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Tales from Singapore
I saw vendors on the streets selling fresh mangos and commoners conversing while eating passion fruit. We crossed the entire island 30 minutes by subway, and though I was amazed at the pristine exterior of Singapore, my eyes were still stung by tears, the same ones that my best friend cried when my kindergarten class threw me my good-bye party. I noticed that the people looked just like me – yellow skinned, small-eyed, Chinese. Maybe Singapore wouldn’t be so bad after all; I would be able to fit in easily. I rode across the clean subway to greet a pristine paradise, greeted by vibrant sun rays and skyscraper apartments. Thus, I was motivated by some sheer willpower and curiosity for adventure to cross the then monstrous island on foot to my new school.
The school was connected to the university where my dad was a professor. Passing through a tunnel, then the children’s wing, I was greeted by dark carpets and old primary colored walls. Singapore operates on both Mandarin and English. Our morning classes were in Chinese and our afternoon ones in English. After a few weeks of my primary English training, my teacher contacted my mom. I wasn’t smart enough. This was a highly selective school for the gifted—a category I used to belong in. That week, we had had to memorize the children’s poem, “Star Light, Star Bright.” Every day at school, I mimicked the angelic, yet cynical sounds of my peers and tried to correlate them with words my teacher pointed to on the white board. Every night I practiced on my balcony, looking out into the clouds that rained at the same time every afternoon.
My mom cried, too; she didn’t know anyone here and had left her entire teaching career to follow my dad, becoming a lowly door-to-door saleswoman. And in the ultra modernized Singapore, nobody wanted to buy printed dictionaries and encyclopedia, anyway. At night, we used her company’s dictionaries to learn English. Eventually, I came to understand the meaning of “I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” We had different teachers for Chinese and English, and my English teacher didn’t understand that I passed my Chinese classes with flying colors. In China, I had been selected to go to the best elementary school and receive private English training; I wasn’t some stupid kid. So I made my wish.
On the first day of school, my mom cut my hair, forsaking my Chinese braids in hopes of a more Westernized style, but it ended it in a calamity. The year had already begun, and since the children wore uniforms, I looked extremely out of place. The apartments were my solace. Coming home from school, I passed the little girls my age, speaking quickly in a mix of Chinese and English. I could only catch certain phrases. Slinking my way to the elevator, I rushed to the 14th floor—my only place of security.
There, the girls were spots in the vast view of the city-country, and their conversation was meaningless. Outside I saw the sweepers on the street cleaning up any remnants of grime in the spotless city. The ocean wasn’t far, the breeze was nice, and it was my birthday. I was so motivated to strive for something more, something promised in the glare off of the modernized glass buildings. Heading back downstairs, I hesitantly walked around the communal play structure and outdoor fitness center right outside of the building and circulated a path of sharp stones, intended to provide acupuncture to the feet.
A boy approached me. Startled, I turned around and managed to greet him in one of the few English words I knew: “Hello.” He looked pleased and continued to talk until he realized my flustered look. Then, he switched to solely Chinese and I happily conversed back. Finally, here was someone. We had not carried on our conversation for long, but enveloped in my little girl’s hormones, I wanted to invite him to my birthday dinner. Somewhere along the beginnings of our friendship, as we pretended to be American boy scouts on the playground, we realized we had forgotten introductions.
I told him. He responded with a look, then a careful study of my face, then a shocked chuckle.
“You’re a girl!”
My heart sank. Promptly, his mom called him back for dinner and he casually said that we’d see each other later. Ashamed and confused by whether his tone of voice was joking or insulting, I went back home, put on my pink dress and clipped my hair, and sat down to my birthday dinner. Though I searched, I never got his name, and I never saw him again.
One week, I woke up during nap time, surprised to find most of my classmates gone. Only three of us remained. Packing up my mattress and blanket, I thought they had already gone to class without me. Suddenly, I began to follow a giggling sound. I pushed the door and saw a million eyes on me; the girls in my class wore pretty skirts and faced a wall of mirrors. My teacher came up to me and reprimanded me for sneaking out of the classroom. Out of curiosity, I begged her to let me join whatever was going on.
“Portuguese dance,” she said. It had started not too long ago, but my parents didn’t sign me up. Still, she agreed to let me in—coincidentally, there was one more boy than girl in the class. They all looked down upon me, and pitied the boy who had to partner up with me. How would a Chinese girl be able to do a Portuguese dance? Yet, with my dance background, I quickly caught up to the other girls.
When the day of the performance came, we all arrived at a nice concert hall. Stuffed into a small dressing room, the teachers took turns doing our makeup and hair. Each one passed by me as the other girls’ hair was tied up in adorned buns. Finally, I was the only one left.
“What are we going to do with her?”
They faked it well, adding extensions and sticking bobby pins everywhere to make me fit in more, but they did so with an annoyed tone, condemning me of the time I was wasting. On stage, under the bright lights and loud music, I needed to defy those teachers. I danced more proudly than ever.
A year later, I had assimilated into Singaporean culture, yet I still don’t recall having any close friends. My birthday approached, and I wanted to throw a small party. I didn’t know who to invite, but my dilemma was quickly solved. The day before, I unexpectedly came down with horrible hives, and my mom sent me to the children’s hospital. By this time I was good enough at English to tell the nurses what was wrong, but I wasn’t very willing to talk. The next day, I drew myself a birthday card.
To cheer me up, my parents brought a watermelon, my favorite fruit, for me, and we celebrated with the other patients in the room. When we opened the watermelon, my smile faded and I stared. At first, I thought I had turned color blind – the watermelon was yellow. I adamantly refused to eat it! It was different. It wasn’t what I expected. I whined and complained and cried. Wasn’t I suffering enough? I blew the situation into an unnecessarily extraordinary proportion; my mom finally told me that since I was six, I had to try new things. Taking a reluctant bite between sniffles, I saw others watching, some with annoyance, some in suspense, and some with sympathy. It tasted even better.