When I was small, I cried a lot. I can’t remember what I cried about, but I do remember that many times when tears streamed down my face, my parents would frown in exasperation and ask, “Why are you so sensitive?” That question itself often triggered more intense sobbing.
“She is a very sensitive child,” explained my kindergarten teacher when my mother expressed her long list of concerns at a parent-teacher meet. I pretended not to listen, but inside, I knew this “sensitive” word didn’t mean good. The other word that would send me to a flurry of tears was “shy”.
My parents couldn’t, for the life of them, understand why their first child was so different from the other kids or their friends’ kids. I cried when they pushed me forward to “shake hands” with mascots; I was horrified of mannequins. Not quite the bubbly child they’d expected. As a result, they sheltered me from all my fears, pulling me out of daycare, rushing home from shopping malls. It pained them to see me cry so much.
Luckily for them, what I couldn’t give socially, I replaced academically. They never praised because the Chinese believe that praising makes a child complacent, but they were relieved and dare I say, happy. However, the crying problem persisted and siblings arrived. In Chinese tradition, crying is only for the young. The elder child is supposed to look after her younger siblings no matter her age and crying shows that she is inept. I remember my dad chasing me with the cane, threatening me to stop crying or he would throw in a few harder whips. Once, my mom told me that if I didn’t stop, our neighbours would call the police. I was scared of policemen, so that made me cry harder. There was a telephone call that night and my parents told me that the police had called, so I forced myself to stop. I highly doubt it now.
Whenever I hid from visiting relatives, I was “useless”. When I didn’t reply to their questions, I was “mute”. My mom would tell me realistically that if I didn’t start speaking up, people would think that I was indeed mute. I was immensely pressurised and I felt bad about myself.
However, in primary school, I discovered that I loved writing compositions. I had a huge inner world to draw from for inspiration and I’m glad I still do. My teacher took note of that and made efforts to encourage me, writing little notes with her red pen. I was never distressed by my English assignments and had minimal assistance for them. However, my parents took special note of my Math. Here, Math is not a simple question of addition or subtraction. Primary school children are taught how to solve algebraic questions using the model-drawing approach and lots of other “heuristic approaches”. I never caught on to that and my parents, deeply rooted in tradition, were similarly perplexed. When I presented what seemed to me as garbled questions, they tried their best to explain algebra to this sobbing 10-year-old. It was around this time that I began to fall behind. My parents associated it to a “lack of practice”.
Unfortunately, this problem surfaced all over again when I took Additional Mathematics at the O levels. My dad was pissed. “What’s so difficult!” he would exclaim in frustration when I shook my head for the umpteenth time, my homework wet with tears. He thought if I were to practice more, I would have done better in my exams. In the meantime, I worked hard on my other subjects, especially on my English essays. They were my babies and I would stay up to perfect them. I wasn’t extraordinary, but my teachers liked most of them.
I graduated with good grades and came up with many career options. I wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t tell them. I already knew what they would have said. “You won’t earn money until after your death.” The same happened with artist when I was about 7 and author when I was 9 or 10. They laughed it off, but I remembered. At the same time, I awoke to the reality of things, so I decided to go practical and get a diploma in biomedical science. The only consolation was the forensic science program (which I thoroughly enjoyed). I had thought that I could be a crime scene specialist, but people told me later on that there is little hope for a career progression in that field. My dad agreed with them. I wasn’t happy about that and asked him why he didn’t tell me that sooner because I had to go through 3 years of suffering for that piece of paper (which is still not a guarantee as of today).
I struggled through school, trying to grasp technical concepts about molecular structures and scientific machinery. I detested laboratory sessions because of the strange chemical whiff of the rooms. That and the fact that I am not the most alert and observant person in the lab. I had to stay back to repeat experiments multiple times and had a lot of trouble completing lab reports. Most times I Googled through the night, but even when I thought my answers were right, they mostly weren’t.
I was faced with a highly competitive cohort and people weren’t exactly helpful. I found myself missing my secondary school friends who would willingly explain things to me without expecting anything in return. I was an academically honest person before I joined. I am now tainted and ashamed. The worst was learning that some scientists faked their research or manipulated data in order to show success. I felt so stupid, believing that the world revolved around with integrity. I felt cheated. I felt rage at the extent people went in order to get ahead of the pack and I knew that I couldn’t live like that any longer.
My parents began sympathising after I broke down. They finally saw the difference between what I could do and would do and what I could do but wouldn’t. They finally understood how much this course wasn’t for me; how much I was affected emotionally. They could see that difference whenever I talked about my French lessons as compared to my academic ones.
When I was applying to university, I raised the concern of generally low starting salaries for degree courses I was interested in. I thought maybe I should apply for more practical ones. That was when my dad turned around in his chair and said, “Don’t care about how much they pay. Most importantly, you must choose the course you love.” Being a highly sensitive person, I felt a certain wetness in my eyes. However, this time, there was some sort of gratitude in those tears I furiously blinked away.