All we want from you is just your best
July 23, 2015 2:10 PM   Subscribe

This story is painful and tragic to read, especially as a fellow Asian American AFAB. My parents never treated me like this, but I think class differences and the immense adversity faced by immigrants to attain "the Dream," combined with the whole folklore about bootstrapping and model minority's ugly. It has produced so many intense sadness in many communities that I belong to - and it makes scorecards out of humans. I know too many high school classmates who are pretty much Jennifer Pan, and the sadness and fakery they emanate is all a desperate survival tool.

It also reminds me of this story that circulated when I was in high school, of a student posing to be a Stanford student for 8 months, and hopping in and out of dorm windows, because they spent their entire lives shooting for it.
posted by yueliang at 2:28 PM on July 23, 2015 [10 favorites]

Wow. I'd been tangentially aware of the story (I guess pretty much everyone in Toronto was). This is the first I'd heard about the background of the faux-schooling. This is even more of a tragedy than it had seemed at first; the times I'd noticed this in the news, none of that was ever discussed, and the inheritance seemed to be positioned as the motive. This background makes things rather more complex.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:50 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm reminded of a young guy named Eldo Kim, a Harvard student who called in a bomb threat on the morning of an exam he was unprepared for. I was never affiliated with Harvard, but at the time I lived close enough that my morning was full of the noise of helicopters hovering over the Yard. The Boston bombing had not been long before and the LEOs were not playing around. Later, when the scheme had fallen apart, I saw "#FREE ELDO" scraped into the nearby snowbanks. I have enough sympathy to be glad that he got off relatively easily, considering how little we allow ex-cons to do with their lives in this country.

For Jennifer, I have less sympathy, on account of the whole killing her parents thing. And to think she only got the parent killed who was kinder to her! But I can absolutely understand how pathological lying develops in a child who finds she cannot please her parents otherwise.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:17 PM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

Wow. I've lived in Toronto for 15 years and I have no idea how I missed hearing about this case.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:23 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is atrocious and heartbreaking: the fact that she faked going to Ryerson and U of T for a full 4 years is staggering.

Don't worry, The Card Cheat, I left TO in 2004 but have returned for at least 4 months per year, and yet I've never heard of this story either.
posted by jrochest at 3:43 PM on July 23, 2015

Would she have ever done something like that with a more lax upbringing? Or is even asking that blaming the victims? I guess killers always have an excuse for why they did it, and yet I just can't imagine hating controlling parents enough to go to the point of killing them (instead of just running away). Probably there is no way to understand it. Maybe living in unreality had become so familiar to her after years of pretending that she refused to let herself understand what she was doing. But again, that's not an excuse.

Her life was a prison before, and now it's worse.
posted by emjaybee at 3:48 PM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, someone who does this in their early teens after horrific emotional abuse might garner some of my sympathy, but for a twenty-four year old who had other options I've got little or none. As it is I'm offended that the headline even has the word revenge in it. Revenge for what? Caring about your kids future and not being perfect?
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:55 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel like there's some space between "caring about your kids future" and "you're not allowed to date anyone and in elementary school you're going to do homework until midnight and you're not allowed to dance or go to parties."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:04 PM on July 23, 2015 [31 favorites]

This is one of those stories that makes me grateful for my own experiences. I am a son of a tiger mom, and I could regale you with countless stories of mental, emotional, and physical abuse... some highlights being force fed aspirin (at six I was too old to have it crushed with water) until I vomited, and then being forced to take the pill out of the pool of bile and swallow it (though the phlegm made it easier, I must say), or the beatings for bringing home anything less than a 98 (If it's not an A+, it's an F), or learning my multiplication tables at 5 via Hot Wheel Tracks (every wrong answer was corrected by strikes in the right answer... the 12s were hard, on both of us, probably). The anger I felt, the pure hatred which spewed out of me into the world and into my family, was cooled by escape and lies, much like this woman... but luckily for me, I got lost in NYC, connected with some people, and ultimately found a temporary solution in alcohol. It was a solution that turned and all but cut me to ribbons later in life, but I believe it saved me from a worse fate, that of suicide or, even more dreadful, something like this. Today, as someone who no longer drinks, I can look back on those years and forgive... I know my mother did the best she could with what she had, although what she had wasn't all that much. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

