Listen to the Squawking Chicken
An Excerpt From
Listen to the Squawking Chicken
“You look like dried monkey flakes.”

That’s what my ma, the Chinese Squawking Chicken,

tells me when she thinks I look like shit on television.

Monkeys are skinny. A poorly moisturized monkey is not

only skinny but brittle. No one wants to look like dried

monkey f lakes. Most people think I’m exaggerating at first

when I talk about the Squawking Chicken. But once they

actually do spend some time with her, they understand.

They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a

chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on

her. If she says I look like dried monkey f lakes, even if everyone

else thinks I’m camera-ready, I believe that I look

like dried monkey flakes.

This is how it’s been for me my whole life: every thought

has been shaped by the Squawking Chicken; every opinion I

have is informed by the Squawking Chicken; everything I

do is in consultation with the Squawking Chicken. I navigate

my life according to the subliminal map she’s purposefully

programmed into my head so that I can’t tell the difference

anymore whether it’s my own choice or her choice. And that

was probably her objective all along.

The Squawking Chicken has engineered my entire life,

completely intentionally. She has always known who I was

meant to be; I am who she’s always wanted me to be. And

she has spent my entire life pushing me in that direction,

taking credit for it along the way. If I am happy and successful,

it’s because she guided me there. If I am unhappy and

unable to meet challenges, it’s because I didn’t listen. Teng

means “to listen” or “to hear” in Chinese. The expression

for “obedience” in Chinese combines teng with the word for

“speak,” which is wah. Teng wah literally means “listen to

what I say.” I have been listening to the Squawking Chicken

for forty years.

Is it self-fulfilling prophecy that I did indeed fail, and

sometimes disastrously, on the occasions when I disregarded

her instruction? One night she told me, after I’d come home

from college and finished all my exams, that I was too tired

to go out to see my friends, that my friends would still be

there tomorrow when I’d had a good night’s sleep, and, most

ominously, that I would regret not staying home. Half an

hour later as I was backing the car out of the garage, I realized

too late that I’d forgotten to close the rear door. It

caught on to the wall while I was reversing and, as I hit the

gas, the entire door came off. I didn’t listen to the Squawking

Chicken and the Squawking Chicken was right.

“You are controlled by your mother,” a colleague told me

recently. It was said with a mixture of fascination and pity,

mostly pity. Indeed, some who have observed our interactions

do shake their heads, feeling sorry for me that I’ve been

held hostage, emotionally and mentally, by a mother living

vicariously through her daughter. They’re not wrong about

the control, but they are definitely wrong about living vicariously.

The Squawking Chicken has her own story, and

I’m just a part of it.

I decided to write this book during Ma’s recovery from a

long and potentially fatal illness. At first, I wanted to give

her something to look forward to, something to get better

for. But in telling her story, I realized that I was actually

doing it for me—which is what always happens when I think

I’m doing something for her. It turns out I’m the one who’s

benefiting. In this case, it’s to convince myself that even if

the squawking stops, I will always be able to hear it.

Listen to the Squawking Chicken

Listen to the Squawking Chicken

When Mother Knows Best, What's a Daughter To Do? A Memoir (Sort Of)