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Girl in Bloom
“For the first time, she did want more. She did not know what she wanted, knew that it was dangerous and that she should rest content with what she had, but she knew an emptiness deep inside her, which began to ache.” — Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio
My first and only fight with my mother was over text. Usually, our disagreements are one-way diatribes, with her screaming at me, her neck flushed crimson and eyes marbled white, and me a cowed heap of tear-clotted hair on the floor. Thing is, it isn’t crazy stuff I’m fighting for. It’s not like I dreamt of texting a boy outside my all-girl middle school, or sneaking out our gated community past my 8 p.m. curfew. All I wanted was to join the Choate Day bonfire and lose myself in a cacophony of roaring hunter green, or pirouette around our Ionic columns for a photo in the golden October moonlight. To Mom, my passions were distractions and my mind and body a mere extension of hers. And late last year, as the final coppery-red oak leaf gasped to join its sisters in a decaying pile, all I was fighting for was my right to be me.
I always remember what I see but not what I hear, recalling the fearful exhaust that trailed Dad’s Bentley as he sped away my freshman fall, but not his wrinkled admonitions. I reminisced running my fingers along my favorite leather book spines—ones I left behind—but not my great-grandaunt’s last words. So when I racked my brain for my parents’ sayings, fragments of speech that nurtured me into adolescence, and found none, I began to rewrite my story.
“Everyone must dream. We dream to give ourselves hope. To stop dreaming—well, that's like saying you can never change your fate. Isn't that true?” — Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It seems strange to expect a six-year-old to know exactly what she wants to do for the rest of her life, but adults love to ask. My classmates all wrestled with this question, biting their lips and fumbling with their stubby nail-bitten fingers, but I was always the first to react, twirling around in my sky blue pinafore and batting luminous eyes. “A painter!” I would chirp one moment, and “a violinist!” the next, drawing oohs and aahs from a circle of beaming adults as they peered down at me. The only exceptions to this fluffy conspiracy of hope were my parents, who frowned down from their celestial perches in disapproval at my artistic dreams.
In my first-grade classroom, I knelt by the whirring air-conditioner unit with a blunt pencil in hand, drawing the first and last piece of art that I would ever conceptualize myself. It was of my home—the gentle curves of hand-stitched chairs, our obese nineties television accosted by a five-foot-tall Garfield stuffed toy, and my Dad’s twenty-year-old armchair that had a permanent sweat stain where his head rested—sketched and shaded in various shades of pink—my favorite color. My impish face and horn-rimmed glasses smeared with oil pastel, I propped my smudged Mona Lisa against the whiteboard and waited to be crowned the herald of the Singaporean Renaissance.
As my teacher Ms. Jian, whose Chinese name meant “sharp” (as in “sharp knives” or “sharp swords,” as she liked to remind us) drew up to me, my posture straightened, expectant of praise. Instead, she puckered her mouth, her voice flooded with dismay.
“Aiya! Wrong, all wrong!” she spat.
Ms. Sharp was a very blunt woman. My eyes drooped to the ground, blinking back sour tears as my teacher clacked away. Her cheetah-printed flats glared back at me in disgust.
Although I had been spurned by Ms. Sharp, I was positive Mom would love it; after all, wasn’t it a mother’s job to affirm her children’s work? Surely, she would beam and tack it to our fridge with a strawberry-shaped magnet, like American moms did in novels. But Mom barely glanced at my masterpiece before she relegated it to our family’s Pile of Dead Things, where singing birthday cards that no longer sang and my pitiful one-eyed stuffed puppy had been laid to rest. That night, Mom quit her banking job. She, a forty-year-old, decided her time was better spent coaching me on my six-year-old ungraded art projects—supervising me to melt crayons into Jackson Pollock masterpieces and fold crepe paper into rainbow fish—so I could focus on my graded classes like math and science, the ones that were “truly important.” Managing her endometriosis after three operations, she decided her time was also better spent trying—unsuccessfully—to have a more artistic child. I guess Mom was some sort of closet artist, for my projects turned out beautifully under her direction. She had compensated for my apparent inadequacy by guiding me on the art projects, and after that, Mom read me stories of insecurity all night long.
