When I first had Amanda, I showered her with enough endearments to make the sky blush. I heaped her with so much praise that my mother, helping me for the customary month of rest post delivery, said I could make crows come down and give me their cheese.
“Not just drop it down like in the fable,” she said. “But hand it to you.”
In the fable, a person standing beneath a tree flatters a crow with a rare find of cheese in its beak until the bird attempts to speak. In doing so, the crow drops the piece of cheese down to the ground, which the person swiftly picks up and makes away with it. The moral of the story, which should be clear to all, is to remain stoically unmoved by sycophants.
Like most Chinese mothers of her generation, my mother thought she was protecting me from the ills of the world by employing strict discipline and very little to no praise. In fact, she didn’t even allow me to praise her until some time in adulthood. And then only for things she deems praiseworthy; cooking well, giving to others and running a household on a strict budget. She especially loves praise for being clever with money and time.
However, she’s never allowed me to compliment her on her looks, even though it’s evident she does her best to maintain hers. At age 9, thinking I’d make her happy with the new Malay idiom I’d been taught at school, I told her that her beauty was comparable to the Moon at the gates of the Stars.
She chided me, saying, “Don’t mention it again. If you say that, people will laugh.”
In my innocence, I insisted that she was beautiful but she was more adamant than ever.
“Real beauty is on the inside,” she said, sounding a tad cross.
She opined that any emphasis on beauty, on a quality that isn’t in any way earned, would hinder her children from achieving scholastically. Worse still, it would leave us vulnerable to the deceivers and degenerates out there who prey upon others with flattery.
For that reason, the number of times she’s praised me for anything, can be counted on one hand. She made no mention of my looks until two years ago. It was then that in a offhanded, almost begrudging sort of way, she said, “You’re rather good looking.”
If memory serves me correctly, my jaw dropped open. Think about it: I’d gone thirty-something years of my life without one positive reference to my looks from my mother. All of a sudden she says I’m rather good looking. Is she running a fever or something?
Her idea of beauty is the eastern ideal: sculpted faces, large deep-set eyes, sharp Caucasian noses, dainty rosebud lips. When I was a kid, she allowed me to think myself ugly by comparing me to my father’s younger sister. Everyone knows that people on my father’s side have flat faces, slits for eyes, bridge-less dumpling noses, and sparse hair. The men start balding in their late thirties. By their mid-forties, they’re balder than babies.
Due to the stuffed sinuses I inherited from my father, I used to breath through my mouth. She would say, “Don’t be a gaping goldfish. If you leave your mouth open, people will think you’re retarded. Perhaps, a fly might go in.”
During my teenage years, she’d say, “You’d better take care of you’re skin because that’s about all you’ve got going for you.”
All this sounds harsh but none is criticism for how she raised me. On the contrary, it’s praise for how well she’s raised me. Because of her, I put less stock in beauty than many people I know. Even though I’ve consistently sent Amanda to have professionally-taken photographs from birth, specially taken pictures of me are the last things you’ll ever see anywhere. Most pictures of me are taken by family and friends, some by strangers, all completely unretouched. The way I see it is: why pretend to be something that you’re not? People can tell who you are and what you look like just by meeting you in person.
Belatedly, I’ve come to realise that my effusive praise of Amanda may do her more harm than good. Some children receive so much praise that they become bullies. Others are afraid to try for fear of failing, being so used to having praise heaped upon them for any endeavour. Either scenario makes me more considered in my approach to parenting; certainly, it causes me to pause to think before I praise.