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)