Currently reading Elaine Lui’s Listen to the Squawking Chicken

elaine-lui-listen-to-the-squawking-chickenI will say upfront that I don’t follow Lainey Gossip. My general, uninformed impression, lumping Lainey Lui with all other entertainment reporters spilling celebrity gossip as if it were newsworthy, is that they are brazen and usually nothing short of annoying. In the “Whose City is Better” game I am not playing with my sister – who clearly doesn’t like Lainey Lui – she’s happy to point out Lainey Lui is from Vancouver. Actually – but I bit my tongue – Lainey Lui originally comes from and has now returned to Toronto. And somewhere along the line, I read that on her blog, she refers to her mother as the “Squawking Chicken.” Well, isn’t that just full of shock value and disrespectful?!

Yet, I am definitely intrigued by Lainey Lui. As a blogger, who doesn’t dream of getting to blog for a living? To have a glamourous job including going to movie award ceremonies and attending the after-parties? And now Lainey is a co-host on The Social, Canada’s answer to The View. Just five years older than I am and Cantonese-Canadian, I got the feeling I would understand where Lainey comes from. So, when I learned she was publishing a memoir (sort of), I put a hold on a copy from the library. Despite the gaudy title, Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother knows best, what’s a daughter to do?

First thing, I learned that Squawking Chicken (SC) is not some rude nickname Lui gave her mother on her blog for giggles. It is a nickname Lui’s mother’s childhood counterparts gave her because she is unabashedly loud, but she coopted it to describe her inner strength and ability stand up for herself. The SC doesn’t give herself (too many) airs that she is a regal or mythical creature like a dragon or phoenix. A chicken is a common and lowly creature with no beauty. I can’t find the character for “Tsiahng Gai” which is what they called her but I think I’ve heard my mum use the word “tsiahng” before and it goes beyond “loud and shrill” and means more like “coarse, gaudy and vulgar.” Which is an example of just how colourful the Cantonese language is. :D

Lui and the SC’s life stories are revealed in a series of 10 essays each with a theme or lesson and powered by three or four anecdotes. Amidst the essays, we learn about the SC’s journey to date – from the unappreciated daughter of gambling addicts in Yuen Long (just outside Hong Kong) to a successful entrepreneur in Hong Kong to the harsh reality of being an immigrant in Canada and parenting her only child, Lui. We learn about the SC’s values. It is – as I often say – the kind of non-memoir I want to write: disjointed but gets the point across within a chapter. Lui writes with a similar voice to how I’ve heard her speak on television – direct, hilarious and colloquial. It is refreshing but I think panned by critics.

Reviewers, for lack of a comparison, mentioned Amy Tan (Joy Luck Club and other mother-daughter stories) and Amy Chua (of Tiger Mother fame) to describe Lui’s story. Neither describes it correctly. It is a story about a mother and a daughter but the SC’s story has gruesome with real-world details and it is far from a perfect, happily conciliatory Asian Hallmark ending. Lui’s mother is not an elegant and eloquent Tiger Mother like Amy Chua who tries to frame her demands in a selfless-looking manner. Instead, the SC speaks to the lowest common denominator and Lui is not, like Chua, advocating the SC kind of parenting.

I saw that ratings for the book were not good and I resisted from reading any reviews until I finished the book myself and formed my own opinion. It was panned for not having development, a conclusion and for being written in a style suited for a blog and not a book. Which is exactly why Lui had the disclaimer that it’s not a memoir! We are so accustomed to reading novels and memoirs with profound lessons and sweeping aphorisms like it is appropriate and necessary to have a tidy mid-life conclusion. The SC and Lui are alive and kicking and so the essay-style book essentially leaves off after a round number (10) of themed essays. After all and all, things are good the way they are in the Lui family.

As usual, there are parts – a lot of them – when I felt like I was reading about my own life. What I look for is the parts that especially hit home, that reveal something I thought only I could reveal. Like Lui’s relationship with Bobby that was so blinded by teenage love and rebellion it hurt me to read it because I could understand it. The lesson SC could articulate was better than my mother ever could (who basically only yelled at me for being so stupid and told me to concentrate on school):

“”He won’t love you for very long, you know? He won’t love you because right now, you’re not worth loving.”…
I was officially less-than.
And I was judged to be less-than, not by my own mother, but by someone else’s. It’s the shame that endures, you know? The shame lasts so much longer than the heartbreak.”

