A is one of my best friends. She is a senior in high school from my hometown. Her parents immigrated from China, and she was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and spent her early years as a child in Chicago before moving to San Diego.
The context of this piece was during a facetime call in which I asked her to share some pieces of folklore with me. She chose to share a short affectionate metaphor.
A: “I think something that’s a little bit more recent is 你是我的小棉袄 (Ni Shi Wo De Xiao Mian Ao), or in English, ‘You’re like my winter coat’ basically. And it’s usually used when a kid is being a really good child or a really good son or a daughter to their parents. People will be like, ‘Oh,你是你的爸爸的小棉袄’ or ’You’re your dad’s warm winter coat,’ or the same thing for my mom. And it’s one of those phrases that I just remember hearing all the time growing up
Me: “Was it because you were a well-behaved child?”
A: “My parents just really liked me. It was interesting, actually. Because for my dad, it was like he started using it a lot more recently while my mom has always just used it. I think she first said it to me when I was like, maybe like, five or six. And she said it and then she explained the origin of the meaning and then I just remember her always just saying that sometimes. But I think now that I’m about to leave home, they say it more than ever, which is interesting.
Me: “How do you feel about that saying? What does it mean for you?”
A: “I feel like in every Asian family every compliment or every reference to being a good son or daughter is always like, intrinsically tied to your achievements. You know, if you’re winning competitions, if you’re getting a 4.0. And I feel like this was one of the compliments that are less in reference to stuff like that. And it was more just about how I was as a daughter emotionally rather than I guess in terms of concrete accomplishments. So it’s one of the compliments that means more in that sense.”
I was unfamiliar with this saying, but it’s also one that comes up more recently, with the invention of cotton-padded jackets. I agree – it’s not often that Chinese families are affectionate, especially as one gets older, and sayings like this are important and make us feel warm like our own cotton-padded jackets. In a sense, this seems comparable to the parent still saying that their child is theirs and that their child metaphorically keeps them warm, and brings light into their lives. Especially because Asian immigrant parents are traditionally (and, stereotypically) more focused on their children’s accomplishments, this saying serves as a contrast to that tradition. Furthermore, it’s interesting that this is a saying more commonly said during childhood, pre-adolescence, before the children begin to (often at their parents’ command) explore artistic and academic skills. As the children get older, there is a higher and higher expectation for them to actually do something, especially as the children of the parents’ friends and relatives begin to get their own accomplishments. In turn, the desire for the children to work and accomplish mutes the affection that was there before. Still, this saying is representative of the love parents have for their child despite a transition into stricter parenting.