5 Things My Asian Mother (and The Joy Luck Club) Taught Me About the Workplace

The Joy Luck Club

Like many mothers, mine was not a career woman. Not for lack of ambition or intelligence, but out of respect for her father’s opinion that a woman’s place was in her husband’s home. Our parents share a common dream – to give us more opportunities than they had growing up. Here are 5 life lessons my mother (with some help from the Joy Luck Club) taught me that have served me well in the workplace.

1. Be humble, but not always

We Asians, women in particular, have a strange habit of putting ourselves down. We are expected to submit to authority and downplay our success and abilities whenever possible. This mindset probably descended from Confucianism, in which “subjects must obey their rulers in a very strict hierarchy“, the ruler in the workplace being your bosses and superiors.

In Singapore, we even have the term “hao lian” for people who toot their own horn too much, and physiognomy (face reading) tells Asian men to avoid marrying women with high cheekbones (as it supposedly means that they have great pride and are harder to control).

My mother has demonstrated this behaviour countless times, often prefacing the presentation of a baked good with “it’s not so good today,” or “it might not be your taste”.



Watching this scene in The Joy Luck Club for the first time made me chuckle because it hit so close to home. In Western culture, it is not uncommon or shameful to be honest about your capabilities and “sell yourself”. Naturally, the sole Caucasian in this scene took the Asian mother’s words at face value and thought she really was insulting her dish!

Which brings me to the “not always” part of this lesson. Understand your environment. If your boss and colleagues are traditionally conservative Asians, don’t be a braggart! You wouldn’t want to give them a bad impression of you, or have them whispering about your big head at the water cooler. It can help too, to lower expectations at times so that you can exceed them.

If your workplace has a more Westernized way of doing things, make sure you don’t undersell yourself. If you can do what you’ve been tasked to, say so. If you know the time and effort you’ve put into preparing a presentation has made it incredible, say “I’ve prepared this, and I think you’ll like it”. Otherwise, your boss might start to take your words to heart and think, “he doesn’t know what he’s doing”! Don’t lose your job security and get skipped over for a promotion because you wanted to come across as humble.

This lesson carries over when selling a product or service to a customer as well – if your product is good, make sure the customer knows it. Never over promise, but don’t devalue what you have to offer either.


2. Give credit to those who can’t give it to themselves

Of course, being my mother’s daughter, I picked up her quirks. But I’m not the only one. Like me, some colleagues and classmates I’ve worked with have problems speaking up for themselves, which often leads to the most vocal person in a team getting all the credit. I may find it hard to sing myself praises, but I make it a point to openly compliment good work done by someone else.

My mother was guilty of some version of this too: never being able to give herself a single compliment, and in fact hardly praising me for a job well done at school, and often saying “your daughter/son is better!” when friends had a kind word to say about me or my sister. But when I was disheartened, my teachers would tell me – “Your mother’s actually very proud of you. She often tells me how happy she is that you’re doing well at school, and that she can see your effort”.


Waverly's Mother

Similarly in The Joy Luck Club, the character Waverly’s mother insulted her own cooking relentlessly in the first video clip, but bragged often about Waverly’s chess abilities – probably not only because she was proud of her, but she feared her daughter being unable to take pride in her own achievements like herself.

If you know your colleague is meek but hardworking, don’t let others walk all over him/her and take credit for work they’ve done, or ideas they’ve come up with. Help them by letting others know how they’ve contributed. Unless you have the same personality trait, you won’t know how much you’ve helped them and how grateful they will be for it!

Similarly, when presenting to a client or receiving compliments for work well done, make sure you give credit where it is due to your partners and vendors who have helped you make everything come together. Never underestimate the value of a healthy business relationship.


3. Practise, or lose all you’ve learnt

We’ve all heard it before: practice makes perfect. How cliched, right? We may think, “Why do I need to be perfect at doing this? ‘Good enough’ is just fine for me”. The problem is, if you don’t practise, you may even lose your ability to be ‘good enough’.

Fed up with her mother’s controlling behaviour and bragging (it can take time and maturity to realize that our mothers have good intentions after all), Waverly the child chess prodigy decided to stop playing chess as some sort of rebellion to “punish” her mother. Trouble was, when she finally wanted to start playing chess again, she had all but lost her abilities to do so!