Victims abound in this family, but also transgressors. An inside view of what happens when each family unit only is concerned for themselves. An exaggerated echo of what happens when I'm only concerned with me. Sadness and misery.
posted by Debaser626 at 4:10 PM on July 23, 2015 [66 favorites]

The author of this piece is on Twitter at @karenkho. From her Twitter:
This is a pretty interesting (and unexpected) reaction to the Jennifer Pan story I wrote:
I love that the piece has been published in English and simplified Chinese. It is so great to see papers and magazines starting to do this.
posted by heatherann at 4:34 PM on July 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Revenge for what? Caring about your kids future and not being perfect?

The road to your children's hell is paved with good intentions.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:36 PM on July 23, 2015 [29 favorites]

I get that emotional abuse can be worse than physical abuse, but the author of the article doesn't do a very good job of painting it. Maybe I'd've had to grow up in a family like that to be able to read between the lines, but I'm wondering how micromanaging and controlling they could've been if she could manage to keep up her lies for so long.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:36 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'd've had to grow up in a family like that to be able to read between the lines...

posted by griphus at 4:38 PM on July 23, 2015 [20 favorites]

I had (past tense) a friend who faked her entire way through undergrad (no one knew) and then it all unravelled when she pretended to be enrolled in professional school...and ended up at dinner with someone who was actually an enrolled student. It was really sad that she couldn't get her pathological lying under control, because she was a charming and interesting person who was generally well liked (if not loved) by people around her.

And yeah. She was Asian.
posted by wuwei at 5:22 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think getting away with an audacious lie can be a very harmful thing for a young person, or anyone I guess. But getting away with another one, then another one, till you're completely isolated with your secrets and coming clean would destroy your whole life?

It seems like the sort of thing cult leaders do to their victims, but she did it to herself (the lies and self-isolation, that is; it does seem like she was genuinely traumatized by her upbringing).
posted by ducky l'orange at 5:23 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering how micromanaging and controlling they could've been if she could manage to keep up her lies for so long.

You can be both demanding and aloof.

"I want straight A's in math and science. I don't know what those are, but I know they are important to becoming a doctor and I want them!"
posted by benzenedream at 6:14 PM on July 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

Imagine a parent who wants you to learn classical music because she believes it will be helpful to your academic development, but then prohibits you from learning the cello because she's never heard of that instrument before. All control, all structure, all (well-intentioned but woefully uniformed) demands. And impossibly high standards that you can never meet, because nothing is good enough. Except Harvard. Maybe not even then.

Re: that reply piece, it's sad to me that a big salary is the biggest indicator of success to that guy. I know lots of rich people. I think many of them are failures nonetheless. Who gives a shit whether anyone else is "living large." What is life, a rap video?
posted by 1adam12 at 10:00 PM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

I stopped and started reading this article all afternoon. I'm first generation North American. My parents, from the pacific islands, are both doctors -- father comes from wealth, my mother was a fisherman's daughter. Had the term existed, she would have been called a tiger mom. Their high standards, my father's passivity, my mother's martyr complex, along with her frantic need to lecture for hours on end because she felt she wasn't being heard drove my siblings into therapy. Two out of three of us have failed marriages. In the remaining intact marriage, my brother married a woman so emotionally fractured that it would be more honest to call him a caretaker.

In the end, we all became 'successful'. I'm a software engineer, my sister is a dean at a prestigious university, and my brother holds several Ph.Ds. But we've paid a terrible, terrible price.

Decades have past and they have gotten exhausted so they are no longer a threat. We've all come to our resolution and the occasional family holiday is pleasant and sometimes fun. But I moved to the farthest corner of the they are grateful to see me.