“A girl is like a young tree, she said. You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away.” — Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Fourth grade was a year of firsts: my first cell phone (my mother’s silver Nokia brick phone, won after a year of convincing her that ten was not too young to be technologically savvy and, surprise, that I had friends to text); my first overdue assignment (an English essay about the holidays, which I spent huffing over a meal in Paris that wasn’t at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and Mom refusing to let me write about what I really wanted to); my first boyfriend (in my parents’ eyes, one of the worst cardinal sins); and the first time I was chased out of the house.
It was a January morning, and as towering angsana trees rustled in the humid breeze, I wriggled on my plastic seat and color-coded my impeccable notes, ignoring the growing patches of perspiration behind my eczema-studded knees. I had just started the Gifted Education Program, an accelerated curriculum for the top 0.5% of Singapore’s students, and so had Benjamin. With bobbed hair, gold-rimmed glasses, and lanky arms, I was adored only by my teachers, who cooed at my extra-credit essays and professional-quality science projects with unconcealed adoration. In contrast, Benjamin spent his days playing soccer in muddy cow grass, his mop of curly caramel hair swooshing with every step, his pixie face frozen in fierce concentration. Benjamin was charming—half-white!—and irresistible to Singapore’s swooning Anglophiles. He was completely unfettered by mundane troubles, and I cared about everything too much. I would never be good enough for him.
Somehow, I was. We passed notes in class across a line of colluding classmates and sat on bougainvillea-lined overpasses, my head resting on his shoulder and our feet dangling above flurries of passing cars, talking about absolutely nothing and everything at the same time. Benjamin’s careless nonchalance and blissful ignorance helped me escape the workbooks and tutors that awaited me after school. Sitting by the kitschy hand-painted walls of our art building, he told me he loved me and asked me if I loved him too, his voice urgent, pressing, warm. I blushed and straightened the pleats of my freshly starched skirt, pretending I didn’t hear, but my heart was radiating happiness.
Later that day, we got our mid-year grades back, and mine had dropped from a ninety-seven to a ninety-four, and, while I still topped the class, I suddenly feared my imminent fate. When I returned home, I casually slid my navy report card onto his mahogany desk, my sweaty paws rearranging his stationery and letters so only its corner peeked out, then hustled into my room, burying myself in my duvet and texting a very unhelpful Benjamin. After five hours of rolling around in agony brainstorming scenarios later, my bedroom door swung open with a thud, revealing Dad, his jaw clenched and face ashen.
“You’ve failed us.”
I could feel his anger vibrating in the room, burgeoning like an increasing tornado.
“I’m guessing you’ve been gallivanting with your stupid little friends instead of studying like we’ve told you to.”
My Dad’s bellowing had stirred my sleeping mother, who now appeared at my door in her oversized “World’s Best Mom” t-shirt, her eyes sullen stones.
“Have you heard she has a boyfriend now? She doesn’t need to listen to us.”
The news that I had a boyfriend unhinged Dad.
“Boyfriend? What boyfriend? We didn’t spend all our time and money on you for you to get a boyfriend and ruin your future!”
By then, I had shrunk into my sheets, a sobbing sinner branded with her parents’ searing disappointment. I was also quite sure the neighbors were now apprised of my vices.
“Get out of my house now! I never want to see you again.”
At first unbelieving, I stayed in my place, waiting for Dad to take back his words, to peel the sweat-drenched duvet cocoon off my limp body and take me in his arms, apologizing profusely for his outburst, but his demands for me to leave our house only grew louder and louder, reverberating off the bare walls of my room like sonar. As Dad closed in on me, I suddenly realized he was serious—that he was about to pick me up and fling me out into the trash where I belonged. I whimpered and crawled across the marble floor, backing into the furthest corner I could until I was pushing against solid brick, where I buried my head into my scabby knees, wailing and begging to stay in the house. But I already had a plan if I was forced to leave: pack my soda-stained pink tote with the Famous Amos cookie tin that contained a grand total of seven dollars in coins (my lunch money I had gone hungry to save), two sets of my school uniform, and the book we were reading in English that week—A Wrinkle in Time—just so when I returned to school I wouldn’t be too far behind. I would seek refuge in the Canadian International School across the street, rationalizing that white people would be soft-hearted enough to take in a homeless ten-year-old.