Waverly playing chess

I’ve always enjoyed drawing and writing. In Secondary School, I would feel my heart fill with silent pride whenever an essay or art piece of mine was featured in some way, even if (we’ve been through this, yes?) I would also be in equal parts embarrassed and outwardly doubting my abilities.

Of course, life gets in the way when you let it. Junior College and University courses don’t often need you to draw a thing, and require structured arguments crammed with references, as opposed to creative think pieces.

In the time since then, my creativity, which as a child flowed freely, has all but dried up.

It took some time since entering the workforce to stimulate my creative juices again and rediscover abilities I had hibernated for some years, even for something which used to come so naturally (my understanding of the English language).

The point is, if you’re good at something, you can’t just stop nurturing it for a few months or years and expect to come back to it easily. We’re not computers, and we can’t just retrieve whatever data we’ve stored a few years ago without consequences.



Years on, my mother still makes it a point to practice on the piano every now and then. If like me, your passion lies in writing, try to write whenever you’re inspired, even on your daily commute to work. And if you haven’t been inspired for a long time, try to set aside a little bit of time each weekend to write even a few short lines of prose.

Maybe your strength lies in networking, but your company hasn’t assigned you to meet anyone for a while. Try to propose attending industry events that might do your company good, or if that’s not possible, even try to attend some events on your own in your free time. It may take a little more time and effort on your part, but it’s better than finding yourself at a loss for words at the next big gathering.

Of course if you’re the boss, schedule time for your employees to hone and preserve whatever skill are essential for their job. Even a good worker can become rusty if they’ve stopped doing something for too long.


4. Lessons may be bitter, but you’ll be grateful for them

June playing piano

In The Joy Luck Club, June complains bitterly about being forced by her mother to learn how to play the piano. I too, remember many afternoons spent plonking clumsy fingers around on tear-soaked piano keys while protesting. Of course at the time, I didn’t know about the many mental and health benefits it would have given me, and quit at Grade 1. Mom told me I would regret it, but I was too stubborn to listen to her at the time.

The curriculum in Singapore is consistently reevaluated to meet the changing needs of the business environment. When I was in Primary School, results were evaluated based on an individual’s homework, tests, and exams. By the time I reached Junior College, group work had become important, with Project Work as an esential component of the ‘A’ Levels.

My peers and I would complain, “Why am I stuck with him/her? Can’t I do it alone?” and grumble incessantly about the difficulty of reaching a meeting of minds or even scheduling a suitable time to hold discussions. Unfortunately, most workplaces don’t expect you to work in isolation – unless you’re a Comcast employee that is.

Lessons aren’t there to make life hard for us, they’re there to make life easier in the future. So the next time you’re grumbling about being sent for training, remember that it will likely come in handy someday, even if it’s not right now. If you own your own business and have made a costly mistake, don’t grumble too long about it either – dust yourself off and know that you won’t let it happen again.


5. Deliver your best or don’t deliver it at all

Take note, this is different from “do your best or don’t do it at all”. You should still try, and eventually get to a point that you meet an acceptable standard for what you’re attempting to achieve. Always make sure what you’re presenting is good enough before you present it for evaluation at work!

Every Teachers’ Day, my mother would purchase elegant chocolates from Ngee Ann City’s basement and then spend practically a whole day wrapping and rewrapping them, running scissors across ribbons to create spiral curls and roses. Sometimes she would get tired and sigh or need a break, and I would ask her why she tried so hard. “I just want to do it right, that’s all” came the reply, and I’d shrug and leave it at that.




She presents baked goods with a requisite insult or two, but only if it’s actually good. Whenever something she’s made falls short of her own standards, she would rather force herself to eat up the whole batch than give it away to anyone and tarnish her reputation.

At work, I follow this same behaviour, and make it a point to deliver only work that I won’t feel ashamed of attaching my name to. Whether you work for someone or own your own business, always take pride in what you have to offer – don’t rush through product development to present something that is only half-baked. If you can’t say you have 100% confidence in what you have made,  how can anybody put their trust in you?

It is better to make your customers wait than to deliver something half-baked and damage your brandname for good.



Did your mother teach you the same lessons as mine did? We’d love to hear your stories too! Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to thank your mother and give her a hug this Sunday (and everyday, really).

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Bonus: In the mood for a touching video? Check out this video from PnG. Your mom loves you more than you know!



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