It is no stretch to imagine how Pan saw that murder was her only choice. Her ability to understand that she had options had been crippled since she was a child.
posted by lemon_icing at 11:58 PM on July 23, 2015 [29 favorites]

I was talking about this last night with Mr. Machine. I'm second-gen Chinese-American, and he was raised by hippie liberal white parents including a culturally Jewish-ish mother. When I told him the story, he was horrified that Pan's parents response to her lies unraveling was to double-down on the repressive treatment.

Then, he asked me what my parents thought about the story.

I told him that my parents response would probably be that they didn't crack down hard enough. They still let her leave the house to teach piano! They let her keep the money from those lessons! If she didn't have the money from those lessons, how would she have hired someone to kill her parents!

So. Yeah.
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:26 AM on July 24, 2015 [14 favorites]

What struck me the most was how she perpetuated the system on herself.

Her mother, Bich, noticed something was amiss and would comfort her daughter at night, when Hann was asleep, saying, “You know all we want from you is just your best—just do what you can.”

That's Inception-level implantation right there. Her mother literally could say the opposite thing and Pan still pushed herself to the breaking point. Terrifying.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:48 AM on July 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm wondering how micromanaging and controlling they could've been if she could manage to keep up her lies for so long.

First generation immigrant parents may not fully understand the system in which they're asking their children to excel.
posted by atrazine at 7:44 AM on July 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

The other thing is that kids in abusive households get much, much better at being duplicitous and covering things up. It's one thing if you're in a regular ole family and oh no you did something you oughtn't have and mom said "I'm very disappointed in you" and no TV or no hanging out with your friends for a week. It's completely different if you're in an abusive household where the consequences to getting caught are so much more dire. You learn to get real good at not getting caught real fast because either objectively or from the perspective of a kid caught in such a situation, it's not a matter of getting what you want but a matter of straight-up survival.
posted by griphus at 7:50 AM on July 24, 2015 [24 favorites]

Kids, if you're madly in love with someone, run away with them. Don't hatch murder plots with them. Especially if you're over the age of majority. Feds and cops have caught *so many* people planning and trying to bring murder plots to fruition. It seems to be the main way to get a big case busted anymore. Lure the people into a murder plot and then the principles are fucked. Stay away from the murder plots! Maybe it is a symptom of the huge amounts of wealth built up by the adults of the 60's, 70's, and 80's. Doesn't matter, "hit plots" are the quick road to a long stay in the clink.
posted by telstar at 9:17 PM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

As my grandmother and father said/say: "It's not that you didn't mean to; it's that you didn't mean enough NOT to."

In what I think was one of the most formative and illustrative examples of my upbringing, I was forbidden to feel anger. My father made a rule that I was not to feel angry.

Oh, also: read books--preferably non-fiction--exactly one time. You should never re-read a book, as you should have extracted all information and value from it the first time through. Didn't you care enough to read the book properly? You are enjoying your book wrong: do better.
posted by Naamah at 8:31 AM on July 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

My parents are first generation Asian immigrants and I had a pretty typical Asian upbringing - they were obsessed with my grades, obsessed with me studying engineering, obsessed with me being successful (to them being successful meant making a lot of money). They weren't nearly as strict as some Asian parents - I could have friends over, play video games, and they would have been fine with me dating (had I been able to find a date!) - but compared to my white friends, yeah, it was a different world. I think every immigrant kid has that mind-shattering moment where they go to their white friend's house and they're calling their parents by their FIRST NAME and talking back to them.

And I relate to a lot of things people have mentioned - especially covering things up. I never forged my report card, but I was certainly tempted to the one time I got a B. After moving away from home, I rarely called my parents, but when I lost my job, there was no way I could tell them. They wouldn't understand it's common for people in my industry to get laid off; they would probably blame me in some way for it; they would be insanely worried. So I just stopped calling them until I found a new job, and I fibbed about why I left my old job.

