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Listen to the Squawking Chicken

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

Elaine Lui - Author

Hardcover | $24.95 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780399166792 | 288 pages | 22 Apr 2014 | Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam | 5.74 x 8.54in | 18 - AND UP
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“I devoured this book in one sitting...alternately cheering, laughing, cringing, and gasping in horror.  Lui captures the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship that is both complicated and beautiful. Poignant with a bare honesty that may make you think (and rethink) your own relationships.”  —Jenny Lawson, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
 
As the 800,000+ U.S. fans of Elaine Lui’s site know, her mother, aka The Squawking Chicken, is a huge factor in Elaine’s life. She pulls no punches, especially with her only child. “Where’s my money?” she asks every time she sees Elaine. “You’ll never be Miss Hong Kong,” she informed her daughter when she was a girl. Listen to the Squawking Chicken lays bare the playbook of unusual advice, warnings, and unwavering love that has guided Elaine throughout her life. Using the nine principles that her mother used to raise her, Elaine tells us the story of the Squawking Chicken’s life—in which she walked an unusual path to parent with tough love, humor, and, through it all, a mother’s unyielding devotion to her daughter. This is a love letter to mothers everywhere.



***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

Copyright © 2014 by Elaine Lui

INTRODUCTION

 

“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. 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 onto 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 me¾which 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.

 

 

Chapter 1

Walk Like an Elephant, Squawk

Like a Chicken

 

If the world operated on mute, my ma would seem to you like any other Chinese lady—on the short side of average, small-boned, but obnoxiously dressed. Think rhinestones everywhere, and if not rhinestones then sequins, and if not sequins then feathers. Sometimes all of it at the same time. Her favorite outfit is a denim suit with rhinestone-encrusted patches on the back and up and down the legs. She purposefully wears it with the collar turned up. Like the irresistibly catchy hook in the worst song you’ve ever heard, she finishes her China Woman Elvis ensemble off with a pair of gold-and-silver Coach sneakers. If I’m really lucky that day, it’ll be sunny out when we go for dim sum. And she’ll keep her shades on as she walks into the restaurant, her entire head hidden underneath one of those massive sun visors regularly seen on Asians. People will wonder: Is it a movie star or a bag lady who’s pillaged a donations bin in Vegas? The face that appears when she finally removes the sunglasses and the hat is so pretty it’s almost ornamental. In other words, by appearance only, Ma seems harmless.

Turn up the volume and everything changes. As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her. It’s the voice, a voice that earned her the nickname Tsiahng Gai, Squawking Chicken, when she was growing up in Hong Kong. The volume is jarring, yes. You can’t imagine that something so loud can come out so effortlessly and without warning. The Squawking Chicken doesn’t give you time to acclimate to her levels. It’s one level, and it’s all-out assault. But it’s also the tone¾sharp, edged and quick, not so much a booming roar that leaves silence after it lands, but a wailing siren that invades your mind, kind of like acid on the brain that results in permanent scarring.

Ma speaks to me mostly in Cantonese, the main Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong, with the occasional mangled English word thrown in for dramatic effect.

Here’s an example. The following sentence is spoken entirely in Cantonese, with one exception. See if you can figure out what she means: “I don’t like this sweater. The colley is so poor.” What is “colley”? Hint: “colley” is not “collar.” “Colley” is “quality.”

Ma uses “colley” not only to describe inanimate objects and clothing items but also people. Once we were shopping for vacuum cleaners and the salesperson was rude to her. “What colley does he have to talk to me like that?” Translation: “This man is not qualified to speak to me like that.”

When she does have to speak in English, verb tense is a problem. It’s a problem I have intentionally never corrected for her. I let Ma walk around telling people, “I am so exciting!”

What she means is that she is very excited. What comes out is so much more entertaining. Especially when you consider how loud she is.

Ma doesn’t know how to have a discreet phone call, or a quiet conversation in the theater before the movie starts. Not only is she physically incapable of whispering, she also never wants to. Ma’s philosophy is to talk loud and walk loud. Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Ma walks like an elephant and squawks like a chicken, and she has always taught me to do the same. It annoys her to see girls encouraged to behave otherwise.

