Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother Knows Best, What's a Daughter To Do? A Memoir (Sort Of)

BOOK: Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother Knows Best, What's a Daughter To Do? A Memoir (Sort Of)


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Copyright © 2014 by Elaine Lui

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Lui, Elaine.

Listen to the Squawking Chicken : when mother knows best, what’s a daughter to do? : A memoir (sort of) / Elaine Lui.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-0-698-13706-6

1. Lui, Elaine. 2. Mothers and daughters—United States. 3. Chinese Americans—Biography. 4. United States—Biography. I. Title.

CT275.L488A3 2014 2014002064



While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.



For Dad and Jacek, who get squawked at too . . .

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 flakes. 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 flakes, 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.
means “to listen” or “to hear” in Chinese. The expression for “obedience” in Chinese combines
with the word for “speak,” which is
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.

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