop near our house, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
Mom knows all about the fear. She gave up everything when she married Dad--parties with friends, random, spontaneous outings, her university degree, her country, her parents, her sisters and brothers, the latest fashions, fun--and I know that being with him has made her smaller. I can tell when I look at the one photo album she brought with her to this country that she used to be a different person. She was decisive, I know she was. She was groovy. She was young.
Now, too many choices on a Chinese restaurant menu will confuse her so badly that she’ll grow red in the face, her voice dwindling to a whisper, and leave it to Dad to order for all of us. She will always defer. She will always give way.
And he never let her learn how to drive when we got here, so she never learned to read a map and has to walk everywhere.
We have to walk everywhere.
If Mom runs out of household money for the month--for food, for public transport--she’s too afraid to ask for more because the trouble, and he gives her plenty, isn’t worth it. She’s been conditioned not to speak up, not to decide; just to exist, just to support. She’s like an anxious, hovering shadow. Not expecting much, not entitled to much.
I sometimes catch her standing in front of her diminishing wardrobe of jewel-bright, ladylike skirt suits that she brought with her from China over a decade ago. I can tell from her face if she’s fretting about whether the almost invisible darns are showing or agonizing over whether to throw something away because it’s gone beyond saving. Like me, she wouldn’t dream of asking Dad for any clothes money, because it will set him off; he’s like a walking lecture machine, and she knows he wouldn’t hand it over anyway.
You’re not a doctor’s wife anymore. So there’s no point. That’s what Dad would say with his perfect, icy logic. So Mom mends, she makes do, she dwindles.
Mom’s whole life has our small house--that smells faintly of mold and is always chilly and shrouded in stain-resistant plastic hall runners and furniture covers--at the dead centre of it. I know she had one job really, to have a son, and she managed to stuff even that up. I heard Dad shout that once, through their bedroom door, followed by the words failure and disappointment.
So Mom and Dad are a package deal. If he says No, Mom’s Maybe, yes? becomes a No too. She’s expected to have a big bowl of soup for us to share, plus at least seven more dishes as well as rice, on the table on the days that Dad isn’t working at the restaurant--eight dishes for luck, or there will be problems, no answering back. She’s also expected to iron all the tablecloths and napkins he brings home from the restaurant for her to wash, keep the house tidy, get the best discounts on fresh meat, fruit and vegetables at the market or the grocery store, get me to and from school on foot (No stops!) and have her hair and makeup perfect every day after she gets out of bed. And those are the very outer limits of her life.
I imagine our footsteps, Mom’s and mine, carving these narrow lines into the path between home and school, between the local shops and home, without deviation; every day getting a little deeper. She actually doesn’t walk everywhere, she scurries, as if someone has a stopwatch on her. That’s the only way I can describe it. Mom’s life is a beep test. A beep test without end.
You’re lucky to have this, to even be here in this country! Dad reminds Mom constantly. Because you were already old for an unmarried woman, and no good at your studies.
No brain, no application, no prospects.
I know that’s what Dad thinks I’m like too, because he constantly calls me lazy, stupid, small and insolent and says that I watch too much television and will end up being nothing.
I don’t care so much about the birthday parties or the sleepovers. I don’t care that I find out a lot later about things that friends have gone to that I was never invited to because most people have given up asking.
When the answer is always No, people get the wrong idea about you: that you’re not interested, or just too difficult. A princess (even if you’re as opposite to a real princess as it’s possible to be). Or they think you just don’t like them. I get that.
Well, I do care. But I have a plan.
Because unlike my mom, one day I will be free. And even though I’m lazy, stupid, small and insolent and watch too much TV, my friend Henry is going to help me get there.
BAD NEWS HAS WINGS
Because I’m no good at maths, and love reading, long-distance running, dancing and drawing, Dad has pretty much given up on me and tells me all the time that I’m destined to be a waitress, like that’s a bad thing, or a housewife like my mother if I’m lucky.
No amount of extra maths tuition on Saturday mornings or extra helpings of maths homework have been able to sew shut the maths-shaped gap in my brain. I’m impervious to improvement, I tell Henry, loftily, all the time. That’s a fancy way of saying I am resistant to mathematical theory in any shape or form.
You do not take after me! Dad roars every time I bring another maths test home with all the letters of the alphabet on it, except the one that really matters.
She takes after me, Mom will murmur tiredly. I was not very strong in maths.
To which Dad will give his usual response in Chinese, Useless.
Or No brain.
But my study buddy, Henry, is more stubborn than I am and keeps telling me, You’re getting better all the time. He’s made it his mission to get me to an A in maths the way I’m trying to get him to an A in English. Henry’s always complaining that English, the language and/or the subject, makes no sense, especially the writing of stories, and that nothing is sufficiently certain. I tell him it’s the opposite for me with maths--it’s all too sufficiently certain and there’s no room for improvisation, which is what I am good at. I tell him English is like drawing, more free-flowing and imaginative, which Henry is good at too, although he doesn’t think so. But Henry’s pictures are like his maths--precise and detailed and internally consistent. He doesn’t think drawing is important to life on earth, the way I do.
Henry’s family came from a different part of China than we did, and only arrived a year ago, so when he speaks he’s almost impossible to understand; that’s what all the other kids say. But we’re the only two Chinese kids in our class, so at first, he had to hang with me for necessity, and now we’re actually mates. When people want to talk to Henry, or vice versa, they have to go through me.