Waverly’s mother pushes her because she wants life to be better for her daughter.
Waverly’s mother pushed her, even when she was a little girl, because she had a hard life. It is natural for every mother to want her child to succeed and have a better life than she had. Waverly’s mother is no exception. Her childhood in China was more painful than most though. Lindo Jong was the victim of an arranged marriage when she was twelve.
When the heavy rains came, Lindo Jong was forced to leave her home and go to live with her “husband’s” family. Her mother gave her some parting advice.
[She] acted very stern, so I know she was very sad. "Obey your family. Do not disgrace us," she said. "Act happy when you arrive. Really, you’re very lucky.“ (Part 1, Ch. 3)
This kind of legacy is telling. First of all, her mother is stern with her, and she is stern with her daughter. Second of all, she has had a hard life before she finally comes to America. She escapes the marriage and comes to America, but life is hard. She wants thinks to be better for her daughter. She teaches her daughter the art of “invisible strength” that she learned then (Part 2, Ch. 1).
My mother imparted her daily truths so she could help my older brothers and me rise above our circumstances. … Like most of the other Chinese children who played in the back alleys of restaurants and curio shops, I didn't think we were poor. (Part 2, Ch. 1)
As long as she had food, she wasn’t poor. Lindo Jong wanted more than that. She had ambition.
When Waverly’s brother gets a chess set, she is entranced by it. Her mother is not impressed at first, until Waverly has an obvious talent. Then she takes an interest. The following conversation show that she is never happy even when Waverly wins, always wanting more.
"Ma, it's not how many pieces you lose," I said. …
"Better to lose less, see if you really need."
At the next tournament, I won again, but it was my mother who wore the triumphant grin.
"Lost eight piece this time. Last time was eleven. What I tell you? Better off lose less!" (Part 2, Ch. 1)
There is no explaining chess strategy to her mother, about sacrificing pieces to win the game. Her mother wants to see her lose fewer pieces and win. Everything for her is quantified, and not necessarily in a way that is logical to Waverly. She has her own way of making sense of the game, and she keeps pushing Waverly because just winning is not enough. The fact that she is young has nothing to do with it.
By my ninth birthday, I was a national chess champion. I was still some 429 points away from grand-master status, but I was touted as the Great American Hope, a child prodigy and a girl to boot. (Part 2, Ch. 1)
It is never enough for her mother. She will keep pushing, because she is not seeing Waverly. She is seeing herself, and the childhood she never had. She left her home when she was young. She had to grow up fast. It is all about duty and responsibility. You do what you have to.
Things come to a head, of course, when Waverly gets frustrated that it seems like her mother is showing her off. She does not understand where her mother is coming from, or why she acts as she does. The two of them do not communicate with each other. Her mother is always taking, and never giving. Waverly feels stifled, like the fish or turtle in the tank. Chess loses its fun, because it is no longer just for her.
The relationships between mothers and daughters are always complex, but when you add in cultural barriers and traumatic pasts, things get extra complicated. Lindo Jong may not have realized that in trying to give Waverly everything she didn’t have, she wasn’t giving her the one thing she wanted—freedom to be herself.