Life Lessons From My Mother Who Never Went To School

May Zhang

Growing up in China

My mother  never attended a school, she cannot read or write, but she taught me invaluable life lessons that have helped me achieve things beyond my imagination.’

– May Zhang on her role-model, her mother who turned 80 in 2018





My mother does not read or write. She single-handedly raised us, her 7 children, in countryside of China on a modest household income, while her husband was away for work. She was a very busy woman. She managed her 7 kids and her household on a budget, worked on a farm and ran a small business from home to support the household. She hardly had time to talk to us, let alone one-on-one. The only way that she parented us, and still does, was through her actions. Looking back now, as a mother myself, I think that was a very effective way of parenting. All her 7 children grew up to be happy individuals, independent and everyone grateful to and very fond of her. Mother is my role-model of resilience and hard work. When I reflect on my childhood days, three lessons that I picked up watching mother stand out for me. They have, shaped my thoughts and character.  

  1. Actions Speak Louder Than Words
  2. One can get what one wants in life by working tirelessly.
  3. No pains, no gains

My dad was away for work for about 20 years. He seldom came home.

Split family structure has been commonplace in China, due to double income households, large population of migrant workers or/ and Hukou,  a family registration system. Hukou entitles a registered resident of an area to Government’s programs; especially schools. It also makes it difficult to enter schools outside of your Hukou.

Mother never complained, never gave up, and faced life’s obstacles, always staying optimistic. She firmly believed that tomorrow will be better. Every action of hers reflected this optimism. She worked on a farm. But since the income was not enough, she raised chicken and pigs for sale.

At one time, we moved in with our father to the small town where he worked. With no farms in the town and being not educated, it seemed difficult that my mother would find employment there. Her earning was necessary to support our big family in an expensive small town. Mother soon spotted a need that she could service in the neighbourhood -childcare. It was a crucial need where both parents worked.

She ensured that all her children could go to school. She was particular about   all of us having at least one piece of new clothing for the Chinese New Year.

When she did not have enough money to buy clothes or to pay a tailor, she herself made us clothes. All seven of us, happy with our new clothes made by our mother, participated in all the festivities. Soon she became famous in our small town for her lovely CNY clothes and shoes for kids. Many friends and relatives started ordering clothes and shoes for their children and grandchildren.

My mother was never able to read us stories before bed or take us on travels or discuss sophisticated life lessons with us. But her modelling of  hard work, optimism and resilience has stayed with me throughout my life.

I am a mother of a daughter. Being raised as one of seven children and having a single child, I realise that what came naturally to us, like sharing, reaching out, has to be practiced intentionally by the single children of this generation (China had a one-child policy for 16 years, since 1979). There are too many resources for one child. We are conscious about teaching our daughter about her privileges.

Thanks to my mother’s upbringing, I have been very deliberate in “walking the talk” – for what I ask of my daughter, I have to be the role model. Asian mothers are often labelled as ‘tiger moms’. My mother never had the time to push us  to achieve. And I, as a mother, believe that children have conscience, even at a young age. They may have limited vocabulary to express. What is required of parents is to have conversations, not scold or compel children. I want to be my child’s friend. My mother’s lessons are always at the back of mind.

At one point, my daughter was scared of public speaking. Instead of lecturing her, I shared my own anxiety over an upcoming review at work.  I sought her help to improve my presentation skills. I rehearsed with her help and even shared with her the feedback I received and my personal learning from the review. In my actions, she noticed that it is normal to be anxious, especially about things you are not comfortable with. But at the same time, preparation and practice help you get over it. That one can get whatever one wants by working tirelessly.

On my mother’s 80th birthday, I gave her a big hug for being the best mother in the world and told her how much I treasure the life lessons I learnt from her.


May Zhang is HR Director at Procter & Gamble. She is an Executive Coach, Mentor and a certified 7 Habits Trainer. May has worked and lived in Mainland China, Philippines and Singapore.