I never got to try my luck with the Canadians. Mom finally decided things had gone too far and snapped, “Don’t scream too loudly. You’ll wake the neighbors” while physically dragging Dad out of my room, her petite frame choked by his seeming towering height. For the next year, I kept my packed pink tote in the back of my closet, just in case Dad decided to make good on his threat.
But the hardest part was breaking up with Benjamin, my best and only friend and sole reprieve from my parents’ strict regime. The next day at school, as we sat side-by-side on the blue canteen benches, I stared at my shoes and told him we couldn’t see each other any more because of my parents. Benjamin didn’t understand, and I couldn’t explain my fear to someone who had never experienced that kind of insecurity. And even if I could have explained, I knew my parents would have been even madder at their compromised reputation. And so, as we sat there in a sea of awkward silence, unspoken words sinking like stones in our minds, Benjamin stood up and walked away, and I watched as the lines of his frame meandered into the distance, knowing that this would be our last conversation.
The boyfriends who followed Benjamin went down the same way he did, mercilessly, like the sinking of the Titanic. Just as he had with Benjamin, my father criticized them incessantly, turning quirks into flaws so that everything I loved about them crumbled into ashes. Each time, our romance would be magical until Dad staged his ambush so that imperceptibly, he would turn my golden admiration into decimated gray. To stop hurting the people I loved, I slowly turned myself into the person my parents wanted me to be. Soon, I was Artemis, the lone warrior goddess with a heart of stone, neither harming anyone nor daring to love. By age fourteen, I had already learned to choose security over my dreams.
“Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses. ” — Amy Tan
I have lied to over a hundred people’s unsuspecting faces over my time at Deerfield Academy, telling the same fib to the same question: Why Deerfield? My half-truth: because everyone in my Singapore school took the same ten classes a day, and I wanted more leeway to explore my passions and, of course, a higher chance of attending a great American college. The whole truth: I just couldn’t live at home any longer.
After my grade school escapades, I slowly grew resigned to my fate as a soulless Singaporean student. Sleeping no more than five hours a night, my corpse was vigorously shaken awake every morning, then bundled into the car, where I scraped in a half-hour more of sleep instead of eating the steamed pork bun my Mom stuffed in my hand. My life in Singapore was a road to nowhere; all my teachers had grown up in its regimented system, so how could they teach with passion if that was not what the system taught?
When I wasn’t in class, I was sprawled across my bedroom floor with hot tea by my side, furiously scribbling formulas and dates over and over again in a futile attempt to blindly brand them in my mind, then sat through endless tutoring sessions where bored college students threw question after question at me to clock in their time and stuff their wallets.
Too tired to make intelligent conversation, I had few friends at school and none outside of it. My parents believed friends were a waste of time, a distraction from the schoolwork that would build my future. Their mantra was, “We’re your only best friends; trust no one but us.” And so, throughout the day, whenever I least expected it, they would swoop down on me, sliding my phone into their hands to key in my password and monitor with whom I was communicating. The only real friend I texted was Belinda, whom my parents regarded as semi-okay to text on occasion as she was good at math and could partner me on projects, but the other three people I texted were, I sadly admit, products of my fertile imagination. I created them so that just in case anyone peered over my shoulder to see how many contacts I had, I wouldn’t look as pathetically alone as I felt. Finally, my parents had succeeded in taming the wild creature in me into quiescence.
Gone was the boisterous and willful ten-year-old, determined to follow her instincts and not the rules. She was replaced by a middle-schooler whose self-esteem was trickling away like rain into the gutter. I was deeply frustrated and withdrawn, but too busy, too tired, and too resigned to do anything about it. After all, how could I bloom, when every step of my growth was tracked, analyzed, and engineered? When my parents started researching boarding schools, I knew it was my only chance to discover a life outside this inhuman monotony.