What I find really interesting is a lot of Asian-Americans seem mentally scarred by their upbringing, or feel that they had a dysfunctional childhood, or are basically estranged from their parents. My sister and I are both pretty distant from our parents, and I know I blame a lot of my own personal shortcomings on how I was raised. Yet this is something you never see in Asia. By and large, most Asian people who grow up in Asia seem to have a healthy family relationship. But it's not like they were raised any less strict?

My guess is that it has to do with the culture clash. You see how non-immigrant kids are raised and it seems like a paradise compared to your own life. In school they tell you to follow your dreams, and at home they tell you to study hard and get a good job. I remember being so bitter when my high school classmates went to visit colleges with their parents, because with me it was never an option. My parents had already decided I would study engineering at the local state university on scholarship while living at home, and that's exactly what I did. I could have probably gotten into an Ivy League, but they never encouraged me to apply, so I didn't. It's tough having Asian parents when other kids' parents seem so much more emotionally supportive and lenient.

Even today, as much as I have distanced myself from my parents, in some sense how they raised me has become an indelible part of my personality. I still view success as making a lot of money. I know a lot of Americans don't; I don't care. I never did get a PhD like they wanted, and I ultimately ended up working in a different field than they wanted, but one of the primary reasons I chose it was to make a lot of money. I don't view life as a rap video; I'm a frugal person; maybe subconsciously I want to make my parents proud (I rarely speak to them and don't tell them how much money I make), but to me, money means freedom. And ultimately that's all it means to most immigrants; they want their kids to have better lives than they did and the only way to guarantee that is money.
posted by pravit at 2:37 PM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Oh, also: read books--preferably non-fiction--exactly one time. You should never re-read a book, as you should have extracted all information and value from it the first time through. Didn't you care enough to read the book properly? You are enjoying your book wrong: do better.

This is actually pretty interesting. My Dad took the position that reading lots of books meant that you'd chosen poorly, because you were reading silly trashy disposable fiction or light nonfiction, rather than classic literature/important scientific articles that rewarded re-reading.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:58 AM on July 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

My sister and I are both pretty distant from our parents, and I know I blame a lot of my own personal shortcomings on how I was raised. Yet this is something you never see in Asia. By and large, most Asian people who grow up in Asia seem to have a healthy family relationship.

I think it's probably more accurate to say that people who grow up in Asia are less likely to admit that they have a bad relationship with their parents. It's much easier to survive in the "West" if you are estranged from your family than it is in the parts of Asia that I'm familiar with.

I had pretty atypical Asian parents in many ways, not least of which was their commitment to letting their kids choose their own paths. But I still tease my mother that no report card was ever good enough for her. 'However good my grades, it was always "You didn't do your best."' Her response, even today, is "Well, did I ever say it when you had done your best?" And I have no defense against that, because she's right. Doesn't change how demotivating it was, but it's still true.
posted by bardophile at 11:43 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

My guess is that it has to do with the culture clash.

I agree it's that too, and more. I'm 1.5 gen Taiwanese American, and this is based on my own observation, other people's experience may differ. But one thing I notice is my cousins back home have an extended family. There's aunts, uncles, cousins, and also adult family friends who are seen as "aunts" and "uncles". More people to talk with, to notice when something is going off the rails, and with different life experiences (hardly any of my aunts or uncles or cousins back home are engineers or doctors) that might be able to go up to your parents and say, "Hey, maybe do something different?"

But I think there's a bit of self-selection going on. For non-refugees, the move across the ocean to an entirely new country is mostly voluntary. It takes a certain strong personality type and huge desire to "make it" to want to uproot yourself. And when you get there, there's no more support networks and in a lot of ways you're starting over. So it creates these conditions where the parents live surrounded with constant reminders that they decided to move and that they did so to succeed. And that ends up getting projected on the kid, who grew up here and is just a different person from their parents.
posted by FJT at 9:14 AM on July 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

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