She made this clear during a family gathering at my aunt’s. It was dinnertime and we were all called to the table. My young cousin Lizzy was upstairs and we could hear her making her way down, thumping all the way to the kitchen. Her father shouted out, “Lizzy, don’t walk so loudly! Walk like a lady!”

Ma didn’t have much use for this particular uncle. She turned to me archly and remarked: “My grandfather always told me to walk like an elephant. It scares away the ghosts. Ah Leuy [my daughter], you should always walk like an elephant. A real woman doesn’t creep into a room.”

Traditionally, Chinese girls are raised to be cute and dainty. To smile demurely. To cover their mouths when they laugh, as if laughing is an activity too gregarious and inelegant to be considered proper form for a female. In Chinese culture, girls are often infantilized and objectified. They are told to leave the room when men are talking business. Their opinions are not solicited and when they are offered, it can become an embarrassment for their male partners. Girls are taught to not be cho lo, or rough. Their mannerisms should be delicate, their dispositions gentle. The language should never be offensive; “nice” Chinese girls never curse. As jarring as it is in Western society to hear swear words thrown around, it’s even more offensive in Chinese culture. Foul language is used sparingly and usually restricted to men. And the Squawking Chicken. Ma has never observed the “boys only” gender restriction of swearing. She’ll drop an F- bomb or even a C-bomb whenever she wants, and especially when she’s in a scrap. There is no tiptoeing around where Ma is concerned, not with her feet and never with her mouth.

The Chinese Squawking Chicken has never crept anywhere. And she has never had a problem being heard. Unlike many Asian women of her generation who speak softly and behave demurely, my ma is always the first to offer her opinion, the first to speak up, even among those who believe that women are supposed to be soft and unassuming. Raised in a society that has traditionally encouraged subservient behavior for women, my ma was never the girl in the corner hiding her thoughts.

Over the years, some people have found her attitude, her voice and her demeanor repulsive, preferring women who congregate in small groups, too meek to go head-to-head with the men. But Ma has always been confident in any environment, from gambling in Hong Kong with gang members in her youth to teaching middle-aged Jewish housewives in Toronto how to play mah-jong. Her Squawking Chicken attitude has been the same no matter what: she believes she belongs anywhere. To me, she’s always been the main event, dominating the spotlight no matter the setting, the ultimate scene-stealer.

 

Ma started in Yuen Long, a town on the western side of Hong Kong. Most of the action in Hong Kong happens in Kowloon, situated in the southern area of the peninsula. When Ma was growing up, Kowloon was “downtown,” the glamorous big city. Back then, Yuen Long was rural and unsophisticated and it took over an hour to get to Kowloon by bus and train. Apartment buildings were just being constructed. Most people lived in modest stone or wood houses clustered in villages fifteen minutes’ walking distance from Yuen Long Main Road, a paved street that led to a few local pubs, restaurants and the open market. In those times, Yuen Long residents were considered hicks to the people who lived in Kowloon. The Squawking Chicken never thought of herself as a hick. Though she was born in Yuen Long, she always behaved as if she was from Kowloon. And, as it happens, Yuen Long started to develop into a more urban district just as she was coming of age, as though she willed it to grow up and be more cosmopolitan so that it could be worthy of her.

The Squawking Chicken was a classic big city girl stomping around in a small pond, where girls were never taken seriously. In Yuen Long in the sixties and seventies, however, she was the only girl who had the balls to sit down for dominoes or mah-jong with the boys, beating them regularly and eventually earning their respect. She was so fierce that some of them ended up avoiding her, not wanting to tangle with a girl who could play as well as they could and then talk smack even louder than they would. Ma was assertive in a community that did not encourage assertiveness in women. Ma squawked for those who couldn’t squawk for themselves. And so it was my young ma who volunteered to negotiate with the local triad (Chinese mafia) leaders when one of her friends fell behind on protection payments.

