It Was Lonely Being A Tiger Baby In College

Below is an excerpt from my memoir, “Tiger Babies Strike Back: How I Was Raised By A Tiger mum But Could Not Be Turned To The Dark Side.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I began at UC Berkeley as a double major in English literature and fine arts. Although there were thousands of Asian American students, there were just a handful in the English Department then, and even fewer in the Art Department. But that wasn’t why my social life was nonexistent. I was just naturally kind of a hermit and spent most weeknights in my apartment doing homework and watching Jeopardy!

I still remember the time when the TV show was having “college week.” I was glued to the set because I was really hoping they’d have a contestant from UC Berkeley. One evening I fixed my usual dinner of champions, Top Ramen with the “Oriental” flavour pack, and sat down expecting some rousing entertainment provided by Alex Trebek and my fellow college-level scholars.

Now, whether there was an actual contestant from Berkeley I do not recall. The thing that sticks in my mind after all these years was that there was an Asian female participant, and she was so enamoured of the white boy opponent to her left that she tanked horribly, and her demise left me seething with anger and disbelief.

I don’t remember which college had to shamefully claim her as its own, but all the contestants wore sweatshirts with their school names emblazoned on the front, and in my faulty, snarktacular memory, her sweatshirt read Rice. Honestly, at first I thought she was cute. I had high hopes that she would prove to every TV-watching family in America that Asian women area force to be reckoned with. She had a perky, bobbed hairdo and looked smart, which is to say, she looked Asian. On first glance, I thought she must have believed her right side was her most photogenic, because during the entire game her head was turned toward the left. However, what became quickly apparent was that she was all goo-goo eyes for the white guy on her left with whom she had chummy rapport. Between each of Alex Trebek’s questions in answer form, she made chatty little comments to Lover Boy, constantly tossed her hair, and winked like she was plagued with an embarrassing facial tic.

I could accept that she was a boner, I mean a goner, for this guy. However, the thing that made her behaviour completely unacceptable was that she was losing. LOSING. An Asian brainiac nerd was losing. Can you believe that? And she was not just lagging behind by a few hundred points, but rather, she had no points at all. Alex would fire off a clue, and when White Boy would hit the buzzer first and answer correctly, she consistently gave him a little high five or a fist bump as if to say, “Sweet!”

OK, I thought. Convivial relations with the other contestants, and joshing familiarity. That’s so college! Right. But after the third or fourth time it happened, and even the sixth time, I was starting to get pissed. Where was her Asian competitive instinct? Seriously, she was letting him win, and she seemed happy about it. I wanted to shout at the TV, “Hey, RICE girl! Get a hold of yourself!” After a while, even the White Guy started to look a little peeved. He gave her a look like, “Um, could you please stop touching me cuz my girlfriend back at Texas A&M is probably watching and also, uh, you’re kinda creeping me out.”

Meanwhile, in my darkened, dusk-just-turned-to-night apartment with my uneaten bowl of ramen, I was furious. She was Asian, and what the hell was this? If she was any other ethnicity, I would’ve just laughed and thought she was a regular-variety dope. But no. Something simmered inside me until I just couldn’t take it anymore. All by myself, watching a game show in the dark, I yelled, “CRUSH HIM!”

But she did not. Crush him, that is. It seemed to me that she should have been genetically preprogrammed to demolish any opponent under academic circumstances. But no. Every time the guy answered correctly, she beamed with pride.

C’mon, woman! I’m as romantically deluded as anyone, but if I was on freaking Jeopardy! representing my college and the entire Asian American population, I sincerely hope I would self-censor my burning desire to rub myself all over Hunky Boy. Where were her priorities? First win a million dollars, then you can hump his brains out . . . LATER. Offscreen, OK? In the privacy of the network green room.

But instead, Asian Girl lost miserably, and when the competition was over, White Guy walked off the platform like she didn’t even exist, and she was the one who ended up getting crushed. I wanted to feel bad for her, but I didn’t. My Oriental flavour Top Ramen was cold and so was I. I felt betrayed and disgusted. Poor RICE. What an effing idiot.

After all these years, I still remember watching that episode of Jeopardy! Seeing an Asian American female my own age competing against our peers gave me high hopes, but my expectations were dashed. I wanted that girl to represent the best part of me, but I ended up resenting her, that stranger. I wanted her to win above all else, as if she represented me and every Asian person in the world. I didn’t recognise her individuality, her awkwardness, or her humanity. She was just a regular girl whom I was so ready to accept to represent me, but since she lost, I put her out of my mind. I was eighteen and was searching for camaraderie, even on TV, I suppose.

Actually, I was looking for female friendship in real life, too.

But all my friends had longtime boyfriends, and I was the perennial seventh wheel. I was everyone’s sherpa, holding coats and wallets when my pals hit the dance floor or went to sweet-talk free beers from the Bear’s Lair patio known as The Cage. I was the dork-arse nonblonde. The Chinese one.

Even as my white friends regaled me with tales of drunken parties where Everclear punch was mixed in gigantic, plastic garbage bins, I simply regarded them with curiosity. I felt sepa- rate from them. I was glad they were having fun, but I did not consider that kind of fun to be available or right for me. My fears about embarrassing my family or, worse, getting a B on the following day’s test kept me from any and all festivities.

I felt like a Chinese fighting fish in a small, confined fish bowl. Additionally, when I spotted other Chinese American women on campus, I imagined that we gazed at one another from inside our individual fishbowls, the view distorted by the imaginary glass and water. As we looked at one another without talking, maybe we alternately saw each other and ourselves smaller or bigger than we really were.

In retrospect, my childhood and teen years hadn’t much prepared me for female friendships. As my Chinese and American sides were in constant struggle for dominance or equality, my personality had never developed in such a way that I could attain any level of social popularity. All my time was spent in pursuit of straight As or at Chinese school where I felt like an outsider. In the meantime, I hadn’t ever learned how to “be myself,” let alone how to be a good friend.

I think it’s easier for Chinese parents to push for the tangible results of top grades rather than to encourage their children to pursue close relationships. It may not be until much later that social awkwardness rears its pimply head. And by then, the subtle hierarchy and clues to the kingdom might simply further elude a nearsighted brainiac. For me, competition for grades trumped fun and friendship, and that pattern began early. I felt close to neither Chinese nor non-Asians, with only my A pluses and test scores to offer cold comfort.

No wonder I was all alone at night watching Jeopardy!

And I wonder, is this when the combination of high achievement and feelings of isolation takes the next step into Tiger Personhood? When one doesn’t get close enough to anyone to develop sympathy, empathy, or bonds of friendship, it’s easier to stay inside the ever-tightening walls of that locked Chinese box.

The Tiger enclosure is a lonesome cage. It’s a form of self-imposed solitary confinement. And if I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, I would say, “Honey, let’s not all be alpha females in separate cages.” 

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.