Excerpt

From Chapter 9 (“The Violin”):

One thing that the piano and violin have in common – with each other but also with many sports – is that you can’t play extraordinarily well unless you’re relaxed.  Just as you can’t have a killer tennis serve or throw a baseball really far unless you keep your arm loose, you can’t produce a mellifluous tone on the violin if you squeeze the bow too tightly or mash down on the strings – mashing is what makes the horrible scratchy sound.  “Imagine that you’re a rag doll,” Mr. Shugart would tell Lulu.  “Floppy and relaxed, and not a care in the world.  You’re so relaxed your arm feels heavy from its own weight . . . Let gravity do all the work. . . Good, Lulu, good.”

“RELAX!” I screamed at home.  “Mr. Shugart said RAG DOLL!”  I always tried my best to reinforce Mr. Shugart’s points, but things were tough with Lulu, because my very presence made her edgy and irritable.

Once, in a middle of a practice session she burst out, “Stop it, Mommy.  Just stop it.”

“Lulu, I didn’t say anything,” I replied.  “I didn’t say one word.”

“Your brain is annoying me,” Lulu said.  “I know what you’re thinking.”

“I’m not thinking anything,” I said indignantly.  Actually, I’d been thinking that Lulu’s right elbow was too high, that her dynamics were all wrong, and that she needed to shape her phrases better.

“Just turn off your brain!” Lulu ordered.  “I’m not going to play any more unless you turn off your brain.”

Lulu was always trying to provoke me.   Getting into an argument was a way of not practicing.   That time I didn’t bite.  “Okay,” I said calmly.  “How do you want me to do that?”  Giving Lulu control over the situation sometimes defused her temper.

Lulu thought about it.  “Hold your nose for five seconds.”

A lucky break.  I complied, and the practicing resumed.  That was one of our good days.

Lulu and I were simultaneously incompatible and inextricably bound.  When the girls were little, I kept a computer file in which I recorded notable exchanges word-for-word.   Here’s a conversation I had with Lulu when she was about seven:

A:  Lulu, we’re good buddies in a weird way.
L: Yeah – a weird, terrible way.
A: !!
L:  Just kidding (giving mommy a hug).
A:  I’m going to write down what you said.
L:  No, don’t!  It will sound so mean!
A:  I’ll put the hug part down.


From Chapter 22 (“Blowout in Budapest”):

Here’s a question I often get:  “But Amy, let me ask you this.  Who are you doing all this pushing for – your daughters, or” – and here always, the cocked head, the knowing tone – “or yourself?”  I find this a very Western question to ask (because in Chinese thinking, the child is the extension of the self).  But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important one.

My answer, I’m pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.  My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.  It’s not easy to make your kids work when they don’t want to, to put in grueling hours when your own youth is slipping away, to convince your kids they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can’t.  “Do you know how many years you’ve taken off my life?” I’m constantly asking my girls.  “You’re both lucky that I have enormous longevity as indicated by my thick good-luck earlobes.”

To be honest, I sometimes wonder if the question “Who are you really doing this for?” should be asked of Western parents too.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning dreading what I have to do and thinking how easy it would be to say, “Sure Lulu, we can skip a day of violin practice.”  Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, “As much it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts.  It’s the hardest thing in the world, but I’m doing my best to hold back.”  Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me.

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