Back then, many people ran underground mah-jong dens out of their homes. To keep the police from interfering and shutting down the operations, each den paid a monthly “tax” in exchange for being left alone. The taxation system was managed by gangs. When Ma was in her late twenties and I was six years old and spending the summer with her in Yuen Long, the man who ran her favorite den was being threatened because he was two months’ short, having had some family health problems. When she heard about the situation, Ma decided she had to go to the nightclub where the triad boss was known to hang out. I was in a fussy mood that day and I knew, even when I was little, that the only place worth being was where Ma was going; I refused to stay back and wait for her and I was complaining so loudly that I would have been a nuisance to the other mah-jong players if she left me behind.

It was wet and hot that afternoon, a typical Hong Kong summer day, and I remember Ma scolding me when I started whining about walking there in the heat instead of taking a taxi. “You could have stayed with the mah-jong aunties in front of the fan. But since you had to come, I’m not treating you like a princess.” That was the only thing she said to me on our way there. After a few blocks, we turned right into an alley. There was nothing to it except for a glass door covered with a green neon sign.

I was thrilled to feel the blast of air-conditioning when we stepped inside. I couldn’t see anything it was so dark. I held on tighter to Ma’s hand as we made our way past a second door and into the club. She led me to the bar, told me to sit there quietly and wait for her, ordered me a drink with fruit cubes swirling at the bottom and told the server to give me extra cherries. I stabbed at the grape and pineapple bits in my glass with the cocktail umbrella and from my position across the lounge, I watched as she took a seat opposite an intimidating-looking man wearing a tank top with his leg hitched up on a table. She pulled a cigarette out of her purse. I could see the flame from a match in between her long red nails, and smoke drifting out of her mouth, framing her face. Then she started speaking.

I couldn’t hear what she was saying from across the room, but I know she did most of the talking, pausing only to flick ashes into an ashtray now and again, the nail on her index finger tapping the end of the cigarette. Before long, the man was nodding and holding his hands up. Then suddenly we were back in the daylight, my eyes readjusting to the brightness, heading back to the mah-jong den, where Ma ceremoniously took her seat. “It’s done. Let’s play.”

Ma was so gangster. But a gangster with nothing to hide, no secrets. Instead, her secrets, even though some of them were terrible, became her truths, because she was the first to squawk them out before anyone else, owning them before they could own her. In doing so, she taught me that if you can tell the story of the worst thing that has ever happened to you, you’ll never be silenced.

 

The Squawking Chicken was born in 1950, the oldest of six children. Neither of her parents had steady jobs and they left her for the first few years in the family village to be raised by her grandmother while they worked sporadically. Ma’s mother was in and out of restaurants, washing dishes or wrapping dumplings and her father ran odds and ends for local gangsters, shaking down clients when they were behind on extortion payments. Any money earned was spent on the mah-jong table, which put them into debt most of the time, but occasionally lifted their circumstances. Ma was brought back to live with them during one particularly flush period when her parents returned home to the village to boast and show off. She didn’t want to leave her grandmother with whom she was close and who she calls her “real” mother, the person who built her character. But it wouldn’t look right, since her parents were now presumably well off, to live in the village and not be with her parents.

The highs of gambling never last long. And there was always a new dependent on the way. Ma looked after her siblings every day after school while her parents slept off their all-night mah-jong sessions. But she loved school and she remembers herself as a bright, engaged student even though her parents were never supportive of her studies. She only had time to study when the younger kids were finally in bed and after her parents had left for the gambling halls, reading by lamppost out on the street because she was forbidden to waste electricity on education. (This is totally the Chinese equivalent of the grandfather trope: I had to walk ten miles knee-deep in snow just to get to school.)

Soon, though, she had to quit. She’d just started Grade 10 and her parents noticed that she’d become rather attractive and could start earning money for the family waiting tables. So Ma was sent to work at a sketchy local night lounge. The regular patrons, mostly minor players in the local gangs, became fond of her sense of humor and sassy, no-shit attitude. They showed their affection by tipping her well and looking out for her when they could.