But my years of solitude grew into an inertia that ten thousand miles couldn’t fix, and, without mountains of work to corral my thoughts, I had too much time to think. In the evenings, with all my homework done for that week and the next, I was finally forced to contemplate the fact that I didn’t know who I was. I never had the luxury of cultivating an opinion as my parents had always fed me theirs.
Even though I yearned to taste all life had to offer, I didn’t know what was sweet and what was poison, and I feared it was too late to start. When girls in my dorm gathered in the common room to giggle over The Bachelor or fawn over the drool-worthy boys in One Direction, I hunched awkward and silent in a corner, wholly uninterested in inane dating shows and clueless to the charms of Liam Payne. I had grown up listening to my parents’ old music—the soulful Beatles and Bee Gees—and thus lacked the vocabulary to speak my peers’ language. And even though I wanted to learn more about my new country, I couldn’t tear myself away from my desk for fear Dad would text me and discern—even halfway around the world—that I wasn’t studying.
But most of all, I yearned for friendship—to give my unconditional love to someone and receive his in return, but I was so shy it was a struggle for me to return my classmates’ greetings, let alone possess the social skills to spark a conversation. Even though I had left home, I still carried my parents with me, for their words infiltrated every crevice of my mind. What I needed to live by were new words.
I found my safe haven sophomore year in the least expected place—around a Harkness table, with ten seniors in the art history class I had requested to join. Coming from a country that exclusively worshipped doctors and engineers, I, too, hopped on the science bandwagon, spending Friday nights cramming for the annual biology Olympiad. Science was considered the “practical” path, one that led to a plethora of respectable jobs; humanities the “idealistic” one, reserved for emaciated writers and disillusioned teachers. It was only upon my arrival at Deerfield that I realized how misguided I had been.
In AP Art History, as we discussed the symbolism behind seventeenth-century Dutch memento mori and carefree Rococo architecture, I fell in love with art—with the fact that no two pieces of art are ever the same, and the fact that it has no boxes, only infinite possibilities. I love the history behind art—that there are stories behind both art and artist that make each piece more than dabs of paint splashed on white canvas. In class, I stood by the artists’ sides as they crafted the greatest works in human history, following every curve of their paintbrush and every flick of their sculpting knife with wild eyes and bated breath. And it was there I began to understand how art affects people.
Art is powerful. It can be emotional and it can be radical, it can be sincere and it can be facetious. Art will never be empty; it will continue to incite giggles, soothe the faithful, and start revolutions to the end of time. Art, ultimately, is about people—about what we love and hate, what scares and inspires us. Breathing in art makes me feel like more of a human being, and discovering that I could be good at something I love finally filled me with the self-awareness and confidence I lacked.
“I saw what I had been fighting for: It was for me, a scared child, who had run away a long time ago to what I had imagined was a safer place. And hiding in this place, behind my invisible barriers, I knew what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was finally there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in.” — Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Dad leaked his human side over stuffed chicken wings and red fish curry at Thai Garden in Northampton, Massachusetts last spring break. Winter grades had just been released, and three of my five teachers had commented on my peculiar “reticence” (a.k.a. utter silence) in class, their frustration seeping through the ink of their restrained politeness. They just couldn’t understand why one of their top students had so much to say in her essays but nothing to contribute in class.
Dad, who had been plastered to his laptop screen in our hotel room all night, was refreshing the page every two seconds as he waited for my fateful scores to be posted. As the page sprang to life, he sucked in his breath as he read my teachers’ comments, then whirled around to glare at me through fury-fogged glasses. In the same ominous voice I had heard that night so many years ago, he said, “Every year since first grade your teachers have commented on your silence. What’s wrong with you? Why do you have a problem speaking up?”
I had been sprawled across the bed, pretending to be casual as I changed my desktop picture ten times but was in actuality bracing for the coming storm. At my Dad’s words, I instantly tensed up and reflexively wrapped the Febreze-scented white sheets around myself, trying to find excuses I didn’t have. The truth was, every time my teacher asked a question, all these ideas would swirl to life in my head, but I never had the confidence to snatch one of them up and present it, for if my own parents failed to value my ideas, why would anyone else?
