My tiger mother controlled me with Chinese food

By Du Qiongfang Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-6 18:23:02

Illustrations: Lu Ting/GT

As the daughter of a former assistant chef in Shanghai, I always hoped that I would inherit my mother's talent for cooking. But growing up, she was very diligent about keeping me out of the kitchen - her territory! - so I never had the opportunity to cook or even help her.

Thirty-some-odd years later, fresh off my honeymoon with my husband and fully moved out of my parents' home and into my new apartment, for the first time in my life I finally have my own kitchen.

In a fit of rebellion against my mother's beloved Shanghainese cuisine, for my cooking debut I decided to try my hand at foreign cuisine: smashed potatoes with ham and melted mozzarella cheese topping. I went to a foreign imports supermarket for the ingredients, dusted off some old recipe books and polished my never-used potato smasher.

This smasher has a funny history behind it: I bought it over a decade ago, but my mother refused to let me use it in "her" kitchen, saying: "If you want to smash potatoes, you'll just have to wait till you're married and have your own kitchen!"

That of course was not the first time my mother had dissuaded me from learning how to cook, but that potato smasher came to symbolize the discouragement I felt in my parents' household. But now, as a new wife, the smasher is my Lady Liberty-like torch and my kitchen like the shores of 1800's New York.

I also made some Eastern European-style borscht, Chinese-style fried vegetables and Japanese-style custard pudding: the perfect fusion of multinational dishes. My husband and I were both surprised by how well it all turned out, and I felt quite pleased watching the first man I ever cooked for stuff his face. If it had been a Hollywood movie, we would have made rapacious love on the kitchen counter, but in reality we were both so satiated that we fell into an anti-climactic food coma.

The next morning, I uploaded pics of all my dishes onto WeChat and awaited my mother's positive, proud feedback. But rather than praise, in typical tiger mother fashion, instead I received rebuke and condemnation.

"I have been cooking for you for over 30 years but not once have you ever cooked a meal for your mother. Yet you are already cooking for your husband who you married just a couple weeks ago? You are a daughter with no filial piety!"

Wait, what? I had to re-read her message to make sure I wasn't having a bad dream. Seriously? Wasn't it you who always stopped me from learning how to cook, and said that I should wait to get married before I even try? Why are you so bitter about this? Are you jealous of my love and intimacy with my husband? Why are you such a vicious woman?

I wanted to say all those things to her, but of course I dared not. No Chinese daughter would unless they wanted to be forever disowned from their family. As much as I love Western food, I don't live in the West, where daughters can freely talk back to their mothers. All I could do was seethe and stew in my resentment like a hot bowl of beet-red borscht.

The next morning, a colleague reminded me of an ancient Chinese expression that says "If you want to catch a man's heart, you have to seize a man's stomach." Contemplating this, I realized that my mother, a professional cook, wanted to also make her daughter co-dependent on her through her cooking, which is why she always insisted on being the only one allowed in the kitchen. Since it's quite hard for we Chinese to express our love in words, we use food.

Now that I am newly married and no longer living at home, she and my father must be feeling quite lonely and insecure about losing me. In fact, I only live five bus stops away from them, but for Chinese parents this must seem like an entire ocean separates us.

Feeling more understanding of what it must be like for a middle-aged mother and wanting to reconcile with her, the following day I brought some leftover smashed potatoes to my parents' home. I heated up the dish, sat my mother down at the table, and excitedly served her. Her feedback: "It's just ordinary."


Posted in: TwoCents, Metro Shanghai

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