These days, I feel surrounded by squawking about feng shui. Seriously. My mother isn’t particularly adamant about it and I want to think I’m above all of the voodoo-hooey, but the in-laws are more circumspect, especially since major life events are taking place, like weddings and home-purchasing. I have heard of the same belief Lui has about not buying a house with a staircase aimed at the doorway and I will notice it in houses I visit. Lui would not buy a house with this feature and I might not either. (Funny anecdote: my wealthy aunt was warned not to buy a house because the staircase pointed at the door which signifies a conduit for money to go out the door but she liked the house and is a modern woman and said, “Let it then!”) These days, I’m being pressured on all sides about the mirror-closet door at the foot of the bed in the master bedroom. I heard about it in Joy Luck Club (movie) and when Lui mentioned it, well, now I’m convinced to do something about it!

One topic that I would not have expected to ever read in print was the exposition of the SC’s definition of and crusade against “low classy”:

“Low Classy is the term the Squawking Chicken uses to describe coarse behaviour. Leg jiggling is a coarse motion. There is no elegance in leg jiggling. There is no refinement. On the few occasions I jiggled my leg as a child, Ma would slap me on the thigh, stare me down with the death eyes, and scold me, loudly, of course: “That’s so Low Classy. I don’t care if you’re the Queen, if you’re jiggling your leg you may as well be a degenerate on the street corner.”

Omigosh, that is exactly what my mother is like. She notices and despises and points out leg jiggling and admonished me when I was young and dared to do it. Mum also sees people in terms of “have class” and “low class” and raised me that way, too. It was just hilarious to see how my mother has that in common with SC – it might be a Hong Kong thing. Another funny thing is how Lui and I see our mothers as hypocrites telling us not to be “low classy” but exhibiting it themselves – bad habits creep in as ladies age and they become more “Chinese” (I feel it happening to me too). We saw it when we were young and our middle-age mothers are a touch uncouth. Hah! (My mother, of course, would look at this comparison superficially and deem that they are absolutely not alike. The SC is “so low class” and “tsiahng” because she plays mahjong so much while mum is a cerebral and educated businesswoman. Lack of empathy much? As Lui displayed, the SC is severely lacking in empathy.

The part that reminded me most of the Amy Chua’s parenting, of course, was about the shaming SC did of Lui. When Lui pulled a stunt that willful children would, the SC drove home the lesson with public shaming, to her close and wider social circle. It almost seems prescient of the SC, as if she knew Lui would become a public figure – but the logic applies to anyone who wants to freak out a child to be intelligent and sensible and mindful always.

“Ma was preparing me for future criticism: “My criticism of you always comes from a place of love. But as you get older, your critics won’t love you. They will criticize you to hurt you. I’m preparing you for criticism that comes from your enemies.”… Ma was constantly pre-shaming me, humiliating me in advance, making me afraid of the shame so that I’d never be foolish enough to earn it.”

The dark and ugly truth touched me the most. The SC – like a real mother not touched-up in a glossy memoir – is deeply flawed and not unconditionally giving. She didn’t transform into a magnanimous martyr upon motherhood and is lacking in empathy and wouldn’t ever know how to articulate her intentions nicely. In a girl’s formative years, it is really difficult to have this kind of parent. It’s difficult even to stop seeing the streak of selfishness in this kind of parent.

“I realized then that the tragedy wasn’t Bobby leaving me. The deepest cut was that my experience with Bobby led me to realize the Squawking Chicken’s greatest fear: I had become her. And worse still, I didn’t have to. Ma gave me every opportunity to avoid being powerless so that I would never be at the mercy of a man. And I had voluntarily put myself at the mercy of a man the way she seemed to always find herself at the mercy of them. This force of a woman, with the most indomitable spirit I have ever known, a phoenix seemingly undefeatable, didn’t want me to be like her at all.
Nothing is more humbling than to know your mother’s darkest truth. The Squawking Chicken’s darkest truth was that her wanting me to be more-than was based on her belief that she was the one who was less-than. It’s up to me to prove that she isn’t. That started by loving smarter. For both of us.”

That really hit the nail on the head for me.

Unless there is a gross misrepresentation, Lui’s exposé-style (sort of) memoir is exactly what she needed to write for her mother – the belligerent, the Squawking Chicken, with as many victories as losses, who protects herself by not hiding things and wouldn’t mind the exposé so long as it is true. I love how the SC puts it:

“Every tiger has a roar. You are my roar. Now don’t be so stupid. Otherwise you are just wasting my roar.”

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