And so, I beat down my thoughts as unworthy of my teachers’ and peers’ time and attention, feeling I was the last person in the world from whom anyone would be interested in hearing. When I explained this conflict to my Dad, he explained in terse tones that he had, too, been quiet before coming to America to study math and physics at MIT, but had, through sheer force of will, blossomed into a compelling speaker, and that if he could do it, I could too. To him, there was no reason for my silence, and to make matters worse, he feared it would compromise my future (a.k.a. chance of getting into an “acceptable” college). I had no words to defend myself. Whenever I tried to explain how I felt, it never made any difference anyway.
The next day at Thai Garden, Dad suddenly grew somber as he looked me in the eye and announced I had let him down again. But this time, I think he was holding back tears. As oblivious waitresses and diners mindlessly milled around, he revealed why. My grandfather, a civil engineer, had stopped eating meat to save enough money for my Dad to be the first in the family to attend college, and had none left for his sister when it was her turn. Although Dad never spoke of his deep regret of being an older brother who in essence robbed his little sister of a quality education, I knew this sacrifice haunted him still. A year later, I came to realize he felt I had to continue his legacy of proving ourselves worthy of his family’s old sacrifice, and the only way he knew I could was by toeing the same narrow path he had traveled.
The day I realized this, I saw Dad in a new light—as a vulnerable human being with hopes and dreams, guilt and fear, desperately trying to fulfill his parents' expectations—just like me. In that moment, the Stalinist dictator who had engineered my life disappeared, and in its place was a vulnerable man.
When I was young, I was deeply curious about my parents' pasts and how they became the heroes I worshipped. As Mom sat by my bed testing my multiplication tables, I squirmed in my Garfield footsie pajamas and demanded she tell me stories from her childhood. Mom would rebuke me and deny that she had any at all, telling me only the hard facts. By the age of nine, my Mom had already learned how to cook for herself, wash and iron her own clothes, and take public transport to school (none of which I know how to do today). She was independent and pragmatic.
It must be for this reason that Mom only wanted to shower me with the love and attention her parents had failed to give her. But Mom’s brand of love was not the kind for which I yearned. What I wanted was unconditional love—room to breathe, carve my own path, and make my own mistakes—the kind of love that includes trust—and a way home.
But how could I tell Mom this—the woman who had struggled in conceiving due to endometriosis, the one who had sacrificed everything, even her well-paying job, to provide me the security and comfort she had lacked her whole life? My complaints would be a betrayal of her sacrifice, and so I learned the art of silence.
And in the meantime, Mom sits on her bungee chair in her study, watching Korean dramas to vicariously live other people’s passionate lives. She is a woman with no dreams, for her childhood afforded her none, and now that she has all the security she ever wanted, there is no road to travel.
“I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind.” — Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Some days, I am afraid I will become like my parents, that I will shackle myself by putting security over dreams. But I am only seventeen—too young to live driven by fear. I want to love the world around me, to have the freedom to fail and rise up again, and to live with untrammeled passion.
I guess, in a way, I am my parents’ work of art. It is why Dad refreshed his web-page a hundred times that winter night, why they monitored my cell phone escapades (both real and imaginary) with the vigilance of a North Korean dictatorship, and why Mom regarded my romances with Benjamin and company with such a cynical eye. It is why Dad stood in my door grappling with his anger that fourth grade night, and why Mom quit her job to hand-hold me on the grade school art projects. I guess it speaks to the irony of life that I ended up loving art, and in it, found my salvation.
I guess, at the end of the day, I don’t want to repudiate who my parents are. I want to be them, but myself also. I want them to celebrate my exploration, not stuff me in a safe box and judge my value by the digits in my future bank account.
Part of me craves security, but a growing other half yearns for more. As I launch myself into this world, I’ll have to learn for myself what it means to mediate between security and dreams. I want to break free of the cycle of fear and judgment both my parents have caged themselves in their whole lives. I just don’t have the words to tell them, nor the courage to be fully myself in their presence. I guess my journey has just begun.