It was around this time that her mother took off with another man. Ma’s father checked out and started disappearing for days on alcohol-fueled mah-jong benders. Ma had to care for her five brothers and sisters, relying on neighbors and sometimes even her gangster buddies. A few months later, her mother returned, having been abandoned by her lover, and now pregnant. Ma’s parents reunited and they asked her to keep their secret. Ma helped her mother through her abortion, continuing to look after her siblings, managing the household as my grandmother recovered, making excuses and lying to neighbors and other family members who were curious about what was going on at home. Soon, my grandparents were carrying on like nothing had happened, thanks to the efforts of their dutiful eldest daughter. Ma was happy to have been useful to her parents. She complied with their requests without resentment and she thought that after this incident she would be more appreciated.

But soon after, on a night when her connections weren’t around, Ma was raped on the way home from work. There was no sympathy from her parents when she stepped in the door, her clothes torn, her mouth bruised, her palms cut. They did not offer to call the police. They did not help her clean herself up. Ashamed and despondent, Ma attempted suicide that night by swallowing pills. She remembers, through her haze, overhearing her parents discussing whether or not to help her and take her to the hospital. They ended up deciding not to, both to save money and also to save face, because Ma was the only one who knew all their secrets—her mother’s affair and the aborted baby, her father’s womanizing and drinking problem, their debts. With her gone, no one would ever find out. That was the night my ma started squawking. She forced herself to start vomiting and when she was finished vomiting she started screeching.

When Ma brought me back to Hong Kong years later, people used to tell me all the time about the night Ma started screaming. It’s remembered like legend—that her screams rang through Yuen Long all night, that she screamed so hard and so violently it was like the gods were being summoned to deliver judgment upon her parents. Her screams were so incriminating, her parents actually skipped the gambling halls that night, hiding inside to avoid the neighbors, knowing that they’d been found guilty. Ma screamed to forget that she’d been violated; she screamed until the wound from her parents’ treachery became a scar that permanently transformed her soul; she screamed to announce that she’d been reborn.

The next morning, she told her parents things were about to change. And they did. From that day on, all she had to do was look at them funny and they’d step back. That was when she started running her own life. She was fifteen.

Did you know that the phoenix is a breed of chicken that molts on a regular cycle? Ma was molting. She’d become the Chinese Squawking Chicken.

 




“I devoured this book in one sitting...alternately cheering, laughing, cringing, and gasping in horror.  Lui captures the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship that is both complicated and beautiful. Poignant with a bare honesty that may make you think (and rethink) your own relationships.” —Jenny Lawson, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Listen to the Squawking Chicken is authentic, heartbreaking, and funny. Lui writes with the truest form of humor, grounded in pain, honesty, and insight, and despite everything, Lui’s love for her mother shines true. This is a book that will challenge and resonate with mothers and daughters everywhere.”—Jean Kwok, New York Times–bestselling author of Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown
 
“Elaine Lui has written one remarkable and dangerous book. It had me laughing till I rolled off the bed, rearranging my living room furniture in a panic at three a.m. to achieve proper feng shui, and calling my mother out of pure guilt. The Squawking Chicken could eat any Tiger Mom for lunch.” —Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians
 
“Bold and fresh, Elaine Lui’s writing took me on a journey filled with bittersweet verve and breathtaking grace. Forget what you think you know about life, and enter the world of the Squawking Chicken. This is a love story you won’t soon forget.”  —Ami McKay, author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure
 
“What an incredible character is the Squawking Chicken—she’s a movie, an Amy Tan novel, and a sitcom all rolled into one. By turns deeply moving, shocking, and hilarious, this is a story of atypical parenting, cultural complexities, and one daughter’s capacity for forgiveness, compassion, and love. I didn’t want it to end.” —Lisa Gabriele, author of SECRET and TV producer
 
“Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I read it compulsively, wide-eyed, and devouring: Lui’s writing is sharp, humorous, and deliciously readable, like a long, insightful letter from your best friend. Listen to the Squawking Chicken asks you to reflect on what you think about loyalty, shame, pride and love—themes that all mothers and daughters know deeply.  This book made me rethink what it means to be a daughter. I loved it. I can't wait to give it to my mother.” —Sarah Seleky, author of This Cake Is for the Party
 




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