My child, before you go to college...

My daughter leaving high school and starting college put me in a reflective mood

Dear A,

I had to laugh when I saw that video on my Facebook feed.

Must every Asian child in the Western world endure a lunchbox moment?

Certainly, you and your sister did.

You know that moment, when you're in the lunchroom at school, uncovering the food that mum prepared for you, still warm and tasty, when suddenly all the necks crane towards you and someone shouts: "Eww! What's that smell?"

The next day, you ask me, please, no more Asian food. Just give me a sandwich for lunch.

I felt sorry you were embarrassed, but secretly glad I no longer had to make a hot meal in the mornings for you to take to school.


When we came to Chapel Hill nine years ago, it was one of those things your dad and I felt we needed to do, to ease an arguably traumatic move from Singapore. As much as possible, you should have comfort food from home.

Remember the tuckshop at your primary school in Singapore? You loved the chicken rice and, for a while, that was all you ate for lunch. Remember how Poni would sometimes bring in a homemade treat for you, like her incomparable mee soto? And that tragic day when you dropped the whole bowl on the floor after the first bite?

Tragic is also how I would describe an American school cafeteria, not to mention the culinary experience of the average American child aged 10 to 12 years.

But there you are. I understood you had to fit in.

And now, you ask me, why is mum embarrassing me again and pretending to write a letter that is really a newspaper column?

That's a great question and I don't have a great answer, except that Angela Ahrendts just did it and, if the senior vice-president of retail at Apple can pen a sappy open letter to her daughters for public consumption, I don't see why I can't.

Oh, and also because you are about to graduate from high school to start college in autumn. So it feels like a chapter of our life is about to close and that is enough to put me in a reflective mood.

We arrived in the United States at a time that was difficult, yet not without hope. The economy was tanking, but the country was about to have a dynamic new president.

While we tried to find our feet as a family, you children had to navigate a different school system, where the stresses were social rather than academic.

Among the first things that happened was, the load of learning your mother tongue had to be eased. We tried to keep it up for a while, with weekly private lessons. But though Li Laoshi always praised you for being hardworking, I soon found out that you were spending at least one quarter of the lesson time in her bathroom.

And so, that side of your heritage has to be set aside for now, to be rediscovered on another day. Perhaps.

I see now that your lack of interest was also part of that desire to fit in. You wanted to dispense with the old, to fully engage with the new.

You had enough to learn, anyway, about your new home. You still recount the time you joined in a conversation with your friends about chilli and how you waxed lyrical until their mystified faces revealed they were not talking about sambal belacan, but an American dish made from beef and beans.

But there were other gifts.

Being away from Singapore cemented its place in your heart. Again and again, you have chosen to return to it, regarding it with affection and nostalgia, for it has the magical pull of your childhood memories.

Over time, you became more comfortable in your own skin, realising that you didn't have to choose between your heritage. You were not a split personality, an either/or, but fully Chinese/ Singaporean AND fully Caucasian/American.

That's not to say that race is not and never will be a factor in your life. The debacle involving United Airlines and a Vietnamese- American doctor shows how quickly it can enter a conversation.

Was he picked on because of his ethnicity?

But while you will have a special vantage point from which to think about those issues, you can also safely say you have never been denied opportunity because of who you are.

That is not true for a great many others in this country.

Perhaps it's hard to feel gratitude right now, suffering as you are from what you call "senioritis", the aptly termed burnout from the accelerated intensity of the final years of high school.

While pressure in Singapore starts from Day One, here, it seems to be concentrated in those last two or three years before college. The drive to get into a top university among your set is no less overweening and overblown, in my opinion, but then I never could be a tiger mum.

It's you who will choose your path in life, through a mixture of ambition, peer pressure and trial- and-error.

These last months have been hard, I don't deny.

The college application process is a taxing one, particularly in these insane times when high- performing children such as yourself put themselves through the grindstone of applying to upwards of 10 schools.

In my day, getting into university was primarily a matter of having grades that were good enough.

But now, you often compete among yourselves to demonstrate who has more impressive achievements, deeper passions, greater leadership or whatever schools consider as signs of an outstanding individual.

Well, that is all behind you, and you and your friends have a clearer picture of the next phase of life.

A lucky few will have dreams that will determine their pathways. Most of the rest of us will make a life according to the opportunities that present themselves (whether by our own agency or luck) and our willingness to seize them. Some people drive themselves hard; others are content to go with the flow.

My advice, in anything you do, is that you care.

Care about being a good student, worker and citizen. Care about your family, your friends and your community. Care about the planet we live on.

This seems like an oxymoron when so much of growing up is to learn not to care what people think of you, what they say you should or should not do, or look, or feel, and instead to try to be yourself.

What I mean, I think, is that joy can reside in setting aside excessive introspection and being part of something other than yourself.

So, give a damn.

In six months, you will live away from home for the first time - not too far away, which I am probably happier about than you.

And as we draw closer to your departure, I can't help but ask myself if I've done a good enough job so that you will want to keep coming home even as you make it on your own.

I have to believe that you will see our home as where comfort and security resides, where you can be your best and worst self and still have a place at the table.

That here is the place where unconditional love might even be possible because of the balm of forgiveness.

But that's still my job, not yours. Not yet.

Love, Mum

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'My child, before you go to college...'. Print Edition | Subscribe